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Underground Railroad

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.[1] The term is also applied to the abolitionists, both black and white, free and enslaved, who aided the fugitives.[2] Various other routes led to Mexico or overseas.[3] An "Underground Railroad" running south toward Florida, then a Spanish possession, existed from the late 17th century until shortly after the American Revolution.[4] But, the network now generally known as the Underground Railroad was formed in the early 19th century, and reached its height between 1850 and 1860.[5] One estimate suggests that by 1850, 100,000 slaves had escaped via the "Railroad".[5]

British North America (present-day Canada), where slavery was prohibited, was a popular destination, as its long border gave many points of access. Most former slaves settled in Ontario. More than 30,000 people were said to have escaped there via the network during its 20-year peak period,[6] although U.S. Census figures account for only 6,000.[7] Numerous fugitives' stories are documented in the 1872 book The Underground Railroad Records by William Still, an abolitionist who then headed the Philadelphia Vigilance Committee. [8]


  • Political background 1
  • Structure 2
  • Route 3
    • Traveling conditions 3.1
    • Terminology 3.2
  • Folklore 4
  • Legal and political 5
  • Criticism 6
  • Arrival in Canada 7
  • Notable people 8
  • Notable locations 9
  • Related events 10
  • Contemporary literature 11
  • See also 12
  • Notes 13
  • References 14
  • Further reading 15
    • Folklore and myth 15.1
  • External links 16

Political background

Even at the height of the Underground Railroad, fewer than 1,000 slaves per year, from all slave-holding states, were able to escape (just over 5,000 court cases for escaped slaves were recorded), many fewer than the natural increase of the enslaved population. Although the economic impact of such escapes was small, the psychological influence on slaveholders of an informal network to assist escaped slaves was immense. Under the original Fugitive Slave Law of 1793, officials of the states from which the slaves came had responsibility to try to recover them. Citizens and governments of many free states ignored the law, and the Underground Railroad thrived.

With heavy political lobbying by the South, the Compromise of 1850, passed by Congress after the Mexican-American War, stipulated a more stringent Fugitive Slave Law. Ostensibly, the compromise addressed all regional problems. However, it compelled officials of free states to assist slave catchers if there were runaway slaves in the area, and granted slave catchers immunity, when in free states, to do their job.[9] Because it required little documentation to claim a person was a fugitive slave, slave catchers also kidnapped free blacks and sold them into slavery, especially children.[10] Southern politicians often exaggerated the number of escaped slaves and often blamed these escapes on Northerners interfering with Southern property rights.[11] The law deprived suspected slaves of the right to defend themselves in court, and it was difficult to prove free status. In a de facto bribe,[12] judges were paid a higher fee ($10) for a decision that confirmed a suspect as a slave than for one ruling that the suspect was free ($5). Many Northerners who might have ignored slave issues in the South were confronted by local challenges that bound them to support slavery. This was a primary grievance cited by the Union cause in the Civil War,[13] and the perception that Northern States were ignoring the fugitive slave law was a major justification for secession.[14]


Map of various Underground Railroad routes
Harriet Tubman (photo H. B. Lindsley), c. 1870. A worker on the Underground Railroad, Tubman made 13 trips to the South, helping to free over 70 people.[15]
Quaker abolitionist Levi Coffin and his wife Catherine helped more than 2,000 slaves escape to freedom.

The escape network was not literally underground nor a railroad. It was figuratively "underground" in the sense of being an manumitted), and Native Americans. Church clergy and congregations 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.[17]


To reduce the risk of infiltration, many people associated with the Underground Railroad knew only their part of the operation and not of the whole scheme. "Conductors" led or transported the fugitives from station to station. A conductor sometimes pretended to be a slave in order to enter a plantation. Once a part of a plantation, the conductor would direct the runaways to the North. Slaves traveled at night, about 10–20 miles (15–30 km) to each station. They would stop at the so-called "stations" or "depots" during the day and rest. The stations were often located in barns, under church floors, or in hiding places in caves and hollowed-out riverbanks. While the fugitives rested at one station, a message was sent to the next station to let the station master know the runaways were on their way.

The resting spots where the runaways could sleep and eat were given the code names "stations" and "depots," which were held by "station masters". "Stockholders" gave money or supplies for assistance. Using biblical references, fugitives referred to Canada as the "Promised Land" and the Ohio River as the "River Jordan", which marked the boundary between slave states and free states.[18]

Struggle for freedom in a Maryland barn.[19]

Traveling conditions

Eastman Johnson, A Ride for Liberty – The Fugitive Slaves, oil on paperboard, 22 × 26.25 inches, circa 1862, Brooklyn Museum

Although the fugitives sometimes traveled on boat or train,[20] they usually traveled on foot or by wagon in groups of 1–3 slaves. Some groups were considerably larger. Abolitionist Charles Turner Torrey and his colleagues rented horses and wagons and often transported as many as 15 or 20 slaves at a time.[21]

Routes were often purposely indirect to confuse pursuers. Most escapes were by individuals or small groups; occasionally, there were mass escapes, such as with the Pearl incident. The journey was often considered particularly difficult and dangerous for women or children. Children were sometimes hard to keep quiet or were unable to keep up with a group. In addition, female slaves were rarely allowed to leave the plantation, making it harder for them to escape in the same ways that men could.[22] Although escaping was harder for women, some women did find success in escaping. One of the most famous and successful abductors (people who secretly traveled into slave states to rescue those seeking freedom) was Harriet Tubman, an escaped slave woman.[23]

Due to the risk of discovery, information about routes and safe havens was passed along by word of mouth. Southern newspapers of the day were often filled with pages of notices soliciting information about escaped slaves and offering sizable rewards for their capture and return. Federal marshals and professional bounty hunters known as slave catchers pursued fugitives as far as the Canadian border.[24]

Fugitives were not the only black people at risk from slavecatchers. With demand for slaves high in the Deep South as cotton was developed, strong, healthy blacks in their prime working and reproductive years were seen and treated as highly valuable commodities. Both former slaves and free blacks were sometimes kidnapped and sold into slavery, as was Solomon Northup of Saratoga Springs, New York. "Certificates of freedom," signed, notarized statements attesting to the free status of individual blacks also known as free papers, could easily be destroyed or stolen, so provided little protection to bearers.

Some buildings, such as the Crenshaw House in far southeastern Illinois, are known sites where free blacks were sold into slavery, known as the "Reverse Underground Railroad". Under the terms of the Fugitive Slave Act of 1850, when suspected fugitives were seized and brought to a special magistrate known as a commissioner, they had no right to a jury trial and could not testify in their own behalf. Technically, they were guilty of no crime. The marshal or private slave-catcher needed only to swear an oath to acquire a writ of replevin for the return of property.

Congress was dominated by southern Congressmen, as apportionment was based on three-fifths of the number of slaves being counted in population totals. They passed the Fugitive Slave Law of 1850 because of frustration at having fugitive slaves helped by the public and even official institutions outside the South. In some parts of the North, slave-catchers needed police protection to exercise their federal authority. Opposition to slavery did not mean that all states welcomed free blacks. For instance, Indiana, whose area along the Ohio River was settled by Southerners, passed a constitutional amendment that barred free blacks from settling in that state.


Members of the Underground Railroad often used specific terms, based on the metaphor of the railway. For example:

  • People who helped slaves find the railroad were "agents" (or "shepherds")
  • Guides were known as "conductors"
  • Hiding places were "stations"
  • "Station masters" hid slaves in their homes
  • Escaped slaves were referred to as "passengers" or "cargo"
  • Slaves would obtain a "ticket"
  • Similar to common gospel lore, the "wheels would keep on turning"
  • Financial benefactors of the Railroad were known as "stockholders".[25]

The Big Dipper (whose "bowl" points to the North Star) was known as the drinkin' gourd. The Railroad was often known as the "freedom train" or "Gospel train", which headed towards "Heaven" or "the Promised Land", i.e., Canada.

The Underground Railroad , painting by Charles T. Webber

William Still,[26] often called "The Father of the Underground Railroad", helped hundreds of slaves to escape (as many as 60 a month), sometimes hiding them in his Philadelphia home. He kept careful records, including short biographies of the people, that contained frequent railway metaphors. He maintained correspondence with many of them, often acting as a middleman in communications between escaped slaves and those left behind. He published these accounts in the book The Underground Railroad (1872), a valuable resource for historians to understand how the system worked and a recounting of individual ingenuity in escapes.

According to Still, messages were often encoded so that they could be understood only by those active in the railroad. For example, the following message, "I have sent via at two o'clock four large hams and two small hams", indicated that four adults and two children were sent by train from Harrisburg to Philadelphia. The additional word via indicated that the "passengers" were not sent on the usual train, but rather via Reading, Pennsylvania. In this case, the authorities were tricked into going to the regular train station in an attempt to intercept the runaways, while Still met them at the correct station and guided them to safety. They eventually escaped either to the North or to Canada, where slavery had been abolished during the 1830s.


Since the 1980s, claims have arisen that quilt designs were used to signal and direct slaves to escape routes and assistance. According to advocates of the quilt theory, ten quilt patterns were used to direct slaves to take particular actions. The quilts were placed one at a time on a fence as a means of nonverbal communication to alert escaping slaves. The code had a dual meaning: first to signal slaves to prepare to escape, and second to give clues and indicate directions on the journey.[27]

The quilt design theory is disputed. The first published work documenting an oral history source was in 1999, and the first publication of this theory is believed to be a 1980 children's book.[28] Quilt historians and scholars of pre-Civil-War America have disputed this legend. There is no contemporary evidence of any sort of quilt code, and quilt historians such as Pat Cummings and Barbara Brackman have raised serious questions about the idea. In addition, Underground Railroad historian Giles Wright has published a pamphlet debunking the quilt code.

Similarly, some popular, nonacademic sources claim that spirituals and other songs, such as "Steal Away" or "Follow the Drinking Gourd", contained coded information and helped individuals navigate the railroad. They have offered little evidence to support their claims. Scholars tend to believe that while the slave songs may certainly have expressed hope for deliverance from the sorrows of this world, these songs did not present literal help for runaway slaves.[29]

The Underground Railroad inspired cultural works. For example, a song written in 1860 about a man fleeing slavery in Tennessee by escaping to Canada, entitled "Song of the Free", was composed to the tune of "Oh! Susanna." Every stanza ends with a reference to Canada as the land "where colored men are free". Slavery in Canada had been in rapid decline after an 1803 court ruling, and abolished outright in 1834.

Legal and political

When frictions between North and South culminated in the American Civil War, many blacks, slave and free, fought for the Union Army.[30] Following Union victory in the Civil War, on December 6, 1865, Congress passed the Thirteenth Amendment to the Constitution which outlawed slavery.[31] Following its passage, in some cases the Underground Railroad operated in reverse, as fugitives returned to the United States.[32]


Frederick Douglass, writer, statesman, and an escaped slave, wrote critically of the Underground Railroad in his seminal autobiography:

I have 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 upperground railroad.

He went on to say that, although he honors the movement, he feels that the efforts serve more to enlighten the slave-owners than the slaves, making them more watchful and making it more difficult for future slaves to escape.[33]

Arrival in Canada

International Underground Railroad Memorial in Windsor, Ontario
John Brown also participated in the Underground Railroad

Estimates vary widely, but at least 30,000 slaves, and potentially more than 100,000, escaped to Canada via the Underground Railroad.[6] The largest group settled in Upper Canada (Ontario) called Canada West from 1841.[34] Numerous Black Canadian communities developed in Southern Ontario. These were generally in the triangular region bounded by Toronto, Niagara Falls, and Windsor. Nearly 1,000 refugees settled in Toronto, and several rural villages made up mostly of ex-slaves were established in Kent and Essex counties.

Fort Malden in Amherstburg, Ontario was deemed the “chief place of entry” for slaves seeking to enter Canada. The abolitionist Levi Coffin supported this assessment, describing Fort Malden as, “the great landing place, the principle terminus of the underground railroad of the west.”[35] After 1850, approximately thirty fugitive slaves a day were crossing over to Fort Malden by steamboat.[36] The Sultana was one of such ships and made “frequent round trips” between Great Lakes ports. Its Captain, C.W. Appleby, a celebrated mariner, facilitated the conveyance of several fugitive slaves from various Lake Erie ports to Fort Malden.[37]

Another important center of population was Nova Scotia, for example Africville and other villages near Halifax, see Black Nova Scotians. Many of these settlements were started by Black Loyalists after the American Revolutionary War. Important black settlements also developed in other parts of British North America (now parts of Canada). These included Lower Canada (present-day Quebec) and Vancouver Island, where Governor James Douglas encouraged black immigration because of his opposition to slavery. He also hoped a significant black community would form a bulwark against those who wished to unite the island with the United States.

Upon arriving at their destinations, many fugitives were disappointed as life in Canada was difficult. While the British colonies had no slavery after 1834, discrimination was still common. Many of the new arrivals had to compete with mass European immigration for jobs, and overt racism was common. For example, in reaction to Black Loyalists being settled in eastern Canada by the Crown, the city of Saint John, New Brunswick amended its charter in 1785 specifically to exclude blacks from practicing a trade, selling goods, fishing in the harbour, or becoming freemen; these provisions stood until 1870.[38]

With the outbreak of the Civil War in the U. S., many black refugees left Canada to enlist in the Union Army. While some later returned to Canada, many remained in the United States. Thousands of others returned to the American South after the war ended. The desire to reconnect with friends and family was strong, and most were hopeful about the changes emancipation and Reconstruction would bring.

Notable people

Notable locations

Freedom Crossing Monument
Lewiston, New York
A station marker located in Paterson, New Jersey

Related events

Contemporary literature

See also


  1. ^ "Underground Railroad". Retrieved July 17, 2011. 'A network of houses and other places abolitionists used to help slaves escape to freedom in the northern states or in Canada...' —American Heritage Dictionary 
  2. ^ "The Underground Railroad". Public Broadcasting Service. Retrieved July 25, 2007. 
  3. ^ "Purpose and Background". Taking the Train to Freedom. National Park Service. Retrieved July 17, 2011
  4. ^ Smith, Bruce (March 18, 2012). "For a century, Underground Railroad ran south". Google News. Associated Press. Retrieved March 23, 2012. 
  5. ^ a b Vox, Lisa, "How Did Slaves Resist Slavery?", African-American History,, Retrieved July 17, 2011.
  6. ^ a b "Settling Canada Underground Railroad". Historica. Between 1840 and 1860, more than 30,000 American slaves came secretly to Canada and freedom 
  7. ^ "From slavery to freedom", The Grapevine, pp. 3–5.
  8. ^ Jr, Deborah Gray White, Mia Bay, Waldo E. Martin (2013). Freedom on my mind : a history of African Americans, with documents. Boston: Bedford/St. Martin's. p. 287.  
  9. ^ Potter, David, 1976 pp. 132–139
  10. ^ Bordewich, Fergus, 2005, p. 324
  11. ^ Gara, Larry. Underground Railroad. National Park Service. p. 8. 
  12. ^ Douglass, Frederick (July 5, 1852), "The Meaning of July Fourth for the Negro", History Is a Weapon, Retrieved July 17, 2011.
  13. ^ Potter, David, 1976, p. 139
  14. ^ Declaration of the Immediate Causes Which Induce and Justify the Secession of South Carolina from the Federal Union
  15. ^ Larson, p. xvii.
  16. ^ Blight, David, 2004, p. 3
  17. ^ Pinsker, Matthew (2000). Vigilance in Pennsylvania: Underground Railroad Activities in the Keystone State, 1837–1861. Lancaster: PHMC. 
  18. ^ "Underground Railroad Codes". Myths and Codes of the Underground Railroad. Safe Passage. Greater Cincinnati Television Educational Foundation. p. 20. Retrieved June 29, 2013. 
  19. ^ Dictated by Robert Jackson a.k.a. Wesley Harris on 2 November 1853. From William Still's The Underground Rail Road, p. 50. "Engravings by Bensell, Schell, and others."
  20. ^ Bordewich, Fergus, 2005, p. 236
  21. ^ Torrey, E. Fuller (2013). The Martyrdom of Abolitionist Charles Torrey. Baton Rouge: Louisiana State University Press. 
  22. ^ Blackett, Richard (October 2014). "The Underground Railroad and the Struggle Against Slavery". History Workshop Journal 78 (1): 279. 
  23. ^ Wellington, Darryl Lorenzo (January 20, 2004). "The most famous abductor on the Underground Railroad". Christian Science Monitor. Retrieved January 9, 2012. 
  24. ^ Potter, David, 1976, p. 133
  25. ^ Blight, David, 2004, p. 98
  26. ^ Blight, David, 2004, p. 175
  27. ^ Williams, Ozella McDaniels, 1999.
  28. ^ Aronson, Marc (April 1, 2007). "History That Never Happened".  
  29. ^ Kelley, James (April 2008). "Song, Story, or History: Resisting Claims of a Coded Message in the African American Spiritual 'Follow the Drinking Gourd'".  
  30. ^ African American Soldier in the Civil War: USCT, 1862-66 By Mark Lardas
  31. ^ The Underground Railroad,by Ann Heinrichs
  32. ^ The Underground Railroad and Sylvania's Historic Lathrop House, by Gaye E. Gindy, page 20
  33. ^ Douglass, Frederick. (1845) Narrative of the Life of Frederick Douglass. Dover Publications. Chapter 11.
  34. ^ Bordewich, Fergus, 2005, p. 379
  35. ^ Fred Landon, “Amherstburg, Terminus of the Underground Railroad,” The Journal of Negro History 10, no.1 (1925): 5.
  36. ^ Tom Calarco, Places of the Underground Railroad: A Geographical Guide (Santa Barbara, CA: ABC-CLIO, LLC, 2011), 15.
  37. ^ Tom Calarco, Places of the Underground Railroad: A Geographical Guide (Santa Barbara, CA: ABC-CLIO, LLC, 2011), 110.
  38. ^ "Arrival of the Black Loyalists: Saint John's Black Community", Heritage Resources Saint John
  39. ^ Aboard the Underground Railroad- Boston African American NHS. (1962-09-05). Retrieved on 2013-08-16.
  40. ^
  41. ^ "The Granville Riot". The Historical Times (Granville, Ohio, Historical Society) 12 (3): 1–3. Summer 1998. Retrieved July 17, 2011. 
  42. ^ Karnoutsos, Carmela. "The Underground Railroad in Jersey City". Jersey City Past and Present. New Jersey City University. Retrieved July 17, 2011. 


  • 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.
  • Frost, Karolyn Smardz; Osei, Kwasi (2007). I've Got a Home in Glory Land: A Lost Tale of the Underground Railroad. Farrar, Straus & Giroux.  
  • Forbes, Ella (1998) But We Have No Country: The 1851 Christiana Pennsylvania Resistance. Africana Homestead Legacy Publishers.
  • 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,  
  • 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.
  • Potter, David M. The Impending Crisis, 1848–1861. (1976) ISBN 0-06-131929-5
  • Operating the Underground Railroad, from National Park Service.
  • The Underground Railroad, from PBS.

Further reading

  • Blackett, R.J.M. (2013). Making Freedom: The Underground Railroad and the Politics of Slavery. Chapel Hill, NC: University of North Carolina Press.
  • 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. 
  • 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
  • Underground Railroad, 1872, by William Still, from Project Gutenberg (classic book documenting the Underground Railroad operations in Philadelphia).
    • Public domain audiobook from LibriVox: Part 1, Part 2, (Parts 3–5 are in progress)
  • Stories of the Underground Railroad, 1941, by Anna L. Curtis (stories about Thomas Garrett, a famous agent on the Underground Railroad)

Folklore and myth

  • New Jersey's Underground Railroad Myth-Buster: Giles Wright is on a Mission to Fine Tune Black History
  • Putting it in Perspective: The Symbolism of Underground Railroad quilts
  • Underground Railroad Quilts & Abolitionist Fairs
  • Documentary Evidence is Missing on Underground Railroad Quilts

External links

  • Underground Railroad Timeline
  • Archival footage of historian Eric Foner discussing the Underground Railroad in relation to Joanna Haigood's site-specific "Invisible Wings" dance and Jacob's Pillow Dance Festival in August 25, 2007
  • Minutes of the second U.G.R.R. Convention for the State of Ohio, held in the city of Zanesville on the 6th, 7th and 8th of January, 1858.
  • Underground Railroad Stories from Southern Ohio, Northern KY and Northwestern VA
  • Africanaonline – A study of the Underground Railroad.
  • Tracks to Freedom: Canada and the Underground Railroad
  • Underground Railroad Sites in Buffalo, NY
  • Friends of the Underground Railroad
  • The William Still National Underground Railroad Foundation
  • National Underground Railroad Freedom Center
  • National Park Service: Aboard the Underground Railroad
  • Maryland State Archives, Beneath the Underground: Flight to Freedom and Communities in Antebellum Maryland
  • The Underground Railroad: Escape from Slavery |
  • National Geographic: Underground Railroad
  • Maryland's Cooling Springs Farm: The Story of a Still-Existing Underground Railroad Safe-House
  • Underground Railroad in Canada
  • Tracks to Freedom – special on the Underground Railway in Canada
  • Freedom Crossing – Lewiston, New York
  • Ontario's Underground Railroad – Includes an interactive map, a tour, and more.
  • Underground Railroad in Westfield, Indiana – Includes Anti-Slavery Friends Cemetery list and more
  • Prospect Place mansion, Underground Railroad safehouse in Trinway, Ohio
  • New-York Historical Society – Run for Your Life
  • Underground Railroad Research Institute at Georgetown College
  • The Oberlin Heritage Center-Learn about Oberlin's role in the Underground Railroad, the abolition movement, and more.
  • Pathways to Freedom: Maryland and the Underground Railroad – educational website developed by Maryland Public Television
  • NPS Underground Railroad Sites
  • Adventure Cycling Association's Underground Railroad Bicycle Route
  • Underground Railroad in Wisconsin, Wisconsin Historical Society
  • Historica’s Heritage Minute video docudrama about the Underground Railroad. (Adobe Flash Player.)
  • "Follow the Drinking GourdBresler, Joel (2007) "Cultural History of
  • Song, Story, or History: Resisting Claims of a Coded Message in the African American Spiritual "Follow the Drinking Gourd"
  • Underground Railroad information in Portland, Maine
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