What was the Underground Railroad?
The Underground Railroad was not so much a place but rather a network of people, both black and white, who assisted slaves in running away from plantations of the Southern United States and into the free states of the North as well as into Canada. The Railroad was so effective at helping people escape from plantations that it has been estimated that from 1810 to 1850, around 100,000 slaves escaped plantations via the Railroad.
The earliest reference to an Underground Railroad came in 1831. After slave Tice Davids escaped from a plantation in Kentucky into Ohio, the plantation owner blamed an “Underground Railroad.” Eight years later a Washington D.C. newspaper reported that an escaped slave admitted, under torture, his plan to escape via “an Underground Railroad to Boston.”
The reference to the railroad came from the emerging steam engine railroads which were connecting the U.S. at the time. Indeed, many of the terms used for the people and places in the Underground Railroad took their names from railroad terms. For instance, people who helped the slaves to escape and helped them move from place to place became known as “conductors,” while the residences or businesses where escapees took refuge were called “stations” or “depots,” and the people who owned these houses or businesses were known as “stationmasters.”
How did the Underground Railroad Work?
Oftentimes, slaves were on their own when it came to escaping the plantations, relying on their own resources to get out of the plantation itself. However, once the fugitive slaves escaped, they were helped by conductors who would guide them to their first “station.” While the escapees rested and ate, a note would be sent from the first stationmaster to the next stationmaster, informing this person that the fugitives were on their way. It was about ten to twenty miles between stations and the fugitives and conductors generally traveled at night.
The Railroad itself ran mainly from the border slave states of Kentucky, Virginia, and Maryland and into the northern states and Canada. In the states of the Deep South, it was considered extremely dangerous for both slaves and conductors to attempt to escape the plantations.
Acts of Valor: the People of the Underground Railroad
While there were quite a few individuals, and some famous people at that, who took part, the Underground Railroad was also made up of groups that assisted the fugitive slaves in heading north. Among the first known groups to take part in the Railroad were the Quaker Abolitionists (Quaker is a branch of Christianity). In 1786, George Washington complained of Quakers helping one of his slaves to escape.
There were also Vigilance Committees, mainly in the north, that helped escapees hide from bounty hunters while also giving them food and clothes to help them start their new lives. These committees were mainly located in the northern cities of Boston, Philadelphia, and New York.
While these groups were vital in helping make the Underground Railroad effective, there were also individuals who demonstrated great courage in helping people escape to the North. Among them was Levi Coffin, a Quaker living in North Carolina who began helping slaves escape when he was just 15 years old. Famed African American writer and former slave Frederick Douglass hid over 400 northbound slaves in his home in Rochester, New York. Abolitionist John Brown was a conductor in the Underground Railroad; he also helped form the League of Gileadites, a group dedicated to helping fugitive slaves get to Canada. But arguably the most famous conductor was Harriet Tubman. Born Araminta Ross, she adopted the name Harriet when she escaped a plantation in Maryland with two of her brothers. She came back to the plantation several times to help family members escape, and she soon began guiding other slaves to escape to the north.
A Railroad Teeming with Danger
Slaves who attempted to escape from their plantations obviously faced many dangers, including being captured before they even left the plantation and being discovered while traveling between stations. Even once they were in the north, slaves were not completely out of danger.
In 1793, the United States government passed the Fugitive Slave Acts, which allowed local governments to capture and to send back escaped slaves to their point of origin. What’s more, the Fugitive Slave Acts made it illegal to assist escaped slaves. In contrast, Canada allowed blacks the freedom to live wherever they chose, to sit on juries, and to run for public office. This is why many conductors chose to help escaped slaves make their way to Canada rather than the United States.
The Civil War Brings the Railroad above Ground
With the onset of the Civil War, the Underground Railroad became a way for the Union Army (the North) to help former slaves escape openly from the Confederacy of the South. Harriet Tubman was notable for taking on a command role in helping the Union Army rescue the emancipated slaves.