The Underground Railroad

A secret network led thousands of slaves to freedom

Artist's depiction of slaves escaping from Maryland on the Underground Railroad
Print Collector/Getty Images

The Underground Railroad was the name given to a loose network of activists which helped escaped slaves from the American South find lives of freedom in northern states or across the international border in Canada.

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 escaped slaves.

Members might range from former slaves to prominent abolitionists to ordinary citizens who would spontaneously help the cause.

Because the Underground Railroad was a secretive organization which existed to thwart federal laws against helping escaped slaves, 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 blacks and sympathetic whites to help slaves escape 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 escaped slaves. And Quakers who had moved from Massachusetts to North Carolina began helping slaves travel to freedom in the North as early as the 1820s and 1830s.

A North Carolina Quaker, Levi Coffin, was greatly offended by slavery and moved to Indiana in the mid-1820s. He eventually organized a network in Ohio and Indiana that helped slaves who had managed to leave slave territory by crossing the Ohio River. Coffin's organization generally helped the escaped slaves move onward to Canada.

Under the British rule of Canada, they could not be captured and returned to slavery in the American South.

A prominent figure associated with the Underground Railroad was Harriet Tubman, who escaped from slavery 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 slaves escape. 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 slaves 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 slaves being helped to escape 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 slaves escape was viewed as a dastardly attempt to overturn a way of life and potentially instigate slave revolts.

With both sides of the slavery 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 escaped slaves were actually helped. It has been estimated that perhaps a thousand slaves 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 slaves escape, most operations of the Underground Railroad took place in the free states of the North.

Laws concerning fugitive slaves required that they are returned to their owners, so those who helped them in the North were essentially subverting federal laws.

Most of the slaves who were helped were from the "upper South," slave states such as Virginia, Maryland, and Kentucky. It was, of course, far more difficult for slaves from farther south to travel the greater distances to reach free territory in Pennsylvania or Ohio. In the "lower South," slave patrols often moved about on the roads, looking for blacks who were traveling. If a slave was caught without a pass from their owner, they would typically be captured and returned. 

In a typical scenario, a slave who reached free territory would be hidden and escorted northward without attracting attention. At households and farms along the way the fugitive slaves would be fed and sheltered. At times an escaped slave 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 an escaped slave could be captured in the North and returned to slavery 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.

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McNamara, Robert. "The Underground Railroad." ThoughtCo, Dec. 1, 2017, thoughtco.com/the-underground-railroad-1773555. McNamara, Robert. (2017, December 1). The Underground Railroad. Retrieved from https://www.thoughtco.com/the-underground-railroad-1773555 McNamara, Robert. "The Underground Railroad." ThoughtCo. https://www.thoughtco.com/the-underground-railroad-1773555 (accessed January 16, 2018).