The Underground Railroad

Artist's depiction of enslaved people escaping from Maryland on the Underground Railroad
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The Underground Railroad was the name given to a loose network of activists that helped freedom-seeking enslaved people from the American South find lives of freedom in northern states or across the international border in Canada. The term was coined by abolitionist William Still.

There was no official membership in the organization, and while specific networks did exist and have been documented, the term is often loosely used to describe anyone who helped freedom seekers. Members might range from formerly enslaved people to prominent abolitionists to ordinary citizens who would spontaneously help the cause.

Because the Underground Railroad was a secretive organization that existed to thwart federal laws against helping freedom seekers, it kept no records.

In the years following the Civil War, some major figures in the Underground Railroad revealed themselves and told their stories. But the history of the organization has been often shrouded in mystery.

Beginnings of the Underground Railroad

The term Underground Railroad first began to appear in the 1840s, but efforts by free Black Americans and sympathetic whites to help enslaved people obtain freedom from bondage had occurred earlier. Historians have noted that groups of Quakers in the North, most notably in the area near Philadelphia, developed a tradition of helping freedom seekers. And Quakers who had moved from Massachusetts to North Carolina began helping enslaved people travel to freedom in the North as early as the 1820s and 1830s.

A North Carolina Quaker, Levi Coffin, was greatly offended by enslavement and moved to Indiana in the mid-1820s. He eventually organized a network in Ohio and Indiana that helped enslaved people who had managed to leave enslavement territory by crossing the Ohio River. Coffin's organization generally helped freedom seekers move onward to Canada. Under the British rule of Canada, they could not be captured and returned to enslavement in the American South.

A prominent figure associated with the Underground Railroad was Harriet Tubman, who escaped from enslavement in Maryland in the late 1840s. She returned two years later to help some of her relatives escape. Throughout the 1850s she made at least a dozen journeys back to the South and helped at least 150 enslaved people obtain freedom. Tubman demonstrated great bravery in her work, as she faced death if captured in the South.

The Reputation of the Underground Railroad

By the early 1850s, stories about the shadowy organization were not uncommon in newspapers. For instance, a small article in the New York Times of November 26, 1852, claimed that enslaved people in Kentucky were "daily escaping to Ohio, and by the Underground Railroad, to Canada."

In northern papers, the shadowy network was often portrayed as a heroic endeavor.

In the South, stories of enslaved people that received help reaching safety were portrayed quite differently. In the mid-1830s, a campaign by the northern abolitionists in which anti-slavery pamphlets were mailed to southern cities infuriated southerners. The pamphlets were burned in the streets, and northerners who were seen as meddling in the southern way of life were threatened with arrest or even death.

Against that backdrop, the Underground Railroad was considered a criminal enterprise. To many in the South, the idea of helping freedom seekers reach safety was viewed as a dastardly attempt to overturn a way of life and potentially instigate revolts of enslaved people.

With both sides of the enslavement debate referring so often to the Underground Railroad, the organization appeared to be much larger and far more organized than it actually could have been.

It is difficult to know for certain how many freedom seekers were actually helped. It has been estimated that perhaps a thousand enslaved people a year reached free territory and were then helped to move onward to Canada.

Operations of the Underground Railroad

While Harriet Tubman actually ventured into the South to help freedom seekers reach safety, most operations of the Underground Railroad took place in the free states of the North. Laws concerning freedom seekers required that they were returned to their enslavers, so those who helped them in the North were essentially subverting federal laws.

Most of the enslaved people who were helped were from the "upper South," pro-slavery states such as Virginia, Maryland, and Kentucky. It was, of course, far more difficult for enslaved people from farther south to travel the greater distances to reach free territory in Pennsylvania or Ohio. In the "lower South," patrols searching for freedom seekers often moved about on the roads, looking for Black people who were traveling. If an enslaved person was caught without a pass from their enslaver, they would typically be captured and returned. 

In a typical scenario, an enslaved person who reached free territory would be hidden and escorted northward without attracting attention. At households and farms along the way the freedom seekers would be fed and sheltered. At times a freedom seeker would be given help in what was essentially a spontaneous nature, hidden in farm wagons or aboard boats sailing on rivers. 

There was always a danger that a freedom seeker could be captured in the North and returned to enslavement in the South, where they might face punishment that could include whippings or torture. 

There are many legends today about houses and farms that were Underground Railroad "stations." Some of those stories are undoubtedly true, but they are often difficult to verify as the activities of the Underground Railroad were necessarily secret at the time.