The Underground Railroad

An Ever-Evolving 'Path' to Freedom

Portrait of Harriet Tubman
Portrait of Harriet Tubman. Underwood Archives / Getty Images

How many hundreds of heroes go unheralded from the days of the Underground Railroad? While we celebrate such important figures as Harriet Tubman and Frederick Douglass, numerous others were needed to make the operation of the "railroad" a success. Runaway slaves had to be given shelter from weather and from search parties. The tale of this awesome phenomenon is one of cooperation, coordination, and brotherly love.

The Underground Railroad operated as a secret organization dedicated to assisting runaway slaves from the South. The Railroad should not be thought of, however, as one cohesive body. It was in fact an ever-evolving organization devoted to one cause: protection of one's fellow men and women. It actually began during the colonial period. However, it reached its height in the decades preceding the American Civil War. Acts such as the 'Fugitive Slave Act of 1850' increased railroad activity and popularity. The ultimate goal of the Underground Railroad was to accomplish the safe arrival of runaway slaves to Canada where the long arm of the law could not reach them. Laws such as the Fugitive Slave Acts of 1793 and 1850 allowed slave owners to recapture escaped slaves and bring them back to bondage in the South.

Some historians believe this courageous organization was began by Quakers in Pennsylvania and New Jersey.

Over time, the backbone of this organization became the numerous free blacks of the North. They were essential to the successful operation of the Underground Railroad. In most cases, fleeing slaves traveled by any means necessary and often on their own in an effort to reach freedom in the North. After arriving in the North the people of the Underground Railroad would provide assistance and supplies in an effort to get them to the guaranteed freedom of Canada.

Following are Significant Figures of the Underground Railroad:

  • Harriet Tubman - Escaped slave known as 'Moses' to those that longed for her to bring them to freedom. Her name is entwined with that of the Underground Railroad.
  • James Fairfield - A white abolitionist rescued enslaved African Americans by pretending to be a slave trader.
  • Thomas Garrett - A Quaker businessman from Wilmington, Delaware who is credited with helping more than 2,700 slaves find freedom.
  • William Still - Former slave who purchased his own freedom and then became a leader in the Underground Railroad. He also wrote a book preserving the stories of escaped slaves.
  • Frederick Douglass - African-American abolitionist and publisher of the "North Star" newspaper.
  • John Parker - Son of a white businessman and a slave, by his own account he helped over 400 slaves to freedom.

As stated above, these are just some of the leaders in this tremendous effort. They do not represent all of the heroes who risked everything in an effort stand for the rights of all people.

Impact and Legacy

Harriet Tubman journeyed approximately 560 miles in her emancipation efforts. What is truly amazing is that estimates range between 50,000 to 100,000 people who were assisted by the Underground Railroad on this tremendous trek.

Today, numerous commemoration efforts to memorialize key "stations" of the effort. However, because of the nature of this huge effort, many sites will not get the recognition they deserve. In fact, some people may actually own important sites and not even be aware of their historical value.


  • Underground Railroad. pg 404. 7/25/02.
  • Brown, Sharon A. and Barbara Tagger. "The Underground Railroad: A Study in Heroism." 7/28/02.
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Kelly, Martin. "The Underground Railroad." ThoughtCo, Feb. 11, 2017, Kelly, Martin. (2017, February 11). The Underground Railroad. Retrieved from Kelly, Martin. "The Underground Railroad." ThoughtCo. (accessed December 17, 2017).