The Underground Railroad was a secret pathway organized by abolitionists–many of them free blacks and Quakers. Its purpose was to help runaway slaves escape to freedom in the North or in Canada. Often, the passage to freedom followed natural boundaries, such as a river. Usually, slaves relied on secret helpers in towns scattered along the route to freedom. These “conductors” would help a slave move from one safe house to another, usually under cover of darkness. One daring conductor, Harriet Tubman, led hundreds of slaves to the North. Antislavery groups sent agents south to tell slaves about the Underground Railroad. The agents pretended to be census takers, mapmakers, or peddlers. Ohio was probably the busiest haven for runaway slaves. It bordered two southern states and had a long river boundary. The route along the Appalachian Mountains was another often-used pathway to freedom. The large number of Quakers in Philadelphia made that area a likely source of safe houses for escaping slaves, too. By 1860, as many as 100,000 enslaved African Americans may have escaped to freedom on the Underground Railroad.
The Underground Railroad was neither underground nor a railroad, but a secret network of safe houses and antislavery activists – black, white, and Native American – who helped slaves escape to freedom. Every home that welcomed runaways and every individual who offered food, clothing, or other assistance could be considered part of the railroad. Though never formally organized, tens of thousands of slaves, aided by more than 3,200 railroad “workers,” escaped to the northern states, Canada, Texas, Mexico, and through Florida to the Caribbean. The activity of the Underground Railroad reached a peak from 1830 to 1860, though it was operating as early as the 1500s, from the time the first African captives were brought to Spanish colonies in the New World. Much of the railroad’s history was passed down orally through generations. Not only were many slaves who made the trek illiterate, but also those who aided them didn’t write about it, or destroyed their records, because they feared detection.
During their time of servitude, many of the runaway slaves had been forced to labor as field hands and endured harsh treatment from their owners. They longed to escape the grueling hours of fieldwork; the lack of proper diet, and the fear of beatings and of being sold away from loved ones. Although these inhumane conditions inspired some to flee, the desire for personal liberty was the greatest motivator of all.
Escaping slaves typically had to travel many hundreds of miles to reach freedom. Their escape routes ran through woods, over fields, and across rivers. Often they traveled at night to avoid detection, using the North Star as a compass. Since they could carry little food, they had to make their journey weakened by hunger. They traveled on coaches, trains, and steamships, but most often by wagon or on foot. The homes and businesses where fugitives would rest and eat were called “stations” and were run by “stationmasters”; those who contributed money or goods were “stockholders” and the “conductor” moved fugitives from one station to the next. The fugitive slaves were known as “packages” or “freight.”
The term Underground Railroad may have originated when a slave, Tice Davids, fled from Kentucky and took up refuge with John Rankin, a white abolitionist in Ripley, Ohio. Davids’s owner chased him to the Ohio River, but Davids managed to disappear without a trace. His owner was left bewildered and wondering if the slave had “gone off on some underground road.”
Slaves from the Deep South often took refuge with Creek and Muscogee Indians, and intermarriages were common. Some escaping slaves never left the South. Free settlements of former slaves emerged in North Carolina’s Great Dismal Swamp, the bayous of Louisiana, and the mountains of Tennessee and Kentucky.
Most runaways were men whose ages ranged from sixteen to thirty-five years. Women and children escaped, but were more likely to be captured. Escaping slaves were gripped by fear that they might be caught and beaten, then returned to even harder labor. After the Fugitive Slave Law was enacted in 1850, capturing runaways became a lucrative business. The law allowed a master or professional bounty hunters (called “slave hunters”) to seize runaways, even in a free state. Professional slave catchers had bloodhounds that were specially bred to follow the scent of fugitives.
Runaways sometimes employed disguises. Females dressed as males and males dressed as females; or fair-skinned African Americans passed as whites; and others pretended to deliver messages or goods for their masters. They would plan their escapes on weekends, holidays, or during harvest season, hoping to get a two-day start before authorities began their pursuit.
Workers in the Underground Railroad came from all walks of life; they were ministers, shopkeepers, farmers, and former slaves. Harriet Tubman, a runaway slave from Maryland, was one of the major players in the goings of the Underground Railroad.
In fact, Harriet Tubman was the greatest single conductor in the history of the Underground Railroad. An escaped slave herself, Tubman earned the nickname “Moses” for her heroic exploits in leading slaves to the Promised Land. Returning nineteen times to the dangerous South, Tubman led more than 300 slaves to freedom, including her own aged parents.
Enraged Southern planters offered $40,000 for her capture without success. The wily and fearless Tubman carried a pistol on her freedom raids and if a slave had second thoughts about escaping she pulled her gun and said: “You’ll be free or die!”
Tubman’s amazing successes sprang in part from her quick and inventive mind. On one occasion, fearing pursuers were close at hand, she and her fugitives boarded a southbound train to avoid suspicion. On another rescue mission, Tubman had just purchased some live chickens when she saw her former master. She threw down the chickens and chased after them before he could recognize her.
She also had a wry sense of humor. By 1851 the Fugitive Slave Law was forcing conductors to lead slaves all the way to Canada. On one such trip a very frightened slave would not say a word or even look at the scenery while crossing into Canada with Tubman on a real train. But when the man realized he was on free soil, he began to sing and shout so loud that no one could shut him up. An exasperated Harriet Tubman continued her courageous exploits during the Civil War. She became a nurse, scout, and spy for the Union armies. In one campaign she personally led 750 Southern slaves to freedom. General Saxon reported she “made many a raid inside the enemy lines, displaying remarkable courage, zeal, and fidelity.”
During the Civil War in 1863, President Abraham Lincoln issued the Emancipation Proclamation, declaring free all slaves in all states in rebellion against the government. This proclamation actually freed few people. It didn’t apply to slaves in Border States fighting on the Union side; nor did it apply to slaves in southern areas already under Union control. The states in rebellion did not act on Lincoln’s order. The proclamation did demonstrate, however, that the Civil War was now being fought to end slavery. Initially, Lincoln had viewed the war only in terms of preserving the Union. As time went by, he became more sympathetic to the abolition movement. The end of slavery came when the Thirteenth Amendment to the Constitution was ratified on December 18, 1865. The amendment ensured that forever after “neither slavery nor involuntary servitude … shall exist within the United States.”