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The Underground Railroad

The Underground Railroad

For many people of African descent enslaved in the U.S. South, conditions were so intolerable that they opted to flee their masters and head northward to the free states, to Canada, or to points south, west, or out to sea. Though many fugitive slaves acted alone, others were supported in their escape efforts by a loosely connected network of routes, safe houses, and individuals collectively known as the Underground Railroad. As the U.S. Civil War (1861–1865) approached, the Underground Railroad received increasing support from northern abolitionists and exerted tremendous pressure on the institution of slavery itself. Though estimates vary significantly, thousands of slaves were aided in their escape by the Underground Railroad.

Enslaved people of African descent had been escaping from southern plantations and farms since they were first brought to North America in the seventeenth century. It was common practice for slaves to run away for short periods of time. A variety of motives underpinned these acts of everyday resistance, including: fear of sale to another master; the sale of kin or a loved one; a change in status on the plantation; being overworked; and severe punishment at the hands of slaveholders or overseers. Though they opposed these acts in principle, slaveholders tolerated them because most slaves returned within a matter of days. However, for some enslaved people these short-term escapes laid the groundwork for future attempts to run away for good.

Canada and northern free states were not the only destinations for fugitive slaves. Many stayed within the South finding hiding places in nearby swamps or woodlands. In some areas, such as the Great Dismal Swamp on the Virginia-North Carolina border, full-scale maroon societies were established providing refuge to large numbers of fugitive slaves. Some traveled to southern cities where they could avoid detection by hiding amongst large free black populations. Others headed even further south to Florida finding enslavement amongst the Seminole Indians preferable to their former enslavement to whites.

Some fugitive slaves did travel northward with a hope of reaching the free states or Canada. Many were unaware of abolitionists and received little outside aid on their precarious journeys. Instead, most fugitive slaves made their own way out of the South, risking beatings and resale downriver if caught. Fugitive slaves that fled on foot tended to travel at night using the North Star for direction. Risk of capture was too high during the daylight hours and finding hiding places to eat and rest was essential. Nourishment could be attained through pilfering foodstuffs from nearby farms and plantations. Some runaways stole wagons or horses from their masters as a mode of transportation. Others hid on railroad cars or various watercraft in an effort to get to safety. Upon arrival, fugitive slaves often sought refuge in existing free black communities where they would be less likely to be discovered. This was particularly important in the aftermath of the Fugitive Slave Act of 1850 that criminalized the protection of fugitive slaves in the North.

Though fugitive slaves often acted alone, many received aid on their journeys. Existing slave rumor and communication networks disseminated helpful information about safe houses, escape routes, and destinations, while sympathetic free blacks and whites offered food and protection along the way. For example, the free black community of Columbia, Pennsylvania, used its prime location on the states border with Maryland to welcome and hide fugitive slaves. James Harris Fairchild (1817–1902), an abolitionist and the president of Oberlin College, also emphasized the critical role played by free black communities in Cincinnati, Philadelphia, and Wilmington. Reports of sympathetic whites organizing to assist slaves in their escape efforts first emerged in a letter penned by George Washington (1732–1799) in 1786 in which Washington complained of a local slave who had been aided in his flight by a society of Quakers formed for such purposes. Later in the year, Washington wrote another letter to William Drayton to explain that he had caught one of Drayton's runaways but that, when he sent the slave back to Baltimore, he had escaped and was aided in his efforts by some sort of escape network.

During the mid-nineteenth century these informal and clandestine escape networks expanded as the abolitionist movement gained pace in the North. Inspired by the concomitant rise in railways, the term Underground Railroad came into popular usage to describe the activities of abolitionists and other sympathetic groups who aided fugitive slaves in their efforts to flee the South. Railroad-related terms were utilized to reference all aspects of the process: Safe houses and other places of refuge were called stations; helpers might be referred to as conductors, stationmasters, or stockholders; routes between destinations were called lines or tracks; and escaping slaves were identified as passengers. Though this terminology is suggestive of a highly centralized and organized system, the reality was quite different. Contrary to popular understandings, no large-scale, well-developed network existed to transport fugitive slaves out of the South. Rather, the Underground Railroad remained a loosely connected network of disparate groups and individuals that sought to assist slaves in their escape efforts.

If there was an organized aspect to the Underground Railroad it was at the local level where northern vigilance committees and sympathetic groups and individuals sought to protect fugitive slaves once they had crossed the Mason-Dixon Line. Abolitionists such as Levi Coffin (1798–1877) and Thomas Garrett (1789–1871) worked openly to systematize the safety of fugitive slaves once they had completed the most difficult part of their journey out of the South. In Newport, Indiana, Coffin began to organize existing networks using his home as a hub for fugitive slave activities in the area. Coffin set about finding appropriate lodging for runaways, providing them with clothing and food, and transporting them in wagons to safer locations. In Wilmington, Delaware, Garrett and local antislavery Quakers assisted fugitive slaves by transporting them to Philadelphia or to friendly farmers further north. Garrett also lent support to Harriet Tubman's (1820–1913) legendary trips back into the South to liberate enslaved people. Vigilance committees also played a prominent role after the passage of the Fugitive Slave Act of 1850. Established in many northern communities, vigilance committees provided food, temporary lodging, travel advice, and occasionally transportation to fugitive slaves that passed through. As a result of these activities, some northern states, border states, and cities became key contributors to the Underground Railroad attracting large numbers of fugitive slaves.

However, it was the activities of free blacks and enslaved people themselves that constituted the heart of the Underground Railroad. During the most precarious part of their journey out of the South the vast majority of fugitive slaves had to rely on their own resources, taking enormous risks to secure their freedom.


Blight, David W., ed. Passages to Freedom: The Underground Railroad in History and Memory. Washington DC: Smithsonian Institution, 2004.

Gara, Larry. The Liberty Line: The Legend of the Underground Railroad Lexington: University Press of Kentucky, 1967.

Griffler, Keith P. Front Line of Freedom: African Americans and the Forging of the Underground Railroad in the Ohio Valley. Lexington: University Press of Kentucky, 2004.

Still, William. The Underground Railroad: A Record of Facts, Authentic Narratives, Letters, and Narrating the Hardships, Hair-breadth Escapes and Death Struggles of the Slaves in Their Efforts for Freedom, as Related by Themselves and Others, or Witnessed by the Author; Together with Sketches of Some of the Largest Stockholders and Most Liberal Aiders and Advisers of the Road. Philadelphia: Porter & Coates, 1872.

Switala, William J. Underground Railroad in Delaware, Maryland, and West Virginia. Mechanicsburg, PA: Stackpole, 2004.

                                     Kerry L. Pimblott

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