The Underground Railroad was any organized movement activity, designed to assist runaway slaves. "A secret method of conducting Negro slaves" (Gara 3). The railroad reached its peak in the period 1830-1865. It was known by every route the enslaved took, or attempted to take to freedom. Neither "underground" nor a "railroad, it consisted of paths and roads, through swamps and over mountains, along and across rivers and even sea. These networks of escape could not be documented even with precision.
The work of the Underground Railroad was so effective that its action intimated slaveowners. Most regarded the underground as "organized theft" and a threat to their livelihood ("History and Geography Of The Underground Railroad", paragraph 2). The term Underground Railroad originated when an enslaved runaway, Tice Davids, fled from Kentucky and may have taken refuge with John Rankin, a white abolitionist, in Ripley, Ohio. Determined to retrieve his property, the owner chased Davids to the Ohio River, but Davids suddenly disappeared without a trace, leaving his owner wondering if the slave had "gone off on some underground road". The success of Davids' escape soon spread among the enslaved on southern plantations on an invisible telegraph, which spoke an intelligible language only to the men who knew its code (Buckmaster 58-59). Evidence is unclear when the Underground Railroad began but there, were isolated cases of help given to runaways as early as the 1700's.
One of the earliest recorded "organized" escapes may have occurred in 1786 when Quakers in Philadelphia assisted a group of refugees from Virginia to freedom. The story of the Underground Railroad is one of individual sacrifice and heroism in the efforts of the enslaved people to reach freedom from bondage. It was perhaps the most dramatic protest action against slavery in the United States history. The hatred of enslavement came with the first slave and did not wane until the end of slavery.
For many African Americans who lived in the slave states prior to and during the Civil War, the Underground Railroad provided them the opportunity and assistance to secretly escape from slavery and find freedom. The most intriguing feature of the Underground Railroad was it's lack of formal organization. No national organization of the underground existed since "leadership in it was reached by individual performance and examples, not by election or appointment" ("History and Geography Of The Underground Railroad", paragraph 13). It confronted human bondage without any direct demands or intended violence and the railroad played a prominent role in the destruction of the institution of slavery.
The Underground Railroad helped fugitive slaves escape to areas of safety in free states. The loosely constructed network of escape routes originated in the South, intertwined throughout the North, and ended in Canada. Escape routes were not just restricted to the North, but also extended into western territories, Mexico and the Caribbean. The antislavery movement played a primary role in assisting runaways to freedom. Abolitionists were crucial to the operations of the underground, but not all them participated in or sanctioned its activities. Occasionally, African Americans and White abolitionists worked jointly to aid the runaway.
Yet for the most part, the African American abolitionist played a key role in underground activities. Since most African American abolitionists were former bondsmen, they usually took a personal interest in helping loved ones or anyone who wanted to gain freedom. Their work contributed to the success of the Underground Railroad. In 1787, Isaac T. Hopper, a Quaker teenager, "began to organize a system for hiding and aiding fugitive slaves" ("History and Geography Of The Underground Railroad", paragraph 10). Soon several towns in Pennsylvania and New Jersey offered assistance to runaways. Organized flight became evident in 1804 when General Thomas Bodes, a revolutionary officer of Columbia, Pennsylvania, aided and then refused to surrender a runaway bondsman to the owner.
By the 1830's, participation in furtive activity increased, and abolitionists recognized the underground as an effective weapon of attack against human bondage. The intention of the abolitionists was not to lure or personally guide runaways to freedom, but to offer whatever assistance they needed to reach their destination. Underground operations generally relied on secret codes as railroad jargon's alerted "passengers" when travel was safe. Runaways usually commuted either alone or in small groups, assisted by African American, or White "conductors", who were responsible for moving fugitives and risking their lives and property to escort refugees to freedom. From 1830 to 1865, the Underground Railroad reached its peak as the abolitionists and sympathizers, who condemned human bondage, aided bondsmen to freedom.
During the exodus, the refugees received food, shelter, and money at homes and businesses where fugitives would eat and rest. These were called "stations" and "depots", which were operated by "stationmasters", who contributed the money or goods and offered assistance. Some operators notified runaways of the stations through inconspicuous signals, such as brightly lit candles in windows or by shimmering lanterns strategically positioned in the front yard. Once safety was ensured, the temporary havens provided refugees rest in concealed rooms, attics, and cellars.
When stations were not readily available, runaways took protection in caves, swamps, hills, and trenches. The abolitionists used the Underground Railroad as a propaganda device to dramatize the evils of slavery. In addition to the help abolitionist provided the fugitives with during the escapes, they also helped fugitives settle into communities by helping them find jobs and providing letters of recommendation. Abolitionist Levi Coffin and Harriet Tubman were two of the most known conductors of the Underground Railroad. Harriet Tubman escaped from the Eastern Shore of Maryland and became known as "Moses" to her people for her brave and resourceful thrusts into the slavery territory. She made numerous slave-running expeditions, delivering at least 300 fellow captives and loved ones to liberation.
Levi Coffin was the best-known and most active white Underground Railroad organizer. He was later named "the President of the Underground Railroad" after he provided many fugitives rest and food at his own place of residence in Cincinnati. The courageous men and women who believed in the right of all humans to be free from human bondage made the slaves' flight to freedom possible and facilitated. Determined bondsmen escaped whenever there was an opportunity to do so.
For the slave, running away to the North was anything but easy. The first step was to escape from the slaveholder. For many slaves, this meant relying on his or her own resources. Sometimes, the conductor would enter a plantation and then guide the runaways northward.
The fugitives would move at night, generally traveling between 10 to 20 miles to the next station, where they would rest and eat. "That was the distance a healthy man could travel on foot, or a wagon carrying several slaves, could cover at night" ("History and Geography Of The Underground Railroad", paragraph 18). While they waited, a message would be sent to the next station to alert its stationmaster. Most runaways were men whose ages ranged from 16 to 35 years. Similarly, women and children escaped, but their numbers were small since they were more likely to be captured.
Runaways generally labored as field hands and were most likely to endure harsh treatment from their owners. Men and women escaped for some of the same reasons-long, grueling hours of fieldwork, the lack of proper diet, the fear of beatings, and the horror of being sold away from loved ones. Urban bondsmen sometimes fared better than their plantation fellows since most of them worked as hired hands and personal servants. Still, masters offered them little or no pay, restricted their movement, and provided them poor living conditions. Although these inhumane conditions inspired some to flee, the desire for personal liberty played the most important leading part causing most bonded men and women to flee. Examples of this are found in several autobiographies written by former bondsmen.
In 1835, James L. Bradley recalled his yearning for freedom when he wrote: From the time I was fourteen years old, I used to think a great deal about freedom. It was my hearts desire; I could not keep it out of my mind. Many a sleepless night I have spent in tears, because I was a slave... My heart ached to feel within me the life of liberty.
"In His Life and Times", Frederick Douglass echoed the same sentiment: I hated slavery always, and my desire for freedom needed only a favorable breeze to fan it to a blaze at any moment. The thought of being a creature of the present and the past troubled me, and I longed to have a future, a future with hope in it. Runaways seldom devised any elaborate escape plan since flight occurred randomly. Their schemes sometimes called for escapes to take place on the weekends, holidays, or during the harvest season. Plans of this nature gave the runaway at least a two-day start before authorities began their pursuit.
Some spiritual songs such as "Swing Low, Sweet Chariot", "Steal Away to Jesus", and "Go Down Moses" carried coded messages related to escape. Runaways had little food or clothing and normally walked at nightfall and rested during the daytime. Often refugees faced the risks of natural disasters and personal betrayal such as being sold back into slavery. Since runaways were virtually on their own and underground railways rarely began in the South, the North Star occasionally directed the flight.
On clouded evenings, tree moss, which grew on the north side of tree trunks, then served as a guide. To avoid capture, they relied on "railways" such as backroads, waterways, mountains, swamps, forests, and fields to escape. Later in the years, runaways sometimes traveled by wagon, steamship, boat, and railroad train. Flight sometimes entailed clever disguises, which gave further protection to the runaway. For example, females dressed as males and males disguised as females; or fair-skinned African Americans passed as Whites; and others pretended to deliver messages or goods for their masters. Although most disguises were rather simple, some runaways would plot brilliant plans of escape by masquerading as master and slave.
The total number of runaways will never be known simply because of the undergrounds secrecy. According to one estimate, the South lost 100,000 slaves between 1810 to 1850. conductors usually did not attempt to record these figures, and those who did only calculated the number of runaways whom they personally helped. Moreover, these estimations should consider that some runaways never took part in the underground system and therefore used other creative methods to attain liberty. The shortage of evidence indicates that scholars probably will never fully learn the real significance of the Underground Railroad.
Indeed, the few journals that have survived over the years suggest that the true heroes of the underground were not the abolitionist or sympathizers, but those runaway bondsmen who were willing to risk their lives to gain freedom. Though this story is compounded with both facts and fancy, its legendary character has not yet been recognized, or investigated.
Buckmaster, Henrietta. Let My People Go: The Story of the Underground Railroad and Growth of the Abolition Movement. Boston: Harper & Brothers, 1941.
Fishel, Leslie H., and Benjamin Quarles. The Black American: A Documentary History. Glenview: Scott, Foresman, and Company, 1970.
Gara, Larry. The Liberty Line: The Legend of the Underground Railroad. Kingsport: University of Kentucky Press, 1961.