The Underground Railroad was a network of clandestine routes by which African slaves in the nineteenth-century United States attempted to escape to free states (states where slavery was illegal), or as far north as Canada, with the aid of abolitionists. Other routes led to Mexico and overseas.
It is estimated that at its height between 1810 and 1850, 30,000 to 100,000 people escaped enslavement via the Underground Railroad, though U.S. Census figures only account for 6,000. The Underground Railroad has captured public imagination as a symbol of freedom, and figures prominently in African-American history. It was a means for white and colored men and women of conscience to work together to conduct their oppressed black brethren from slavery to freedom. These men and women of principle were prepared to break unjust laws to combat a social and political evil. Almost wholly a non-violent movement, the Underground Railroad often referred to as UGRR can be seen as a precursor of the civil rights activism of the following century. While many slave owners justified their support for slavery on biblical grounds, those who opposed slavery also found justification for their opposition to slavery in Christian scripture. That which is not right, wrote St. Augustine, proves to be no law (lex injusta non est lex). Some truly remarkable people from all walks of life were involved in this risky but righteous activity.
The escape network was “underground” in the sense of underground resistance similar to that against occupation by a foreign power, 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. Many individual links were via family relation. Escaped slaves would pass from one station to the next, while steadily making their way north. The diverse “conductors” on the railroad included free-born blacks, white abolitionists, former slaves (either escaped or manumitted), and Native Americans. Churches and religious denominations played key roles, especially the Religious Society of Friends (Quakers), Congregationalists, and Wesleyans, as well as breakaway sects of mainstream denominations such as branches of the Methodist church 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”
- “Stationmasters” would hide slaves in their homes.
- Escaped slaves were referred to as “passengers” or “cargo”
- Slaves would obtain a “ticket”
- The secret password for the Underground Railroad was “A friend with Friends”
William Still (1821–1901), often called “The Father of the Underground Railroad,” helped hundreds of slaves 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, which 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.
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 slave owner. Davids fled across the Ohio River to Ripley, Ohio, where he may have taken refuge with Rev. John Rankin (1793–1886), a prominent white abolitionist whose hilltop home could be seen from the opposite shore (see photo). Rankin was a Presbyterian minister whose writing influenced such people as Harriet Beecher Stowe and Henry War Beecher. The slave owner, 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 the passage of the Fugitive Slave Law of 1850. As a result, foreign destinations such as Canada became desirable. The importation of slaves into Upper Canada had been banned in 1793 by Lt. Gov. 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.
“Follow the Drinkin’ Gourd,
The river bank makes a very good road,
The dead trees show you the way,
Left foot, peg foot, traveling on
Follow the Drinking Gourd.
The river ends between two hills, Follow the Drinking Gourd. There’s another river on the other side, Follow the Drinking Gourd.
Where the great big river meets the little river, Follow the Drinking Gourd. For the old man is awaiting to carry you to freedom if you follow the Drinking Gourd.”a black spiritual
The songs sung by the slaves combined Christian and biblical imagery, especially drawn from the suffering of God’s people in Egypt and Babylon and their yearning for liberation, with real-time code. “Wade in the Water,” “The Gospel Train,” and “Swing Low, Sweet Chariot” directly refer to the Underground Railroad. The Jordan River was the Ohio River, or the Mississippi. Slaves were aware of the difference between the slavery mentioned in the Bible, and their own experience of slavery, since their masters did not keep the commands of the Bible such as not killing their slaves (Exodus 21: 20–21), and the rule that a slave who has been beaten must be set free (Exodus 21: 26–27), for example. They could thus find inspiration in their master’s religion, which might easily have repulsed them. They found strength, hope, and encouragement in the Bible, both to help them to withstand their suffering and also to embark on their version of the Exodus, the Underground Railroad. The great “Negro Spirituals,” full of pathos, demonstrate how slaves found scripture both consoling and empowering. They also represent an early type of liberation theology, in which people turn to scripture independently of the clergy or official church and interpret it for themselves as a text that favors the oppressed against oppressors and demands social and political justice. This is often discouraged by those who want religion to serve their own purposes, so the slave owners tried to control slave religion. They banned dancing and use of drums, so the slaves met secretly in the woods. The spiritual “Steal Away” was used as a summons to worship in the “hush arbors” beyond the reach of the master or overseers. In the seclusion provided by nature, the slaves rejoiced in the truth God was also their Father, that they were made in God’s image, that they had inherent value as humans and were not to be treated like beasts (which the Old Testament also commands must be treated humanely—Deuteronomy 25: 4). Some African-Americans do blame Christianity for the slave trade and reject it as the faith of their oppressors. Some have turned instead to Islam. Many slaves were sold into captivity by African Muslims. However, like the Bible, the Qur’an can also be read to condemn slavery.
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, Ontario; 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.
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.
Although sometimes the fugitives traveled 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 the 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 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. Many accounts also mention spirituals and other songs that contained coded information intended to help navigate the railroad. Songs such as “Steal Away” and other field songs were often passed down purely orally. Tracing their origins and exact meanings is difficult. In any case, a great number of African-American songs of the period deal with themes of freedom and escape, and distinguishing coded information from expression and sentiment may not be possible.
Legal and political
The Underground Railroad was a major cause of friction between the northern United States and southern United States. 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 Congress of the United States 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 and other British colonies. 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 the North and South culminated in the American Civil War, many blacks, enslaved and free, fought as part of the Union Army. Following the passing of the Thirteenth Amendment to the United States Constitution, 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 Upper Canada (called Canada West during 1841, and today southern Ontario), where a number of African-Canadian communities developed. In Toronto, 1,000 refugees settled and in Kent and Essex counties where several rural villages made up largely of ex-slaves were established.
Important black settlements also developed in more distant British colonies (now parts of Canada). These included Nova Scotia as well as 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 at their destinations, many fugitives were disappointed. While the British colonies had no 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 percent returned to the United States.
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 where American slaves sought as refuge from the U.S. In effect, in some Canadians’ eyes, their country represented a place of true freedom for a time for an oppressed people that their neighbor, for all its rhetorical love for the value, refused to be. There are numerous monuments erected in Ontario to reflect that pride.