Freedom: The Underground Railroad and America’s Slavery Pop Culture Moment

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Slavery in the United States is having a moment in today’s popular culture. Suddenly again the long, complicated and violent history of slavery is seemingly everywhere — movie and TV screens, bookstores and even Presidential politics. Chalk it up to the mostly-ignored 150th anniversary of the American Civil War, a surging national conversation on race in America or a growing recognition among cultural creators for the need to tell this story, but slavery is importantly among us.

Slavery in contemporary fiction: Underground Airlines and The Underground Railroad

Underground Airlines by Ben H. Winters has been my late summer read. The book depicts a dystopian alternate contemporary United States where the Civil War never happened, slavery still exists in a pocket of Southern states and the hard-boiled narrator (himself an escaped former slave) pursues runaway slaves looking to escape north to Canada. Colson Whitehead’s newly-released The Underground Railroad takes a more historical fictional approach following an escaped Georgia slave girl’s journey north through a fantastically re-imagined Underground Railroad consisting of an actual network of secret railway routes.

Slavery on contemporary television: Roots and Underground

On small screens, no telling of the story of American slavery has been greater than in the landmark 1977 TV miniseries Roots which I watched as a child. Almost 40 years later, the summer began with a well-reviewed remake of the series on the History Channel, once again telling the multi-generational story of a family from Africa to slavery to freedom. Earlier in the year, Underground premiered on WGN with a fictional drama telling the tale of a group of slaves making the decision to escape their Georgia plantation. A second season will be premiering in 2017 and the first season has just become available for streaming on Hulu.

Slavery on contemporary film: Django Unchained, 12 Years A Slave, Free State of Jones and The Birth of a Nation

Hollywood has a spotty history with slavery but some old favorites of mine include the story of the first black volunteer regiment in the Civil War epic Glory (1989) and the slave ship revolt trial film Amistad (1997). Django Unchained (2012) somewhat controversially showed how slavery could be used as framework for what was essentially a violent action film. The following year’s Academy Award-winning 12 Years a Slave (2013) returned to a true narrative of a New York freeman sold South into slavery and winning his freedom again. In 2016, two movies have turned to historical armed slave uprisings with Free State of Jones and The Birth of the Nation, a film which riffs on the title of the classic pro-KKK 1915 movie in the telling of the story of the martyred slave rebellion leader Nat Turner.

Escaped slave and abolitionist Frederick Douglass and his anti-slavery newspaper The North Star published in Rochester, NY from 1847-1851

While stories of slavery, abolitionism and the Underground Railroad are currently in our pop culture media landscape, my years growing up south of Rochester, NY exposed me to all this history from an early age. Escaped slave, writer and activist Frederick Douglass lived in Rochester in the 1840s through 1870s and was eventuality buried there upon his death in 1895. Harriet Tubman, another escaped slave, activist and escort along the Underground Railroad, also settled in nearby Auburn, NY and was buried there in 1913. Stories, historic sites and statues to the abolitionists of the period litter Western New York, as do the routes and stops along the Underground Railroad — some factual and some folklore.

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Solo play set up for Freedom: The Underground Railroad by Academy Games

While the Civil War has long been a popular period among historical miniatures wargamers and board game players like myself, the subject of slavery has been largely ignored. That changed in 2012 with the release of Freedom: The Underground Railroad from Academy Games. The intense board game presents the period from 1800 through 1865 with players cooperatively taking on the roles of abolitionists and conductors of escaped slaves along historical routes from the Deep South to freedom in Canada.

Playing against the game, players must work together in Freedom to raise funds, build abolitionist support and ferry slaves from three plantation areas of the South. A series of actions in each round give players choices in moving escapees, fundraising and buying cards as slave hunters prowl routes in the North attempting to recapture slaves seeking freedom in Canada. The cards depict historical events and people that assist or hinder the mission of the players, with each of the three rounds of the game revealing cards specific to the events of different periods of the era. As each turn ends, more slaves (depicted as small wooden blocks) fill the Southern plantations so the game is a race against time from the start. Only by rescuing a certain number of slaves and building anti-slavery support by the game’s end results in a victory.

And victory is difficult and harrowing. Playing through the game several times in both its solo and multi-player mode, Freedom has an intensity I’ve rarely felt in a board game. Hard, balanced choices have to be made to lure slave hunters away from Underground Railroad routes and players likewise have to keep an eye on not only moving their escaped slaves northward but on the other important aspects of raising money and gaining support for the cause. After several games, I realized some slaves had to be heartrendingly sacrificed and captured in order to allow others to escape. By game’s end, players can be emotionally exhausted and I’ve even heard of some crying during play.

Playing Freedom reveals the difficulty of depicting slavery and the story of the Underground Railroad in game form. Making Freedom a collaborative game with players working against the construct of the game does a remarkable job of presenting the challenge the entrenched system of slavery presented to those working against it for decades under long odds and seemingly little chance for success. Academy Games does a great job in providing informative historical context in the rule book as well as making available a 72-page teacher’s guide to using the game in the classroom.

Much as our popular culture has struggled to deliver diverse, accurate and compelling stories of slavery in books, television and movies, it is most probably the complicated nature of  the history that has kept game makers away from the topic for so long. Thankfully Academy Games has risen gloriously to the challenge with Freedom and filled an important gap in historical gaming and our popular understanding of slavery in The United States.

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Touring French and Indian War America

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In the spring and summer of this year I vacationed in Missouri, Western New York and Southwestern Pennsylvania. While visiting family and friends was the main focus of my trips, my journeys intersected with the French and Indian War period repeatedly while driving hundreds of miles of back roads throughout the Northeast and Midwest. The hilly regions of the East were  formative in the first half of my life and the flat plains of the Mississippi River have been a presence in the past twenty years after marrying my wife from Missouri.

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National Park Service map with French and Indian War era sites I’ve visited

These regions also played a large role in the origin story of what would become the United States of America. The 18th-century American continent was the New World front in the worldwide competition between the French and English for worldwide colonial control. In the Americas, native peoples were inserted into the European conflict with the various Indian Nations shifting alliances among the European powers.

From 1754-1763, the Seven Years War stretched around the globe and occupied the colonial regions of America with the French and Indian War. From the Great Lakes and mountains of Upstate New York to the Allegheny Highlands of Pennsylvania to the western rivers frontier, French, British, Native American and American colonists fought for the future of the what would become the modern United States and Canada.

Over the years, I’ve had occasion to visit numerous sites from this contested Anglo-French period. Family day trips when I was a kid took me to just about every major fort and battlefield in New York state and nearby Canada, including Fort Niagara, Fort Ontario, Fort William Henry, Fort Ticonderoga and Fort York at present day Toronto. During graduate school in Michigan, I spent a weekend at the northern tip of the state and visited Fort Michilimackinac. After graduate school, my time in Pennsylvania included visits to Fort Ligonier, Fort Necessity and the site of Fort Duquesne at Pittsburgh. Since meeting my future wife while in Pennsylvania, I’ve spent a fair amount of time in Missouri, getting married in the historic French town of St. Charles and visiting other colonial era towns and sites.

With the French and Indian War on my gaming mind this past year with the excellent A Few Acres of Snow, here’s a few of the places I’ve managed to visit (or revisit) this past year.

French Settlements on the American Western Colonial Frontier

Over the Easter weekend, I visited my in-laws in St. Louis and St. Charles, Missouri. After a bit of time in and around St. Louis, we headed south along the Mississippi River to Ste. Genevieve. Settled in the 1730s, Ste. Genevieve showcases a remarkably intact collection of distinctive French colonial-influenced buildings. We were particularly fortunate in being allowed to walk through the Bequette-Ribault House which I had read about in one of my graduate school classes. The building was under renovation, allowing us to view a rare surviving example of the “poteaux en terre” construction technique of posts sunk vertically into the ground.

From Ste. Genevieve we took a rickety ferry across the Mississippi and drove along the Illinois side to Fort des Chartres. Reconstructed in the 1930s, the fort today depicts a French outpost way out on the western boundaries of claims to French territory in the 18th-century which stretched from Canada to New Orleans. Standing in the middle of hundreds of miles of farmland all around, it’s amazing to imagine a small garrison of French soldiers at the fort watching over the far edges of a European empire over nearly 300 years ago. The well-interpretted partial reconstruction of the fort itself and the small on site museum captures the scope of the French empire’s commitment to taking a territorial stand on this edge of the New World.

Although the French would cede much control of North America to the British after the end of the French and Indian War, evidence of French culture remains in buildings and place names throughout the old colonial areas. Visitors from France and French-speaking Canada still flock to Ste. Genevieve and the surrounding area every year, and walking the streets of the town and the battlements of Fort des Chartres the French legacy still echoes today.

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Statue of King Louis IX of France, at the Saint Louis Art Museum

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The Bolduc House (c. 1770)  in Ste Genevieve, Missouri

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The Bequette-Ribault House (c. 1780) in Ste Genevieve, Missouri

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Fort de Chartres (c. 1720) near Prairie du Rocher, Illinois

Mary Jeminson, “The White Indian of the Genesee”

This summer I also took my family back to my hometown in Western New York which sits a quick drive from Letchworth State Park, home to deep river-cut gorges and spectacular waterfalls. The park also celebrates the story of Mary Jeminson, a young girl who was abducted from her family’s Eastern Pennsylvania farm in 1755, traded to Seneca Indians near Fort Duquesne and lived the remainder of her long life as a prominent member of the Iroquois in the area around present day Letchworth.

The legendary story of Jeminson is remarkable, and her life tells the story of the complicated territorial and military alliances between the various Native American and European peoples in the French and Indian War and subsequent American War of Independence. Jeminson is remembered at Letchworth with a monument marking where her remains were relocated in 1872 adjacent to a Seneca Council House which interprets the native people’s governance of the region during the colonial and post-Revolution period.
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The Mary Jeminson Monument at Letchworth State Park

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Seneca Council House relocated to Letchworth State Park in 1872

The National Road and Fort Necessity National Battlefield

Twenty years ago this summer I served as an intern researching and writing National Register of Historic Places nominations for three historic pike towns along the National Road (Route 40) in Pennsylvania. I hadn’t travelled back to the region in two decades, and touring Route 40 again brought back to me how rich the area is in early colonial American history.

Fort Necessity National Battlefield interprets a pivotal series of events that took place in this corner of the Pennsylvania wilderness in 1754 and 1755, arguably leading to the eruption and eventual escalation of the French and Indian War in North America. Commanding a force of Virginia colonial militiamen, British Lt. Col. George Washington encountered a small detachment of French Canadiens led by Joseph Coulon de Villiers de Jumonville in May 1754. After a brief firefight, Jumonville was killed by Anglo-allied Mingo warriors. Two months later, a large force of French, Canadiens and Indians led by Jumonville’s brother Louis Coulon de Villiers met Washington’s small group in a wet, open meadow. Washington hastily built a stockade – a “fort of necessity” – but was overwhelmed by the French force attacking from the woods in a driving rain. One year later, Washington’s mentor General Edward Braddock met his end nearby during his doomed attempt to lad a British force inland to seize the French Fort Duquesne.

In the years since I’ve been to the battlefield, the National Park Service has created a new, modern visitors center telling two important stories from the past. The French and Indian War and its beginnings in the area nearby is depicted through interactive maps, videos and some great exhibits that zero in on the individual nations who fought over the region over two hundred years ago. The construction of the nearby National Road in the decades after the conflict occupies second half of the museum’s narrative, depicting the importance it played in the push West and economic development of the new nation in the early 19th-century. By the time you’ve spent a couple of hours in the visitors center and exploring the hilly region, you can’t help but leave with a real sense of the massive importance this part of Western Pennsylvania played in setting the stage for American progress in the subsequent decades.

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Fort Necessity National Battlefield

As with most of the French and Indian War and Anglo-French colonial era sites I’ve visited, it is remarkable that such wide-reaching ripple effects through centuries of subsequent history took place in these tiny corners of what was then an open territory for Europeans and home to a rich culture of Native peoples. By the end of the French and Indian War, the British had laid claim to much of the Americas. In so doing, the seeds of descent had also been sown among a bitter population of American colonists who would eventually rise up in independence against their British rulers.

All my travel this past year, followed up by a rewatching of the PBS series The War That Made America, has definitely fuelled the French and Indian War bug in me. I’ve put a few books on my reading list, including Fred Anderson’s Crucible of War, and Richard Berleth’s Bloody Mohawk. The period has also led me to pick up Wilderness War from GMT Games, the modern go-to board game on the period. With more than two-and-a-half-centuries between today and the fight for empire in the Americas, the French and Indian War is very much alive for me.

New Game Weekend: Brass

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Canals have been a part of human history for as long as people have sought to move large quantities of goods from one place to another along routes without natural waterways. Beginning in Mesopotamia in about 4000 BC, canals have fuelled the expansion of human settlement and trade just about everywhere. The Industrial Revolution of the 18th-and-19th-centuries saw an enormous boom in canal construction in Europe, North America, Africa and Asia. To this day, engineering marvels like the Suez Canal and Panama Canal are critical to moving goods around the world.

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Map of New York State canals with Genessee Valley Canal (1840-1880)  in green

Growing up in the 1970s, every kid raised in Western New York State was surrounded by the mythology of the Erie Canal. Stretching 360 miles from Albany to Buffalo, the canal opened in 1825 and connected the ports of New York City with the booming Great Lakes region and the territories beyond.

Some of my earliest childhood memories of thrashing around in the woods in my hometown of Piffard, NY occured along the remnants of the Genesee Valley Canal which ran as a southern spur to the Erie Canal from 1840-1880. In my mid-20s I found myself living and working in Southwestern Pennsylvania, once again surrounded by the ghosts of canals and later railroad lines which fuelled the economic expansion of the old western frontier. Today, many these old canal lines have new lives serving as recreational arteries like the Genesee Valley Greenway and the Pittsburgh-To-Harrisburg Main Line Canal Greenway.

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The Brass game board depicting Northern Engkand

My life has had a lot of canals running through it, and so it was great when I recently had a chance to try my hand at playing out the canal and railroad boom era in Brass. Produced by Treefrog Games in 2007, Brass takes players back to an England at the dawn of its massive industrial expansion. The game divides into two parts — a Canal Age and a Railroad Age — and is played on a map of Northern England cities and ports connected by transportation routes. When cards are used up points are scored at the end of the Canal Age for industries built, canal routes constructed and income earned. Canals and industries are then removed before play procedes through the Railroad Age after which there is a final tally of points for victory.

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Brass industy cards (left to right: coal mine, shipyard, iron works, port and cotton mill)

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Sample Brass location cards

Cards depicting cities and industries are dealt to players at the beginning of the game. Canals and lower tech industries are built in the first half of the game, and railroads and more advnaced technologies are built in the game’s second half. Each turn a player may develop industries, build canal or railroad sections, develop their existing industry, sell cotton or take loans for additional capital investment. The player who spends the least money on their turn gets to go first on the next turn, one of the game’s many mechanics which makes for a good balance of cautious and aggressive play.

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The “Canal Era” in our game of Brass at Metropolitan Wargamers

Industries are built on specific locations by playing both a location and industry card in combination and then spending the appropriate money and resources. Connecting canals and railroads may also be built to establish routes between cities and ports to transport goods and resources. Multiple industries built by multiple players may be built at the same location, allowing for some level of shared collaborative play. A hub city like Manchester holds four industries and connects along five separate routes, making it a potential key location for players. Building routes to ports and foreign export of cotton becomes important as the game develops and generating more income for construction is needed.

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The “Railroad Era” in our game of Brass

There’s a ton going on in Brass, and fortunately I had an experienced player walk me through my first game. I’ve heard the rules themselves are a bit hard to decipher, but playing the game my first time was pretty easy to follow. Brass plays like many Eurogames with a balance of area control, building, managing resources and playing cards. Ultimately the game becomes one of competition for routes and resources and biding one’s time to export cotton goods to foreign markets when demand is at its highest.

I won my first game of Brass in a three-player game, but I’d like to try it at its full four-player maximum. I managed to have an enormous amount of cash on hand to invest into developing my industries and transport routes pretty early in the game, a strategy that didn’t allow me to play first in most turns but paid off in the end. Playing an economic game like Brass makes for some very different play than my usual rolling of tanks and advancing platoons of soldiers. For a gamer like me with canals and railroads flowing through my blood, I’ll take an economic victory just as easily as a one won on the battlefield any day.