Follow the Drinking Gourd

06.19.06 - Juneteenth!
Creative Commons License photo credit: the prodigal untitled13

On Thursday, June 19, we commemorated the freedom of slaves in Texas on Juneteenth. This day has become even more important for me since I learned that at least 15 of my 16 great-great-grand-parents were in bondage right here in southeast Texas in 1865. Nearly all of my ancestors, then, learned of their freedom on June 19, 1865, when General Gordon Granger of the US Army arrived in Galveston and officially informed Texans that the Civil War, and thus slavery, was over.

June, then, is an excellent time to reflect on how the sky helped guide many slaves from bondage to freedom. Slaves who wanted to escape needed to work their way north to the Ohio River to link up with a network of safe houses known as the “Underground Railroad.” After a stringent Fugitive Slave Law was passed in 1850, slaves needed to make it all the way to Canada to attain their freedom. Slaves here in Texas would run south to Mexico. Fugitive slaves ran at night to give themselves the longest possible head start on slave catchers, who operated in daytime. Fortunately for them, the Earth’s axis points almost right at Polaris, the North Star, making it extremely easy to find one’s direction at night. Runaway slaves had only to ‘Follow the Drinking Gourd‘–the Big Dipper– to the North Star, and they could be on their way.

No, Polaris is not exactly at the Celestial Pole (the point in the sky directly above the North Pole), but it is off by less than 3/4 of a degree. By way of comparison, your pinky held at arm’s length blocks about one degree. This is too small an ‘error’ for us to notice with our bare eyes. Thus, as Earth spins and most stars rise and set, we see the North Star in the same spot all night long, every night of the year, marking north more accurately than a compass does.

Moonlit Leaves
Creative Commons License photo credit: Fristle

Contrary to widespread opinion, the North Star is not the brightest. However, it does far outshine all stars in its general area. It is part of the generally dim constellation Ursa Minor (which Americans call the Little Dipper), and therefore easily stands out. Polaris was thus easy to find and always there to guide slaves north to the Ohio River, and then on to Canada. Without Polaris, there would be no way to clearly mark north at night.

This is a stroke of pure luck for us–nothing requires a star visible to the naked eye near the Celestial Pole. The South Pole, for example, points roughly at a star 100 times too dim to be seen with the unaided eye. What’s more, the Earth wobbles as is spins. (Any spinning object must wobble unless it is completely in isolation with no forces acting on it.)

With the Moon acting as a counterweight, the Earth’s wobble is an orderly precession; the Celestial Pole describes an apparent circle on the sky once every 26,000 years. Polaris’ position as North Star, then, is temporary. Many millennia from now, our distant descendants will need some other way of marking north, as Polaris will be much father from the Pole.

The Giza Pyramids
Creative Commons License photo credit: Bruno Girin

Ancient Phoenicians sailing the Mediterranean used entire Ursa Minor constellation as a guide, as Polaris alone was not close enough to the Pole to be useful. Builders of the Egyptian pyramids used another star altogether. For most of Earth’s history, there has been no bright star at either Celestial Pole.

What good fortune, then, that is these last millennia we’ve had a star to help bring sailors to shore and bondsmen to liberty. What about those who didn’t want to go north? Facing north puts east on your right, west on your left, and south at your back. Marking one direction, then, helps us identify them all. Texan slaves running to Mexico would have found the North Star just as useful as did slaves running to Canada. Estimates vary as to how many slaves were able to escape along the Underground Railroad, but they generally range from thousands to tens of thousands. Frederick Douglass named his anti-slavery newspaper The North Star after the star that brought so many ex-slaves to freedom.

Frederick Douglass papers and biographies
Creative Commons License photo credit: judy_breck

Tonight the Big Dipper, the slaves’ Drinking Gourd, is high above the North Star at dusk and therefore easy to see. Stand with the point of sunset on your left to face north. Then look for seven stars of roughly equal brightness about 2/3 of the way up.

At dusk in June, the Dipper is oriented with the handle pointing more or less up. The three stars in the handle are highest, with the four bowl stars to their lower left. The two bowl stars farthest from the handle point directly at the North Star, Polaris. These are the stars that guided thousands to freedom.

From our southerly latitude here in Houston, the Big Dipper is hard to see on late fall and early winter evenings, but is up the rest of the year. You can see the North Star, on the other hand, every night of the year in the same position.  Each time you find north with the stars, I invite you to reflect on how finding Polaris helped so many to change their lives.

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