The Underground Railroad was a community of both Black and white people who gave protection and support to enslaved persons escaping the South. It evolved as a result of numerous separate clandestine actions coming together. Its precise date is unknown, although it functioned from the late 18th century until the Civil War, when its efforts to destroy the Confederacy grew less covert.
The Quakers are often regarded as the first organized society to actively assist escaping enslaved persons. In 1786, George Washington protested that Quakers had tried to “liberate” one of his enslaved employees.
Isaac T. Hopper, a Quaker abolitionist, developed a network in Philadelphia that supported escaped slaves in the early 1800s. Simultaneously, Quakers in North Carolina organized abolitionist groups that set the framework for escape routes and shelters.
The African Methodist Episcopal Church, founded in 1816, was another proactive religious organization that assisted escaping enslaved individuals.
What Did the Underground Railroad necessarily involve?
The Underground Railroad was first referenced in 1831, when an enslaved man, Tice Davids, escaped from Kentucky into Ohio and his master blamed an “underground railroad” for his escape.
A Washington newspaper stated in 1839 that an escaped enslaved man called Jim had confessed, under torture, his plan to travel north through an “underground railroad to Boston.”
Vigilance Committees, established in New York in 1835 and Philadelphia in 1838, to guard escaped enslaved individuals from bounty hunters, rapidly expanded their efforts to guide enslaved persons on the run. By the 1840s, the phrase “Underground Railroad” had started to become common in the US.
How the Underground Railroad Functioned?
The vast majority of enslaved persons aided by the Underground Railroad migrated from border states like Kentucky, Virginia, and Maryland.
The Fugitive Slave Act of 1793 made catching fugitive enslaved individuals a profitable business in the deep South, and there were fewer hiding places for them. Typically, fugitive enslaved individuals remained on their own until they reached specified places farther north.
The fugitive enslaved people were led by persons known as “conductors.” Private residences, churches, and schoolhouses were among the hiding spots. These were referred to as “stations,” “safe homes,” and “depots.” The persons who managed them were known as “stationmasters.”
Several well-traveled roads ran west from Ohio to Indiana and Iowa. Others went north through Pennsylvania and New England or to Canada through Detroit.
Harriet Tubman was a prominent Underground Railroad guide.
Araminta Ross, born enslaved, took the name Harriet (Tubman, her married name) after escaping from a farm in Maryland with two of her brothers in 1849. They returned a few weeks later, but this time Tubman left on her own and made her way to Pennsylvania.
Tubman later went to the plantation multiple times to help family members and others. Harriet tried to save her husband on her third trip, but he had remarried and refused to accompany her. She then joined the Underground Railroad and began assisting other escaped slaves to Maryland. Tubman sent groups of escapees to Canada regularly, distrusting the United States’ ability to treat them well.
Various strategies used by Harriet Tubman and others to escape along the Underground Railroad
Despite the hardships of slavery, escaping was not an easy option. Escaping frequently included leaving behind family and venturing into the unknown, where severe weather and a shortage of food might await.
Then there was the continual threat of being caught. Slave catchers and their hounds roamed both sides of the Mason-Dixon line, capturing runaways—and occasionally free Black individuals like Solomon Northup—and taking them back to the plantation, where they were whipped, tortured, burnt, or murdered.
Those who were ready to take the dangers, however, had one major ally in the Underground Railroad, whose large, loosely structured network of constantly shifting pathways led Black people to freedom.
In total, close to 100,000 African Americans escaped slavery in the decades surrounding the Civil War. Some went to Mexico or Spanish-controlled Florida, while others sought refuge in the forest. The majority, on the other hand, went to the Northern Free States or Canada.
1. Getting Support
Only a few enslaved persons, no matter how brave or brilliant, were able to free themselves without the assistance of others. Assistance might be as simple as word-of-mouth advice on how to get away and who to trust. The most fortunate, on the other hand, followed so-called “conductors,” such as Harriet Tubman, who, after escaping slavery in 1849, dedicated herself entirely to the Underground Railroad.
Tubman rescued roughly 70 individuals, largely relatives and friends, in around 13 visits back to the Eastern Shore of Maryland, where she had been abused as an enslaved child. Tubman, like her other conductors, built a network of collaborators, including “stationmasters” who hid her charges in barns and other safe homes along the road.
Tubman was well-versed in the Maryland countryside, typically following the North Star or rivers that snaked north. She was aware of which authorities were vulnerable to bribery. And she knew how to communicate—as well as acquire intelligence—without being detected.
She’d sing certain songs or try to mimic an owl, to indicate when it was time to escape or when it was too dangerous to come out of hiding. She also dispatched messengers and mailed coded letters.
Tubman developed several unique methods throughout the years to keep her pursuers at bay. For one thing, she usually worked during the winter, when the longer nights allowed her to cover more ground. She also preferred leaving on Saturday because she knew there would be no notices about runaways in the newspaper until Monday (since there was no paper on Sunday.)
Tubman carried a gun, both for safety and to scare anyone in her care who pondered going back. In addition, she took medications with her, administering them when a baby’s cries threatened to give away her group’s position. “I never ran my train off the track,” Tubman would later state, “and I never lost a passenger.”
3. Codes, Secret Routes
The Underground Railroad did not exist in the Deep South, and only a few slaves escaped by it. Since pro-slavery sentiment was not as strong in the Border States, individuals who assisted enslaved persons faced the continual fear of being ratted out by their neighbors and punished by the government.
As a result, they went to tremendous pains to keep their activities hidden, which they accomplished in part by interacting in code. For example, a stationmaster may receive a message referring to arriving fugitives as “bundles of wood” or “parcels.” The phrase “French leave” denoted an abrupt departure, but “patter roller” denoted a slave hunter.
Runaways would occasionally utilize a secret room or secret tunnel, which would symbolize the Underground Railroad.
4. Buying Freedom
However, the Underground Railways were operating openly and bluntly throughout most of their length, despite the adoption of the 1850 Fugitive Slave Act, which imposed harsh sanctions on any found to have helped escape. Some stationmasters claimed having hosted fugitive slaves in the thousands and they even publicized their acts.
In Syracuse, New York, a formerly enslaved-man-turned-stationmaster even referred to himself as the city’s “keeper of the Underground Railroad depot.”
Meanwhile, so-called “stockholders” gathered funds for the Underground Railroad, which supported anti-slavery organizations that offered ex-slaves food, clothes, money, housing and job placement services.
At times, abolitionists would simply buy the freedom of an enslaved individual, as they did with Sojourner Truth. They also utilized the courts, seeking the release of Truth’s five-year-old child. Furthermore, they also worked to shift public opinion, funding talks by Truth and a slew of other ex-slaves to bring the miseries of bondage to light.
When all else failed, Underground Railroad members would come together to violently free fugitive slaves and scare slave-catchers into returning home empty-handed. John Brown, surprisingly, was a supporter of force.
Brown led a group of armed abolitionists into Missouri before his failed revolt in Harpers Ferry, where they liberated 11 enslaved individuals and killed an enslaver. While being actively pursued by pro-slavery groups, Brown accompanied the fugitives on a 1,500-mile trip through multiple states, eventually taking them safely to Canada.
Fugitive Slave Acts
The Fugitive Slave Acts were the driving force for many escapees’ journey to Canada. The first act, passed in 1793, authorized local governments to catch and deport escaped enslaved persons from inside the borders of free states back to their place of origin, as well as to punish anybody who assisted the fugitives. Some Northern states attempted to counter this by adopting Personal Liberty Laws, which were later rejected by the Supreme Court in 1842.
The 1850 Fugitive Slave Act was meant to reinforce the previous rule, which the southern states believed was not properly implemented.
This reform introduced severe fines and set up a system of commissioners that encouraged favoritism towards owners of enslaved individuals and led to some previously enslaved persons being recaptured. For an escaped individual, the northern states were still considered a risk.
In the meantime, Canada gave Black people the freedom to live where they wished, to sit on the juries, to stand for public service, and more. Some Underground Railroad operators were in Canada and worked to aid the coming fugitives. Some Underground Railroad operators established themselves in Canada and assisted incoming fugitives in settling in.
Frederick Douglass and other prominent activists
Formerly enslaved person and admired author Frederick Douglass hid fugitives in his Rochester, New York home, assisting 400 escapees in making their way to Canada. Former fugitive Reverend Jermain Loguen, who lived in nearby Syracuse, assisted 1,500 escapees in making their way north.
In 1838, Robert Purvis, an escaped enslaved person turned Philadelphia merchant, founded the Vigilance Committee. Josiah Henson, a former enslaved person, and railroad operator, founded the Dawn Institute in 1842 in Ontario, to assist escapees who were making their way to Canada in learning necessary work skills.
The occupation of New York City-based escapee Louis Napoleon, as recorded on his death certificate, was “Underground R.R. Agent.” He was another prominent induvial who guided fugitives he spotted at docks and rail terminals.
John Parker was a free Black man in Ohio and a foundry owner who transported a rowboat over the Ohio River to assist fugitives. He was also known to travel to Kentucky and invade plantations to assist enslaved persons in escaping.
William Still was a notable Philadelphian who was born in New Jersey to fugitive enslaved parents. Still was a colleague of Tubman and he kept a log of his Underground Railroad operations. He successfully kept them safe until after the Civil War, when he released it, providing one of the clearest accounts of Underground Railroad activity at the period.
Who was in command of the Underground Railroad?
Many Underground Railroad operators were regular citizens, including farmers and business owners, as well as preachers. Some operators were prominent individuals, including Gerrit Smith, a billionaire, politician, and activist.
Smith bought and released an entire family of enslaved people from Kentucky in 1841.
Levi Coffin, a Quaker from North Carolina, was one of the first recorded persons to assist fugitive enslaved persons. He was a mere 15-year-old when he started in around 1813.
Coffin stated that he discovered their hiding locations and sought them out to assist them on their journey. They eventually found their way to him. Coffin later relocated to Indiana and then Ohio, where he continued to assist escaped enslaved people wherever he went.
Abolitionist John Brown worked as a conductor on the Underground Railroad and founded the League of Gileadites, which was dedicated to assisting fugitive enslaved individuals in reaching Canada.
Brown would perform a variety of roles in the abolitionist movement, most notably commanding a raid on Harper’s Ferry to create an armed force to march into the deep south and free enslaved people at gunpoint. Brown’s forces were defeated, and he was executed in 1859 for treason.
By 1837, Reverend Calvin Fairbank was assisting enslaved individuals to escape Kentucky and into Ohio. In 1844, he was prosecuted along with Vermont schoolteacher Delia Webster for assisting an escaped enslaved lady and her child. He was pardoned in 1849 but was captured again and imprisoned for another 12 years.
Charles Torrey was sentenced to six years in jail in Maryland for assisting an enslaved family in escaping across Virginia. He worked as an abolitionist newspaper editor in Albany, New York, before moving to Washington, D.C.
Jonathan Walker, a Massachusetts sea captain, was arrested in 1844 after being caught with a boatload of escaped enslaved people he was attempting to help get north. Walker was fined and imprisoned for a year and the letters “SS” for Slave Stealer were labeled on his right hand.
John Fairfield of Virginia turned down his slave-holding family to assist in the rescue of enslaved persons who had made their way north. Fairfield’s strategy was to travel through the south dressed as a slave trader. He escaped from jail twice. He later died in 1860 during a rebellion in Tennessee.
The last stop of Underground Railroad
During the Civil War in around 1863 the Underground Railroad stopped operations. In reality, its operations were shifted above ground as part of the Union’s campaign against the Confederacy.
Harriet Tubman played an important role once more, this time as a leader of intelligence operations and a commanding officer in Union Army operations to rescue liberated enslaved people.