Underground Railroad History

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The Underground Railroad
Underground Railroad: A History



The goal for the student is to have a basic understanding of the Underground Railroad and the intricacies of the era: that although slavery was protected by Federal laws and the U.S. Constitution, it did not necessarily represent the voice of the majority. And when the majority, we the people, remain steadfast in a just cause, laws can change and the Constitution can be amended. This page includes an Underground Railroad history and an authoritative map of principal routes. Also included is an Underground Railroad summary, or overview, definition, details of an escape, as well as results of the Underground Railroad. It defines from conductor to the network, and includes some famous conductors such as Harriet Tubman.




The Underground Railroad was an informal 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 who were sympathetic to their cause. Other routes led to Mexico or overseas. The Underground Railroad was at its height between 1810 and 1850, with more than 30,000* people escaping enslavement (mainly to Canada) via the network. 

The Underground Railroad refers to the effort--sometimes spontaneous, sometimes highly organized--to assist persons held in bondage in North America to escape from slavery. Historic places along the Underground Railroad are testament of African American capabilities. The network provided an opportunity for sympathetic white Americans to play a role in resisting slavery, and brought together, however uneasily at times, men and women of both races to begin to set aside assumptions about the other race and to work together on issues of mutual concern. At the most dramatic level, the Underground Railroad provided stories of guided escapes from the South, rescues of arrested fugitives in the North, complex communication systems, and individual acts of bravery and suffering in the quest for freedom for all.

Underground Railroad Map
Underground Railroad Map.jpg
Underground Railroad Map

(Right) Map of the principal routes of the Underground Railroad.

The Underground Railroad was the term used to describe a network of persons who helped escaped slaves on their way to freedom in the Northern states or Canada.
The Underground Railroad was neither underground nor a railroad. It got its name because its activities had to be carried out in secret, using darkness or disguise, and because railway terms were used by those involved with system to describe how it worked. Various routes were lines, stopping places were called stations, those who aided along the way were conductors and their charges were known as packages or freight. The network of routes extended through 14 Northern states and “the promised land” of Canada--beyond the reach of fugitive-slave hunters. Those who most actively assisted slaves to escape by way of the “railroad” were members of the free black community (including former slaves like Harriet Tubman), Northern abolitionists, philanthropists and church leaders like Quaker Thomas Garrett. Harriet Beecher Stowe, famous for her novel Uncle Tom's Cabin, gained firsthand knowledge of the plight of fugitive slaves through contacts with the Underground Railroad in Cincinnati, Ohio.

The Underground Railroad History
Underground Railroad Slaves Escaping.jpg
Slaves using the Underground Railroad to aid in their escape to freedom

(Above) African Americans in wagon and on foot, escaping from slavery. ca. 1893. The underground railroad, Chas. T. Webber. Library of Congress Prints and Photographs Division Washington, D.C. 20540 USA.

The Underground Railroad was a network of secret routes and safe houses used by 19th-century slaves of African descent in the United States to escape to free states and Canada with the aid of abolitionists and allies who were sympathetic to their cause. The term is also applied to the abolitionists, both black and white, free and enslaved, who aided the fugitives. Various other routes led to Mexico or overseas.

The network now generally known as the Underground Railroad was formed in the early 19th century, and reached its height between 1850 and 1860. One estimate suggests that by 1850, 100,000 slaves had escaped via the "Railroad". 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, although U.S. Census figures account for only 6,000.
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. 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.

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 (1846-1848), 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. Additionally, free blacks of the North could easily be forced into slavery, whether they had been freed earlier or had never been slaves.

Suspected slaves were unable to defend themselves in court, and it was difficult to prove a free status. In a de facto bribe, 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 grievance between the Northern and Southern states culminated in the Civil War (1861-1865).
While Federal laws and the U.S. Constitution sanctioned slavery, the Underground Railroad was a result of sectionalism, a divided nation, that led to Civil War.
Although slavery was protected by Federal laws (not state laws), the Constitution counted slaves as property and as 3/5th persons. On December 6, 1865, Congress passed the Thirteenth Amendment to the Constitution which outlawed slavery. Following its passage, it is reported that in some cases the Underground Railroad operated in reverse as fugitives returned to the United States.

*Estimates vary. One estimate places the number at 100,000

(Sources and related reading below.)

Recommended Reading: The Underground Railroad: Authentic Narratives and First-Hand Accounts. Description: A "conductor" based in Philadelphia, Still (1821–1902) helped guide fugitive slaves to safety in the years before the Civil War. He also created this unforgettable history, a collection of carefully preserved letters, newspaper articles, and firsthand accounts about refugees' hardships, narrow escapes, and deadly struggles. Over 50 illustrations. "Highly recommended."

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Related Reading:

Recommended Reading: The Underground Railroad from Slavery to Freedom: A Comprehensive History (Dover African-American Books). Description: This pioneering work was the first documented survey of a system that helped fugitive slaves escape from areas in the antebellum South to regions as far north as Canada. Comprising fifty years of research, the text includes interviews and excerpts from diaries, letters, biographies, memoirs, speeches, and other firsthand accounts.


Recommended Reading: Passages to Freedom: The Underground Railroad in History and Memory. Publishers Weekly: Myth and metaphor, the Underground Railroad was also real in the lives of escaping slaves, in the activities (legal and illegal) of black and white people, free and slave, who aided and abetted them and in the structures in which they found refuge. Bountifully illustrated with 78 color and 174 black-and-white photos and other images, this collection also comprises highly, readable essays by 15 distinguished historians. The first section, "Slavery and Abolition," lays a historical foundation with cogent accounts of slavery in the colonial years and in the 19th century and of the antislavery movement. Continued below…

The Fugitive Slave Act of 1850, the Civil War, William Still and Harriet Tubman are all carefully treated. Short-term stay escapes and long-term fugitive communities within slave territory, escape by water, escape into Northern free black communities, escape to South Florida and escape to Western Canada are all freshly covered, as are "current uses of the Underground Railroad in modern thought, tourism, and public history." Eddie S. Glaude Jr. discusses the African-American appropriation of the Exodus story, with the U.S. being Egypt rather than the Promised Land. …A coherently arranged collection with two thought-provoking essays exploring the role of history and memory and probing the current attention to the Underground Railroad that "says much about who we are as well as who we say we want to be."


Recommended Reading: Bound for Canaan: The Epic Story of the Underground Railroad, America's First Civil Rights Movement. Publishers Weekly: Though the Underground Railroad is one of the touchstones of American collective memory, there's been no comprehensive, accessible history of the secret movement that delivered more than 100,000 runaway slaves to freedom in the Northern states and Canada. Journalist Bordewich (Killing the White Man's Indian) fills this gap with a clear, utterly compelling survey of the Railroad from its earliest days in Revolution-era America through the Civil War and the extension of the vote to African Americans in 1870. Using an impressive array of archival and contemporary sources (letters, autobiographies, tax records and slave narratives, as well as new scholarship), Bordewich reveals the Railroad to be much more complicated--and much more remarkable--than is usually understood. Continued below…

As a progressive movement that integrated people across races and was underwritten by secular political theories but carried out by fervently religious citizens in the midst of a national spiritual awakening, the clandestine network was among the most fascinatingly diverse groups ever to unite behind a common American cause. What makes Bordewich's work transcend the confines of detached social history is his emphasis on the real lives and stories of the Railroad's participants. Religious extremists, left-wing radicals and virulent racists all emerge as fully realized characters, flawed but determined people doing what they believed was right, and every chapter has at least one moment--a detail, a vignette, a description--that will transport readers to the world Bordewich describes. The men and women of this remarkable account will remain with readers for a long time to come.


Recommended Viewing: Underground Railroad (History Channel) (150 minutes). Description: The Underground Railroad, "the first civil rights movement," was no mere act of civil disobedience. The secret network of guides, pilots, and safe-house keepers (the Railroad's "conductors") was built by runaway slaves who, over the decades, communicated their experiences through songs and secret gestures, and were supported by abolitionists (many of them former slaves) who risked their own freedom to help free the enslaved. The "passengers" risked their lives. Continued below…

A wealth of photos, documents, and commentary by modern historians provides the broad lines of history, but it comes alive in the individual stories of conductors and passengers, among them abolitionist and historian William Still, called the "Father of the Underground Railroad," and Henry "Box" Brown, who mailed himself to freedom in a cargo crate. They (and many others) take their place beside Harriet Tubman ("the Moses of her people") and Frederick Douglass as courageous heroes in America's first integrated social movement. The DVD also features the Biography episode on Frederick Douglass, the complete text of the Emancipation Proclamation, a biographical essay on Harriet Tubman, and other historical background pieces.


Recommended Viewing: Race to Freedom: The Story of the Underground Railroad. Description: Race to Freedom is worth watching as an introduction to the Underground Railroad. Some of the characters intertwined in the story are actual historical figures who played roles in the Underground Railroad. … I used this movie in my U.S. History class as we were discussing Slavery, the Underground Railroad and the events leading up to the Civil War. It gives a great depiction of what slaves endured and their struggles to evade that yoke called “slavery.” …Very interesting and engaging for students. Highly Recommended.

Sources: National Park Service, Library of Congress, National Archives; Blight, David W. (2004) Passages to Freedom: The Underground Railroad in History and Memory. Smithsonian Books. ISBN 1-58834-157-7; Bordewich, Fergus M (2005) Bound for Canaan: The Underground Railroad and the War for the Soul of America. Harper Collins. ISBN 0-06-052430-8; Chadwick, Bruce (2000) Traveling the Underground Railroad: A Visitor's Guide to More Than 300 Sites. Citadel Press. ISBN 0-8065-2093-0; Curtis, Anna L. Stories of the Underground Railroad, 1941; Forbes, Ella (1998) But We Have No Country: The 1851 Christiana Pennsylvania Resistance. Africana Homestead Legacy Publishers; Frost, Karolyn Smardz (2007). I've Got a Home in Glory Land: A Lost Tale of the Underground Railroad. New York: Farrar, Straus and Giroux. ISBN 978-0-374-16481-2. ISBN 978-0-374-53125-6; Frost, Karolyn Smardz; Osei, Kwasi (2007). I've Got a Home in Glory Land: A Lost Tale of the Underground Railroad. Farrar, Straus & Giroux. ISBN 978-0-374-16481-2; Griffler, Keith P.(2004) Front Line of Freedom: African Americans and the Forging of the Underground Railroad in the Ohio Valley. University Press of Kentucky. ISBN 0-8131-2298-8; Hagedorn, Ann (2004) Beyond the River: The Untold Story of the Heroes of the Underground Railroad. Simon & Schuster. ISBN 0-684-87066-5; Hendrick, George; Willene Hendrick (2010), Black refugees in Canada: accounts of escape during the era of slavery, McFarland & Co, ISBN 9780786447336; Hendrick, George, and Willene Hendrick (2003) Fleeing for Freedom: Stories of the Underground Railroad As Told by Levi Coffin and William Still. Ivan R. Dee Publisher. ISBN 1-56663-546-2; Hudson, J. Blaine (2002) Fugitive Slaves and the Underground Railroad in the Kentucky Borderland. McFarland & Company. ISBN 0-7864-1345-X; Larson, Kate Clifford (2004). Bound For the Promised Land: Harriet Tubman, Portrait of an American Hero. New York: Ballantine Books. ISBN 0-345-45627-0; Potter, David M. The Impending Crisis, 1848–1861. (1976) ISBN 0-06-131929-5; Still, William. Underground Railroad, 1872.

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