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Harriet Tubman (photo H. B. Lindsley), c. 1870. A worker on the Underground Railroad, Tubman made 13 trips to the South, helping to free over 70 people.[1]

The Underground Railroad was a network of secret routes and safe houses used by 19th-century black slaves in the United States to escape to free states and Canada with the aid of abolitionists and allies who were sympathetic to their cause.[2] The term is also applied to the abolitionists, both black and white, free and enslaved, who aided the fugitives.[3] Various other routes led to Mexico or overseas.[4] While an "underground railroad" running south toward Florida, then a Spanish possession, existed from the late 17th century until shortly after the American Revolution,[5] the network now generally known as the Underground Railroad was formed in the early 19th century, and reached its height between 1850 and 1860.[6] One estimate suggests that by 1850, 100,000 slaves had escaped via the "Railroad".[6] British North America (present-day Canada), where slavery was prohibited, was a popular destination, as its long border gave many points of access. More than 30,000 people were said to have escaped there via the network during its 20-year peak period,[7] although U.S. Census figures account for only 6,000.[8] Some fugitives' stories are documented in The Underground Railroad by William Still.

Political background

Even at the height of the Underground Railroad, fewer than 1,000 slaves from all slave-holding states were able to escape each year (just over 5,000 court cases for escaped slaves recorded), a quantity much smaller than the natural annual increase of the enslaved population. Although the economic impact was small, the psychological impact on slaveholders of an informal network to assist escaped slaves was immense. Under the original Fugitive Slave Law of 1793, the responsibility for catching runaway slaves fell on officials of the states from which the slaves came, and the Underground Railroad thrived.

With heavy political lobbying, the Compromise of 1850, passed by Congress after the Mexican-American War, stipulated a more stringent Fugitive Slave Law. Ostensibly, the compromise redressed all regional problems. However, it coerced officials of free states to assist slave catchers if there were runaway slaves in the area, and granted slave catchers national immunity when in free states to do their job.[9] Additionally, free blacks of the North could easily be forced into slavery, whether they had been freed earlier or had never been slaves.[10] Suspected slaves were unable to defend themselves in court, and it was difficult to prove a free status. In a de facto bribe,[11] judges were paid more ($10) for a decision that forced a suspected slave back into slavery than for a decision that the suspected slave was in fact free ($5). Thus, many Northerners who would have otherwise been able and content to ignore far-away regional slavery, chafed under nationally-sanctioned slavery. This led to one of the primary grievances of the Union cause in the Civil War.[12]


The escape network was not literally underground nor a railroad. It was figuratively "underground" in the sense of being an underground resistance. It was known as a "railroad" by way of the use of rail terminology in the code.[13] The Underground Railroad consisted of meeting points, secret routes, transportation, and safe houses, and assistance provided by abolitionist sympathizers. Individuals were often organized in small, independent groups; this helped to maintain secrecy because individuals knew some connecting "stations" along the route but knew few details of their immediate area. Escaped slaves would move north along the route from one way station to the next. "Conductors" on the railroad came from various backgrounds and included free-born blacks, white abolitionists, former slaves (either escaped or manumitted), and Native Americans. Churches also often played a role, especially the Religious Society of Friends (Quakers), Congregationalists, Wesleyans, and Reformed Presbyterians as well as certain sects of mainstream denominations such as branches of the Methodist church and American Baptists. Without the presence and support of free black residents, there would have been almost no chance for fugitive slaves to pass into freedom unmolested.[14]


Map of various Underground Railroad routes

To reduce the risk of infiltration, many people associated with the Underground Railroad knew only their part of the operation and not of the whole scheme. There were the "conductors" who ultimately moved the runaways from station to station. The "conductor" would sometimes pretend to be a slave to enter a plantation. Once a part of a plantation, the "conductor" would direct the runaways to the North. Slaves would travel at night, about 10–20 miles (15–30 km) to each station. They would stop at the so-called "stations" or "depots" during the day and rest. The stations were out of the way places like barns. 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.


A station marker located in Paterson, New Jersey

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" who gave money or supplies for assistance. Using biblical references, fugitives referred to Canada as the "Promised Land" and the Ohio River as the "River Jordan", which marked the boundary between slave states and free states.[15]

Traveling conditions

Eastman Johnson, A Ride for Liberty – The Fugitive Slaves, oil on paperboard, 22 × 26.25 inches, circa 1862, Brooklyn Museum

Although the fugitives sometimes traveled on boat or train,[16] they usually traveled on foot or by wagon in groups of 1–3 slaves. Some groups were considerably larger. However, abolitionist Charles Turner Torrey and his colleagues rented horses and wagons and often transported as many as 15 or 20 slaves at a time.[17]

Routes were often purposely indirect to confuse pursuers. Most escapes were by individuals or small groups; occasionally, there were mass escapes, such as with the Pearl incident. The journey was often considered particularly difficult and dangerous for women or children, yet many still participated. In fact, one of the most famous and successful abductors (as people who secretly traveled into slave states to rescue those seeking freedom were called) was a woman, Harriet Tubman.[18]

Due to the risk of discovery, information about routes and safe havens was passed along by word of mouth. 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. Federal marshals and professional bounty hunters known as slave catchers pursued fugitives as far as the Canadian border.[19]

The risk was not limited solely to actual fugitives. Because strong, healthy blacks in their prime working and reproductive years were seen and treated as highly valuable commodities, it was not unusual for free blacks — both freedmen (former slaves) and those who had never been slaves — 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 afforded their holders little protection. Some buildings, such as the Crenshaw House in far southeastern Illinois, remain as physical components of this process, known as the "Reverse Underground Railroad". Under the terms of the Fugitive Slave Act 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. Technically, they were guilty of no crime. The marshal or private slave-catcher needed only to swear an oath to acquire a writ of replevin for the return of property.

Congress, dominated by the numbers of southern Congressmen elected because slaves were counted into total population, had passed the fugitive slave law because of public sympathy for the fugitives and the lack of cooperation by the police, courts, and public outside the Deep South. In some parts of the North, slave-catchers needed police protection to exercise their federal authority. Despite their resistance to pro-slavery laws, several states made free blacks unwelcome. Indiana, whose area along the Ohio River was settled by Southerners, passed a constitutional amendment that barred blacks from settling in that state.


Members of The Underground Railroad often used specific terms, based on the metaphor of the railway. For example:

  • People who helped slaves find the railroad were "agents" (or "shepherds")
  • Guides were known as "conductors"
  • Free or escaped blacks, sometimes whites, that helped guide fugitives were "abductors"
  • Hiding places were "stations"
  • "Station masters" hid slaves in their homes
  • Escaped slaves were referred to as "passengers" or "cargo"
  • Slaves would obtain a "ticket"
  • Similar to common gospel lore, the "wheels would keep on turning"
  • Financial benefactors of the Railroad were known as "stockholders".[20]

The Big Dipper asterism (whose "bowl" points to the North Star) was known as the drinkin' gourd. The Railroad itself was often known as the "freedom train" or "Gospel train", which headed towards "Heaven" or "the Promised Land", i.e., Canada.

The Underground Railroad , painting by Charles T. Webber

William Still,[21] 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 published these accounts in the book The Underground Railroad in 1872.

According to Still, messages were often encoded so that messages could be understood only by those active in the railroad. For example, the following message, "I have sent via at two o'clock four large hams and two small hams", indicated that four adults and two children were sent by train from Harrisburg to Philadelphia. The additional word via indicated that the "passengers" were not sent on the usual train, but rather via Reading, Pennsylvania. In this case, the authorities were tricked into going 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 eventually escaped either to the North or to British North America, where slavery had been abolished during the 1830s.


Since the 1980s, claims have arisen that quilt designs were used to signal and direct slaves to escape routes and assistance. According to advocates of the quilt theory, there were ten quilt patterns that were used to direct slaves to take particular actions. The quilts were placed one at a time on a fence as a means of nonverbal communication to alert escaping slaves. The code had a dual meaning: first to signal slaves to prepare to escape and second to give clues and indicate directions on the journey.[22]

Quaker abolitionist Levi Coffin and his wife Catherine helped more than 2,000 slaves escape to freedom.

The quilt design theory is disputed. The first published work documenting an oral history source was in 1999 and the first publishing is believed to be a 1980 children's book,[23] so it is difficult to evaluate the veracity of these claims, which are not accepted by quilt historians or scholars of pre-Civil-War America.[citation needed] There is no contemporary evidence of any sort of quilt code, and quilt historians such as Pat Cummings and Barbara Brackman have raised serious questions about the idea. In addition, Underground Railroad historian Giles Wright has published a pamphlet debunking the quilt code.

Many popular, nonacademic sources claim that spirituals and other songs, such as "Steal Away" or "Follow the Drinking Gourd", contained coded information and helped individuals navigate the railroad, but these sources offer very little evidence to support their claims. Scholars who have examined these claims tend to believe that while the slave songs may certainly have expressed hope for deliverance from the sorrows of this world, these songs did not present literal help for runaway slaves.[24]

Yet, the Underground Railroad did spur cultural works. For example, a song written in 1860 about a man fleeing slavery in Tennessee by escaping to Canada, entitled Song of the Free, was composed to the tune of Oh! Susanna. Every stanza ends with a reference to Canada as the land "where colored men are free". Slavery in Canada had been in rapid decline after an 1803 court ruling, and abolished outright in 1834.

Legal and political

When frictions between North and South culminated in the American Civil War, many blacks, slave and free, fought for the Union Army.[25] On December 6, 1865, Congress passed the Thirteenth Amendment to the Constitution which outlawed slavery.[26] Following its passage, it is reported that in some cases the Underground Railroad operated in reverse as fugitives returned to the United States.[27]


Frederick Douglass, writer, statesman, and himself an escaped slave, wrote critically of the Underground Railroad in his seminal autobiography:

I have never approved of the very public manner in which some of our western friends have conducted what they call the underground railroad, but which I think, by their open declarations, has been made most emphatically the upperground railroad.

He went on to say that, although he honors the movement, he feels that the efforts serve more to enlighten the slave-owners than the slaves, making them more watchful and making it more difficult for future slaves to escape.[28]

Arrival in Canada

International Underground Railroad Memorial in Windsor, Ontario

Estimates vary widely, but at least 30,000 slaves, and potentially more than 100,000, escaped to Canada via the Underground Railroad.[7] The largest group settled in Upper Canada (called Canada West from 1841,[29] and today Southern Ontario), where numerous Black 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 Kent County and Essex County.

Another important center of population was Nova Scotia, for example Africville and other villages near Halifax, see Black Nova Scotians. Important black settlements also developed in other parts of British North America (now parts of Canada). These included Lower Canada (present-day Quebec) and 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 after 1834, discrimination was still common. Many of the new arrivals had great difficulty finding jobs, in part because of mass European immigration at the time, and overt racism was common. For example, the charter of the city of Saint John, New Brunswick was amended in 1785 specifically to exclude blacks from practicing a trade, selling goods, fishing in the harbour, or becoming freemen; these provisions stood until 1870.[30]

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

See also

  • Bilger's rocks
  • Fort Mose
  • Reverse Underground Railroad
  • Slave codes

Notable people

John Brown also participated in the Underground Railroad

Notable locations

File:The escape.jpg

Freedom Crossing Monument
Lewiston, New York

List of Underground Railroad sites

  • Albany, New York
  • Bialystoker Synagogue
  • Boston, Massachusetts
  • Broderick Park
  • Buffalo, New York
  • Burkle Estate, Tennessee
  • Burlington, Wisconsin
  • Charlemont, Massachusetts
  • Chatham–Kent, Ontario
  • Chicago, Illinois
  • Cincinnati, Iowa
  • Cincinnati, Ohio
  • Clearfield County, Pennsylvania
  • Crystal Park, Pennsylvania
  • Cyrus Gates Farmstead
  • Detroit, Michigan
  • Dresden, Ontario
  • Elmira, New York
  • Farmington, Connecticut
  • Galesburg, Illinois
  • Granville, Ohio[33]
  • Halifax, Nova Scotia
  • Ironton, Ohio
  • Jacksonville, Illinois
  • Jersey City, New Jersey[34]
  • Jerseyville, Illinois
  • Lawnside, New Jersey
  • Lewis, Iowa
  • Lewiston, New York
  • Mayhew Cabin
  • Milton, Wisconsin
  • Nebraska City, Nebraska
  • New Albany, Indiana
  • Oberlin College, Oberlin, Ohio
  • Oberlin, Ohio
  • Owen Sound, Ontario
  • Philadelphia, Pennsylvania
  • Pickering, Ontario
  • Portsmouth, Ohio
  • Ripley, Ohio
  • Rochester, New York
  • Salem, Ohio
  • Sandusky, Ohio
  • Sandy Ground, Staten Island, New York
  • St. Catharines, Ontario
  • Springboro, Ohio
  • Syracuse, New York
  • Toronto, Ontario
  • Troy, New York
  • Union City, Michigan
  • Uniontown, Pennsylvania
  • Vandalia, Michigan
  • Wabaunsee County, Kansas
  • Westfield, Indiana
  • West Nyack, New York
  • Wilmington, Delaware
  • Windsor, Ontario

Related events

  • 1776 – Declaration of Independence
  • 1793 – Act Against Slavery
  • 1800 – Second Great Awakening
  • 1820 – Missouri Compromise
  • 1850 – Compromise of 1850
  • 1850 – Fugitive Slave Act
  • 1851 – Jerry Rescue
  • 1854 – Kansas-Nebraska Act
  • 1857 – Dred Scott Decision
  • 1858 – Oberlin-Wellington Rescue
  • 1860 – Abraham Lincoln of Illinois elected the first Republican U.S. President
  • 1861 through 1865 – American Civil War
  • 1863 – Emancipation Proclamation issued by President Lincoln
  • 1865 – Thirteenth Amendment to the United States Constitution

Contemporary literature

  • 1829 David Walker's Appeal to the Coloured Citizens of the World (a call for resistance to slavery in Georgia)
  • 1852 Uncle Tom's Cabin by Harriet Beecher Stowe
  • 1854 The Planter's Northern Bride by Caroline Lee Hentz


  1. Larson, p. xvii.
  2. "Underground Railroad". 'A network of houses and other places abolitionists used to help slaves escape to freedom in the northern states or in Canada...' —American Heritage Dictionary. Retrieved July 17, 2011. 
  3. "The Underground Railroad". Public Broadcasting Service. Retrieved July 25, 2007. 
  4. "Purpose and Background". Taking the Train to Freedom. National Park Service. Retrieved July 17, 2011
  5. Smith, Bruce (March 18, 2012). "For a century, underground railroad ran south". Google News. Archived from the original on March 21, 2012. Retrieved March 23, 2012. 
  6. 6.0 6.1 Vox, Lisa, "How Did Slaves Resist Slavery?", African-American History,, Retrieved July 17, 2011.
  7. 7.0 7.1 "Settling Canada Underground Railroad". Historica. "Between 1840 and 1860, more than 30,000 American slaves came secretly to Canada and freedom" 
  8. "From slavery to freedom", The Grapevine, pp. 3–5.
  9. Potter, David, 1976 pp. 132–139
  10. Bordewich, Fergus, 2005, p. 324
  11. Douglass, Frederick (July 5, 1852), "The Meaning of July Fourth for the Negro", History Is a Weapon, Retrieved July 17, 2011.
  12. Potter, David, 1976, p. 139
  13. Blight, David, 2005, p. 3
  14. Pinsker, Matthew (2000). Viglance in Pennsylvania: Underground Railroad Activites in the Keystone State, 1837–1861. Lancaster: PHMC. 
  15. "Underground Railroad Codes". Myths and Codes of the Underground Railroad. Greater Cincinnati Television Educational Foundation. p. 20. Retrieved June 29, 2013. 
  16. Bordewich, Fergus, 2005, p. 236
  17. Torrey, E. Fuller (2013). The Martyrdom of Abolitionist Charles Torrey. Baton Rouge: Louisiana State University Press. 
  18. Wellington, Darryl Lorenzo (January 20, 2004). "The most famous abductor on the underground railroad". Christian Science Monitor. Retrieved January 9, 2012. 
  19. Potter, David, 1976, p. 133
  20. Blight, David, 2004, p. 98
  21. Blight, David, 2004, p. 175
  22. Williams, Ozella McDaniels, 1999.
  23. Aronson, Marc (April 1, 2007). "History That Never Happened". Retrieved March 31, 2011. 
  24. Kelley, James (April 2008). "Song, Story, or History: Resisting Claims of a Coded Message in the African American Spiritual 'Follow the Drinking Gourd'". pp. 262–280. Digital object identifier:10.1111/j.1540-5931.2008.00502.x. 
  25. African American Soldier in the Civil War: USCT, 1862-66 By Mark Lardas
  26. The Underground Railroad,by Ann Heinrichs
  27. The Underground Railroad and Sylvania's Historic Lathrop House, by Gaye E. Gindy, page 20
  28. Douglass, Frederick. (1845) Narrative of the Life of Frederick Douglass. Dover Publications. Chapter 11.
  29. Bordewich, Fergus, 2005, p. 379
  30. "Arrival of the Black Loyalists: Saint John's Black Community", Heritage Resources Saint John
  31. Aboard the Underground Railroad- Boston African American NHS. (1962-09-05). Retrieved on 2013-08-16.
  33. "The Granville Riot". Granville, Ohio, Historical Society. Summer 1998. pp. 1–3. Retrieved July 17, 2011. 
  34. Karnoutsos, Carmela. "The Underground Railroad in Jersey City". Jersey City Past and Present. New Jersey City University. Retrieved July 17, 2011. 


Further reading


External links

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