Underground Railroad

From Academic Kids

The Underground Railroad was a network of clandestine routes by which African slaves in the 19th century United States attempted to escape to free states, or as far north as Canada, with the aid of abolitionists. Other routes led to Mexico or overseas.

It is estimated that at its height between 1810 and 1850, nearly 100,000 people escaped enslavement via the Underground Railroad, a fraction of the estimated four million slaves who were to eventually escape. The Underground Railroad has captured public imagination as a symbol of freedom and figures prominently in African American history.

Map of some Underground Railroad routes
Map of some Underground Railroad routes

1 Folklore
2 Legal and political
3 Effect on Canada
4 Legacy
5 Contemporary literature
6 Related events
7 See also
8 External links
9 Sources and further reading


The escape network was "underground" in the sense of underground resistance, but was seldom literally subterranean. The Underground Railroad consisted of clandestine routes, transportation, meeting points, safe houses and other havens, and assistance maintained by abolitionist sympathizers. These individuals were organized into small, independent groups who, for the purpose of maintaining secrecy, knew of connecting "stations" along the route, but few details of the Railroad beyond their immediate area (see Vigilance committee). Many individual links were via family relation. Escaped slaves would pass from one waystation to the next, while steadily making their way North. The diverse "conductors" on the Railroad counted among their ranks free-born blacks, white abolitionists, former slaves, and Native Americans. Churches and religious denominations played key roles, especially the Society of Friends ('Quakers'), Congregationalists, and Wesleyans, as well as breakaway sects of mainstream denominations such as the Free Methodists and American Baptists. Books, newspapers, and other organs disseminated the abolitionist viewpoint nationwide.


The Underground Railroad developed its own jargon, which continued the railway metaphor:

  • people who helped slaves find the railroad were "agents"
  • guides were known as "conductors"
  • hiding places were "stations"
  • escaped slaves were referred to as "passengers" or "cargo"
  • slaves would obtain a "ticket"

William Still, often called "The Father of the Underground Railroad," helped hundreds of slaves to escape (as many as 60 slaves a month), sometimes hiding them in his Philadelphia home. He kept careful records, including short biographies of the people, that contained frequent railway metaphors. Still maintained correspondence with many of them, often acting as a middleman in communications between escaped slaves and those left behind. He then published these accounts in the book The Underground Railroad in 1872, after Abolition.

Messages often were encoded so that only those active in the Railroad would fully understand their meanings. For example, the following message, "I have sent via at two o'clock four large and two small hams," clearly indicated that four adults and two children were sent by train from Harrisburg to Philadelphia. However, the addition of the word via indicated that they were not sent on the regular train, but rather via Reading. In this case, the authorities went to the regular train station in an attempt to intercept the runaways, while Still was able to meet them at the correct station and spirit them to safety, where they eventually escaped to Canada.

Slaves escaped bondage with and without outside assistance as early as the 1600s, long before the railroads were developed beginning in the 1820s. Coincidently, the nation's first commercial railroad, the east-west Baltimore & Ohio line, operated in Maryland and Ohio, which intersected the northbound path of the Underground Railroad.

The name underground railroad is alleged to have originated with the 1831 escape of Tice Davids from a Kentucky slaveowner. Davids fled across the Ohio River to Ripley, Ohio, where he may have taken refuge with Rev. John Rankin, a prominent white abolitionist whose hilltop home1 could be seen from the opposite shore. The slaveowner, in hot pursuit, remarked that Davids had disappeared as if through an "underground road". Rankin's influence in the abolitionist movement would account for the rapid adoption of the term.


Although it was possible for escaped slaves to live free in many northern states, it was increasingly dangerous after 1850. As a result, foreign destinations such as Canada became desirable. The importation of slaves into Upper Canada had been banned in 1793 by Lieutenant Governor John Graves Simcoe, and slavery had been abolished throughout the British Empire in 1833. Approximately 30,000 slaves successfully escaped to Canada. Fugitive slaves were a significant presence in the then underpopulated Canadian colonies and formed the basis of the present-day black population throughout Ontario. Mexico abolished slavery in 1829, and until 1819, Florida was under the jurisdiction of Spain.

The escapees' main destinations were southern Ontario around the Niagara Peninsula and Windsor, Ontario. A traditional spiritual reminded travellers to "Follow the Drinkin' Gourd," which was an Africanized reference to an asterism within the constellation Ursa Major that commonly was called then, as it is today, the "Big Dipper." Two stars in its bowl point to Polaris, or the North Star. Polaris is the brightest star in a nearby Ursa Minor asterism, the "Little Dipper," which pointed the way due North, to freedom.

When the sun come back and the first quail calls,
Follow the Drinkin' Gourd,
For the old man's waitin' for to carry you to freedom,
If you follow the Drinkin' Gourd.
-- from "Follow the Drinkin' Gourd," a Negro Spiritual

Primary routes led east of the Appalachians, up through Pennsylvania and New York to the Niagara Peninsula crossing; up through Ohio and Michigan to Windsor; and south across the Rio Grande. Some routes led West to frontier territory.

Just to the east of the Appalachian Mountains in Maryland, many well-documented routes run through a fifty-mile funnel between Washington, DC, and west to where the Appalachians become too rugged for foot travel. At the center of the funnel is Frederick County, Maryland.

See: List of Underground Railroad Sites

Runaways also crossed the southern border to Mexico, or escaped to islands in the Caribbean, a point often neglected by histories of northern abolitionism. The Ohio River and the Rio Grande marked the northern and southern borders of the slave states. Felix Haywood, a former slave, wrote in The Slave Narratives of Texas:

Sometimes someone would come along and try to get us to run up north and be free. We used to laugh at that. There was no reason to run up north. All we had to do was walk, but walk south, and we'd be free as soon as we crossed the Rio Grande.

The term underground railroad, however, rarely was used in reference to these alternate escape routes.

Traveling conditions

Although sometimes the fugitives travelled on real railways, the primary means of transportation were on foot or by wagon. The routes taken were indirect to throw off pursuers. The majority of the escapees are believed to have been male field workers less than forty years old; the journey was often too arduous and treacherous for women and children to complete successfully. It was relatively common, however, for fugitive bondsmen who had escaped via the Railroad and established livelihoods as free men to purchase their mates, children and other family members out of slavery ad seriatim, and then arrange to be reunited with them. In this manner, the number of former slaves who owed their freedom at least in part to the courage and determination of those who operated Underground Railroad was far greater than the many thousands who actually traveled the clandestine network.

Because of the risk of discovery, information about routes and safe havens was passed along by word of mouth. Southern newspapers of the day often were filled with pages of notices soliciting information about escaped slaves and offering sizable rewards for their capture and return. Professional bounty hunters pursued fugitives even as far as Canada. Strong, healthy blacks in their prime working and reproductive years were highly valuable commodities, and it was common for free blacks to be kidnapped and sold into slavery. Certificates of freedom, signed, notarized statements attesting to the free status of individual blacks, could be easily destroyed and, thus, afforded their owners little protection.


Since the 1980s, claims have arisen that quilt designs were used to signal and direct slaves to escape routes and assistance. The first published work documenting an oral history source was in 1999, so it is difficult to evaluate the veracity of these claims.

Legal and political

The Underground Railroad was a major cause of friction between the North and South. Many northerners sympathized with those who helped to deliver slaves to safety. For many years, southerners pushed for strong laws to force the recapture of runaway slaves. The Fugitive Slave Law of 1793 was the first law passed by the U.S. Congress to address the issue of escaped slaves in free states; and in 1850, Congress passed the Fugitive Slave Law of 1850, which mandated the capture of fugitive slaves. This prevented runaways from settling legally in free states, forcing them to escape into Canada. The law also provided an impetus for the growth of Underground Railroad routes through free states such as Ohio. During the same period, a series of unsuccessful slave rebellions led to retaliatory violence by vigilantes against innocent slaves, which increased the numbers of runaways heading North.

When frictions between North and South culminated in the American Civil War, many blacks, slave and free, fought with the Union Army. Following the passing of the Thirteenth Amendment, in some cases, the Underground Railroad operated in reverse as fugitives returned to the United States.

Effect on Canada

Estimates vary widely, but at least 20,000 slaves escaped to Canada via the Underground Railroad. This had an important effect on Canadian society. The largest group settled in southern Ontario, where a number of African Canadian communities developed, particularly in the triangle between Toronto, Niagara Falls and Windsor, particularly in Toronto where 1,000 refugees settled and in Kent and Essex counties where several rural villages made up largely of ex-slaves were established. Important settlements also developed in Nova Scotia and on Vancouver Island, where Governor James Douglas encouraged black immigration due to his opposition to slavery and because he hoped a significant black community would form a bulwark against those who wished to unite the island with the United States.

Upon arrival in Canada, many fugitives were disappointed. While Canada was free of slavery, discrimination was still common. Many of the new arrivals had great difficulty finding jobs, and open racism was common. However, most refugees remained. Of the 20,000 who emigrated to Upper Canada only 20% returned to the United States.2

With the outbreak of the Civil War in the United States, a large number of black refugees enlisted in the Union Army and, 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.

Today, Canadians take some pride on being a place dreamed of by American slaves hungry for their freedom before the American Civil War. There a numerous momuments erected in Ontario to reflect that pride.


In American popular culture, the Underground Railroad is often used as a ready means to depict 19th century heroes engaging in an undisputed good deed by modern sensibilities. In addition, some modern heroes are provided ancestors who participated in the resistance movement to show they are living up to a proud heritage of heroes.

For instance, it was established in the DC Multiverse that Clark Kent's terran family included abolitionists who assisted the railway. In the film Batman Begins, Bruce Wayne learns that one of his forefathers was a conductor and the underground chambers, underneath Wayne Manor he modified into the Batcave was originally a hiding place for fugitive slaves using the network.

Contemporary literature

Related events

See also

External links


Web Sites:



Sources and further reading

  • 1998: Forbes, Ella. But We Have No Country: The 1851 Christiana Pennsylvania Resistance. Africana Homestead Legacy Publishers.
  • 2000: Chadwick, Bruce. Traveling the Underground Railroad: A Visitor's Guide to More Than 300 Sites. Citadel Press. ISBN 0806520930.
  • 2001: Blight, David W. Passages to Freedom: The Underground Railroad in History and Memory. Smithsonian Books. ISBN 1588341577.
  • 2002: Hudson, J. Blaine. Fugitive Slaves and the Underground Railroad in the Kentucky Borderland. McFarland & Company. ISBN 078641345X.
  • 2003: Hendrick, George, and Willene Hendrick. Fleeing for Freedom: Stories of the Underground Railroad As Told by Levi Coffin and William Still. Ivan R. Dee Publisher. ISBN 1566635462.
  • 2004:
    • Hagedorn, Ann. Beyond the River: The Untold Story of the Heroes of the Underground Railroad. Simon & Schuster. ISBN 0684870665.
    • Griffler, Keith P. Front Line of Freedom: African Americans and the Forging of the Underground Railroad in the Ohio Valley. University Press of Kentucky. ISBN 0813122988.

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