Cambrian: Opinion

Thoughts at 37,000 feet

This 19th century tunnel hid runaway slaves in Milton, Wis.
This 19th century tunnel hid runaway slaves in Milton, Wis. Courtesy of the Milton Historical Society

Cultural and social issues from the past come into focus for the strangest reasons at the least logical moments. At least they did for this Cambria reporter, a white-knuckle flyer who was securely affixed into seat C in row 6 of a US Airways jetliner Friday, Nov. 8, when, out of the blue, at 37,000 feet, he had an social/historical epiphany, the result of which is presented in this narrative.

While zooming eastward from California towards America’s Dairyland at 500-plus miles an hour, the reporter was seated behind an African-American couple and his open mind — perhaps owing to recent research into President Abraham Lincoln’s Emancipation Proclamation and the bloody Civil War — experienced wildly contrasting reflections.

Passing high over hilly, snow-covered terrain far below in the Heartland, the reporter momentarily cast aside his air travel apprehensions while proceeding to juxtapose the histories linked to his youthful Wisconsin environment with the history connected to his present home, Cambria, on the Central Coast of California.

To be blunt and to the point, 19th century abolitionists in the reporter’s home town of Milton, Wisc., helped runaway slaves find freedom, while a hundred years earlier on the Central Coast, 18th century religious missionaries from Europe placed Native Peoples into a kind of slavery to build missions. The irony in no way is intended disparage Cambria and the Central Coast today, but history should be seen through honest, unfiltered lenses.

According to an article by the Public Broadcast Service (PBS), the head Franciscan missionary in charge of this project “set out to make the native populations slaves to the farms supporting the missions.”

Spanish soldiers “kidnapped Indians by the thousands” and forced them “to care for the livestock, to tan hides, to produce bricks, shoes, saddles, and soaps.” If Indians misbehaved, “they were whipped, branded, mutilated or even executed,” PBS reported, not unlike the treatment that African slaves were subjected to prior to (and in some cases after) the Civil War.

In addition to the bondage and the brutal treatment at the hands of the missionaries, hundreds of thousands of Native Peoples (including populations of Chumash and Salinan Indians) “died of malaria, smallpox, or other diseases imported by the Spanish” for which the Indians had no resistance. Genocide is not too strong a word to describe the violation of innocent humans otherwise enjoying a bountiful unspoiled natural world.

Meanwhile, 19th century Milton was a key location in the Underground Railroad, a nationwide service that sought to prevent slaves from being returned to their masters, even finding them jobs in Wisconsin, Minnesota and Canada.

I was born a preacher’s kid in New York state but raised in Milton (named after the iconic British poet John Milton and founded by abolitionist Joseph Goodrich). Kitty-corner across from my dad’s church in Milton was the “Milton House” — a stagecoach inn serving the fledgling village — which today is the oldest standing grout building in the world, and registered as a national historical place.

Beneath the Milton House, from 1844 to and through the end of the Civil War in 1865, a labyrinth of tunnels provided safe harbor for runaway slaves. As a kid I snuck under the Milton House and ran through the cobweb-cluttered tunnels, trying to imagine what it must have been like to have been a runaway slave hiding out from bounty hunters and hoping for a future of freedom.

It gave, at least, an anxious, edgy flyer something to contemplate to free his mind from the frightening fact that he was hurtling along 37,000 feet above terra firma.