The Underground Railroad was a network of safe-houses and individuals who helped slaves escape from the South to the North or Canada. The runaway slaves were guided from one station in the Underground Railroad to another, where they stopped to rest and eat before heading to the next, all the way up the country, evading officials and slaveholders who were searching for them.
The Underground Railroad began in early 1800s, and was the most active from 1850 to 1860, freeing about 1,000 slaves per year. Over the entire course of the Underground Railroad, more than 100,000 slaves were freed using the system.
What was the United States’ stance on slavery during the 19th century?
Slavery was a legal practice in the United States before the country was even founded, though outright slavery was much less common than indentured servitude – often foreigners wishing to come to the New World, who could not afford the trip would become indentured servants until they paid off their journey, when they would be free. Around 1700, the trend shifted towards slavery, especially in the U.S. South, where hard labor was frequent.
The Fugitive Slave Law of 1793 required officials from the escaped slave’s state to help track the fugitives down and return them to the plantation they came from. In 1850, after the Mexican-American War, the United States made the Fugitive Slave Law harsher, requiring all states to hunt and find fugitive slaves, and return them to their owners. This harsher law caused major issues in the North, where there were many freed slaves who could not prove their freedom, and were captured.
Though slaves ran away for as long as slavery existed, and a network of sympathizers and supporters who helped the runaways existed before this time, it only became known as the Underground Railroad around 1831, the same time steam railroads were gaining popularity. Although the Underground Railroad was neither underground, nor a railroad, the system worked in a similar fashion to a railroad. The passengers followed a route; there were many stops; a conductor led the way. It was underground because it had to be a secretive operation in order to succeed, and the runaway slaves often had to hide to stay safe. Those involved with the Underground Railroad developed a code system of railroad terms to discuss the network in secret. The stations were the stops at safe-houses, their owners the station masters. The passengers or cargo were the runaways, who were led by a conductor to the entry port, Canada.
Who were the key people involved in the Underground Railroad?
Harriet Tubman: One of the most important figures involved in the Underground Railroad, Harriet Tubman was a slave who escaped in 1849 and then made 19 trips back to Southern plantations in order to lead a total of around 300 slaves to freedom. Known as “Moses,” Tubman was a conductor, guiding fugitive slaves along the Underground Railroad. Tubman also helped John Brown with his raid on Harpers Ferry and later became an activist for women’s suffrage.
Frederick Douglass: An ex-slave who escaped to the North as a young man, Frederick Douglass became an activist and leader of the Underground Railroad in New York. Douglass wrote autobiographies of his time as a slave and after, setting a great example and giving hope to many. Douglass fought for civil rights and equality of all humans.
Levi Coffin: Sometimes called the “President of the Underground Railroad,” Levi Coffin’s home is known as “Grand Central Station” and helped around 3,000 slaves on their journey to freedom. Coffin was raised as a Quaker, and became a businessman who sold only goods made with free labor.
John Fairfield: Though raised in a slave-holding family, Fairfield became an abolitionist and a conductor of the Underground Railroad. Fairfield sometimes devised schemes, posing as a slave-holder or trader in order to help slaves escape to freedom.
What was the route of the Underground Railroad?
The Underground Railroad’s network was informal and had many routes, some even to Mexico or the Caribbean instead of Canada. Many routes traveled through the Appalachian Mountains, and some even required travel by boat. A popular route followed the Mississippi, and then to the Great Lakes region before entering Canada, while many others traveled closer to the coast, and up to New England.