Search billions of records on

Origins of the Underground Railroad
   Organization and Operations of the Underground Railroad
The Underground Railroad was perhaps the most dramatic protest action against slavery in United States history. The operations of clandestine escape networks began in the 1500s, and was later connected with organized abolitionist activity of the 1800s. Neither an "underground" nor a "railroad," this informal system arose as a loosely constructed network of escape routes that originated in the South, intertwined throughout the North, and eventually ended in Canada. Escape routes were not just restricted to the North, but also extended into western territories, Mexico, and the Caribbean. >From 1830 to 1865, the Underground Railroad reached its peak as abolitionists and sympathizers who condemned human bondage aided large numbers of bondsmen to freedom. They not only called for slavery destruction, but also acted to assist its victims.

Although the Underground Railroad is linked with abolitionism of the antebellum period, it stands out primarily for its amorphous nature and mysterious character. Unlike other organized activities of the abolition movement that primarily denounced human bondage, the Underground Railroad secretly resisted slavery by abetting runaways to freedom. It confronted human bondage without any direct demands or intended violence; yet, its efforts played a prominent role in the destruction of the institution of slavery. The work of the underground was so effective that its action intimidated slaveowners. Most regarded the underground as "organized theft" and a threat to their livelihood.

The most intriguing feature of the Underground Railroad was its lack of formal organization. Its existence often relied on concerted efforts of cooperating individuals of various ethnic and religious groups who helped bondsmen escape from slavery. To add to its mysterious doings, accounts are scarce for individuals who actually participated in its activities. Usually agents hid or destroyed their personal journals to protect themselves and the runaways. Only recently researchers have learned of the work rendered by courageous agents such as David Ruggles, Calvin Fairbank, Josiah Henson, and Erastus Hussey. The identity of others who also contributed to this effort will never be fully recognized. Though scholars estimate that Underground Railroad conductors assisted thousands of refugees, the total number of runaways whom they aided to freedom will never be known simply because of the movement's secrecy. 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 abolitionists or sympathizers, but those runaway bondsmen who were willing to risk their lives to gain freedom.

The historical evolution of slavery in the Western Hemisphere is essential to understanding the importance of the underground phenomenon. The first large-scale enslavement of African peoples by Western Europeans began in the 1440s when Portugal engaged in slave trading with West Africa, probably to service sugar plantations in the Atlantic Islands. By the early 16th century, Western European nations had developed an organized slavery system in the Caribbean and the Americas. European landowners first used enslaved Amerindians and indentured Whites to cultivate plantations in the New World. Labor problems increased significantly among these groups as Amerindians consistently fought and escaped from their captors. Their populations moreover decreased into almost nonexistence as thousands of them perished from European-contracted diseases and exhaustion. The near decimation of the Amerindians prompted Bishop Bartolome de las Casas to take up their cause in protecting the remaining populations. Appointed by the Spanish government as "Protector of the Indians," Las Cas demanded that Spain liberate the Amerindians and to recognize their rights as a people. This decree led to a shortage of field hands that compelled Spain to seek bonded labor elsewhere. Las Casas humanitarian sentiment, however, did not extend to Africans whom he endorsed their enslavement to meet the growing demand for labor in the territories. As a result, Spain issued an asiento (or contract) to Portugal who supplied the Spanish colonies with enslaved Africans (Williams 1984: 33-37; Shillington 1989: 173-78).

The notorious trans-Atlantic slave trade, also known as the "triangular trade," was primarily responsible for the dispersal of Africans into the Western Hemisphere. This lucrative enterprise reached its peak during the 1600s and lasted well into the late 1880s. Millions of peoples from East, Southwest, and West Africa were enslaved and transported to the European colonies in the New World. European landowners forced Africans and some Amerindians to toil on sugar, tobacco, and coffee plantations established in the New World (Azevedo 1993; Shillington 1989: 198-201).

By the early 1600s, Western Europeans extended their plantation system into North America. Slave traders frequently shipped surplus African laborers from the West Indies into North America to cultivate the tobacco, sugar, rice, and indigo plantations. The first Africans arrived in Jamestown, Virginia, in 1619. Scholars contend that British colonists first recognized these African laborers as indentured servants. Their status, however, soon changed when in 1641 the Massachusetts colony sanctioned the enslavement of African workers. Similarly, Maryland and Virginia authorized legal servitude in 1660. Their laws specified that Africans would serve in bondage for life, and that a child born into the colony inherited the status of its mother. By 1755, all 13 colonies had legally recognized chattel slavery (Higginbotham 1978: 35-36, 252; Stamp 1956: 22).

Legal bondage varied in colonial North America due to the diverse climates and geographic conditions of the region. In the North, most Africans labored on small farms. Those who lived in cities worked as personal servants or were hired out as domestics and skilled workers. Although northern colonists had little use for slave labor, they accumulated substantial profits from the lucrative slave trading industry. Conversely, southern colonies grew quite dependent on human bondage. Landowners often purchased African laborers to toil their tobacco, sugar, cotton, rice, and indigo plantations. By the 1770s, bonded labor became increasingly vital to the southern economy, and the demand for African workers contributed greatly to the steady increase of their population. This growth coupled with the threat of insurrections induced colonial legislatures to pass "slave" codes that restricted the movement of enslaved Africans and Native Americans. While White colonists petitioned for independence from Great Britain, antislavery advocates also demanded human rights and liberty for all people, including bondsmen.

Shortly after the War of Independence, a call to abolish slavery and the slave trade generated widespread support for the antislavery movement. Led by liberated African Americans and Quakers, the antislavery movement swayed northern state legislatures to grant immediate manumissions to soldier-slaves and gradual emancipation to other enslaved Africans. Northern slaveholders allowed some bondsmen to purchase their freedom, while others petitioned for liberation through the courts. Legal bondage still remained a vital element of the southern society despite attempts to end the institution there.

As the nation grew divided on the slavery question, the opportunity to eliminate the institution completely was stalled in 1787 when the United States Constitution permitted the slave trade to continue until 1808 and protected involuntary servitude where it then existed. More importantly, in 1793 federal law allowed for a Fugitive Slave Law, which not only called for the return of bonded and indentured runaways, but also threatened the protection of freed African Americans.

The emergence of the cotton gin in 1793 revolutionized cotton agriculture and the chance of abolishing slavery permanently grew bleak for antislavery supporters. Though tobacco, rice, sugar, and indigo were major cash crops, "King Cotton" ruled the southern economy. Cotton production rose from 13,000 bales in 1792 to more than 5 million bales by 1860. Consequently, the South served as the principal supplier of raw cotton for northern and European textile industries. Bonded labor became essential to cotton cultivation due to its overwhelming demand. In fact, the increased need for bonded workers caused the African American population to escalate from 700,000 in 1790 to nearly 4 million by 1860 (Boyer et al. 1995: 163, 246; Franklin 1988: 112-13). Involuntary servitude was a recognized institution in the Old South and remained so until 1865. Although African bondsmen were often forced to work under inhumane conditions, they did not do so without protest. Response to their situation included destroying property, feigning sickness, performing self-mutilation, stealing, rebelling, committing suicide, and running away.

Runaways and the Abolition Movement
Slave resistance occurred wherever bondage existed. The brutality of involuntary servitude and the yearning for freedom inspired most bondsmen to rebel against their conditions. Bondsmen consistently used flight as a form of resistance. Escapes occurred as early as the 1500s when African captives arrived in the Spanish colonies. In Spanish North America, some bondsmen escaped and took refuge with Native American groups who welcomed the runaways as members of their communities. Others absconded into unclaimed territories and secluded areas and formed maroon or free societies there. Later, maroon settlements were primarily found in the Great Dismal Swamp in North Carolina and Virginia, the bayous of Louisiana, and the mountainous regions of Kentucky and Tennessee. These communities usually offered shelter to thousands of fellow refugees. In the early 1700s, hundreds of enslaved Africans and Native Americans sought refuge in Spanish Florida which accorded them liberty. This act indeed posed a threat to White settlers in nearby British, French, Danish, and Dutch territories. African runaways often lived and intermarried with Native American groups such as the Creeks and Muscogee who provided them protection. Eventually this group of peoples became known as the "Seminoles" (a Native American word meaning runaway). Hundreds of African refugees from the Carolinas and Georgia customarily sought asylum with the Seminoles and freed African communities such as the Garcia Real de Santa Teresa de Mose (Fort Mose) and the Negro Fort (Fort Gadsden). According to historian John Blassingame, "by 1836 there were more than 1,200 maroons living in Seminole towns" (Buckmaster 1992: 18; Thompson 1987: 284-85; Gara 1961: 28-29; Preston 1933: 150; Deagan 1991: 5; Blassingame 1979: 211).

In the British North America and later the United States, antislavery sentiment flourished during the revolutionary period, but faded slightly by the beginning of the early 19th century. The call to end human bondage compelled freed African Americans and Quakers to form abolition societies such as the American Anti-Slavery Society and the New England Anti-Slavery Society in the North. Moreover, churches such as African Methodist Episcopal, Baptist, African Methodist Episcopal Zion, Presbyterian, and Methodist as well as Black fraternal organizations and social clubs played key roles in calling for emancipation and human rights.

The strength of abolitionism was in its diversity. At one extreme, African American writers and lecturers such as Olaudah Equiano, Francis Watkins Harper, Sojourner Truth, David Walker, and Charles L. Remond condemned slavery and the slave trade through their literary publications and speeches. Moreover, antislavery supporters reported the conditions of bondsmen, ideology, and work of abolitionism in the Freedom's Journal, Liberator, and North Star newspapers. In the other extreme, abolitionism took form in slave insurrections that were usually planned and/or led by radicals and bondsmen such as Gabriel Prosser, Denmark Vesey, Nat Turner, and John Brown. Inspired in part by the success of the Haitian Revolution, the number of revolts that occurred in the United States from 1790 to 1865 was small compared to other slave societies in the Western Hemisphere. Though these revolts were generally unsuccessful, the threat of their actions was a potent force to abolitionism (Strickland and Reich 1974: 125).

The most controversial aspect of the antislavery movement was the effort at colonization of both enslaved and liberated African Americans. Such groups like the American Colonization Society (ACS), mostly "viewed colonization as a means of uplifting the free [African] and of extending Christian missions to far-off lands." By the 1820s, abolitionists in England and the United States established two African colonies, Sierra Leone and Liberia, as a means to rid African Americans from White society. In fact, the ACS moved nearly 12,000 African Americans to Africa and other areas outside the United States. Not surprisingly, most African Americans, especially in the North, vehemently opposed the motives of the ACS. Yet some African Americans like Paul Cuffee supported its ideals and helped relocate about 3,000 African American emigrants to areas in Africa, the western territories, and Canada. Since few African Americans actually emigrated to these areas, schemes of this type generally failed (Quarles 1969; Franklin 1988: 155-56).

The antislavery movement played a primary role in assisting runaways to freedom. Abolitionists were crucial to the operations of the underground, but not all of them participated in or sanctioned its activities. Occasionally, African American 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.

Origins of the Underground Railroad
Evidence is unclear when the "underground" began; however, Henrietta Buckmaster, author of Let My People Go, asserts that "the first fugitive slave who asked for help from a member of his own race or the enemy race drove the first stake in that `railroad'" (Buckmaster 1992: 11). 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 (Blockson 1984: 9; Siebert 1896: 460). One year later, Isaac T. Hopper, a Quaker teenager, "began to organize a system for hiding and aiding fugitive slaves." Soon, several towns in Pennsylvania and New Jersey offered assistance to runaways (Haskins 1993: 9). Organized flight became evident in 1804 when General Thomas Boudes, a revolutionary officer of Columbia, Pennsylvania, aided and then refused to surrender a runaway bondsman to the owner (Buckmaster 1992: 23). By the 1830s, participation in furtive activity increased, and abolitionists recognized the underground as an effective weapon of attack against human bondage.

In 1831, the popularity of the railroad train coupled with legendary flights of certain runaways introduced the name for the underground movement. Supposedly, 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 bewildered and wondering if the slave had "gone off on some underground road." The success of Davids' escape soon spread among the enslaved on southern plantations (Stein 1981: 5þ10; Hamilton 1993: 53-56).

Organization and Operations of the Underground Railroad
Determined bondsmen escaped whenever there was an opportunity to do so. Historian Larry Gara maintains in The Liberty Line that "fugitives who rode the underground line often did so after having already completed the most difficult and dangerous phase of their journey alone and unaided." Typically, enslaved African Americans who fled from plantations and cities in Delaware, District of Columbia, Kentucky, Maryland, Missouri, and Virginia were more likely to take refuge in northern states, Canada, and western territories. In contrast, those who lived in the Deep South often ensured their freedom by escaping into Mexico and the Caribbean. Among other locations to which they fled were maroon societies, Native American groups, and large southern cities such as Baltimore, New Orleans, and Charleston, South Carolina (Gara 1961: 18, 29; Breyfogle 1958: 33; Fields 1985: 16).

For the most part, no national organization of the underground existed since "leadership in it was reached by individual performance and examples, not by election or appointment" (Breyfogle 1958: 173-74). In spite of this, "there was a semblance of underground railroad activity in certain localities" (Gara 1961: 18). Underground operations generally relied heavily on secret codes as railroad jargon alerted "passengers" when travel was safe. Runaways usually commuted either alone or in small groups, and were frequently assisted by African American and White "conductors" who risked their lives and property to escort refugees to freedom. Celebrated conductors of the Underground Railroad included James Fairfield, a White abolitionist who went into the Deep South and rescued enslaved African Americans by posing as a slave trader. In 1849, Harriet Tubman escaped from the Eastern Shore of Maryland and became known as "Moses" to her people when she made 19 trips to the South and helped deliver at least 300 fellow captives and loved ones to liberation. African American abolitionist John Parker of Ripley, Ohio, frequently ventured to Kentucky and Virginia and helped transport by boat hundreds of runaways across the Ohio River. Perhaps the closest the underground came to being formally organized was during the 1830s when African American abolitionists William Still, Robert Purvis, David Ruggles, and others organized and stationed vigilance committees throughout the North to help bondsmen to freedom. The intention of the vigilance committees was not to lure or personally guide runaways to freedom, but to offer whatever assistance they needed to reach their destinations.

Most runaways were men whose ages ranged from 16 to 35 years. Similarly, women and children escaped. However, compared to men, 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 a leading part in causing most bonded men and women to flee (Franklin 1988: 169; Meier and Rudwick: 1976; White 1991: 106-07). Examples of this are found in several autobiographies written by former bondsmen. In 1835, James L. Bradley, for instance, tenderly 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 heart's 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"

(Blassingame 1977: 688)

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 þ a future with hope in it.

(Douglass 1962; 1892: 156).

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 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. Runaways refrained from using conventional roads patrolled by slave catchers. To avoid capture, they relied on "railways" such as backroads, waterways, mountains, swamps, forests, and fields to escape. Later, 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 like Ellen and William Craft of Georgia plotted brilliant plans of escape by masquerading as master and slave. Frederick Douglass used ingenuity by posing as a sailor while making his escape from Maryland to New York. Henry "Box" Brown, with the assistance of underground agents, went as far as to ship himself by train in a crate from Richmond to Philadelphia (Haskins 1993: 94; Blassingame 1979: 200; William Still 1872: 67-73).

During the exodus, refugees received food, shelter, and money at "stations," which were operated by anyone who offered assistance. They regularly rested at stations conducted by abolitionists like Jermaine W. Loguen, William Still, Levi Coffin, and Thomas Garrett. These shelters were normally found about 10 to 30 miles apart on northbound "railways" (Franklin 1988: 169; Gara 1961; 94). As one source claimed, "that was the distance a healthy man could travel on foot, or a wagon carrying several slaves could cover at night" (Haskins 1993: 15). Some operators notified runaways of the stations through inconspicuous signals such as a brightly lit candle in a window or by a shimmering lantern strategically positioned in the frontyard. 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.

Underground activity flourished during the 1840s as antislavery sentiment deepened due to the federal government's failure to settle the slavery controversy. As northern and southern leaders refused to negotiate on the issue, Congress had attempted to solve the problem by ratifying the Missouri Compromise in 1820 that prohibited slavery in newly acquired territories and states. Following the Mexican War in 1848, however, the debate intensified as southern landowners sought to extend their plantation economy westward. Abolitionists nevertheless continued to assist runaways and flaunted their activity as a way to win added support for the antislavery movement. The operations of the underground seemed even more apparent after the Supreme Court announced in the case Prigg v. Pennsylvania (1842) that federal law did not require that state officials aid in the return of runaways. This ruling rendered by the court caused an uproar in the South.

In an attempt to reconcile sectional differences, Congress passed the Compromise of 1850 that included a revised Fugitive Slave Law. The measure declared the return of runaways, and proclaimed that federal and state officials as well as private citizens had to assist in their capture. With these restrictions, northern states were no longer considered safe havens for runaways, and the law even jeopardized the status of freedmen. Significantly, the Fugitive Slave Law enticed corrupt slave catchers to kidnap free African Americans and sell them into bondage for a hefty profit. A classic example of this is retold in the memoirs of Solomon Northup who fell victim to a notorious kidnapping ring in New York (Northup 1853; Eakin 1990). Escape destinations thus were no longer limited to the territories and northern states. Major urban centers that were safe places of refuge became increasingly dangerous for runaways. Railways were extended into Canadian cities and towns like Dresden, North Buxaton, St. Catharines, Windsor, and Chatham that operated as major termini for the underground. Similarly, bondsmen who fled from Texas, Louisiana, and Arkansas usually took refuge in Mexico, while those who were enslaved in the lower southeastern coastal areas absconded into the Caribbean. Although the Fugitive Slave Law threatened its operations, the Underground Railroad continued to provide assistance to refugees.

By the end of the 1850s, the slavery controversy continued to split the nation further apart as the North and South refused to agree on a solution. Regional differences over slavery mounted as significant events like the Kansas-Nebraska Act, the Dred Scott case in 1857, the publication of Harriet Beecher Stowe's renowned literary work, Uncle Tom's Cabin, and the faile Harper's Ferry insurrection devised by John Brown helped precipitate the nation into a civil war by 1861. While the Civil War captured the attention of the country, underground activity continued as thousands of enslaved African Americans deserted plantations and cities and took refuge within Union lines. With the help of more than 180,000 African American soldiers and spies, Union forces secured victory over the Confederacy in 1865. Immediately following the war, the necessity for underground activities ceased when the 13th Amendment to the United States Constitution officially liberated more than 4 million enslaved African Americans.