An Interview with Tricia Martineau Wagner: It Happened on the Underground Railroad

Michael F. Shaughnessy  
Senior Columnist  
Eastern New Mexico University

Tricia Wagner is an experienced elementary teacher and reading specialist. She is also a well-versed and entertaining speaker who enjoys conducting presentations for schools and organizations around the country on the history of the Oregon Trail, African American Women of the Old West, and the Underground Railroad. Additionally she does workshops, on creative writing for grades two through eight.

In this interview, she responds to questions about her book on the Underground Railroad and her creative endeavors.

1) First of all, tell us a bit about your background and what led you to write about the Underground Railroad.

I attended the University of Toledo and Miami University, Ohio. My undergraduate degree was in Elementary Education and while I was working on my masters I taught in the Chicago suburbs as both a teacher and reading specialist. My passion however, has always been history. It probably started on my first trip to England with my parents when I was eighteen years old. There was a big sign near William Shakespeare's bed that said, "Do Not Touch." I had to touch it. There is something about being so connected with the past that excites me. To be where others have been… ahhh.

After moving to the San Francisco Bay area with my husband and children I became interested in the westward migration of pioneers. After all, we flew out West - they traveled for a half year in covered wagons! I began to investigate. I was nearly ecstatic while researching and reading century old journals and diaries for my first book for The Globe Pequot Press, It Happened on the Oregon Trail. To visit the private archives in libraries and to be able to hold in my hands the very diary that someone took over the Oregon Trail on their westward journey in 1852 was simply thrilling. It was like I was right there with the emigrants sitting around the campfire at night while they wrote in their journals.

I love being able to reconstruct the details from people's lives and bring them back to life. It's a great way to honor them and to recognize their achievements. Of the 29 stories about the men and women in It Happened on the Oregon Trail only two chapters were about African Americans. It bothered me that the research materials about these individuals were so hard to find. I became determined to search out primary source documents and write about those who were, in my opinion, the least recognized.African American Women of the Old West became not only the topic of my second book, but the title as well. These incredible women overcame insurmountable odds to make something of their lives and affected the settling and civility of the Old West. They were trailblazers in every sense of the word.

It was while writing that second book that I began to think about the majority of African Americans in the country who were still in bondage enslaved in the South. And that was how I came to write It Happened on the Underground Railroad.

2) You have 23 episodes about various events and aspects of the Underground Railroad. How much research did you have to do and where did you do it?

I am the research queen. Truth is uncovered in the facts. Voices are waiting to be heard. I had a pile of notes on my desk twenty inches high and it took me as long to do the research as it did to write the book; a year total. I utilized the Interlibrary Loan program and had books sent to me from around the country. Historical societies and museums that I could not visit were kind enough to copy their primary source documents and send them to me. I also visited the places that I wrote about. I climbed in the hiding places that slaves were held up in. I walked about the homes of abolitionists (and touched their beds) and got a feel for who I was writing about and what their lives were like. Additionally, I interviewed descendants of the individuals that I wrote about.

3) How is your book related to "Uncle Tom's Cabin" and "Beloved"?

In 1852 Harriet Beecher Stowe wrote Uncle Tom's Cabin. Her legendary character, Eliza Harris, was based on the brave nameless woman who actually crossed the semi-frozen Ohio River while escaping from the slave state of Kentucky to the free state of Ohio. Stowe's family knew the Rankin family, abolitionists in Ripley, Ohio, who assisted the woman, and Stowe was taken by the amazing escape story. To protect those involved in the Underground Railroad system of assisting fugitive slaves Stowe changed the details of her Eliza so as not to incriminate anyone. The chapter in It Happened on the Underground Railroad entitled "The House on the Hill" relates the real story of the real "Eliza."

Ohio-born author Toni Morrison was captivated by the horrific choice that escapee Margaret Garner was forced to make in 1856. Morrison found seeds of inspiration for her 1987 Pulitzer-Prize-winning novel Beloved from the experience of this distraught mother trying to save her children from a life of slavery. The chapter, "Not My Child" in  It Happened on the Underground Railroad recounts this heartfelt tragedy.

4) I learned a great deal from you book- and found that some slaves actually escaped to Canada! How did you learn about some of these esoteric facts?

Research, research, research. Canada became a safe haven for escaping slaves after the passage of antislavery legislation on July 9, 1793. After the War of 1812, the news circulated that Canada was a safe haven for slaves on the run. Canada was far away for slaves from the Deep South traveling on foot. Chatham, Canada a popular destination was over three hundred miles from the Ohio River. Initially, most slaves escaped to the northern free states in America. However, after the passage of the Fugitive Slave Act in 1850 it became increasingly dangerous for freed or escaped slaves to feel safe. Not only could slave owners legally pursue their slaves out-of-state, but gangs of kidnappers, especially in the Mid-Atlantic States, made money by kidnapping free blacks and selling them into slavery. Thus Canada became the safety destination by necessity as slaves could not be taken back across national borders.

5) Also, some slaves apparently escaped by water routes- tell us about that.

The Underground Railroad encompassed multiple routes to freedom over land and water. Where you lived determined what escape options that were available. Slaves from Texas often crossed the Rio Grande into Mexico. Slaves from Georgia, South Carolina, Alabama and other areas of the Deep South escaped to live with the Seminole Indians in Florida or islands in the Caribbean. The Virgin Islands, Cuba, Jamaica, Haiti, and Puerto Rico were all destinations for escapees. There are several harrowing water escape stories in the book.

6) Frederick Douglass is a well-known name from that time period. Tell us about his story.

Actually, my editor wanted me to veer away from the more well-known figures associated with the Underground Railroad such as Harriet Tubman and Frederick Douglass. I concentrated on lesser known unsung heroes who were equally important. The chapter about Frederick Douglass entitled "Baker's Special" is more about Polly and Nathan Johnson who used their bakery as a front to take in fugitive slaves; their most famous being Frederick Douglass.

7) Who was the "Father of the Underground Railroad" and what can you tell us about him?

The "Father of the Underground Railroad" is known as William Still, a free black man who lived in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania. An ardent abolitionist, Still did much to preserve the history of the workings of the Underground Railroad. His work at the Anti-Slavery Society in recording the life stories of escaped slaves (though few records were kept for fear of incrimination) did much to locate and reunite family members of slaves after 1865 when slavery was abolished. An incident in one of the chapters about William Still entitled "Remember Me" is simply amazing.

8) Who was the "President of the Underground Railroad" and what was his story?

Levi Coffin, a white Quaker from Indiana is recognized as the "President of the Underground Railroad." Coffin, a peace-loving abolitionist, was generally an "agent" who made the arrangements for fugitive slaves. He and his wife risked fines and imprisonment for their involvement in hiding people in their home. Coffin also oversaw the "conductors" who transported or led the slaves along various escape routes. Involvement in the Underground Railroad, once seen as illegal, is now viewed as a noble cause. It is good to remember that anyone, black or white, risked their own lives and liberty to assist others to freedom.

9) Do you have a web site where people can learn more about your book?

Yes! I am both an author and presenter. I travel around the country giving "hands-on" interactive presentations to schools and organizations. Please There is information for the general public, both adults and children, as well as information pertinent to teachers. Check out reviews on the books, lists of discussion questions, information of the various programs along with links to writing grants to afford inviting a guest author to your school, steps to begin the writing process, author bio, comments from readers, and various interesting links relevant to the topics in my books that are good for research.

10) What question have I neglected to ask?

a.) What one point would you like your readers to come away with?

Historically there has been an overemphasis on the participation of white abolitionists and an under representation of black agency in connection with the workings of the Underground Railroad.

b.) What attributes about your books make them "readable"?

All three books are historical non-fiction works written for a cross-over audience; adults and middle school readers. The short story format holds the readers' attention while offering a sense of closure. The introduction provides an overview of that particular period of history, which sums it all up. And lastly, the trivia at the end of the "It Happened on" books relays interesting facts and tidbits that may surprise the reader.

c.) Why do you want people to read your books?

That's easy. To let people know that African Americans have long been role models in history. Their accomplishments and achievements are noteworthy and they deserve to be written back into history alongside other American heroes and achievers. After all, isn't a nation's history written solely about the contributions of one group of people told through a rather narrow, telescopic lens?

d.) What are you working on next?

I am currently writing picture books about the characters in my books and I am looking for a publisher so that these individuals can become names that today's children grow up with.

e.) What was your most memorable moment during your research and writing?

It was most definitely meeting one of the descendants of a former slave that I wrote about. Just to shake the hand of this individual whose ancestor was such a brave and courageous man was very moving for me.

f.) One final comment?

The institution of slavery, from its start in 1619 to the end of the Civil War in 1865, is an unspeakable stain on America's history. 

interview by Dr. Michael Shaughnessy (11/29/07) with, the #1 Source for Education, News, and Information