The “Underground Railroad” refers to the effort—sometimes spontaneous, sometimes highly organized—to assist persons held in bondage in North America to escape from slavery. Runaways began their journey unaided. Many completed their self-emancipation without assistance. However, each decade in which slavery was legal in the United States saw an increase in the public perception of a secretive network and in the number of persons willing to give aid to the runaway.
The origin of the term, “Underground Railroad” cannot be precisely determined. Both those who aided escapes from slavery and those who were outraged by loss of slave property began to refer to runaways as part of an “underground railroad” by the 1830s. The “Underground Railroad” described an activity that was locally organized, but with no real center. In the North, it sometimes existed rather openly and, in the upper South and certain southern cities, it was often just beneath the surface of daily life. The Underground Railroad, where it existed, offered local aid to runaway slaves, assisting them from one point to another. Farther along, others would take the passengers into their transportation system until the final destination had been reached.
The rapidity with which the term became commonly used did not mean that incidents of resistance to slavery increased significantly around 1830 or that more attempts were made to escape from bondage. It did mean that more white northerners were prepared to aid runaways and to give some assistance to the northern blacks who had always made it their business to help escapees from slavery. It was on January 1, 1831, that the first issue of William Lloyd Garrison’s newspaper, The Liberator, was published. That event marks the traditional beginning of the era of abolitionist attack on the institution of slavery and of angry and defensive responses from the slaveholding South. Both the high visibility of the abolitionist attack and the existence of so many printed records have perhaps encouraged historians to overemphasize that part of the antislavery movement.
Other aspects of the Underground Railroad, other than the abolitionist movement, also deserve attention. First, there were probably at least as many attempts at escape from slavery in the North America of the late 1600s and the 1700s, both individual and in groups, as in the 1800s. By the 1800s various forces, from the national Constitution to the local slave patrols, were all aligned to prevent escapes. Second, while primary attention is given to the drama of slave escapes to the free states of the North and to Canada, there was also a flow of runaways into Spanish Florida, Spanish Mexico, and the subsequent Mexican Republic. Although the numbers escaping southward and northward across the borders never threatened to destabilize slavery, there were serious consequences for American diplomacy and domestic politics. Indeed, American foreign policy in the antebellum era was often driven by the need to secure national borders and prevent slave escapes. A third factor is that the majority of assistance to runaways came from slaves and free blacks, and the greatest responsibility for providing shelter, financial support and direction to successful runaways came from the organized efforts of northern free blacks.
The importance of the Underground Railroad is best measured not by the number of attempted or successful escapes from American slavery, but by the manner in which it consistently exposed the grim realities of slavery. More importantly, it refuted the claim that African Americans could not act or organize on their own. Throughout the American colonial era and until the early 1800s, slavery had most frequently been rationalized as a “necessary evil.” Some believed that it Christianized and civilized the African. However, with the end of the slave trade and rise of the “cotton kingdom,” it became clear that another set of theories would have to be developed to justify the continuation of lifetime servitude. In order to promote slavery as a “positive good,” proslavery advocates had to claim, against much evidence, that African Americans were better off in slavery and generally content with their bondage. Runaways refuted this claim by their actions.
The debate in Congress in 1819 and 1820 over whether Missouri should be admitted to the Union as a slave state or a free state made it clear to northerners and southerners that the issue of slavery was not going to resolve itself and that slavery was not going to simply evaporate in the American republic. In the 1820s and increasingly in the 1830s, slave-state philosophers argued that Africans were not capable of caring for themselves, taking initiative, or organizing for the good of the community—all of which were requirements for citizenship in a republic. The Underground Railroad—from the first decision to run away through the actions of black-organized vigilance committees and churches to the economics of black communities—was a constant reminder of African-American initiative and ability. Its existence proved that some ideologies were purely racist and self-serving.
The Underground Railroad gave ample evidence of African-American capabilities and gave expression to an African-American worldview. It provided an opportunity for sympathetic white Americans to play a role in resisting slavery. It also brought together, however uneasily at times, men and women of both races to begin to set aside assumptions about the other race and to work together on issues of mutual concern. At the most dramatic level, the Underground Railroad provided stories of guided escapes from the South, rescues of arrested fugitives in the North, complex communication systems, and individual acts of bravery and suffering.
It has often been noted that the Underground Railroad was neither “underground” nor a “railroad.” In the period of greatest activity, from 1830 to 1861, its activities encompassed individual decisions to flee from American slavery, individual acts of support or betrayal, and loosely-organized networks of assistance. The farther north one moved, the more apparent and public the aid to fugitives became. The closer to the slave states, the more clandestine was the activity. “Helping the fugitive” was a subject that fascinated Americans. Many people who did not consider themselves abolitionists aided fugitives from spontaneous impulse, perhaps thinking of the Biblical pronouncement that aid to the “least of these” was aid to the divine. No maps with arrows pointing out trails and no favored river or sea routes could encompass the individual and unpredictable acts of assistance. Nor do such routes factor in betrayals or exhaustion. Indeed, the fact that there were no predetermined trails may have been the chief reason for much success. No trail could have remained secret for very long.
While occasional stories were recounted of people who had walked from Texas, Mississippi, or Alabama to Iowa, Indiana, or Ohio, most of the fugitives came from the upper south and were young men in good health. Most of those east of the Appalachian Mountains tended to go directly north, by land or water, to Pennsylvania, New York, and the Boston area. Those on the other side of the mountains had to cross the Ohio River to leave Virginia or Kentucky or Tennessee. Slaves from Arkansas and Texas might cross the contested areas of Missouri and Kansas to head east for aid in Indiana or Illinois.
It is difficult to determine the number of attempted escapes from slavery each year. Most historians, calculating through various systems, feel that one thousand successful escapees per year is not an exaggeration. The figure may be as high as fifteen hundred. This does not count those who were captured before they reached free land or those who hid out for a time in southern swamps and mountains. Nor does it take into account those runaways who were seeking family still enslaved in the South or attempting to negotiate better conditions from the master. These latter persons seldom escaped to a life of freedom, but satisfied more immediate needs. Some runaways passed as free in southern cities and could not be counted as having found “free land.”
Runaways came from all conditions, ages, and sexes. However, they were more likely to be young males (between the ages of eighteen and thirty-five) who did not yet have wives and who lived in states with borders crossing to free land. Frequently, they worked in towns and cities and were familiar with the passage of ships on the docks, the times of coaches, and the flat boats that carried goods to and from the interior. The most common Underground Railroad route was likely to be an established route between one town and another with the fugitive either in disguise or hiding under the cargo of a wagon, a flatboat, or a ship.
Many runaways traveled alone and asked aid of no one until they believed themselves to be near or beyond a border to free land. If helped in the south, they were likely to be aided by other slaves and by free blacks. The southern states developed an elaborate network of surveillance, chase, and capture of runaways. It was important to avoid slave patrols, local law officers, suspicious farmers, hostile dogs, and even bloodhounds, by not traveling on a known route or calling attention to oneself. Southern jails were full of blacks picked up on suspicion of being runaways. The jailers expected a reward when the “master” (who may or may not have been one) picked them up.
Those who attempted to reach the North became more aware, as the decades passed, of some organized assistance from black and white abolitionists and other sympathizers. Especially after 1830, when black and white abolitionists began to despair of moral persuasion, there followed a commitment to abolitionism, the formation of predominantly black vigilance committees, and support for what came to be called the “Underground Railroad.”
Many scholars and researchers have estimated that about 100,000 persons successfully escaped slavery between 1790 and 1860. Advertisements for runaway slaves and descriptions of those picked up by the police often indicated whether the fugitive was trying to reach freedom or to stay, hidden, in the area. Examples of those suspected of staying in the region included Mandeville, a seventeen year old with a limp, who “has lately been seen in Manchester [Virginia], and I have reason to believe has been secreted by his grandmother, old Critty, who is well known in that place” and Gerrard, a twenty-year-old man, who “has always lived near the Alexandria Ferry, on the Maryland side, and as his Parents are now living there, it is expected he is lurking about the Town of Alexandria or the City of Washington.”
The years between the end of the American Revolution (1783) and the end of the Civil War (1865) are the years in which the United States was a slave-holding independent nation. If the frequent claim of one hundred thousand successful runaways prior to the Civil War is valid, then that means that, at a minimum, the eighty years between the Revolution and the Civil War produced approximately twelve hundred successful runaways per year. We may be sure that the numbers were not the same each year since individual opportunity varied at all times. Due to the mystery, which surrounded the runaways, we cannot know the exact number of the escapes that went unrecorded in the North or the South.
1. What does the term, “Underground Railroad,” mean?
a. It refers to the method that many slaves used to escape to free territories.
b.It was made up in the 1830s to describe the booming illegal slave trade.
c. It was one measure abolitionists were willing to take against slavery.
d.It was a secret route of communication between free and enslaved blacks.
2. Who participated in the Underground Railroad?
a. die-hard abolitionists
b. freedom fighters and free blacks
d. all of the above
3. How did the Underground Railroad prove to whites that blacks had initiative and ability?
a. It was a forum for communication between blacks.
b. Whites were able to meet slaves along the trail.
c. Blacks successfully organized escapes and endured complicated journeys.
d. Whites and blacks worked together to ensure the secrecy of the mission.
4. Why did the Underground Railroad bring many different types of people together?
a. A diverse group of people were all willing to help the slaves.
b. The black organizations called for aid from southerners.
c. Many freed blacks were determined to help the slaves.
d. Some organizations forced blacks and whites to participate.
5. What is a reasonable estimate of how many slaves successfully escaped between the end of the Revolutionary War and the beginning of the Civil War?
6. Why were the escapees mainly young black men in good health?
a. The trip was too dangerous for women and children.
b. Most married men could not have left their families.
c. The young men were more aware of the Underground Railroad.
d. Many single men were stronger than the married men.
7. Why wasn’t there one specific route to follow along the Underground Railroad?
a. Many slaves came from different parts of the South.
b. The slaves wouldn’t be able to remember a precise route.
c. A definite route would have been easily discovered.
d. Slaves were worried that an exact route could be lost for many.
8. Why was it difficult for historians to estimate how many slaves had escaped over the years?
a. Many white slave owners burned the exact records.
b. While a number of slaves escaped, some were brought back into slave territories.
c. The blacks destroyed all evidence of the escapees.
d. Very few records remain because of the necessary secrecy.
Why did the author describe the Underground Railroad as “organized, but with no real center”? Why was its organization a testament to the intelligence and capability of black people?
10. Although it is uncertain how many slaves were ultimately able to achieve freedom through the Underground Railroad, what were some of its other benefits? How did the Underground Railroad affect relations between blacks and whites? Explain.