What was the Underground Railroad?

The Underground Railroad was a covert network of safe houses and routes assisting enslaved African Americans in their escape to freedom during the 19th century. Operated by abolitionists and former slaves, it symbolized the struggle against slavery, helping thousands reach free territories and countries, notably Canada.

In the article below, World History Edu explores the history, importance and major facts of the Underground Railroad.

The Underground Railroad emerged during the late 18th and early 19th centuries as a response to the injustice of slavery in the United States. Image: Routes of the Underground Railroad

How did the Underground Railroad get its name?

The Underground Railroad wasn’t a physical railroad, nor was it “underground” in a literal sense. The term “Underground Railroad” used metaphorical language that drew from the growing railway system of the era.

The term “underground” is a reference to the secretive and covert nature of the operation. Those involved in helping enslaved people escape took great precautions to keep their activities hidden from authorities and slave catchers. Safe houses, where runaway slaves could hide and rest, were often called “stations,” and the people who ran them “stationmasters.”

The use of “railroad” terminology reflected the increasing importance of railroads in the 19th century as a means of transportation. “Conductors” were individuals who guided the escapees from one station to the next. “Passengers” or “cargo” referred to the fleeing enslaved people, and “tracks” symbolized the routes they would take.

It’s worth noting that while the term captures the clandestine nature of the network and evokes the imagery of a well-organized transportation system, the Underground Railroad was more a loose collection of independent operators, routes, and safe houses than a centralized system.

The exact origin of the term is not definitively known, but it gained widespread popularity in the 1830s and 1840s, as the activities of this network became more pronounced.

Impact of the Underground Railroad

The Underground Railroad symbolized the resistance against the institution of slavery and demonstrated the tangible means by which slaves could seek liberation.

It exposed the moral shortcomings of a nation claiming liberty as a founding principle while perpetuating human bondage.

Also, the Underground Railroad played a significant role in the intensifying tensions between the North and South, contributing to the onset of the Civil War. For example, in response to the success of the Underground Railroad, the South pushed for the Fugitive Slave Act, which mandated the return of escaped slaves to their owners and imposed penalties on those who aided fugitives. This act further divided the North and the South, with many Northerners openly defying the law, viewing it as morally reprehensible.

By aiding and giving voice to the oppressed, the Railroad provided powerful testimony to the moral arguments against slavery. The stories of escaped slaves and their harrowing journeys underscored the brutality and inhumanity of the institution.

Historians like to note that the Underground Railroad was not merely a passive or silent protest. In certain cases, like that of John Brown’s raid on Harpers Ferry, it was associated with more direct and violent forms of resistance, further pushing the nation towards conflict.

And during the Civil War, knowledge of the secretive routes and safe houses of the Underground Railroad could be used for intelligence, scouting, and guiding purposes, aiding the Union forces in their military campaigns.

Primary individuals and groups involved in the Underground Railroad

The Underground Railroad was a vast and intricate network of people from diverse backgrounds who were united by a shared commitment to abolishing slavery. Many individuals and groups played vital roles in its operation.

  • Harriet Tubman: Perhaps the most famous conductor on the Underground Railroad, Tubman was an escaped slave who made approximately 19 trips back to the South, leading around 300 enslaved individuals to freedom.

Harriet Tubman

  • William Still: An African American abolitionist based in Philadelphia, Still is often referred to as the “Father of the Underground Railroad” because he helped hundreds of slaves to freedom. He also kept detailed records, which became the basis for his book, “The Underground Railroad Records.”
  • Frederick Douglass: An escaped slave and prominent abolitionist, Douglass used his platform to support the Underground Railroad and assisted fugitives through his home in Rochester, New York.

Frederick Douglass, c.1840s, in his 20s

  • Thomas Garrett: A Quaker from Delaware, Garrett helped approximately 2,700 enslaved people escape to freedom.
  • John Brown: An abolitionist who believed in taking militant action against slavery, Brown also provided assistance to fugitive slaves.
  • Levi Coffin: Often called the “President of the Underground Railroad,” this Quaker and his wife Catherine assisted thousands of escapees.

Quaker abolitionist Levi Coffin

  • The Quakers: This religious group was central to the operation of the Underground Railroad, with many of its members acting as conductors and stationmasters.
  • African Methodist Episcopal Church (AME): Founded by free blacks in the early 19th century, AME churches often served as stations or sanctuaries for escaping slaves.
  • Networks of Free Blacks: In both the North and border states, free Black communities provided crucial support, often risking their own freedom or safety.
  • White Abolitionists: While many abolitionists supported efforts to end slavery through legal and political means, others were actively involved in the Underground Railroad operations.
  • The Vigilance Committees: Established in cities like New York and Philadelphia, these committees provided legal aid, funds, and resources to escaped slaves.
  • Native American Tribes: Some tribes, particularly in areas like the Great Lakes, provided assistance to escaping slaves, offering them shelter and sometimes integrating them into their communities.

Radical Abolitionist John Brown’s was heavily involved in the Underground Railroad

How did the Fugitive Slave Act impact the operations of the Underground Railroad?

The Fugitive Slave Act of 1850 had a profound impact on the operations of the Underground Railroad and intensified the already existing divisions between the North and the South over the issue of slavery.

The Act mandated that all escaped slaves were to be returned to their masters and that officials and citizens of free states had to cooperate in this law. This made the process of helping escaped slaves more dangerous, as those involved in the Underground Railroad could face heavy fines, imprisonment, or both if caught aiding fugitive slaves.

With the increased risk came an escalation in the efforts of those involved in the Underground Railroad. Routes and methods became more covert, and there was a greater sense of urgency to move escaped slaves quickly from one safe place to the next.

While many escaped slaves initially sought freedom in the Northern states, after the Act, the final destination for many became Canada, where they would be out of reach of U.S. law. The Underground Railroad had to adapt and extend its routes to help fugitives get to Canada.

Some Northern states enacted laws to counteract the Fugitive Slave Act and protect escaped slaves. This “nullification” approach put the states in direct opposition to federal law. Vigilance committees sprang up in various cities, dedicated to watching for slave catchers and warning the African American community of their presence.

Difference between Veterans Day and Memorial Day

The aggressive enforcement of the Act angered many in the North, mobilizing public opinion against the Act and pushing more people to support abolitionist causes and the Underground Railroad. Harriet Beecher Stowe’s “Uncle Tom’s Cabin,” for instance, was partly inspired by the Fugitive Slave Act and showcased the evils of slavery, stirring anti-slavery sentiments.

Slave catchers and bounty hunters tried to take advantage of the law, sometimes even kidnapping free black citizens and selling them into slavery. This caused tension not only due to the immorality of the act but also because of the economic ramifications.

In the nutshell, the Act exacerbated tensions between the North and the South. The North resented the Act’s imposition on their states’ rights and the moral implications of assisting in the perpetuation of slavery. The South felt the North was not upholding its obligations under the law and saw their defiance as an affront.

It was not an actual “railroad” but a metaphorical term used to describe the series of secret routes and safe houses used by slaves to escape to freedom. Image: “A Ride for Liberty – The Fugitive Slaves” by American painter Eastman Johnson

States and territories that were most active in the Underground Railroad?

While it was active in many regions, some states and territories were particularly noteworthy for their involvement.

  1. Ohio: Due to its border with the slave state of Kentucky, Ohio was a major hub for the Underground Railroad. Towns such as Ripley and Cincinnati were well-known safe havens, and many fugitive slaves passed through Ohio on their way to Canada.
  2. Pennsylvania: This state was another significant hub. Philadelphia, in particular, had strong abolitionist networks, and figures like William Still played a major role in assisting fugitive slaves.
  3. New York: New York was a critical state for the Underground Railroad because of its border with Canada. Cities such as Rochester (home to Frederick Douglass) and Syracuse were vital points of passage.
  4. Indiana: Levi Coffin, known as the “President of the Underground Railroad,” operated in Indiana, making it a central state for the Railroad.
  5. Michigan: Given its proximity to Canada, Michigan was a significant endpoint for many fugitive slaves. Detroit was especially active.
  6. Vermont: Another state close to Canada, Vermont had several active Underground Railroad routes.
  7. Illinois: With Chicago as a hub and activists like John Jones aiding fugitive slaves, Illinois played an important role in the Underground Railroad.
  8. Delaware: Although a slave state, Delaware had notable figures like Thomas Garrett who assisted hundreds in their escape to freedom.
  9. Maryland: Being a border state, Maryland was a starting point for many slaves on the Underground Railroad, including the famous Harriet Tubman.
  10. Massachusetts: The abolitionist movement was strong in Massachusetts, with cities like Boston being central to anti-slavery activities.
  11. Territory of Kansas: Known as “Bleeding Kansas” due to the violent confrontations over whether it would enter the Union as a free or slave state, Kansas had active Underground Railroad operations.
  12. Wisconsin: This state was involved in several notable instances of resistance against the Fugitive Slave Act.

Key figures like Harriet Tubman, Frederick Douglass, and William Still played crucial roles in its operations. Image: International Underground Railroad Memorial in Windsor, Ontario in Canada

Places where the Underground Railroad extended into

The Underground Railroad primarily operated within the United States, but it had significant extensions into Canada and, to a lesser extent, other regions.

The most well-known extension of the Underground Railroad was into Canada. Many escaped slaves aimed for Canada because, once there, they were beyond the reach of U.S. laws and slave catchers. The British Empire had abolished slavery in 1834 with the Slavery Abolition Act, making Canada a safe haven for those seeking freedom. Various Canadian communities, especially in places like Ontario, became prominent settlements for these refugees.

While not as common as the route to Canada, there was also an Underground Railroad that led south to Mexico. Slavery was abolished in Mexico in 1829, making it another potential place of refuge. Texas, before it became a U.S. state, was one of the slaveholding territories where slaves would escape into Mexico. One notable escape was Tom Blue, an enslaved man who served Sam Houston, a prominent American figure, for almost three decades as a personal servant and coachman. In 1862, Tom Blue escaped with another young servant, Walter Hume, and they journeyed to Laredo, Texas. There, Blue joined the Mexican military.

Tom Blue

Some freedom seekers also went to the British Caribbean territories after the British Empire abolished slavery in 1834. While not a significant extension of the Underground Railroad compared to Canada, it was still a destination for some.

Certain Native American tribes, such as the Seminole in Florida, were known to shelter escaped slaves. Over time, escaped slaves integrated into some of these communities, forming unique Afro-Indigenous populations.

Some enslaved individuals managed to secure passage on ships, often with the help of free black sailors, and escape to various destinations including Northern U.S. cities, the Caribbean, and even Europe.

The Harriet Tubman Memorial in Boston


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