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How We Know About the Underground Railroad

Oral traditions are characterized under one of three general headings: myths, legends and personal or familial recollections. Myths are tales that explain the origin of things. They are said to have taken place in a distant, even timeless era, and often contain supernatural beings. Legends are tales that also took place long ago, but in a time and place that is familiar to the teller and audience. They describe the exploits of people who are believed to have actually lived. Finally, personal or familial accounts or anecdotes are told as true stories that took place in a known time.

Researchers have found that some oral traditions are remarkably accurate portrayals of past events, while others appear fanciful. Generally speaking, myths rarely withstand the scrutiny of close study, while legends often turn out to be based on the actual exploits of real people, though exaggeration and addition of standardized motifs reduce their accuracy. Personal and familial accounts are most easily tested, and most likely to be accurate.

Putting the oral tradition to the test

Anthropologists and Folklorists who study oral, narrative traditions use a number of different methodologies to test their veracity. Where possible, one method is to compare oral tales with written accounts of the same people, places or events. Oral traditions may introduce individuals to a story who might otherwise be ignored in written history, and of course, oral accounts can be substantiated through textual historical evidence. When the two methods of recounting the past agree, researchers tend to believe that both are more credible. However, when they disagree, many researchers tend to discount the oral tradition in favor of the written one.

This is not always a valid assumption. Authors are liable to validate their own biases, either deliberately or unconsciously. Simply in deciding which factors to immortalize in writing, authors perpetuate their own biases. Many people are greatly under-represented in written accounts, simply because the white men who wrote about the events considered them unimportant. Women, enslaved Africans, even white male laborers are rarely described fully and compassionately in written accounts. In these cases, oral tales could actually be more accurate, more inclusive than seemingly carefully documented written accounts.

Another method used to test the veracity of oral traditions is through comparisons to other oral tales. More often used to gain glimpses into the origin and spread of cultural concepts, the comparative method can also provide competing versions of past people, places or events. As with comparing oral to written accounts, when two or more separate oral traditions agree on particulars, that tends to strengthen the presumption that the tale is accurate. Even when they disagree, the particulars can often shine light on the truth that may lie between the two versions.

Finally, and as the only materialistic methodology for testing oral traditions, archaeology can often prove or disprove specific aspects of these tales. Unlike written accounts or oral traditions, the material unearthed by archaeologists is not culturally or personally biased. In recent decades, growing interest in the history of slavery has led many archaeologists to excavate their former living and working areas, and the picture of slaves and slave life that is emerging is often in quite distinct contrast to the written accounts.

It should not surprise us that some narrators, separated by their subject by time, race, gender, or class, and who wrote of African Americans and slavery were often less than accurate. Perhaps more surprising, however, is how frequently archaeological excavations uncover evidence that supports or even proves the truth of oral traditions passed down through generations of African-American families.

What we too often neglect to realize is that people without writing must develop their memories to a far greater extent then literate people. Albert Einstein once said, "More important than knowing something, is knowing where to look it up." Would Einstein have been considered a great genius if he had to remember all the information upon which his work was based? Or perhaps more relevantly, how many individuals just as great as Einstein spent their days toiling in the fields, and their nights memorizing and passing on the history of their people?