Underground Railroad

Underground Railroad
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.[1]

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 and allies who were sympathetic to their cause.[2] The term is also applied to the abolitionists, both black and white, free and enslaved, who aided the fugitives.[3] Other various routes led to Mexico or overseas.[4] Created in the early 19th century, the Underground Railroad was at 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, 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 at its peak,[6] although U.S. Census figures account for only 6,000.[7] The Underground Railroad fugitives' stories are documented in the Underground Railroad Records.


Political background

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, 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.[8] Additionally, free blacks of the North could easily be forced into slavery, whether they had been freed earlier or had never been slaves.[9] Suspected slaves were unable to defend themselves in court, and it was difficult to prove a free status. In a de facto bribe,[10] 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 led to one of the primary grievances of the Union cause in the Civil War.[11]


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.[12] 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.


Map of various Underground Railroad routes

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. There were the "conductors" who ultimately moved the runaways from station to station. The "conductor" would sometimes pretend to be a slave to enter a plantation. Once a part of a plantation, the "conductor" would direct the runaways to the North. Slaves would travel 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 out of the way places like barns. While resting 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”. There were also those known as “stockholders” who gave money or supplies for assistance.

Traveling conditions

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

Although the fugitives sometimes traveled on boat or train,[13] they usually traveled on foot or by wagon.

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 too difficult and dangerous for women or children.

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.[14]

The risk was not limited solely to actual fugitives. Because strong, healthy blacks in their prime working and reproductive years were seen and treated as highly valuable commodities, it was not unusual for free blacks—both freedmen (former slaves) and those who had never been slaves—to be kidnapped and sold into slavery. "Certificates of freedom"—signed, notarized statements attesting to the free status of individual blacks—could easily be destroyed and thus afforded their holders little protection. 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, dominated by the numbers of southern Congressmen elected because slaves were counted into total population, had passed the fugitive slave law because of public sympathy for the fugitives and the lack of cooperation by the police, courts, and public outside the Deep South. In some parts of the North, slave-catchers needed police protection to exercise their federal authority. Despite their resistance to pro-slavery laws, several states made free blacks unwelcome. Indiana, whose area along the Ohio River was settled by Southerners, passed a constitutional amendment that barred blacks from settling in that state.


Members of The Underground Railroad often used specific jargon, 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".[15]

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

William Still,[16] 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 in 1872.

According to Still, messages were often encoded so that messages 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 was able to meet them at the correct station and guide them to safety, where they eventually escaped either to the North or to British North America, 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, there were ten quilt patterns that 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.[17]

Quaker abolitionist Levi Coffin and his wife Catherine helped more than 2,000 slaves escape to freedom.

The quilt design theory is disputed. The first published work documenting an oral history source was in 1999 and the first publishing is believed to be a 1980 children's book,[18] so it is difficult to evaluate the veracity of these claims, which are not accepted by quilt historians or scholars of pre-Civil-War America.[citation needed] 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.

Many 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, but these sources offer very little evidence to support their claims. Scholars who have examined these claims 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.[19]

Yet, the Underground Railroad did spur 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 with the Union Army. Following passage of the Thirteenth Amendment, in some cases the Underground Railroad operated in reverse as fugitives returned to the United States.[citation needed]

Arrival in Canada

International Underground Railroad Memorial in Windsor, Ontario

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 (called Canada West from 1841,[20] and today Southern Ontario), where numerous Black Canadian communities developed. 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 County and Essex County.

Another important center of population was Nova Scotia, for example Africville and other villages near Halifax, see Black Nova Scotians. 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 and because he 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. While the British colonies had no slavery after 1834, discrimination was still common. Many of the new arrivals had great difficulty finding jobs, in part because of mass European immigration at the time, and overt racism was common. For example, the charter of the city of Saint John, New Brunswick was amended in 1785 specifically to exclude blacks from practicing a trade, selling goods, fishing in the harbour, or becoming freemen; these provisions stood until 1870.[21]

With the outbreak of the Civil War in the U. S., many black refugees enlisted in the Union Army and, 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.

See also

  • Fort Mose
  • Bilger's rocks

Notable people

Freedom Crossing Monument
Lewiston, New York

Notable locations

Related events

Contemporary literature


  1. ^ Larson, p. xvii.
  2. ^ "Underground Railroad". dictionary.com. http://dictionary.reference.com/browse/Underground%20Railroad. 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" 
  3. ^ "The Underground Railroad". Public Broadcasting Service. http://www.pbs.org/wgbh/aia/part4/4p2944.html. Retrieved July 25, 2007. 
  4. ^ "Purpose and Background". Taking the Train to Freedom. National Park Service. Retrieved July 17, 2011
  5. ^ a b Vox, Lisa, "How Did Slaves Resist Slavery?", African-American History, About.com, Retrieved July 17, 2011.
  6. ^ a b "Settling Canada Underground Railroad". Historica. http://www.histori.ca/minutes/minute.do?id=10166. "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. ^ Potter, David, 1976 pp. 132–139
  9. ^ Bordewich, Fergus, 2005, p. 324
  10. ^ Douglass, Frederick (July 5, 1852), "The Meaning of July Fourth for the Negro", History Is a Weapon, Retrieved July 17,2011.
  11. ^ Potter, David, 1976, p. 139
  12. ^ Blight, David, 2005, p. 3
  13. ^ Bordewich, Fergus, 2005, p. 236
  14. ^ Potter, David, 1976, p. 133
  15. ^ Blight, David, 2004, p. 98
  16. ^ Blight, David, 2004, p. 175
  17. ^ Williams, Ozella McDaniels, 1999.
  18. ^ Aronson, Marc (April 1, 2007). "History That Never Happened". School Library Journal. http://www.schoollibraryjournal.com/article/CA6430152.html. Retrieved March 31, 2011. 
  19. ^ Kelley, James (April 2008). "Song, Story, or History: Resisting Claims of a Coded Message in the African American Spiritual 'Follow the Drinking Gourd'". The Journal of Popular Culture 41 (2): 262–280. doi:10.1111/j.1540-5931.2008.00502.x. 
  20. ^ Bordewich, Fergus, 2005, p. 379
  21. ^ "Arrival of the Black Loyalists: Saint John's Black Community", Heritage Resources Saint John
  22. ^ "The Granville Riot". The Historical Times (Granville, Ohio, Historical Society) 12 (3): 1–3. Summer 1998. http://www.granvillehistory.org/HistoricalTimes/HistTimes199803.pdf. Retrieved July 17, 2011. 
  23. ^ Karnoutsos, Carmela. "The Underground Railroad in Jersey City". Jersey City Past and Present. New Jersey City University. http://www.njcu.edu/programs/jchistory/Pages/U_Pages/Underground_Railroad.htm. Retrieved July 17, 2011. 


Further reading


External links

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Look at other dictionaries:

  • Underground railroad — Railroad Rail road (r[=a]l r[=o]d ), Railway Rail way (r[=a]l w[=a] ), n. 1. A road or way consisting of one or more parallel series of iron or steel rails, patterned and adjusted to be tracks for the wheels of vehicles, and suitably supported on …   The Collaborative International Dictionary of English

  • Underground railroad — Underground Un der*ground , a. 1. Being below the surface of the ground; as, an underground story or apartment. [1913 Webster] 2. Done or occurring out of sight; secret. [Colloq.] [1913 Webster] {Underground railroad} or {Underground railway}.… …   The Collaborative International Dictionary of English

  • Underground Railroad — network of U.S. anti slavery activists helping runaways elude capture, attested from 1852 but said to date from 1831, coined in jest by bewildered trackers after their slaves vanished without a trace …   Etymology dictionary

  • underground railroad — ☆ underground railroad n. [often U R ] in the U.S. before the Civil War, a system set up by certain opponents of slavery to help fugitive slaves escape to free states and Canada …   English World dictionary

  • Underground Railroad — Karte einiger Routen der Underground Railroad Die Underground Railroad (Untergrundbahn) war ein aus Gegnern der Sklaverei – auch Weißen – bestehendes informelles Netzwerk, das Sklaven auf der Flucht aus den Südstaaten Amerikas nach Norden, z. B.… …   Deutsch Wikipedia

  • underground railroad — 1. Also called underground railway. a railroad running through a continuous tunnel, as under city streets; subway. 2. (often caps.) U.S. Hist. (before the abolition of slavery) a system for helping fugitive slaves to escape into Canada or other… …   Universalium

  • Underground Railroad — Chemin de fer clandestin Les routes empruntées par le chemin de fer clandestin. Le Chemin de fer clandestin (Underground Railroad, en anglais) était un réseau de routes clandestines construites par les esclaves noirs américains pour se réfugier… …   Wikipédia en Français

  • Underground Railroad, the — a secret organization that helped SLAVES escape from the southern part of the U.S. during the Civil War …   Usage of the words and phrases in modern English

  • Underground Railroad — Underground Rail|road, the a group of people in the US who illegally helped ↑slaves to become free by helping them to escape to the northern US and Canada, in the period before the ↑Civil War. One of its best known members was Harriet Tubman …   Dictionary of contemporary English

  • Underground Railroad Bicycle Route — The Underground Railroad Bicycle Route, (a joint project of the Adventure Cycling Association and the Center for Minority Health), is another historical route, like the Lewis Clark Trail Bicycle Route. The route honors the bravery of those who… …   Wikipedia

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