Underground Railroad

The Underground Railroad was a network of secret routes and safe houses established in the United States during the early to mid-19th century. It was used by enslaved African Americans primarily to escape into free states and Canada.[1] The scheme was assisted by abolitionists and others sympathetic to the cause of the escapees.[2] The enslaved who risked escape and those who aided them are also collectively referred to as the "Underground Railroad".[3] Various other routes led to Mexico,[4] where slavery had been abolished, and to islands in the Caribbean that were not part of the slave trade.[5] An earlier escape route running south toward Florida, then a Spanish possession (except 1763–83), existed from the late 17th century until approximately 1790.[6][7] However, the network now generally known as the Underground Railroad was formed in the late 18th century. It ran north and grew steadily until the Emancipation Proclamation was signed by President Abraham Lincoln.[8] One estimate suggests that, by 1850, 100,000 enslaved people had escaped via the network.[8]

Underground Railroad
Map of Underground Railroad routes to modern day Canada
Founding locationUnited States
TerritoryUnited States, and routes to British North America, Mexico, Spanish Florida, and the Caribbean
EthnicityAfrican Americans and other compatriots
  • Fleeing from slavery into the Northern United States or Canada.
  • Aiding fugitive slaves
RivalsSlave catchers, Reverse Underground Railroad

Political background

At its peak, nearly 1,000 enslaved people per year escaped from slave-holding states using the Underground Railroad – more than 5000 court cases for escaped enslaved were recorded – many fewer than the natural increase of the enslaved population. The resulting economic impact was minuscule, but the psychological influence on slaveholders was immense. Under the original Fugitive Slave Act of 1793, officials from free states were required to assist slaveholders or their agents who recaptured fugitives, but citizens and governments of many free states ignored the law, and the Underground Railroad thrived.

With heavy lobbying by Southern politicians, the Compromise of 1850 was passed by Congress after the Mexican–American War. It stipulated a more stringent Fugitive Slave Law; ostensibly, the compromise addressed regional problems by compelling officials of free states to assist slave catchers, granting them immunity to operate in free states.[9] Because the law required sparse documentation to claim a person was a fugitive, slave catchers also kidnapped free blacks, especially children, and sold them into slavery.[10] Southern politicians often exaggerated the number of escaped slaves and often blamed these escapes on Northerners interfering with Southern property rights.[11] The law deprived people suspected of being slaves the right to defend themselves in court, making it difficult to prove free status. In a de facto bribe,[12] judges were paid a higher fee ($10) for a decision that confirmed a suspect as an enslaved person than for one ruling that the suspect was free ($5). Many Northerners who might have ignored enslavement issues in the South were confronted by local challenges that bound them to support slavery. This was a primary grievance cited by the Union during the American Civil War,[13] and the perception that Northern States ignored the fugitive slave laws and regulations was a major justification for secession.[14]


Harriet Tubman (photo H. B. Lindsley), c. 1870. A worker on the Underground Railroad, Tubman made 13 trips to the South, helping to free over 70 people. She led people to the northern free states and Canada. This helped Harriet Tubman gain the name "Moses of Her People".[15]
Quaker abolitionist Levi Coffin and his wife Catherine helped more than 2,000 enslaved people escape to freedom.

The escape network was neither literally underground nor a railroad. (Actual underground railroads did not exist until 1863.) According to John Rankin, "It was so called because they who took passage on it disappeared from public view as really as if they had gone into the ground. After the fugitive slaves entered a depot on that road no trace of them could be found. They were secretly passed from one depot to another until they arrived at a destination where they were able to remain free."[16] It was known as a railroad, using rail terminology such as stations and conductors, because that was the transportation system in use at the time.[17]

The Underground Railroad did not have a headquarters, nor were there published guides, maps, pamphlets, or even newspaper articles. The Underground Railroad consisted of meeting points, secret routes, transportation, and safe houses, all of them maintained by abolitionist sympathizers and communicated by word of mouth. Participants generally organized in small, independent groups; this helped to maintain secrecy because individuals knew some connecting "stations" along the route but knew few details of the escapees' immediate area. People escaping enslavement would move north along the route from one way station to the next. "Conductors" on the railroad came from various backgrounds and included free-born Blacks, white abolitionists, the former enslaved (either escaped or manumitted), and Native Americans.[18][19] Believing that, "slavery was contrary to the ethics of Jesus", Christian congregations and church clergy played a role, especially the Religious Society of Friends (Quakers), Congregationalists, Wesleyan Methodists, and Reformed Presbyterians, as well as the anti-slavery branches of mainstream denominations which entered into schism over the issue, such as the Methodist Episcopal Church and the Baptists.[20] The role of free Blacks was crucial; without it, there would have been almost no chance for fugitives from slavery to reach freedom safely.[21]


Members of the Underground Railroad often used specific terms, based on the metaphor of the railway. For example:

  • People who helped enslaved people find the railroad were "agents" (or "shepherds")
  • Guides were known as "conductors"
  • Hiding places were "stations" or "way stations"
  • "Station masters" hid enslaved people in their homes
  • People escaping slavery were referred to as "passengers" or "cargo"
  • Enslaved people would obtain a "ticket"
  • Similar to common gospel lore, the "wheels would keep on turning"
  • Financial benefactors of the Railroad were known as "stockholders"[22]

The Big Dipper (whose "bowl" points to the North Star) was known as the drinkin' gourd. The Railroad was often known as the "freedom train" or "Gospel train", which headed towards "Heaven" or "the Promised Land", i.e., Canada.[23]

William Still,[24] sometimes called "The Father of the Underground Railroad", helped hundreds of slaves escape (as many as 60 a month), sometimes hiding them in his Philadelphia home. He kept careful records, including short biographies of the people, that contained frequent railway metaphors. He maintained correspondence with many of them, often acting as a middleman in communications between people who had escaped slavery and those left behind. He later published these accounts in the book The Underground Railroad: Authentic Narratives and First-Hand Accounts (1872), a valuable resource for historians to understand how the system worked and learn about individual ingenuity in escapes.

According to Still, messages were often encoded so that they could be understood only by those active in the railroad. For example, the following message, "I have sent via at two o'clock four large hams and two small hams", indicated that four adults and two children were sent by train from Harrisburg to Philadelphia. The additional word via indicated that the "passengers" were not sent on the usual train, but rather via Reading, Pennsylvania. In this case, the authorities were tricked into going to the regular location (station) in an attempt to intercept the runaways, while Still met them at the correct station and guided them to safety. They eventually escaped either further north or to Canada, where slavery had been abolished during the 1830s.[25]


Underground Railroad routes went north to Canada, to the Caribbean, in United States western territories, and Indian territories. Some freedom seekers (escaped slaves) travelled South into Mexico for their freedom.[26]

North to Canada

To reduce the risk of infiltration, many people associated with the Underground Railroad knew only their part of the operation and not of the whole scheme. "Conductors" led or transported the fugitives from station to station. A conductor sometimes pretended to be enslaved to enter a plantation. Once a part of a plantation, the conductor would direct the runaways to the North. Enslaved people traveled at night, about 10–20 miles (16–32 km) to each station. They rested, and then a message was sent to the next station to let the station master know the escapees were on their way. They would stop at the so-called "stations" or "depots" during the day and rest. The stations were often located in basements,[27] barns,[28] churches,[29] or in hiding places in caves.[30]

The resting spots where the escapees could sleep and eat were given the code names "stations" and "depots", which were held by "station masters". "Stockholders" gave money or supplies for assistance. Using biblical references, fugitives referred to Canada as the "Promised Land" or "Heaven" and the Ohio River as the "River Jordan", which marked the boundary between slave states and free states.[31]

Struggle for freedom in a Maryland barn. Wood-engraving from William Still's The Underground Rail Road, p. 50[32]

The majority of freedom seekers that escaped from slavery did not have help from an abolitionist. Although there are stories of black and white abolitionists helping freedom seekers escape from slavery many escapes were unaided.[26] Other Underground Railroad escape routes for freedom seekers were maroon communities. Maroon communities were wetlands or marshes where escaped slaves established their own independent communities. Maroon communities in the United States were in Virginia called the Great Dismal Swamp, the maroon communities of the Black Seminole Indians in Florida, and others.[33]

Traveling conditions

Eastman Johnson, A Ride for Liberty – The Fugitive Slaves, oil on paperboard, 22 × 26.25 inches, circa 1862, Brooklyn Museum

Although the fugitives sometimes traveled on boat or train,[34] they usually traveled on foot or by wagon in groups of one to three escapees. Some groups were considerably larger. Abolitionist Charles Turner Torrey and his colleagues rented horses and wagons and often transported as many as 15 or 20 people at a time.[35] Free and enslaved black men occupied as mariners (sailors) helped enslaved people escape from slavery by providing a ride on their boat, providing information on the safest and best escape routes, and safe locations on land, and locations of trusted people for assistance. Enslaved African American mariners had more mobility than enslaved people on land, because they traveled to and from the United States on their ships importing and exporting goods to the Caribbean, Europe, and the United States. African American mariners had information about slave revolts occurring in the Caribbean which was relayed to enslaved people in the United States. Free and enslaved African American mariners assisted Harriet Tubman in her rescue missions. Harriet Tubman was enslaved in the Eastern Shore of Maryland that is surrounded by marshes, rivers, and the Chesapeake Bay. Free and enslaved black mariners provided Harriet Tubman news about the best escape routes, and helped her on her rescue missions. Also, Tubman used black mariners during the Civil War to help her free over 750 enslaved people in South Carolina. During the Civil War, Tubman served as a Union spy in South Carolina. The black mariners provided Tubman with information about the location of Confederate mines and other Confederate weapons supply lines to her, which Tubman relayed to the Union Army.[36][37][38]

Routes were often purposely indirect to confuse pursuers. Most escapes were by individuals or small groups; occasionally, there were mass escapes, such as with the Pearl incident. The journey was often considered particularly difficult and dangerous for women or children. Children were sometimes hard to keep quiet or were unable to keep up with a group. In addition, enslaved women were rarely allowed to leave the plantation, making it harder for them to escape in the same ways that men could.[39] Although escaping was harder for women, some women were successful. One of the most famous and successful conductors (people who secretly traveled into slave states to rescue those seeking freedom) was Harriet Tubman, a woman who escaped slavery.[40][41]

Due to the risk of discovery, information about routes and safe havens was passed along by word of mouth. Southern newspapers of the day were often filled with pages of notices soliciting information about fugitive slaves and offering sizable rewards for their capture and return. Federal marshals and professional bounty hunters known as slave catchers pursued fugitives as far as the Canada–US border.[42]

Fugitives were not the only black people at risk from slave catchers. With demand for slaves high in the Deep South as cotton was developed, strong, healthy blacks in their prime working and reproductive years were seen and treated as highly valuable commodities. Both former slaves and free blacks were sometimes kidnapped and sold into slavery, as was Solomon Northup of Saratoga Springs, New York. "Certificates of freedom," signed, notarized statements attesting to the free status of individual blacks also known as free papers, could easily be destroyed or stolen, so provided little protection to bearers.

Some buildings, such as the Crenshaw House in far southeastern Illinois, are known sites where free blacks were sold into slavery, known as the "Reverse Underground Railroad". Under the terms of the Fugitive Slave Act of 1850, when suspected fugitives were seized and brought to a special magistrate known as a commissioner, they had no right to a jury trial and could not testify on their own behalf. Technically, they were guilty of no crime. The marshal or private slave-catcher needed only to swear an oath to acquire a writ of replevin for the return of property.

Congress was dominated by Southern congressmen because the population of their states was bolstered by the inclusion of three-fifths of the number of slaves in population totals. They passed the Fugitive Slave Law of 1850 because of frustration at having fugitives from slavery helped by the public and even official institutions outside the South. In some parts of the North, slave-catchers needed police protection to exercise their federal authority. Opposition to slavery did not mean that all states welcomed free blacks. For instance, Indiana, whose area along the Ohio River was settled by Southerners, passed a constitutional amendment that barred free blacks from settling in that state.

Arrival in Canada

International Underground Railroad Memorial in Windsor, Ontario
John Brown participated in the Underground Railroad as an abolitionist.

British North America (present-day Canada) was a desirable destination, as its long border gave many points of access, it was farther from slave catchers, and beyond the reach of the United States' Fugitive Slave Acts. Further, slavery ended decades earlier in Canada than in the United States. Britain banned the institution of slavery in present-day Canada (and in most British colonies) in 1833, though the practice of slavery in Canada had effectively ended already early in the 19th century through case law, due to court decisions resulting from litigation on behalf of slaves seeking manumission.[43]

Most former enslaved, reaching Canada by boat across Lake Erie and Lake Ontario, settled in Ontario. More than 30,000 people were said to have escaped there via the network during its 20-year peak period,[44] although U.S. Census figures account for only 6,000.[45] Numerous fugitives' stories are documented in the 1872 book The Underground Railroad Records by William Still, an abolitionist who then headed the Philadelphia Vigilance Committee.[46]

Estimates vary widely, but at least 30,000 slaves, and potentially more than 100,000, escaped to Canada via the Underground Railroad.[44] The largest group settled in Upper Canada (Ontario), called Canada West from 1841.[47] Numerous Black Canadian communities developed in Southern Ontario. These were generally in the triangular region bounded by Niagara Falls, Toronto, and Windsor. Several rural villages made up mostly of people freed from slavery were established in Kent and Essex counties in Ontario.

Fort Malden, in Amherstburg, Ontario, was deemed the "chief place of entry" for escaped slaves seeking to enter Canada. The abolitionist Levi Coffin, who was known for aiding over 2,000 fugitives to safety, supported this choice. He described Fort Malden as "the great landing place, the principle terminus of the underground railroad of the west."[48] After 1850, approximately thirty people a day were crossing over to Fort Malden by steamboat.[49]:15 The Sultana was one of the ships, making "frequent round trips" between Great Lakes ports. Its captain, C.W. Appleby, a celebrated mariner, facilitated the conveyance of several fugitives from various Lake Erie ports to Fort Malden.[49]:110 Other fugitives at Fort Walden had been assisted by William Wells Brown, himself someone who had escaped slavery. He found employment on a Lake Erie steamer and transported numerous fugitives from Cleveland to Ontario by way of Buffalo or Detroit. "It is well known", he tells us, "that a great number of fugitives make their escape to Canada, by way of Cleaveland. ...The friends of the slave, knowing that I would transport them without charge, never failed to have a delegation when the boat arrived at Cleaveland. I have sometimes had four or five on board at one time."[50]

Another important destination was Nova Scotia, which was first settled by Black Loyalists during the American Revolution and then by Black Refugees during the War of 1812 (see Black Nova Scotians). Important Black settlements also developed in other parts of British North America (now parts of Canada). These included Lower Canada (present-day Quebec) and Vancouver Island, where Governor James Douglas encouraged Black immigration because of his opposition to slavery. He also hoped a significant Black community would form a bulwark against those who wished to unite the island with the United States.

Upon arriving at their destinations, many fugitives were disappointed, as life in Canada was difficult. While not at risk from slave catchers due to being in a different country, discrimination was still widespread. Many of the new arrivals had to compete with mass European immigration for jobs, and overt racism was common. For example, in reaction to Black Loyalists being settled in eastern Canada by the Crown, the city of Saint John, New Brunswick, amended its charter in 1785 specifically to exclude Blacks from practicing a trade, selling goods, fishing in the harbor, or becoming freemen; these provisions stood until 1870.[51]

With the outbreak of the Civil War in the U.S., many black refugees left Canada to enlist in the Union Army. While some later returned to Canada, many remained in the United States. Thousands of others returned to the American South after the war ended. The desire to reconnect with friends and family was strong, and most were hopeful about the changes emancipation and Reconstruction would bring.

South to Mexico

In 1829, Mexican president Vicente Guerrero (who was a mixed race black man) abolished slavery in Mexico.[52][26] At that time, Texas was part of Mexico. The Texas Revolution, initiated in part to legalize slavery, resulted in the formation of the Republic of Texas in 1836. When Texas joined the Union in 1845, the state was a slave state.[52] Enslaved people in the United States residing on plantations near Mexico escaped from slavery and found their freedom in Mexico.[26]

Thousands of freedom seekers traveled along a network from the southern United States to Texas and ultimately Mexico.[53] There was a Southwestern route taken by the Black Seminoles from Florida into Mexico.[26][54] Others may have traveled through North Carolina, Arkansas, Alabama, Louisiana, and Mississippi.[53][52] The route took them through forests and deserts. Along the way, they were helped by biracial black and white couples, German immigrants, and Mexican Americans, some of whom were run out of towns by white Texans for helping slaves escape.[53] They were conductors on the Underground Railroad who helped people make it to Mexico.[52]

Some people followed the routes on foot or on horseback. Others stowed away on ferries for a Mexican port.[52]

The National Park Service identified a route from Natchitoches, Louisiana to Monclova, Mexico in 2010 that is roughly the southern Underground Railroad path. It is also believed that the El Camino Real de los Tejas was a path for freedom. It was made a National Historic Trail by President George W. Bush in 2004.[53]

Southern freedom seekers

Advertisements were placed in newspapers offering rewards for the return of their "property". Slave catchers traveled through Mexico. There were Black Seminoles, or Los Mascogos who lived in northern Mexico who provided armed resistance.[53]

Freedom seekers changed their names in Mexico. They married into Mexican families and relocated further south of the American-Mexican border. All of these factors makes it hard to trace the whereabouts of the former enslaved people.[53] A database at Stephen F. Austin State University has a database of runaway slave advertisements as part of The Texas Runaway Slave Project. The Works Progress Administration during the Great Depression initiated a Federal Writers' Project to document slave narratives, including those who settled in Mexico. One of them was Felix Haywood who found freedom when he crossed the Rio Grande.[53]

Rio Grande stations

Two families, the Webbers and the Jacksons, lived along the Rio Grande and were stations for the Underground Railroad to Mexico and they helped people escape slavery. The husbands were white and the wives were former black enslaved women.[53] Nathaniel Jackson purchased the freedom of Matilda Hicks and her family. He was a white southerner and she was an enslaved woman, who had been childhood sweethearts in Alabama. Before the Civil War, the couple was married and moved to Texas and lived along the Rio Grande. John Ferdinand Webber, born in Vermont, lived along the Rio Grande with his wife, Silvia Hector.[53]


Since the 1980s, claims have arisen that quilt designs were used to signal and direct enslaved people to escape routes and assistance. According to advocates of the quilt theory, ten quilt patterns were used to direct enslaved people to take particular actions. The quilts were placed one at a time on a fence as a means of nonverbal communication to alert escaping slaves. The code had a dual meaning: first to signal enslaved people to prepare to escape, and second to give clues and indicate directions on the journey.[55]

The quilt design theory is disputed. The first published work documenting an oral history source was in 1999, and the first publication of this theory is believed to be a 1980 children's book.[56] Quilt historians and scholars of pre-Civil War (1820–1860) America have disputed this legend.[57] There is no contemporary evidence of any sort of quilt code, and quilt historians such as Pat Cummings and Barbara Brackman have raised serious questions about the idea. In addition, Underground Railroad historian Giles Wright has published a pamphlet debunking the quilt code.

Similarly, some popular, nonacademic sources claim that spirituals and other songs, such as "Steal Away" or "Follow the Drinking Gourd", contained coded information and helped individuals navigate the railroad. They have offered little evidence to support their claims. Scholars tend to believe that while the slave songs may certainly have expressed hope for deliverance from the sorrows of this world, these songs did not present literal help for runaway slaves.[58]

The Underground Railroad inspired cultural works. For example, "Song of the Free", written in 1860 about a man fleeing slavery in Tennessee by escaping to Canada, was composed to the tune of "Oh! Susanna". Every stanza ends with a reference to Canada as the land "where colored men are free". Slavery in Upper Canada (now Ontario) was outlawed in 1793; in 1819, John Robinson, the Attorney General of Upper Canada, declared that by residing in Canada, black residents were set free, and that Canadian courts would[59] protect their freedom. Slavery in Canada as a whole had been in rapid decline after an 1803 court ruling, and was finally abolished outright in 1834.

When frictions between North and South culminated in the Civil War, many Black people, both enslaved and free, fought for the Union Army.[60] Following Union victory in the Civil War, on December 6, 1865, the Thirteenth Amendment to the Constitution outlawed slavery.[61] Following its passage, in some cases the Underground Railroad operated in the opposite direction, as fugitives returned to the United States.[62]


Frederick Douglass was a writer, statesman, and had escaped slavery. He wrote critically of the attention drawn to the ostensibly secret Underground Railroad in his seminal autobiography, Narrative of the Life of Frederick Douglass, an American Slave (1845):

I have never approved of the very public manner in which some of our western friends have conducted what they call the Underground Railroad, but which I think, by their open declarations, has been made most emphatically the upperground railroad.

He went on to say that, although he honors the movement, he feels that the efforts at publicity serve more to enlighten the slave-owners than the slaves, making them more watchful and making it more difficult for future slaves to escape.[63]

Notable people

  • John Brown
  • Owen Brown (father)
  • Owen Brown (son)
  • Samuel Burris
  • Obadiah Bush
  • Levi Coffin
  • Elizabeth Rous Comstock
  • George Corson[64][65]
  • Moses Dickson[66]
  • Frederick Douglass[67][68]
  • Asa Drury
  • George Hussey Earle Sr.
  • Calvin Fairbank
  • Bartholomew Fussell
  • Matilda Joslyn Gage
  • Thomas Galt[69]
  • Thomas Garrett[70]
  • Sydney Howard Gay[71]
  • Josiah Bushnell Grinnell
  • Frances Harper
  • Laura Smith Haviland[72]
  • Lewis Hayden[73]
  • John Hunn[74]
  • Roger Hooker Leavitt
  • Jermain Wesley Loguen[75]
  • Samuel Joseph May[76]
  • John Berry Meachum
  • Mary Meachum[77]
  • William M. Mitchell[78]
  • Solomon Northup[79]
  • John Parker[80]
  • Mary Ellen Pleasant
  • John Wesley Posey[81]
  • Amy and Isaac Post
  • John Rankin[82]
  • Alexander Milton Ross
  • David Ruggles[83]
  • Gerrit Smith[84]
  • George Luther Stearns
  • William Still[85]
  • Charles Turner Torrey[86]
  • William Troy
  • Harriet Tubman[87]
  • John Van Zandt
  • Martha Coffin Wright
  • John Ton

National Underground Railroad Network

Following upon legislation passed in 1990 for the National Park Service to perform a special resource study of the Underground Railroad,[88] in 1997, the 105th Congress introduced and subsequently passed H.R. 1635 – National Underground Railroad Network to Freedom Act of 1998, which President Bill Clinton signed into law in 1998.[89] This act authorized the United States National Park Service to establish the National Underground Railroad Network to Freedom program to identify associated sites, as well as preserve them and popularize the Underground Railroad and stories of people involved in it. The National Park Service has designated many sites within the network, posted stories about people and places, sponsors an essay contest, and holds a national conference about the Underground Railroad in May or June each year.[90]

The Harriet Tubman Underground Railroad National Historical Park, which includes Underground Railroad routes in three counties of Maryland's Eastern Shore and Harriet Tubman's birthplace, was created by President Barack Obama under the Antiquities Act on March 25, 2013.[91] Its sister park, the Harriet Tubman National Historical Park in Auburn, New York, was established on January 10, 2017, and focuses on the later years of Tubman's life as well as her involvement with the Underground Railroad and the abolition movement.[92]

Inspirations for fiction

  • The Underground Railroad was the inspiration for a faction in Fallout 4, the Railroad, consisting of safehouses for synthetic humanoids who escaped another faction known as The Institute.
  • The Underground Railroad is a 2016 novel by Colson Whitehead. It won the 2016 National Book Award and the 2017 Pulitzer Prize for Fiction.[93]
  • The Underground Railroad is a 2021 streaming television limited series, based on Whitehead's novel.
  • Underground is an American television series that premiered in 2016, on WGN America.
  • The Simpsons episode "The Colour Yellow" S21 E13 mentions that the Simpsons' ancestor helped on the railroad.

Contemporary literature

See also

  • Ausable Chasm, NY, home of the North Star Underground Railroad Museum
  • Bilger's Rocks
  • Caroline Quarlls (1824–1892), first known person to escape slavery through Wisconsin's Underground Railroad
  • Fort Mose Historic State Park
  • List of Underground Railroad sites
  • Reverse Underground Railroad
  • Slave codes
  • Escape to Sweden, an "underground railroad" during the Holocaust in Norway
  • The Tilly Escape
  • Uncle Tom's Cabin Historic Site near Dresden, Ontario


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Further reading

Folklore and myth

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