Alexander Milton Ross was one of the most daring of the Underground Railroad workers. He was born in Belleville, Ontario in December of 1832. Alexander Milton Ross was an ornithologist as well as a medical doctor, and often used his passion and interest in birds as a cover for his Underground Railroad activities.
As a youngster growing up in Belleville, Dr. Ross’ parents had talked about the evils of slavery with him. When Ross met refugees and anti slavery groups in Toronto, he was quick to get to work and help with their dilemma.
How did Alexander Milton Ross help The Underground Railroad?
In 1856 he became active in the anti slavery struggle in the United States by becoming a personal friend of abolitionist John Brown. Alexander Milton Ross’ black acquaintances told him about the secret lines of the Underground Railroad and gave him names and addresses of station keepers in Ohio, Pennsylvania and Michigan.
As an ornithologist, Alexander Milton Ross traveled throughout the southern states, particularly Virginia, Tennessee, South Carolina, Mississippi and Alabama. Plantation owners let the “Birdman” roam their estates, with no idea that the flights he hoped to see were not those of birds, but of their slaves.
He would spend the days walking the plantations following the flight of the birds, but when night fell he would speak in secret to the slaves. Alexander Milton Ross passed on the locations of Underground Railroad stations. He would tell them who to watch out for and who to trust. As he parted he would give each slave a knife, a compass, a few dollars and as much food as they could carry.
Alexander Milton Ross made at least five trips to the United States. In this time he managed to play an important part in the escapes of 31 black people. His services in the abolition movement gained him tributes from abolition leaders and from Abraham Lincoln. Abraham Lincoln honoured him in numerous dinner parties and banquets.
What else did Alexander Milton Ross do in his time?
During the civil war he served for a short time as a surgeon in the National army. Afterward, he was employed by President Lincoln as secret correspondent in Canada where he rendered important services to the United States government and received the thanks of the President and Secretary.
At the close of the American Civil War, Dr. Ross returned to Canada to collect and classify Canadian flora and fauna. His findings included hundreds of species of birds, eggs, mammals, reptiles, and fresh water fish, 3,400 species of insects, and 2,000 species of flora.
Between the years 1876 and 1881, Alexander Milton Ross was knighted by the emperor of Russia and by the kings of Italy, Greece, Saxony and Portugal. During these years he was also a member of the College of Physicians and Surgeons of Quebec and Ontario.
Alexander Milton Ross died in Detroit, Michigan on October 27, 1897.