The Journey of Henry “Box” Brown



On March 23, 1849, Henry Brown began one of the most dramatic escapes from slavery in American history.  A white friend named Samuel A. Smith helped Brown hide himself in a box that was shipped from Richmond to Philadelphia.  In just over 24 hours with hardly any food and water and partly upside-down, Henry Brown traveled by wagon, train, and boat until his box was opened by leaders of the Underground Railroad in Philadelphia.  James Miller McKim (Dickinson Class of 1828) and William Still, the son of former slaves, helped free Henry “Box” Brown and set him on a course to become one of antebellum America’s most famous escaped slaves.  His own story has been told in two versions ( and and by William Still ( and in a fascinating new biography by historian Jeffrey Ruggles called The Unboxing of Henry Brown (  Now, the story is also available at this website as a GoogleEarth tour complete with historical map overlays, supporting text, images and even an interactive timeline.


Brown’s amazing story offers teachers a great opportunity to integrate other disciplines into the Social Studies curriculum. Specific, usable examples are listed below, with printable worksheets for each example on the following pages. Suggested answers for all worksheets (except writing prompts) are listed at the end.


English/Language Arts-

            Parts of a Story

            Writing Prompts


Math and Science-

            Calculating Speed

Latitude and Longitude

            Calculating Volume








The Journey of Henry “Box” Brown

Parts of a story

The exciting and dangerous journey of Henry “Box” Brown is nonfiction. However, it contains all of the parts of a fiction story written as a short story or even a novel. Examine the real story of Henry “Box” Brown, and describe each of the parts of his story below. Once finished with the first three, try the “challenges:”





exposition (the “problem” to be solved):


        building action (tension increases.. ):


        climax (The most exciting part of a story):


        DENOUEMENT (Also called the “falling action” ):



The Journey of Henry “Box” Brown

Writing prompt: Narrative

Henry “Box” Brown’s story, at several points, could have ended in a very different way. Describe a specific point in his real story and change its outcome (like his arrival at the Washington Wharf). From that point onward, tell in a fictional way how Brown escaped to freedom (perhaps not in a box?).


Writing prompt: expository

When many people hear that a man “mailed” himself from slavery to freedom, they are dying to know the details (try it on someone!) Write a newspaper article that gives your readers the details of Henry “Box” Brown’s plan and how the plan succeeded in his escape from slavery. Just the facts, no fiction.


Writing prompt: persuasive

Slaveholders were very threatened by the story of Henry “Box” Brown. It made some of them realize something that they did not want to believe- that African Americans were in fact just as intelligent and brave as white Americans. In order to retain their beliefs, many slaveholders argued that it was the white Americans in the story who did all of the planning, preparing, and all of the hard work in helping Henry “Box” Brown escape to freedom. Unfortunately, that’s not true. Write an essay that argues how Henry “Box” Brown a majority of the credit for his escape.














The Journey of Henry “Box” Brown

calculating average Speed

Henry “Box” Brown’s journey was not a smooth one. He had many stops and was transported in many different ways. How fast was he traveling in the different parts of his journey?

To calculate speed, you need to know the distance traveled and the time taken to travel the distance traveled. Speed is equal to the distance divided by the time. Let’s say your teacher drives 10 miles to get to school in the morning. It takes your teacher 14 minutes. The average speed can be calculated like this:

(10 miles) ÷ (20 minutes) = .5 miles per minute

Did your teacher break the speed limit? Because the speed limit is in miles per hour, we have to do a little more work:

(20 minutes) ÷ (60 minutes) = .33 hours

So:                               (10 miles) ÷ (.33 hours) = 30.3 miles per hour

Did your teacher break the speed limit? It is actually hard to tell. We just calculated the average speed, meaning that your teacher could have waited at stop signs or traffic lights, or even traveled 55 miles an hour on a highway for part of the journey to school.

Using this skill, let’s try it with the journey of Henry “Box” Brown. Henry traveled on three railroads. What was his average speed on each train?

You will need to use the timeline to find out the time it took to travel the distance on each railroad. You will also need the “ruler” tool at the top of the Google Earth window to measure the distance traveled on each train. After you click the ruler tool, click the tab called “Path” to follow the path of a railroad and it will calculate the distance for you.

1. Richmond, Fredericksburg and Potomac Railroad

time: ____________               distance: ____________         average speed:____________

2. Baltimore and Ohio Railroad

time: ____________               distance: ____________         average speed:____________

3. Philadelphia, Wilmington, and Baltimore Railroad

time: ____________               distance: ____________         average speed:____________

The Journey of Henry “Box” Brown

latitude and longitude

Henry “Box” Brown’s exciting journey to freedom is not just fun to read about, but interesting to see on a map.

Long ago, people wanted to be able to tell their exact location on the Earth. So, they developed the system of longitude and latitude.

If you know the “longitude” of a place, it means you know how far east or west the place is. Longitude lines, when shown on a map or globe, always run north/south. Although that’s confusing, just imagine crossing a longitude line. you would have to move east/west to be able to cross it.

If you know a place’s “latitude,” you know how far north or south the place is. Latitude lines on maps or globes always run east/west. So, you would have to travel north or south to cross one.

Using the Google Earth tour of Henry “Box” Brown’s escape, answer the following:

1. Hold your mouse cursor over the beginning of Brown’s journey, “1. Samuel A. Smith Residence.” At the bottom of the Google Earth window, it will display the latitude (“lat”) and longitude (“lon”) of the place. You may round the numbers to two decimal places.

latitude:_____________                                 longitude:_______________

2. What is the latitude and longitude of his final destination?

latitude: _______________                            longitude: _______________


3. For the most part, in what direction (use north, east, south, west) did Henry “Box” Brown travel in his journey, from beginning to end?


4. If I asked the question “Did Henry “Box” Brown travel farther in latitude or farther in longitude?,” how could you figure that out?


5. All right…did Henry “Box” Brown travel farther in latitude or farther in longitude?


The Journey of Henry “Box” Brown

calculating volume

One of the most interesting parts of Henry “Box” Brown’s journey to freedom is imagining yourself staying in a box for about 24 hours.

So how big was the box? Luckily, Henry Brown tells us. Read this excerpt from his story and write down the dimensions:

“The size of the box and how it was to be made to fit him most comfortably, was of his own ordering. Two feet eight inches deep, two feet wide, and three feet long were the exact dimensions of the box, lined with baize. His resources with regard to food and water consisted of the following: One bladder of water and a few small biscuits. His mechanical implement to meet the death-struggle for fresh air, all told, was one large gimlet.”

William Still, The Underground Railroad (Philadelphia: Porter & Coates, 1872), 81.

height: ________                    length: ________                    width: ________

Now, to make things easier, convert the dimensions into inches:

height: ________in.                length: ________in.                width: ________in.

All of these measurements are in inches. What if we wanted to know the area of the box’s lid? We would multiply the length of the box by the width of the box. Then, the answer would not be in inches, but in square inches, shown like this: in2.

What if we wanted to find out the volume of the box? Volume would mean how much space Henry had inside the box.

1. How do you think we would figure that out?


2. What do you think the answer is?

3. What would we put after the number? in.? Or maybe in2? Or something else?

4. So, now that you know the exact size of the box, would you be comfortable in it?


5. Why didn’t Henry “Box” Brown make a larger, more comfortable box?

The Journey of Henry “Box” Brown

suggested answers

Parts of a Story

            Answers will vary based on learning objectives and individual school district curriculum.


Calculating Speed


1. There are two options, students can use either the line tool (easier but less accurate) or the path tool (more accurate). The results may vary slightly.


time: 4 hours              

distance: 61 miles (line), 70 miles (path)        

average speed: 15.25 miles/hour (line), 17.5 miles/hour (path)


2. time: 5 hours                      

distance: 34 miles (line), 37 miles (path)        

average speed: 6.8 miles/hour (line), 7.4 miles/hour (path)



3. time: 6 hours                      

distance: 92 miles (line), 96 miles (path)        

average speed: 15.3 miles/hour (line), 16 miles/hour (path)




Latitude and Longitude


            1. latitude: 37.53                                 longitude: -77.43


            2. latitude: 39.95                                 longitude: -75.15


            3. north and east, or northeast


            4. By visually following his journey on the map, or by finding the difference between the change in latitude and the change in longitude: (39.95-37.53) <> [-77.43- (-75.15)]


            5. Mathematically, Henry “Box” Brown traveled farther in latitude (a change of 2.42) than in longitude (a change of 2.28).


Calculating Volume

            Dimensions in feet and inches:

                        height: 2 feet 8 inches

                        length: 3 feet

                        width: 2 feet


            Dimensions in inches:

                        height: 32 inches

                        length: 36 inches

                        width: 24 inches


1. Students may deduce that since the area of a surface is equal to the length multiplied by  the width, the volume of a box should be equal to the length multiplied by the width, and then multiplied by the height.


            2. The numerical answer is 27,648.


            3. Students may deduce that when calculating area, two “inches” values are multiplied, resulting in an answer that is in “square” inches, or in.2. Since volume is calculated based on three dimensions, the result would be in “cubic” inches, or in.3


            4. Students may wish to create a box out of cardboard, or recreate the volume of the box using desks or tape on the floor.


            5. We can speculate- perhaps a larger box would give away its human cargo, and perhaps draw more attention due to its size.