Researching the Underground Railroad

Where do we find evidence for a historical phenomenon that was, for the most part, unwritten and sometimes even unspoken? As Louis Gottschalk stated in Understanding History (1969):

"Most human affairs happen without leaving vestiges or records of any kind behind them. The past, having happened, has perished with only occasional traces. To begin with, although the absolute number of historical writings is staggering, only a small part of what happened in the past was ever observed.... And only a small part of what was observed in the past was remembered by those who observed it; only a small part of what was remembered was recorded; only a small part of what was recorded has survived; only a small part of what has survived has come to historians’ attention; only a part of what has come to their attention is credible; only a part of what is credible has been grasped; and only a part of what has been grasped can be expounded or narrated by the historian."

Although there is a great deal that we will never understand about the underground railroad, and although those involved in the effort were not always interested in leaving written evidence of their activities, they could not escape leaving footprints of their existence and activities in all kinds of ways. Researchers of the underground railroad thus have access to a rich "toolbox" of primary and secondary resources that can help them learn about and interpret the Underground Railroad as a theme in American history (and thus capitalized.) Locating names and ages in census records, identifying buildings and land owners on contemporary maps, digging out court cases from county archives, finding the original membership list from an organization, and reading accounts of specific events in old newspapers are all ways of finding evidence to support Underground Railroad legends and stories.

Because the Underground Railroad story encompasses a wide variety of people, places, and events it is important to gather information from many sources in order to grasp its complexity. Whatever the driving force for research, Underground Railroad research often raises many unexpected and exciting questions. It is important to remember that the right questions remain more important than the right answers. The current task is not simply to identify places where fugitive slaves stayed while en route to freedom, but rather to find and interpret evidence of the complex story of slavery and resistance in American history.


Casting a Wide Net

For researchers in the Washington DC area, the Library of Congress has extensive material related to the Underground Railroad and the history of American slavery and abolition. The Main Reading Room provides access to tens of thousands of published books. Many fragile or unpublished sources are available in the Rare Book and Special Collections reading room. The Local History and Genealogy reading room is a treasure chest of local and county histories, family genealogies, city directories, published census records, references to unpublished collections and individual biographies, and reference guides for researching genealogy and local history. Both the Geography and Maps and Prints and Photograph divisions are worth a visit, for many local, regional, and national maps and nineteenth-century images are housed at the Library of Congress. The Periodicals reading room provides access to many contemporary publications and nineteenth-century newspapers from around the country. Those researching specific people, families, institutions, or organizations may want to scour the Manuscript reading room for information. Although the Folklore and Folklife reading room does not contain a great deal of material directly related to the Underground Railroad, it houses collections of 1930s WPA Federal Writers’ Project interviews with ex-slaves and numerous books of African American folklore and folksong. Although the Music division contains little about the Underground Railroad, it has materials related to the music of the anti-slavery movement in the early and mid-nineteenth century.

Make use of the numerous finding aids available in many of the reading rooms. The African American Mosaic, a published guide to African American research at the Library of Congress, is an extremely useful starting point for Underground Railroad research, and is online at <>. While the reading rooms still use some card catalogs, most have access to LOCIS, the library’s computerized catalogue system. Fortunately for distant researchers, a good bit of the library’s collections are available through Firstsearch, on the library’s website at <>, and at the gopher site MARVEL <, port 70>. Before heading to the Library of Congress, peruse the electronic catalogs from a remote computer or call the telephone reference desk at (202) 707-5522 with specific questions.

The National Archives contains all the decennial census records that are available to the public --1790 to 1820. Most of the United States Census records are indexed and available on microfilm in the Microform room. Unfortunately, researchers will not flip to a page in the 1850 census which lists "Underground Railroad" or "Fugitive Slave" as John Doe’s occupation. Although census records will not prove that a person or site was involved in underground activities, they can be used to document a person’s name, age, sex, family relationships, boarders and tenants, ethnicity and/or color, slave or free status, property value (in slaves, land, and personal property), educational level, occupation, proximate location to neighbors, and occasionally physical appearance. Military and pension records are often useful in conducting genealogical research. The Guide to the National Archives of the United States (1974) is a good overview of the basic record groups available for research. The National Archives has federal records centers in: Waltham, MA; Bayonne, NJ; Philadelphia, PA; East Point, GA; Chicago, IL; Dayton, OH; Kansas City, MO; Fort Worth, TX; Denver, CO; San Bruno, CA; Laguna Niguel, CA; Seattle, WA. Much of the state-based material available at the National Archives is also available at state archives and libraries.

State Archives often have large collections relating to the history of the state, and frequently have many genealogical materials for particular families. Many state and county courts donate their archives to state facilities, as do businesses, institutions, schools, social organizations, and political groups. Some tax and military records are housed in state archives, and many of the best local maps and much local ephemera can be found here. Plantation account books, southern factory records, and church membership lists are sources for slaves' names often found in state archives. In some of those sources, a last name is included and family relationships are detailed.

For a detailed listing of the information available for each census year and specific considerations for researching nineteenth-century census records, see the "General Guide to Sources" in National Register Bulletin 39: Researching a Historic Property and The Source (1997) and the Guide to Genealogical Research in the National Archives.


Local libraries often have many materials about community and regional history and legend, as well as archives from local groups and organizations and personal collections. Academic libraries often have more materials about general history and particular topics, theories and studies, theses and dissertations, and sometimes special collections.

Check museums and historical societies for any materials relating to particular families, community involvement in slavery and the anti-slavery movement, local organizations and societies, personal collections, local and regional histories, unpublished manuscripts, periodicals and newspapers, ephemera, and images. Many local agencies also have collections relating to specific buildings and structures.


Using the Toolbox

Oral tradition

Information and stories passed down through generations of families and communities are central to our understanding of fugitive slave experiences during the ante-bellum period. Oral tradition and folklore have played significant roles in African American history and contribute a great deal to our understanding of American culture and society. For decades - even centuries - historians have debated the use of oral tradition and individual memory in understanding the past. While some benevolent societies, vigilance committees, and prominent individuals kept written records of their activities, the majority of people involved in the Underground Railroad were not likely to leave paper trails of their activities or identify their underground contacts. The aiding and abetting of fugitive slaves in the United States during the nineteenth century was, after all, a highly controversial and illegal activity, punishable by fine, branding, incarceration, and enslavement. It is thus neither surprising nor accidental that we lack consolidated and detailed written records about the process. Oral tradition fills a great void in the largely unwritten history of the Underground Railroad, and can contain valuable references to names, dates, and locations, events, and connections which can be documented in written primary and secondary sources.

As historian Donald Richie asserts, "oral history is as reliable or unreliable as other research sources. No single piece of data of any sort should be trusted completely, and all sources need to be tested against other evidence." The task of the modern historian of the Underground Railroad is not to toss these sources aside, but to document them with other historical evidence and evaluate their usefulness and credibility on a case-by-case basis. Documenting and interpreting the Underground Railroad at historic sites involves many different methods and resources. Barbara Allen and Lynwood Montell’s From Memory to History: Using Oral Sources in Local Historical Research (Nashville: American Association for State and Local History, 1981) is an excellent introduction to the uses and abuses of oral tradition for these purposes. David Kyvig and Myron Marty, Nearby History: Exploring the Past Around You 2nd. ed. (Walnut Creek, CA: Altamira Press, 1996), is an excellent introduction to conducting local history research and provides detailed examples of how primary sources can be used creatively in historical research.


Autobiography and memoir

Fugitive slave narratives and ex-slave memoirs were an important form of public education from the 1830s to the 1860s as escaped slaves working with abolitionists began publishing dramatic accounts of escape from bondage. These published accounts circulated widely and their authors were asked to speak to the public at abolition meetings about their experiences. Some historians have claimed that in addition to containing debatable and exaggerated information, many of these narratives were edited, altered, or even written by abolitionists for political purposes. These limitations do not disqualify slave narratives as historical evidence. They simply suggest that historians must use such documents with caution, and evaluate their reliability by cross-referencing them with other primary sources. Slave narratives and memoirs are an important part of the historical record that must undergo the same rigorous evaluation as any other piece of evidence. Publication does not guarantee authenticity, and most narratives do not reveal the process of editing, selection, and revision which may have altered the information in the text. When using these sources, it is therefore important to consider the perspective and motivation of the author (if known) and find out as much as possible about the history of the publication.

In the late nineteenth century, accounts of the Underground Railroad were published primarily by elderly abolitionists or members of their families to commemorate the efforts of abolitionists who helped fugitive slaves. These memoirs also have their limitations, and many contain exaggerated recollections. In many cases, however, aged abolitionists sought to create a reliable record of their ante-bellum lives. "Using Memoirs to Write Local History," an article in the November 1982 edition of History News, is a good introduction to these resources.



Archeological resources are irreplaceable and non-renewable and evidence about the Underground Railroad always will be some of the most fragile material remains. The Underground Railroad, as a clandestine network, resulted in limited traditional historical evidence. Wide and varied non-specialist or public participation in archeological projects is very important, but these projects must have professional archeological supervision. Archeological investigation, conducted in coordination with oral history and primary document research, will lead to a broader understanding of the Underground Railroad, its related phenomena, and its operations throughout slave free states.

Since the widest range of places associated with the Underground Railroad are likely to remain only as archeological resources, it is critical that they be identified and evaluated according to their proper contextual relationships. This approach also will provide information on significant historical cultural landscapes. Use of resources for travel and subsistence, the varied creation of "stations" as integral parts of communities, and free settlement patterns are all examples of how cultural landscapes were transformed by the systematic efforts to provide for escapes from slavery.

Understanding Underground Railroad history requires multi-level analyses of such topics as plantations, free settlements, and maroon settlements. This research will provide insight into the conditions that led to escape, the lives of people following their escapes, and the social networks which promoted and assisted escape. African American archeology over the past 30 years has significantly increased our knowledge of the lifeways and culture history of African Americans, especially in undocumented early American contexts. Theresa Singleton and Mark Bograd produced a comprehensive bibliography of African American archeology in The Archeology of the African Diaspora in the Americas [Guides to the Archeological Literature of the Immigrant Experience in America, Number 2 (Society for Historical Archaeology), 1995.]


Local histories

Local histories range from the commercially-produced slick-paper products funded by community boosters to the very narrowly-focused history of a particular congregation or business or club within a region. Their usefulness also varies widely and their claims must be checked. These sources are usually only jumping-off points for more thorough historical research and should serve as complements, not substitutes, for other sources such as census records, court papers, maps, and county documents. Researchers should be critical in evaluating these sources, and take the author’s perspective and possible biases into consideration. Information about local histories can be located by contacting your state archives and records management office, state historic preservation office, and the American Association of State and Local History. Researchers using the Library of Congress should consult the United States Local Histories in the Library of Congress (Baltimore: Magna Carta, 1975).


Scholarly Sources: books, articles, theses and dissertations, unpublished manuscripts

Interpreting the Underground Railroad in a broad historical context is often easier said than done. Many researchers and interpreters often lack the time and staff to conduct in-depth research about the historical development of an area, the sociology of local free black communities, or the development of the American abolition movement. Fortunately, many scholars have published books about these and many other subjects. After deciding on themes to include in a historic context, it is very useful to head to a local university library and scour the catalogues for scholarly books, dissertations and theses, and journal articles about these subjects. See the bibliography at the end of this booklet for an overview of scholarship on Underground Railroad themes.


County and Township Records

State and local archives often have collections of county records which include wills, property ownership deeds, property transfers, household probate inventories, bills of sale for slaves, emancipation and manumission registers, slave registers for tax purposes, local and regional maps, legal documents and court records, and insurance records. County and state tax records are a wealth of information about the economic and geographical development of an area, and often contain references to many different people, places, and events.


City directories, almanacs, and gazetteers

As the yellow pages of the nineteenth century, city directories, almanacs, and gazetteers are good sources for establishing historical context as well as documenting factual information. Whereas federal censuses were taken once a decade, directories were often published annually and updated their information from year to year. Although limited because slaves, married women, poor whites, and many southern free blacks are not generally included in these mid-nineteenth century listings, these documents often list the exact addresses of businesses and individuals, hotel occupants and boarders, business and commercial advertisements, schedules for local trains, steamships, and shipping companies, lists of local churches, associations, organizations, and newspapers, postage rates and post office box locations, lists of local politicians and officials, calendars, and city maps. Often, individuals who cannot be clearly identified in census records can be traced in city directories, and these listings are useful for pinpointing exact locations of sites and individuals which can then be plotted on contemporary maps. Many almanacs include important news from the previous year, and gazetteers often contain sections detailing local history, economic and demographic statistics, and social, economic, and political predictions.

The Library of Congress has an extensive collection of city directories housed in its Microform and Main Reading Rooms. In addition, many state and local archives keep local, regional, social, and business directories in their collections. Check with your local librarian or historian to locate these sources in your area, and remember to use them with caution; directories often contain many omissions and errors and should be cross referenced with other primary source materials.



Contemporary calendars were often published in gazetteers, directories, and almanacs or in business advertisements. There are even some published collections of nineteenth-century calendars which are useful for verifying dates mentioned in Underground Railroad accounts and community, family, and personal events. If no contemporary calendars are available, perpetual calendars such as the one on page 103 of Graff and Barzun, The Modern Researcher can be extrememly helpful in piecing together Underground Railroad accounts.


Images and Photographs

Although the number of images and certainly the number of photographs directly related to the Underground Railroad is limited, researchers should keep an eye out for any bit of visual information available from the period. Be cautious about using paintings and illustrations done long afterward, but they are not to be rejected, just identified as after the fact. Contemporary woodcut illustrations, architectural sketches, drawings by journalists, advertisements, logos, paintings, and pictures are all valuable pieces of evidence in local historical research.


Foreign documents

When interpreting a historic site or individual associated with the Underground Railroad, it is important to incorporate any possible connections to people, places, and events in foreign countries. Because fugitive slaves resettled in foreign territories and were key figures in the mid-nineteenth century international anti-slavery movement, researchers must often expand their geographical lens and dig up information from foreign sources, especially Canadian.

Peter Ripley’s The Black Abolitionist Papers is an excellent anthology of primary sources from black British, Canadian, and American abolitionists during the ante-bellum period (1820-1865). The Public Records Office in London contains legal papers relating to fugitive slave cases, as well as sources which reflect connections between the British and American anti-slavery movements. Patricia Kennedy and Janine Roy’s Tracing Your Ancestors in Canada (Public Archives of Canada, 1984) is a good guide for using Canadian resources. Although many documents are housed in foreign repositories, some city directories, census abstracts, and newspapers and periodicals are available in local libraries.



Records of anti-slavery societies, vigilance committees, benevolent groups, and churches

While these sources sometimes provide information about specific cases, they are often more useful for establishing historical context and locating names, dates, and events which can be documented in other primary sources and used to construct rich narratives about individuals and groups associated with historic sites. In addition, because a good number of these societies were organized and run by African Americans and women, membership lists and meeting notes often provide documentation about individuals not clearly identified in census records or city directories.

Many formal organizations such as the American Anti-Slavery Society, the Society of Friends (Quakers), regional abolitionist groups such as the Philadelphia Committee of Vigilance and New York Vigilance Committee, and local women’s anti-slavery groups published minutes of their meetings, annual reports, and collections of propaganda materials. These sources can often be found in local libraries and archival collections. Although lesser known and sometimes more covert organizations and vigilance committees also published some of their records, identifying and locating information from these groups may take a bit more detective work in public and private collections. It may be useful to ask individual churches and historical societies about any such records in their collections.


Contemporary newspapers and periodicals

Just as in today’s society, nineteenth-century newspapers and periodicals contain a wealth of information about day-to-day living conditions, historical events, people and places, popular opinion, and major national and international social issues. In the mid-nineteenth century, popular publications contain a great deal of information, sometimes speculative, about fugitive slaves, their accomplices, and general anti-slavery activities. Many abolitionist presses published reports about fugitive slaves, including accounts of successful and failed escape attempts, updates about legislation relating to slavery and fugitive slaves, reports about regional enforcement of slave laws and black codes, proceedings of anti-slavery meetings, and sometimes even reports about the status of the Underground Railroad. Mainstream newspapers often cited and sometimes re-interpreted these sources in their own publications, and may contain references to names, dates, events, and locations mentioned in fugitive and abolitionist accounts. In addition, printing establishments which published anti-slavery material during the ante-bellum period were often likely to have been actively connected to abolitionist activities. Gathering information about materials published by various presses can often lend insight into their role in local anti-slavery efforts.

American Newspapers, 1821-1936: A Union List of Files Available in the United States and Canada (New York: H.W. Wilson, 1937) is a useful guide for locating these sources. Many major newspapers such as the New York Times have published indexes for information in some nineteenth century editions, and some have separate listings for obituaries and biographical information. Sources such as Lubomyr and Anna Wynar’s Encyclopedic Dictionary of Ethnic Newspapers and Periodicals and Negro Periodicals in the United States are useful as well, and researchers should check listings for locally published periodicals from church groups, social clubs, political organizations, and professional groups. Libraries and archives often have collections of nineteenth-century local and regional newspapers and periodicals on microfilm.


Legal Documents and Court Records

Although legendary accounts of the Underground Railroad imply that the majority of fugitive slaves were able to reach and remain in free territories, a great number of people who attempted to escape were captured and returned to slavery, along with their assistants, who were frequently fined and sometimes detained in jail. Local and appellate courts tried many cases relating to fugitive slaves, and information can be obtained from the records of these cases. More information may come from state penitentiaries where accomplices were held, documents from local anti-slavery groups supporting these prisoners, and newspaper accounts of legal events. Many collections of legal papers also include descriptions of buildings and properties and specialized maps recorded for real estate transactions or disputes.

Several sources which include information about cases related to the Underground Railroad include Paul Finkleman’s Fugitive Slaves and American Courts: the Pamphlet Literature (1988) and Slavery in the Courtroom: An Annotated Bibliography of American Cases (1985), and Helen Catterall’s Judicial Cases Concerning American Slavery and the Negro (1968). In addition, many legal records pertaining to fugitive slaves are housed in local law libraries and archives.


Manuscript collections

Personal and family manuscript collections often include diaries, correspondence, newspaper clippings, record books, photographs or images, and ephemera from the period. Archived business and institutional files are more likely to contain financial and legal documents, official correspondence, membership lists, and institutional histories. Because libraries are not apt to have collections conveniently catalogued under "Underground Railroad," it is useful to have the names of specific individuals before searching through manuscript collections. Researchers of historic sites should pay particular attention to family and organizational collections directly connected to the site and comb these sources for any information related to slaves and slavery, the anti-slavery movement, and nineteenth-century social and political conditions. One of the most practical ways to locate personal collections is through the National Union Catalog of Manuscript Collections, a massive index of collections held throughout the nation. More and more, lists of manuscripts appear on the internet by theme and by holding institution.



Contemporary nineteenth-century maps are important in research about individual Underground Railroad sites. As noted before, successful escapes from slavery depended on a wide variety of conditions. Geographical boundaries, demographic information, specific addresses and property owners, locations of abolitionist presses and societies, railroads, waterways, roads and trails, the position of military posts, origins of advertisements for runaway slaves, and the sites of landmark court cases and historical events can reveal connections between people in different regions and lend great insight into how complicated conditions shaped fugitives’ experiences and influenced locally organized efforts to assist them. Because of this, it is important to know something about nineteenth-century American geography in order to determine how particular historic sites fit into the larger picture.

Researchers seeking to find routes have often used the accounts in Wilber Siebert, slave memoirs, and those found in William Still's The Underground Railroad (1872) in which fugitives who met with him in Philadelphia related how they arrived there. This has meant that most primary destinations described in print are near the office of a Vigilance Committee. It may be that travel by river, bay and ocean has not been sufficiently appreciated. Another strategy is to use the compiled accounts of runaway slave notices edited and published in book form. Quite often, the masters of fugitive slaves knew with some accuracy the direction in which runaways were headed and described their likely means of escape in the advertisement. Boatmen were very frequently cautioned in those advertisements against aiding runaways and many slaves did, indeed, escape by water.

Different types of maps offer various sorts of clues about the past: contemporary national maps of the United States, Canada, and Mexico often show territorial, state, and local boundaries, natural features, and distances between locations. Look for other historical clues on individual maps as well, such as population figures (often divided into slave and free, by state) and transportation routes (railways, steamship routes, stage roads). Note how place names are spelled, as these sometimes changed throughout history.

City directories often include specially-made city maps in their annual publications. Usually located at the beginning or end of the directory, these maps are fairly reliable sources of city streets, public buildings, homes, businesses, and transportation routes.

Beginning in the mid-nineteenth century, insurance companies began producing fire insurance maps for home and business owners. The Sanborn company produced these maps throughout the nation from the mid-1800s through 1950. While most of these maps were drawn after the Underground Railroad ceased to operate, they provide useful clues about building structures and dimensions, property ownership, and neighborhood characteristics. Although Fire Insurance Maps in the Library of Congress: Plans of North American Cities and Towns Produced by the Sanborn Map Company (Washington, DC: Library of Congress, 1981) is specific to the Library of Congress, it is a helpful for finding out what maps are available.

"Bird’s eye" maps of cities and towns are useful for getting the "feel" for a large area at a certain time and for identifying building characteristics, locations, neighborhoods, and spatial relationships. These maps are often not-to-scale and are sometimes creatively adapted; use them with caution, but use them.



Both African American slave spirituals and popular anti-slavery songs are important elements of Underground Railroad legend and history. What are the traditions and practices of music in West Africa which were incorporated in North America ? Traditional interpretations of "the music of the Underground Railroad" often focus of the use of slave spirituals as covert communication. "Chariot’s a’ Coming" purportedly announced the arrival of a "conductor" on the premises, "Good News, Neighbor" was apparently used to report a fugitive’s safe arrival in free territory, and the ever-popular "Follow the Drinking Gourd" was supposedly an encrypted song which directed slaves, by way of the North Star, along a particular route of the Underground Railroad. Interpreting slave spirituals in this way, however, is tricky business. Coded language is difficult or impossible to document, and while many slave spirituals have a variety of interpretations, not every one referred to fugitive slaves. The most recent scholarly interpretations about connections between African American slave music and the Underground Railroad take these complex factors into consideration. By concluding that the adaptation of traditional music to current social conditions was a common practice in American slave communities, researchers may understand that slave spirituals may have been but were not necessarily used to relay information about fugitive slaves and escape from slavery. African American slave music was, in historian Lawrence Levine’s words, a "distinctive cultural form" which was a vital part of slave life, society, and resistance.


Interpreting Underground Railroad Research

By creatively combining information from a variety of primary and secondary sources, developing in-depth biographies and histories of people and sites, and drawing conclusions about their relationship to surrounding areas and nineteenth-century American history, researchers can shed light on these and other questions. Responsible interpretations of the Underground Railroad should:

  • Separate Underground Railroad myths and legends from historical facts about the escapes and resettlement of fugitive slaves and the actual activities of individuals and organizations.
  • Document the factual elements of the Underground Railroad through primary source materials and connect them to broader historical issues of slavery, abolition, and American history.
  • Evaluate the legendary elements of the Underground Railroad and consider the history and value of oral narratives. What are the sources of local legends? How can we use them to explore the differences and connections between historical myth and historical reality?


Good historical interpretation - particularly of a complex issue like the Underground Railroad - is grounded in careful, thoughtful research. After researching a site and constructing an interpretation of its connection to the Underground Railroad, researchers should double-check their sources and have other researchers review the interpretations. In addition, it may be useful to ask:

  • Does the interpretation help the public better understand the multi-faceted development, organization, and history of the Underground Railroad?
  • Does the interpretation include information about the activities of "ordinary" individuals and groups as well as popular or famous people?
  • Does the interpretation present undocumented or debatable information as historical fact?
  • Does the interpretation reflect that both historical and legendary information are elements of the history of the Underground Railroad?
  • Are interpretations based on information from a variety of reliable sources which reflect the complex nature of the Underground Railroad?
  • Does the interpretation include historical information about the events and conditions preceding and following escapes from slavery?
  • Are contemporary political, economic, and social issues incorporated into narratives of Underground Railroad activities?
  • Does the interpretation reflect the influence of religion, African cultural beliefs and practices, benevolent organizations, anti-slavery societies and vigilance committees, community networks, and individual efforts where appropriate?
  • Have rich and well-documented biographies and histories been constructed for sites and individuals included in the interpretation?
  • Is the interpretation representative and inclusive of all individuals significant to the story?
  • Can the area, site, or person be connected to Underground Railroad activities through primary sources?
  • Does evidence about the area, site, or person make it more appropriate for interpreting related issues of slavery and abolition and linking the concept of the Underground Railroad to other themes in nineteenth-century American history?
  • Are music, literature, contemporary broadsides and propaganda, and local legends researched and interpreted as part of the history of the Underground Railroad? Can these sources be connected to the site, or are they more appropriate for establishing a historic context for Underground Railroad activities?

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