Underground Railroad

views updated Jun 27 2018


The Underground Railroad remains a central historical topic in both academic and popular knowledge. However, the idea of the Underground Railroad has become steeped in mythology, which obscures the historically accurate understanding of slavery, mainly in relation to escape as one form of rebellion against slavery. In part this is due to the necessary obscuration of the workings of the Underground Railroad during the antebellum period in published materials such as slave narratives. The disjunction between the facts of the Underground Railroad and the mythology built up around it deserve close study, as they are key to understanding slavery and freedom in America.


The Underground Railroad was comprised of a network of people and places that assisted fugitive slaves with their escape from slavery. While the Underground Railroad was not a formalized nationwide system, as sometimes represented, it was also not a haphazard set of paths that slaves would passively follow. Both descriptions defy the loosely constructed networks that allowed escaping slaves to connect with those who desired to assist the fugitives in their quest for freedom. The Underground Railroad provided numerous stations where runaways could receive shelter, food, money, clothes, advice, and transportation to the next safe haven. John Michael Vlach suggests that slaves were not hidden in elaborate tunnels and secret hiding places as popular imagination suggests but were instead given places within the homes and barns of those who helped them progress along the escape route. Runaways were also often housed within the African American communities of cities and transported by black guides whom runaways tended to trust.

Runaways traveled the route to freedom by various means, including by boat, foot, rail, or horse. Escapees used the most available, convenient, safe, and expedient means of transportation during their journey. As James Horton points out, the actual number of slaves that escaped is very difficult to enumerate, although "some estimates climb to a hundred thousand or more in the decades before the Civil War" (p. 176). Slaves chose a number of destinations for their journey, including maroon colonies (a community of fugitive slaves, often hidden in swamps and forests), Canada, Mexico, Britain, and the free states. The final destination was often based on contemporary political situations, the initial location of the slave, and the familiarity of the slave with the area that he or she would have to journey through. In the earlier antebellum period, northern cities such as Boston or Cincinnati were havens to escaped blacks; in the later period, when the north was bound by the Fugitive Slave Law of 1850 to return runaways, escapees began to move to Canada for greater safety. In fact, the Fugitive Slave Law, which ordered all citizens to assist in the recapture of fugitive slaves, forced participants in the Underground Railroad to shift tactics, particularly as it destroyed the safety of fugitives in northern communities. The law's passage spurred large communities of northern African American fugitives to leave for Canada for fear of recapture. Gary Collison, in Shadrach Minkins, notes that, "In the first month after the law took effect an estimated 2,000 blacks left the North for Canada" (p. 76).

The term "Underground Railroad" is not one that can be historically validated. There are a number of possible sources for the coinage, but all situate the origins of the word in the 1830s. One story suggests that when fugitive slave Tice David escaped from Kentucky to Sandusky, Ohio, a slave catcher commented that he "must have gone off on an underground railroad" (Blight, p. 3). Another story attributes the term to a tortured fugitive slave who revealed he was heading to where "the railroad ran underground all the way to Boston" (Blight, p. 3). Certainly by 1852 when Harriet Beecher Stowe (1811–1896) writes that the "gals' been carried on the underground line," the term Underground Railroad was in play culturally (Stowe, p. 61).

The system took on the terminology of the railroad in the antebellum period, where those aiding the slaves were "conductors" and the escapees were "packages" or "passengers." It was this period, as well, that gave weight to the mythologized version of the Underground Railroad that depended on the heroic and moral white aiding the confused and passive escaping slave. However, new research rightly indicates that this mythologized version of the Underground Railroad incorrectly portrays the fugitive. In reality, African Americans were full and active participants. One such participant was the African American Lewis Hayden (1811–1889), who led two dramatic fights to shield escaped slaves traveling through Boston. In 1850 he protected escaping slaves William and Ellen Craft from slave catchers by putting gunpowder under his front porch and threatening to blow up the entire building should the slave catchers enter his home to retrieve the Crafts. He also led the armed group that attacked the Boston Courthouse in 1851 to successfully rescue and free fugitive slave Shadrach Minkins. Those who chose to run were generally young men traveling alone, and those involved with aiding the escapees were at times fellow African Americans, free and fugitive, as well as whites (Vlach, p. 99).

The runaways and conductors who participated in the Underground Railroad did so at a cost. For the runaways, recapture, abuse, and death were not unlikely. For conductors, arrest and fines were possible. For example, Thomas Garrett (1789–1871), a white abolitionist and Underground Railroad conductor, was fined a majority of his wealth in 1848 for assisting runaways. There are numerous additional examples of those who risked fines, imprisonment, abuse, and death working with the Underground Railroad.

Some of the other notable conductors of the railroad were Levi Coffin (in Newport, Indiana), Frederick Douglass (in Rochester, New York), William Still (in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania), and Reverend John Rankin (in Ripley, Ohio). The white men involved with the Underground Railroad, such as Garrett and Rankin, tended to be more outspoken about their activities than African Americans, such as Still, as they were assured a more secure social protection by virtue of race. Much of what is known about the Underground Railroad and its conductors is due to the meticulous records kept by William Still (1821–1902), an African American conductor in Philadelphia, published as The Underground Railroad (1872), and the white Indianan conductor Levi Coffin (1798–1877), who published his Reminiscences in 1876. Both books provide crucial information on the Underground Railroad, including details of runaways, conductors, passage routes, and safe houses. One may argue that the most famous conductor is Harriet Tubman (c. 1820–1913). Her own 1849 escape from slavery in Maryland led her to Wilmington, Delaware. Working with Garrett, Still, and others, Tubman, often referred to as "Moses," made almost twenty trips to the South and rescued more than two hundred slaves.


Various slave narratives and fictionalized accounts of slavery in the antebellum period reference the Underground Railroad in some manner. The representations tend to follow two separate approaches. Texts written by fugitives often obscured the details of escape to protect themselves, those who assisted their escape, and the escape mechanism in hopes that others might find the same path to freedom. White-authored texts, such as Stowe's Uncle Tom's Cabin, provided far more detail about the Underground Railroad and often focused extensively on white participation and responsibility. In part this is due to the autobiographical nature of narratives and the fictionalization of white-authored novels. But other factors also contributed to the difference.

Fugitive slave narratives seem the likely place to look for references to the Underground Railroad, and a number of authors do indeed discuss the impact of the Underground Railroad on their journey from slavery to freedom. However, many escapees, such as Frederick Douglass (1818–1895) choose to obscure the details of their escape to protect those involved and to allow other runaways to use the same escape path and support. Those that provide a few more details about their escape reveal that the escapee formulated and implemented the great portion of the escape, with some support from the loosely configured Underground Railroad along the way. For example, William Wells Brown (c. 1814–1884) notes that his escape plot and the majority of his journey was made on his own, and although he did receive help from whites who might peripherally belong to the Underground Railroad, he reveals that he was not following a formalized Underground Railroad.

Harriet Jacobs's (1813–1897) Incidents in the Life of a Slave Girl (1861) follows a strategy of depicting the Underground Railroad typical of many slave narratives written in the antebellum period. Jacobs, writing pseudonymously as Linda Brent, notes, "I was to escape in a vessel; but I forbear to mention any further particulars" (p. 151). As Jean Fagan Yellin's biography Harriet Jacobs: A Life (2004) points out, Jacobs's obscuration "kept the details of Jacobs's escape a mystery—as she wished" (p.63). While Jacobs chose to protect those who aided her on her trip to the North, she does critique their participation, stating that some participants' assistance is made for financial motivations. Her initial boat trip

accommodation had been purchased at a price that would pay for a voyage to England. But when one proposes to go to fine old England, they stop to calculate whether they can afford the cost of the pleasure; while in making a bargain to escape from slavery, the trembling victim is ready to say, 'take all I have, only don't betray me!' (P. 152)

Jacobs's comment serves to remind those who might view the conductors as heroes that there were other factors motivating some participants. It also leads the reader to focus on the heroism of the escaping slave, not the conductor.

The desire to mask the means of escape while still encouraging the activism of whites is made clear in a variety of texts written by Douglass. His treatment of the Underground Railroad pre- and post-abolition reveals much about the political conditions and the position of fugitives in America. Douglass published three versions of his autobiography during his life. The first two published versions of his life story, written before slavery is dissolved, reveal few details of his escape, while his 1881 Life and Times of Frederick Douglass gives the details of his escape.

Douglass emphasizes in the Narrative of the Life of Frederick Douglass (1845) that it is his "intention not to state all the facts connected with the transaction" He goes on to note that there are two reasons for his refusal:

First, were I to give a minute statement of all the facts, it is not only possible, but quite probable, that others would thereby be involved in the most embarrassing difficulties. Secondly, such a statement would most undoubtedly induce greater vigilance on the part of slaveholders than has existed heretofore among them; which would, of course, be the means of guarding a door whereby some dear brother bondman might escape his galling chains. (P. 84)

He goes on to state that he has "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 upper-ground railroad" (p. 85).

In My Bondage and My Freedom (1855) Douglass reiterates the problems of revealing the methods of escape:

The practice of publishing every new invention by which a slave is known to have escaped from slavery, has neither wisdom nor necessity to sustain it. Had not Henry Box Brown and his friends attracted slaveholding attention to the manner of his escape, there might have had a thousand Box Browns per annum. The singularly original plan adopted by William and Ellen Crafts, perished with the first using, because every slaveholder in the land was apprised of it. The salt water slave who hung in the guards of a steamer, being washed three days and three nights—like another Jonah—by the waves of the sea, has, by the publicity given to the circumstance, set a spy on the guards of every steamer departing from southern ports. (P. 339)

Douglass's criticism is not reserved for whites who reported on the heroism of white abolitionists but is pointed at his fellow fugitives who published narratives relating the details of their escape.

Douglass chose to hide details of escape during the time when slaves were vulnerable to capture, but this does not mean that he discounted white participation in the rebellion against slavery. Douglass's fictional The Heroic Slave (1852) encourages whites to participate in the Underground Railroad due to his political agenda of spurring whites to participate in the rebellion against slavery. Furthermore, a fictionalized text offered no danger to fugitives or potential escapees. In The Heroic Slave, the white Mr. Listwell is moved by fugitive Madison Washington to offer help. He helps Madison run to Canada, regardless of the dire consequences of the decision, only to later find that Washington had returned to rescue his wife and become enslaved again. The detailed discussion of Listwell's aid to Washington serves to reinforce Douglass's message of aiding the escaping slave and seems to be the politically motivating factor behind the text.

A number of abolitionist authors highlighted and encouraged the participation of whites in the Underground Railroad through their writing. Certainly writers like Henry David Thoreau (1817–1862) were outspoken in their support of the Underground Railroad. Thoreau helped to move various fugitives, such as Henry Williams, through Concord on their way to Canada and was stridently in support of abolition. Thoreau's support of the Underground Railroad is clear in his "A Plea for Captain John Brown" (1859). Thoreau states,

Suppose that there is a society in this State that out of its own purse and magnanimity saves all the fugitive slaves that run to us, and protects our colored fellow-citizens, and leaves the other work to the government, so-called. Is not that government fast losing its occupation, and becoming contemptible to mankind? . . . The only free road, the Underground Railroad, is owned and managed by the Vigilant Committee. They have tunneled under the whole breadth of the land.

Thoreau's statement, on the eve of the Civil War, indicates the importance of the idea of the Underground Railroad to the larger abolition project. The Under ground Railroad comes to represent the right and moral organization, fast covering the land, working to end the scourge of slavery.

Harriet Beecher Stowe's Uncle Tom's Cabin (1852) grows out of the personal ties that Stowe had to the Underground Railroad. Stowe's abolitionist sentiment was formed early as her father, Lyman Beecher (1775–1863), spoke out against the Missouri Compromise, preaching fiery sermons against admitting the state as a slave state. When the Stowe family moved to Ohio, Stowe began to have contact with those who had experienced slavery. As Stowe indicates in a letter published by Douglass in his paper, "Time would fail to tell you all I have learned incidentally of the slave system, in the history of various slaves who came into my family, and of the workings of the underground railroad, which I may say ran through my barn" ("Letter," p. 1). Stowe gathered the stories of slavery from those whom she met, including numerous escaped slaves, such as Zillah, who worked as a servant for the Stowe family. During the time Stowe lived in Ohio, Stowe and a friend witnessed a slave auction in Kentucky a year before she met Reverend John Rankin, who told her the story of a young woman who escaped from slavery in 1838. The woman crossed a dangerous frozen river from the slave state of Kentucky to the free state of Ohio carrying a two-year-old child. These stories would resurface in Uncle Tom's Cabin in Stowe's depiction of the slave auction and Eliza's escape across the frozen river to freedom.

Uncle Tom's Cabin represents the Underground Railroad as central to the escape of slaves. The novel reveals the details of Eliza's escape, unlike slave narratives that conceal details. As soon as Eliza crosses the river, she is met by Mr. Symmes, a white man who starts her on her northern journey by guiding her to the Birds. The Birds provide Eliza and her child shelter and transport them to the next conductor. Both Symmes and the Birds, the novel implies, play a role in the Underground Railroad. The novel suggests that the Underground Railroad plays a part in the escape of most slaves. In trying to determine Eliza's route, Haley, the slave catcher, notes that like other escaped slaves, Eliza "makes tracks for the underground" (p. 50). The importance of the Underground Railroad to a fugitive's escape is echoed in the comments voiced by the slave traders and catchers at the tavern. Tom, a slave catcher, says, "Suppose you want to lie by a day or two, till the gal's been carried on the underground line up to Sandusky or so, before you start." (p. 61).

Unlike the slave narratives, Stowe's novel shifts attention from the fugitive to the conductor, which contributes to the mythologizing of the Underground Railroad in popular imagination. Stowe allows little agency for the slaves in the text, instead focusing on the Christian duty of the whites. Eliza's decision to flee is caused by her "maternal love, wrought into a paroxysm of frenzy by the near approach of a fearful danger" (p. 43), rather than a carefully wrought plan of escape. Without the desperate circumstances, Stowe suggests, Eliza would never have turned to escape. And, without the helpful whites, allied against slavery, her escape would have been unsuccessful. It is this underlying theme, and the popularity of the ideas that Stowe voiced, that has contributed to the skewed understanding of black agency in the Underground Railroad.

See alsoAbolitionist Writing; Blacks; Compromise of 1850 and Fugitive Slave Law; Incidents in the Life of a Slave Girl;Narrative of the Life of Frederick Douglass;Slave Narratives; Slavery; Transcendentalism; Uncle Tom's Cabin


Primary Works

Brown, Henry Box. Narrative of the Life of Henry BoxBrown, Written by Himself. 1851. New York: Oxford University Press, 2002.

Brown, William Wells. Narrative of William W. Brown, aFugitive Slave. 1847. In From Fugitive Slave to Free Man: The Autobiographies of William Wells Brown, edited by William L. Andrews. New York: Mentor, 1993.

Coffin, Levi. Reminiscences of Levi Coffin. Cincinnati: Western Tract Society, 1876.

Craft, William, and Ellen Craft. Running a Thousand Miles for Freedom; or, The Escape of William and Ellen Craft from Slavery. London: William Tweedie, 1860.

Douglass, Frederick. Autobiographies: Narrative of the Life of Frederick Douglass, an American Slave [1845], My Bondage and My Freedom [1855], Life and Times of Frederick Douglass [1881]. Edited by Henry Louis Gates Jr. New York: Library of America, 1994.

Douglass, Frederick. The Heroic Slave. 1852. In ThreeClassic African-American Novels, edited and with an introduction by William L. Andrews. New York: Mentor, 1990.

Jacobs, Harriet A. Incidents in the Life of a Slave Girl,Written by Herself. 1861. Edited by Jean Fagan Yellin. Cambridge, Mass.: Harvard University Press, 1987.

Still, William. The Underground Railroad. 1872. New York: Arno Press, 1968.

Stowe, Harriet Beecher. "Letter in Frederick Douglass' Paper." 8 June 1855. In Harriet Beecher Stowe: Electronic Edition, http://www.iath.virginia.edu/utc/.

Stowe, Harriet Beecher. Uncle Tom's Cabin. 1852. Edited by Elizabeth Ammons. New York: W. W. Norton, 1994.

Thoreau, Henry David. "A Plea for Captain John Brown." 1859. American Transcendentalism Web, http://www.vcu.edu/engweb/transcendentalism/authors/thoreau/johnbrown.html.

Secondary Works

Blight, David W. "Introduction: The Underground Railroad in History and Memory." In Passages to Freedom: The Underground Railroad in History and Memory, edited by David W. Blight, pp. 1–12. Washington. D.C.: Smithsonian Books, 2004.

Collison, Gary. Shadrach Minkins: From Fugitive Slave toCitizen. Cambridge, Mass.: Harvard University Press, 1997.

Horton, James Oliver. "A Crusade for Freedom: William Still and the Real Underground Railroad." In Passages to Freedom: The Underground Railroad in History and Memory, edited by David W. Blight, pp. 175–194. Washington, D.C.: Smithsonian Books, 2004.

Vlach, John Michael. "Above Ground on the Underground Railroad: Places of Flight and Refuge." In Passages to Freedom: The Underground Railroad in History and Memory, edited by David W. Blight, pp. 95–115. Washington, D.C.: Smithsonian Books, 2004.

Yellin, Jean Fagan. Harriet Jacobs: A Life. New York: Basic Civitas Books, 2004.

Amy E. Earhart

Underground Railroad

views updated May 18 2018

Underground Railroad

Few aspects of the antislavery movement have been more shrouded in myth and misunderstanding than the Under-ground Railroad. Although white abolitionists, including Quakers, played an important role in helping to free thousands of African Americans, the degree of their involvement has been overemphasized. In the years before the Civil War, the Underground Railroad was primarily run, maintained, and funded by African Americans. Black working-class men and women collected the bulk of money, food, and clothing and provided the shelter and transportation for the fugitives. Wealthier, better educated blacks such as Pennsylvania's Robert Purvis and William Whipper arranged for legal assistance and offered leadership, financial support, and indispensable contacts among sympathetic and influential white political leaders. Philadelphia's William Still, who ran the city's vigilance committee and later recorded the stories of many of the people he helped, managed the pivotal point in the North's most successful underground system. He personally assisted thousands of escaping slaves and helped settle them in northern African-American communities or in Canada. As one white abolitionist leader admitted about the Underground Railroad in 1837, "Such matters are almost uniformly managed by the colored people."

Although the origins of the term Underground Railroad are uncertain, by 1850 both those who participated in it and those who sought to destroy it freely employed metaphors from the railroad business to describe its activities. More important, northerners and southerners understood both its symbolic and its real meanings. The numbers of African Americans who fled or were smuggled out of the South were never large enough to threaten the institutional stability of slavery. Yet the number actually freed was, in a way, less important than what such activities said about the institution of slavery and the true character of southern slaves. Apologists for slavery described blacks as inferior, incapable of living in freedom, and content in their bondage. Those who escaped from the South, and the free African Americans who assisted them, undermined slavery by irrefutably disproving its racist ideology.

Most slaves who reached freedom in the North initiated their own escapes. After their initial flight, however, fugitives needed guidance and assistance to keep their hardwon liberty. Many did not have to travel far before finding help. Although the black underground's effectiveness varied over time and place, an astonishingly large

number of semiautonomous networks operated across the North and upper South. They were best organized in Ohio, Pennsylvania, and New York, but surprisingly efficient networks, often centered in local black churches, existed in most northern and border states, and even in Virginia. At hundreds of locations along the Ohio River, where many former slaves lived, fugitives encountered networks of black underground laborers who offered sanctuary and passed them progressively northward to other black communities. African-American settlements from New Jersey to Missouri served as asylums for fugitive slaves and provided contacts along well-established routes to Michigan, Ohio, Pennsylvania, and New York for easy transit to Canada.

Urban vigilance committees served as the hub for most of the black undergrounds. Along the East Coast, where the black underground was most effective, the Philadelphia and New York vigilance committees operated as central distribution points for many underground routes. Committee leaders such as William Still and David Ruggles directed fugitives to smaller black "stations," such as that of Stephen A. Myers in Albany, New York, who in turn provided transportation directly to Canada or farther west to Syracuse. Vigilance committees also warned local blacks of kidnapping rings, and members hazarded their lives in searching vessels for illegal slaves. Such black leaders also maintained contacts among influential whites who covertly warned of the movement of slave owners and federal marshals. Where formal committees did not exist, ad hoc ones functioned, supplied with information from, for example, black clerks who worked in hotels frequented by slave catchers. Black leaders such as William Still, who helped finance the famous exploits of Harriet Tubman, employed the latest technology to facilitate their work; during the 1850s these committees regularly used the telegraph to communicate with far-flung "stations."

The most daring and best-organized "station" toiled in the very shadow of the U.S. Capitol. Run by free blacks from Washington, D.C., and Baltimore, this underground network rescued slaves from plantations in Maryland and Virginia, supplied them with free papers, and sent them north by a variety of land and water routes. These free blacks used their good standing among whitesas craftsmen, porters, and federal marshals' assistantsto facilitate their work. One free black used his painting business as a cover to visit plantations and arrange escapes; another employed his carriage service to transport slaves; others sustained the charges of slave owners and used their positions as plantation preachers and exhorters to pass escape plans to their "parishioners." When stealth and secrecy failed, heroic members of the Washington, D.C., "station" successfully attacked a slave pen to free some of its captives.

Members of this eastern network occasionally worked with white abolitionists such as Charles T. Torrey and the Quaker leader Thomas Garrett. But they primarily worked with other blacks, sending fugitives to Philadelphia where, either singly or in large groups, the escapees were directed to New York City and dispersed along many routes reaching into New England and Canada or toward western New York. This network was temporarily disrupted during the 1840s, when race riots in northern cities and escalated southern surveillance forced the removal of Washington's most active agents. Nevertheless, by one estimate, between 1830 and 1860 over nine thousand fugitive slaves passed through Philadelphia alone on their way to freedom.

The Underground Railroad never freed as many slaves as its most vocal supporters claimed, and far fewer whites helped than the mythology suggests. Undeniably, however, the existence and history of the system reflect the African-American quest for freedom and equality.

See also Abolition; Free Blacks, 16191860; Ruggles, David; Runaway Slaves in the United States; Slavery; Still, William; Tubman, Harriet


Blockson, Charles L. The Underground Railroad: First Person Narratives of Escapes to Freedom in the North. New York: Prentice-Hall, 1987.

Gara, Larry. The Liberty Line: The Legend of the Underground Railroad. Lexington: University of Kentucky Press, 1961.

Ripley, C. Peter, et al., eds. The Black Abolitionist Papers. Vol.3, The United States. Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 1991.

Siebert, Wilbur H. The Underground Railroad: From Slavery to Freedom. New York: Macmillan, 1898.

Still, William. The Underground Railroad. Philadelphia: Porter and Coates, 1872. Reprint, Chicago: Johnson Publishing, 1970.

donald yacovone (1996)

Underground Railroad

views updated May 14 2018


For the first few decades of the new nation, state after state in the North passed emancipation laws freeing slaves or future children of slaves. By the early 1800s the North had essentially abolished slavery. In the South, however, where slavery was much more crucial to the economy, emancipation was making little to no progress. By the 1830s Northern abolitionists, impatient with the very slow progress, adopted more radical tactics to end slavery. Evangelical Christian groups took the lead in demanding immediate emancipation of slaves without compensation to the slave owners. A newly formed American Anti-Slavery Society grew quickly to approximately 150,000 members by 1840. Abolitionism, however, remained largely unsupported by most Northern politicians. For instance, a major campaign to distribute anti-slavery literature in the South in the 1830s was stopped by pro-slavery interests with the help of President Andrew Jackson (18291837).

Meanwhile, slaves increasingly sought freedom by escaping to the North, often with assistance from Northern sympathizers. In a move that many saw as governmental sanction of slavery, Congress passed the Fugitive Slave Act in 1850. The act required Northern states to return runaway slaves and established harsh penalties for individuals assisting runaways.

In reaction, abolitionists fashioned the Underground Railroad. Neither a railroad nor underground, it was a hidden network composed primarily of people and places extending in all directions to help runaway slaves. Operating largely in darkness and disguise, free blacks with assistance from sympathetic Northerners provided direction, food, and shelter for those seeking freedom in the North or in Canada. The system, coded in railroad terminology for secrecy, consisted of various routes (lines), hiding places (stations), and assistants (conductors) who helped to transport escapees along the way. The escaped slaves were called packages or freight. The journey often required money for transportation, food, and bribes. The escapees used most anything for transportation, including travel by foot, small boat, covered wagon, and even in boxes shipped by rail or sea. Stations consisted of barns, cellars, attics, and secret rooms. The most heavily used routes were through Indiana, Ohio, and western Pennsylvania.

Due to the passage of the 1850 act, the desired destination for many runaway slaves became Canada, where they would be safe from U.S. lawmen and fugitive-slave hunters who could not cross the international border. A particularly common destination for many was Southern Ontario, with the Suspension Bridge at Niagara Falls serving as one well-used border crossing.

Through the Underground Railroad's years of operation until the conclusion of the American Civil War (18611865), an estimated 50,000 to 100,000 slaves sought freedom; because of the dire need for secrecy no records were kept. Because of the great danger in assisting slaves, no more than 3,000 people actually assisted, but the knowledge of the Underground Railroad's existence served to stir Northern sympathy toward the plight of the slaves. Some Northerners supported the effort for economic reasons as well. The industrial North was becoming increasingly agitated at the South's economy, which was based on unpaid slave labor, and the Railroad offered one means of undercutting the South's economy.

Many people associated with the Underground Railroad became well known, most notably Harriet Tubman (c18201913). A former slave herself who escaped through the system, Tubman traveled to the South on 19 occasions in the 1850s, recruiting those willing to take the chance of freedom. She reportedly helped 300 slaves directly through her own action. Harriet Beecher Stowe (18111896), who authored Uncle Tom's Cabin during this time, assisted fugitive slaves in Cincinnati, Ohio. Levi Coffin, a Quaker in Indiana, assisted more than 3,000 slaves from his home. Frederick Douglass (c18171895) was a fugitive slave who rose to prominence as an eloquent statesman for the abolitionists.

The Underground Railroad, impressive for its success, longevity, and complexity, was yet one more factor aggravating hostilities between the North and South. The Railroad has been noted as one of the more significant humanitarian efforts in U.S. history.

See also: Fugitive Slave Act, Slavery


Buckmaster, Henrietta. Let My People Go: The Story of the Underground Railroad and the Growth of the Abolition Movement. Columbia: University of South Carolina Press, 1992.

Mayer, Henry. All on Fire: William Lloyd Garrison and the Abolition of Slavery. New York: St. Martin's Press, 1998.

Rogers, William B. We Are All Together Now: Frederick Douglass, William Lloyd Garrison, and the Prophetic Tradition. New York: Garland Publishers, 1995.

Runyon, Randolph P. Delia Webster and the Underground Railroad. Lexington, KY: University Press of Kentucky, 1996.

Sprague, Stuart S., ed. His Promised Land: The Autobiography of John P. Parker, Former Slave and Conductor on the Underground Railroad. New York: Norton, 1996.

Underground Railroad

views updated May 29 2018


UNDERGROUND RAILROAD, a term that was coined during the 1840s to designate a system of secret networks of escape routes and hiding places used by runaway blacks seeking safety as they made their way from the southern slave states to freedom in the North. To aid these runaways, sympathetic Americans served as "conductors" along these land and sea routes stretching out of the South through the North and into Canada.

The concept of a system of escape routes out of slavery predates the antebellum era, when the development of train travel inspired the clever appellation "underground Railroad." During the colonial period, a viable system of escape routes existed as both a protest and political movement. The "railroad" of these years engaged enslaved and free blacks, whites, and significantly, Native Americans. Its changing character over time allows for a generalized thesis about the railroad's three phases of development.

During the initial phase, Native American nations like the Tuscaroras aided fugitive slaves as part of their war against the colony of North Carolina at the beginning of the eighteenth century. Tuscaroras and blacks formed a community, first in eastern North Carolina, and then as maroons in the great Dismal Swamp. When the Tuscaroras were invited to join the Five Nations of the Iroquois Confederacy, the center for the Native American freedom networks shifted to Iroquois country in colonial New York. After American independence, fugitives could fabricate free identities through the Iroquois binational system of encampments. Native Americans in the Deep South often accommodated slavery, but on the frontier of planter society they endangered the slaveholders' enterprise. The outlying Seminole nation, an Afro-Indian people in Florida, took abetting fugitive slaves to its logical limit. Blacks among the Seminoles became not only free but also constituent citizens and soldiers.

The early freedom networks organized by European settlers in British North America originally stemmed from religious conscience. German Quakers in Pennsylvania were the first to renounce slavery on religious authority in 1688. Quakers and other pietists slowly moved from benevolence toward blacks to a faith-driven collaboration to aid fugitives. Like the "righteous gentiles" of a later period, these conscientious believers took personal responsibility for the earthly fate of the oppressed. Quakers,

Dunkers, Mennonites, and Shakers, later joined by those from the theologically radical wings of Baptism and Methodism, almost certainly constituted the first institutional skeleton of the later, secular, and more elaborate underground Railroad.

In its third phase, the sophistication of the underground Railroad of the antebellum period was propelled by a number of important developments. The rise of a republican "conscience"—a secular antislavery sensibility parallel to the Christian one—swelled the numbers of Americans willing to risk aiding fugitives. The ideology of the Revolution and consequent state emancipations in New England raised serious doubts about the compatibility of republicanism and slavery. Moreover, the rapidly growing class of free blacks became the new engine for the railroad. Harriet Tubman's amazing career is emblematic of this important shift. Free blacks identified with the slaves, provided places of refuge in their settlements, and were most often the engineers to freedom in both the South and the North.

The Underground Railroad as a social movement matured during the first half of the nineteenth century, when its various constituencies began to merge ideologically as abolitionists and intellectually as a spiritually influenced grassroots republican faction. The spokesmen for slavery were right to fear this movement. The railroad was, in an important sense, simply a functional arm of radical abolitionism. It engaged abolitionists committed to immediate and concrete action against slavery. In addition, in helping individual women and men escape to freedom, the railroad facilitated creation of the most potent weapon of abolitionism: first-hand testimony on the evils of slavery. Frederick Douglass was the most famous of these witnesses. Douglass, in turn, assisted hundreds of runaways to freedom from his home base in Rochester, New York.

The political, moral, and financial effectiveness of the railroad was underscored in the congressional debates of 1850, out of which grew the Fugitive Slave Act of 1850. This extreme extension of federal power in the interest of slavery incited fierce protest in the North and set the fugitive slave clause of the Constitution against and over the Fourth, Fifth, and Sixth amendments. The railroad almost certainly provoked this political blunder.

In its final fifteen years, the influence of the underground Railroad increased due to continued resistance to the Fugitive Slave Act in the North, while simultaneously providing clandestine aid to fugitives and free blacks there, especially those subject to the racial violence that swept the region. The railroad disbanded when emancipation was assured by the Thirteenth Amendment to the Constitution.


Bland, Sterling Lecatur, Jr. Voices of the Fugitives: Runaway Slave Stories and Their Fictions of Self-Creation. Westport, Conn.: Greenwood Press, 2000.

Buckmaster, Henrietta. Let My People Go: The Story of the Underground Railroad and the Growth of the Abolitionist Movement. New York: Harper, 1941.

Franklin, John Hope, and Schweninger, Loren. Runaway Slaves: Rebels on the Plantation, 1790–1860. New York: Oxford University Press, 1999.

Hunter, Carol M. To Set the Captives Free: Reverend Jermain Wesley Loguen and the Struggle for Freedom in Central New York, 1835–1872. New York: Garland, 1993.

Mitchell, William M. The underground Railroad. Westport, Conn.: Negro Universities Press, 1970.

Harold S.Forsythe

See alsoAntislavery ; Fugitive Slave Acts ; Slave Insurrections ; Slave Rescue Cases ; Slavery .

Underground Railroad

views updated May 29 2018

Underground Railroad

By the early 1800s the North had essentially abolished slavery . In the South, however, slavery was becoming more crucial to the cotton -producing economy and showed no sign of fading out on its own. While political opponents in the North and South negotiated and argued about slavery, slaves increasingly sought freedom by running away. Most fled to the North, often with assistance from Northern sympathizers. In 1850 Congress passed the Fugitive Slave Act, which required Northern states to return runaway slaves and established harsh penalties for individuals assisting runaways. Antislavery forces in the North responded by creating the Underground Railroad.

The secret network

The Underground Railroad was neither a railroad nor underground. It was a hidden network of people who agreed to help runaway slaves. Operating largely in darkness and disguise, free blacks with assistance from sympathetic Northerners provided direction, food, and shelter for those seeking freedom in the North or in Canada. The system was coded in railroad terminology for secrecy. The various escape routes were called lines, the hiding places were called stations, and the people who helped to transport escapees along the way were called conductors. The escaped slaves were called packages or freight. The escapees on the Underground Railroad traveled any way they could—by foot, small boat, or covered wagon. Some were even shipped in boxes by rail or sea. Stations consisted of hiding places in people's homes and businesses, such as barns, cellars, attics, and secret rooms. The most heavily used routes were through Indiana , Ohio , and western Pennsylvania .

Because of the secret nature of the Underground Railroad, no records were kept, but it is estimated that it provided an escape route for fifty thousand to a hundred thousand slaves during its years of operation. Due to the passage of the Fugitive Slave Act in 1850, many runaway slaves tried to escape to Canada, where they would be safe from U.S. law-enforcement officials and fugitive-slave hunters who could not cross the international border. A particularly common destination for many was southern Ontario, with the Suspension Bridge at Niagara Falls serving as a well-used border crossing.

Famous conductors

Historians believe that only about three thousand people actually served as conductors or otherwise assisted on the Underground Railroad. Many people associated with the Underground Railroad became well known, most notably Harriet Tubman (c. 1820–1913). A former slave herself who escaped via the Underground Railroad, Tubman traveled to the South on nineteen occasions in the 1850s. She reportedly helped three hundred slaves through her own action. Harriet Beecher Stowe (1811–1896), who wrote the antislavery novel Uncle Tom's Cabin assisted fugitive slaves in Cincinnati, Ohio. Levi Coffin (1798–1877), a Quaker in Indiana, assisted more than three thousand slaves. Frederick Douglass (c. 1817–1895) a fugitive slave who rose to prominence as an eloquent spokesperson for the abolitionists, used his newspaper offices as a station on the Underground Railroad, helping countless runaway slaves on their road to freedom.

Underground Railroad

views updated May 18 2018

Underground Railroad Name given to a secret network in the USA organized by free blacks and other abolitionists before the American Civil War to assist slaves escaping from the South. In fact, most escapees reached the North by their own efforts. In the North they were guided through a series of safe houses to a place of safety, often Canada.

Underground Railroad

views updated May 21 2018

Underground Railroad in the US, a secret network for helping slaves escape from the South to the North and Canada in the years before the American Civil War. Escaped slaves were given safe houses, transport, and other assistance, often by members of the free black community.

Underground Railroad

views updated Jun 11 2018

Un·der·ground Rail·road a secret network for helping slaves escape from the South to the North and to Canada in the years before the Civil War.