The Sycamore and the ‘Drinking Gourd’

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A sycamore along the Maumee River floodplain is a symbol of strength and endurance. The oldest of the long-lived trees with firm roots have withstood repeated flooding and punishing winds for generations. But towering sycamores like these were once symbolic for a more personal reason to many: freedom.

Like the Little Dipper and other natural features, the American Sycamore guided fugitive slaves along their perilous journey to the North.

The sycamore’s white trunks that reflect moonlight mark the landscape well even at night, and the tree grows naturally along river routes associated with the Underground Railroad.

Sycamore, floodplains and rivers are referenced in the lyrics to “Follow the Drinking Gourd,” a song full of double meanings, like a code, for those fleeing slavery. The drinking gourd refers to the Little Dipper asterism (a recognizable pattern or stars) pointing the way toward the North Star.

“The riverbank will make a mighty good road, the dead trees show you the way.”

Because of its symbolism, some abolitionists used massive sycamores as staging points to give speeches about the injustices of slavery.

One conductor used a sycamore as a means of secret communication. Striking an anvil against metal plates nailed to the large tree notified escapees on the south side of the Ohio River that a boat would be arriving soon to transport them across.

“The river ends between two hills, follow the drinking gourd, there’s another river on the other side.”

Part of the Underground Railroad along Alum Creek in central Ohio, according to some accounts, was referred to as the Sycamore Trail because along the banks of that floodplain the trees provided cover, shelter and a way to find the route after dark. 

The sycamores likely served the same purposes here in northwest Ohio, where “stations” along the Underground Railroad route to Canada were located near the Maumee and Ottawa River floodplains.

When you see a sycamore growing in the floodplain, enjoy its beauty as a majestic natural features, but remember also the important role these trees or their predecessors may have played in history.