Underground Railroad and the Postman

Wes Boudville
2 min readSep 12, 2023

Recently, the NYTimes described how investigators found the person responsible for the story of the Underground Railroad. It smuggled Negro slaves from the US South to the North and even to Canada. This started before the Civil War and ran till the war ended. A beacon of freedom to many. But where did the story originate?

The problem is to dissect thousands of books, newspapers and pamphlets, to traceback the earliest references. But today, thanks to the Internet, archivists have digitised a plethora of documents.

Thomas Smallwood! A former slave who bought his freedom. From 1842 onwards, he smuggled slaves to New York and thence Canada. He named the Underground Railroad. He wrote many dispatches for a New York abolitionist paper, Tocsin of Liberty, that referenced it.

In his articles, he mocked the slaveholders. He used the name as a backhanded compliment to himself and others who smuggled the slaves. The literal intent of a railroad being used was just fantasy. But he used it to berate and confuse the slaveholders and those who worked for them, trying to recapture the slaves. He called himself “general agent of all the branches of the National Underground Railroad.” During the war, the legend grew. It kept growing afterwards; becoming viral, as we might now say.

It started as a fiction, but took root. It reified. Became real.

Unwittingly, another author used a similar idea. David Brin is an accomplished science fiction writer. One of whose works is Postman.

Set in the future, it centers on a survivor of a (nuclear?) global disaster. The US is devastated. He wanders from village to village. He finds a USPS bag with letters that were never delivered. At a small town, he parlays this into him acting as a postman, now delivering the mail. He goes place to place with his self appointed gig. When asked, he alludes to a national organisation that is conveniently elsewhere. Gradually he helps weave together a new US. A lie that became the truth. This book is considered one of Brin’s greatest works.

You can see how this resembles Smallwood’s Underground Railroad.

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Wes Boudville

Inventor. 23 granted US patents on AR/VR/Metaverse . Founded linket.info for mobile brands for users. Linket competes against Twitch and YouTube. PhD physics.