Many slaves did not have the luxury of owning shoes, which meant traveling by foot with nothing to protect their feet. When autumn approaches sweetgum balls begin to litter the forest floor. Comprised of numerous capsules, with a pair of spikes to each capsule, the sweetgum ball isn’t as “sweet” as its name would imply.
Abolitionist Harriet Tubman used sweetgum balls, the fruit of the sweetgum tree (Liquidamber styraciflua) as a way to verify that slaves were ready to endure the natural obstacles that escaping would be certain to bring. Tubman would test runaway slaves by having them walk over sweetgum balls with their bare feet. Those that successfully walked over the sweetgum balls were deemed ready to continue on the Underground Railroad.
When arriving at a crossing, such as a bridge, slaves had to cross one by one while making as little noise as possible.
Escaping on the Underground Railroad required planning. If slaves were traveling through the woods plans were made to hid food along their route. Often time food was hidden in the cavities of trees similar to that of this Tulip Poplar located Blockston Branch Walk