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Underground Railroad (20244 hits)

Underground Railroad

Background and Summary

The Underground Railroad was an informal network of secret routes and safe houses that 19th century Black slaves in the United States used to escape to free states (or even as far north as Canada) with the aid of abolitionists and other escaped slaves. The term is also applied to the abolitionists who aided the fugitives. Some routes led to Mexico or overseas. At its height between 1810 and 1850, one report estimated up to 100,000 people escaped enslavement via the Underground Railroad, though census figures only account for around 6,000. The Underground Railroad has captured public imagination as a symbol of freedom, and it figures prominently in Black history.

The escape network was "underground" in the sense of underground resistance, but was seldom literally under the earth. The network was known as a "railroad" by way of the use of rail terminology in the code. The Underground Railroad consisted of clandestine routes, transportation, meeting points, safe houses and other havens, as well as assistance maintained by abolitionist sympathizers of both Black and White races. These individuals were organized into small, independent groups who, for the purpose of maintaining secrecy, knew of connecting "stations" along the route, but few details of their immediate area. Many individual links were through family relation. Escaped slaves would pass from one station to the next, steadily making their way north. The diverse "conductors" on the railroad included free-born Blacks, White and Black abolitionists, former slaves and Native Americans. Churches and religious denominations played key roles, especially the Religious Society of Friends (Quakers), Congregationalists, Wesleyans and Reformed Presbyterians. Also, breakaway sects of mainstream denominations such as branches of the Methodist church and American Baptists are included in that group.

The Secret Passageways

Many people associated with the Underground Railroad only knew his or her part of the operation and not of the whole scheme. Though this may seem like an unreliable route for slaves to gain their freedom, hundreds of slaves successfully obtained freedom to the North every year.

The resting spots where the runaways could sleep and eat were given the code names “stations” and “depots,” which were held by “station masters.” There were also those known as “stockholders,” people who gave money or supplies. There were the “conductors” who ultimately moved the runaways from station to station. The “conductor” would sometimes act as if he or she were a slave and enter a plantation. Once they became part of a plantation, the "conductor" would direct the fugitives to the North. During the night, the slaves would move, traveling on about 10–20 miles per night. They would stop at the so-called “stations” or "depots" during the day and rest. While resting at one station, a message was sent to the next station to let the station master know the runaways were on their way. Sometimes boats or trains would be used for transportation. Money was donated by many to help buy tickets and even clothing for the fugitives so they would remain unnoticed. After the railroad had freed about 300 slaves, some of the freed slaves made a store for the railroad.

Some people — most of them, naturally, pro-slavery Southerners — were upset by this whole process. Resulting from many efforts to fix this ostensible problem, a law was passed that allowed slave owners to hire people to catch their runaways and arrest them. The fugitive slave laws became a problem because many legally freed slaves were being arrested along with the fugitives. This then encouraged more people of the North to become a part of the Underground Railroad. Often, "bounty hunters" would abduct free Blacks, and sell them into slavery. Although the fugitives sometimes traveled on real railways, the primary means of transportation were on foot or by wagon.

The routes taken were indirect to throw off pursuers. Most escapes were by individuals or small groups; occasionally, such as with the Pearl Rescue, there were mass escapes. The majority of the escapees are believed to have been male field workers who were younger than 40 years old. The journey was often too arduous and treacherous for women and children to complete successfully. It was relatively common, however, for fugitive bondsmen who had escaped via the Railroad and established livelihoods as free men to get jobs and save up to purchase their wives, children and other family members out of slavery in series. In this manner, the number of former slaves who owed their freedom, at least in part, to the courage and determination of those who operated the Underground Railroad was greater than the many thousands who actually traveled along the clandestine pathways.

William Still, often called "The Father of the Underground Railroad," helped hundreds of slaves to escape (as many as 60 a month), sometimes hiding them in his Philadelphia home. He kept careful records, including short biographies of the people that contained frequent railway metaphors. He maintained correspondence with many of them, often acting as a middleman in communications between escaped slaves and those left behind. He then published these accounts in the book, The Underground Railroad, in 1872.

According to Still, messages were often encoded so that only those active in the railroad would fully understand their meanings. For example, the following message, "I have sent via at two o'clock four large and two small hams," indicated that four adults and two children were sent by train from Harrisburg to Philadelphia. However, the addition of the word via indicated that they were not sent on the regular train, but rather via Reading, Penn. In this case, the authorities went to the regular train station in an attempt to intercept the runaways, while Still was able to meet them at the correct station and guide them to safety, where they could eventually escaped to Canada.

High Stakes

Due to the risk of being discovered, information about routes and safe havens was passed along by word of mouth only. Southern newspapers of the day were often filled with pages of notices soliciting information about escaped slaves and offering sizable rewards for their capture and return of them. Federal marshals and professional bounty hunters known as “slave catchers” pursued fugitives as far as the Canadian border.

The risk of capture was not limited solely to actual fugitives. Because strong, healthy Blacks in their prime working and reproductive years were highly valuable commodities, it was not unusual for free Blacks — both freed people (former slaves) and those who had lived their entire lives in freedom — to be kidnapped and sold into slavery. "Certificates of freedom" — signed, notarized statements attesting to the free status of individual Blacks — could easily be destroyed and, thus, such documents afforded freed people little protection. Moreover, under the terms of the Fugitive Slave Law of 1850, when suspected fugitives were seized and brought to a special magistrate known as a commissioner, they had no right to a jury trial and could not testify in their own behalf; the marshal or private slave-catcher only needed to swear an oath to acquire a writ of replevin, for the return of “property.” At the time, all slaves were considered property of their masters and, therefore, had no rights or citizenship because they were seen as objects or commodities.

Nevertheless, Congress believed the fugitive slave laws were necessary because of the lack of cooperation by the police, courts and the general public outside of the Deep South. States such as Michigan passed laws interfering with the federal bounty system, which politicians from the South felt was grossly inadequate, and this became a key motivation for secession. In some parts of the North, slave catchers needed police protection to carry out their federal authority. Even in states that resisted cooperation with slavery laws, though, Blacks were often unwelcome; Indiana passed a state constitutional amendment that barred Blacks from settling in that state.


Many accounts mention spirituals and other songs that contained coded information intended to help navigate the railroad. Songs such as "Steal Away," and other field songs were often passed down orally, and others, like "Follow the Drinking Gourd," were created after the days of the Railroad. Tracing their origins and meanings is difficult. In any case, many Black folk songs of the period deal with themes of freedom and escape and distinguishing coded information from expression and sentiment may not be possible.

When friction between North and South culminated into the Civil War, many Blacks, both enslaved and freed, fought with the Union Army. Following passage of the 13th Amendment, in some cases the Underground Railroad operated in reverse as fugitives returned to the United States.

Estimates vary widely, but at least 30,000 slaves, some saying more than 100,000, escaped to Canada via the Underground Railroad. The largest group settled in Upper Canada, where numerous African-Canadian communities developed. These were generally in the triangular region bounded by Toronto, Niagara Falls and Windsor. Nearly 1,000 refugees settled in Toronto, and several rural villages made up mostly of ex-slaves were established in Chatham-Kent and Ess*x County.

Important Black settlements also developed in more distant British colonies that are now parts of Canada. These included Nova Scotia, Quebec, as well as Vancouver Island, where Governor James Douglas encouraged Black immigration because of his opposition to slavery and because he hoped a significant Black community would form a bulwark against those who wished to unite the island with the United States.

Upon arriving at their destinations, many fugitives were disappointed. While the British colonies had no slavery, discrimination was still common in practice. Many of the new arrivals had great difficulty finding jobs, in part because of mass European immigration at the time and the overt racism that was common.

With the outbreak of the Civil War in the United States, many Black refugees enlisted in the Union Army and, while some later returned to Canada, many remained in the U.S. Thousands of others returned to the South after the war ended. The desire to reconnect with friends and family was strong, and most were hopeful about the changes emancipation and the Reconstruction era would bring.


The Underground Railroad developed its own jargon that continued the railway metaphor:

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Friday, January 25th 2008 at 12:29PM
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Tuesday, February 5th 2008 at 8:43AM
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Tuesday, February 5th 2008 at 8:43AM
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Tuesday, February 19th 2008 at 4:35PM

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