The Underground Railroad

The Underground Railroad Summary and Analysis of Chapter 3: Ridgeway


The third chapter tells the back story of the slave catcher, Arnold Ridgeway. His father was a blacksmith, who was devoted to his work, calling it “working the spirit,” and instructing his son to find the same motivation (73). The young Ridgeway searched for inspiration, but failed to find role models among any profession. Wrestling with this confusion at age fourteen, he joined a gang of patrollers.

In those days, white southerners feared slave revolts and disquiet, relying on gangs roving the countryside to keep order. The head patroller in the county, Chandler, was a violent bully, close to a criminal. Ridgeway chose him as his role model, in part simply because his father despised him. The patrollers’ main work was harassing black men and women; stopping even those they knew to be free, searching slave villages for no reason at all, beating up their victims and bringing them to county jail. If there was a runaway, they cheerfully raided plantations to interrogate slaves.

The patrollers often took advantage of slave women and whiskey supplies alike, but Ridgeway held back. His biggest thrill was the chase: running after someone and beating them into submission. This work differed from his father, who produced tools as the results of his labor. But both Ridgeway and his father were fueled by the drive for cotton: his father to produce iron tools, and Ridgeway to keep order.

Ridgeway made his first trip as a proper slave catcher to New Jersey, following the trail of a slave named Betsy who had escaped from the Virginia tobacco fields. His first trip so far north was shocking, but he was rewarded with respect from the deputy at the jail when Betsy was released into his custody. Betsy tried to make a deal for her freedom. Ridgeway accepted, losing his virginity to her, but betrayed the terms of her offer by still bringing her back to her master to collect the reward.

He began retrieving slaves from New York and bringing them back south. It was a more complicated task up north than down south, and Ridgeway was good at it. He and the other slave catchers targeted slaves who “convinced themselves they were free” (78). Abolitionist lawyers put up legal obstacles to prevent the slave catchers from getting the court’s sign-off to take the runaways south. Ridgeway bypassed them as often as he could with bribes. He believed everything was in its rightful place: white men owned the land and everything in it because they were to destined to.

When his father died, coughing up soot from his blacksmithing, Ridgeway returned south. Here there were no abolitionists and no Underground Railroad. There was one abolitionist in particular who irked him: a Delaware merchant named August Carter. He operated a station in the Underground Railroad, and his printing press was a strong voice in the anti-slavery movement. One night, Ridgeway and his men paid Carter a visit. They beat him up thoroughly, raped his wife, and burned his house. Ridgeway is fond of the memory of that night.

When Mabel runs away, Randall calls in Ridgeway to find her. He failed, and he blamed the Underground Railroad. Mabel’s escape led him to believe that a station was indeed open in the South. He vowed to destroy it.


Ridgeway's code of ethics, revealed in this chapter, reveal an ideology that plays a central role in Colson Whitehead’s critique of America. The idea is simple: white America’s destiny is to rise, expand, and profit. The idea of destiny absolves white men from morality, since the oppression they inflict on others is in line with the way things are meant to be. This ideology cements an “unstoppable racial logic” into the idea of American destiny. These ideas function as the “American imperative,” and thus are central, indeed inherent, to the concept of America (80).

Slave traders, masters, and patrollers are not the only ones implicated. Ridgeway’s father, for example, believes his work as a blacksmith fulfills his purpose in life and feels pride in the useful objects he creates out of his own labor. Ridgeway, however, knows that his father’s iron-making plays a crucial role in the same system of slavery Ridgeway upheld on patrol. Ridgeway and his father are “parts of the same system,” both working for cotton. This demonstrates that even those who appear to be outside of the system of oppression that is at the heart of America are in fact complicit.

The text offers a critical view of this founding ideology through a disparaging tone towards the slave catchers. The head patroller, Chandler, for example, is a “brawler and a bully,” who spends just as much time in jail as any runaway (74-5). The job of a patroller is not difficult. It attracts a bad type of person, who, the narrator comments, would be considered a criminal in any country other than America. Ridgeway himself too only arrives at the occupation of a slave trader through a youthful desire to prove his worth to his father. This suggests a critical perspective on the narrative of America that places these men at the center.

Ridgeway himself is depicted as cold-hearted and profit-motivated. He reneges on a deal with a runaway slave, who offers to sleep with him in exchange for her freedom, to obtain the reward for her capture. His attitude towards the slaves he captures is chilling as well. Dehumanizing runaways by comparing them to rabbits or dogs, he chases them on foot and beats them with his fists.

On the other hand, he, like many other human beings, simply wants to find his purpose. Ridgeway is initially driven to take up work with the patrollers because of pressure from his father to find his calling, his version of the Great Spirit. Thus it was not out of an initial sense of malice that Ridgeway derives his work. This duality suggests a view of good and evil in the text that is nuanced, rather than total or all-encompassing.