Most all of you have heard of the “Underground Railroad”(“UR”) and are generally cognizant of its purpose. It has been portrayed, to some extent, in countless books, movies and tv productions, often inaccurately. What, exactly, was it, how did it function, how successful was it, and was it really a railroad? Some of the answers may surprise you. Read on.
The UR was not a railroad, per se, and it did not operate under the ground, like a tunnel. Rather, it consisted of a loosely organized network of secret routes and “safe houses” designed to guide runaway slaves from the southern slave states to “free” states in the North or to Canada. The operation was highly localized. All an agent, or “shepherd” would know was his small part. Thus, he might be responsible for hiding a few runaways in a barn, a cave, or a cellar for a few days, then transporting them to the next stop. After he handed them off, his role was finished, and the “cargo,” as it was called, became someone else’s responsibility.
Most of the travelling was done at night. Individuals or small groups were preferable as they were easier to keep hidden and transport, although one notable conductor, Charles Turner Torrey was reputed to have guided groups of as many as 20 at a time. Women, children and the elderly or infirmed were a liability as they often had trouble keeping up. Also, women escapees were not common. It was more difficult for women to escape, because they were rarely allowed to leave the plantation alone in the first place. Furthermore, children tended to be noisy and/or difficult to manage.
Many of you are familiar with the name, Harriet Tubman, as she is slated to replace Andrew Jackson as the face on the $20 bill. An escaped slave, she was one of the most daring and famous conductors, aka “abductors.” She would often venture into slave country, even onto a plantation, to “abduct” female slaves and help them escape. In UR parlance, an abductor was one who would approach slaves with the intent of convincing them to flee. As a black female she would have been subject to severe penalties, up to and including enslavement or death, if she were caught. Nevertheless, she was able to escort some 70 female slaves to safety via the UR.
A name you probably are not familiar with is William Still. Many historians consider him to be the “Father of the UR.” Still was an AA living in Philadelphia. A strong abolitionist, he was Chairman of the Vigilance Committee of the Pennsylvania Anti-Slavery Society (quite a mouthful). He would often operate as a middleman between escapees and their loved ones who had remained behind, for example, forwarding correspondence between the two groups. In addition, he made it his business to gather and maintain written biographies of various escapees and memorialize accounts of their experiences on the UR and afterwards. In 1872 he published a book entitled The Underground Railroad: Authentic Narratives and First-Hand Accounts, which is generally considered to be the most comprehensive written record we have of the UR and those who utilized it.
The term, underground was derived from the fact that it was hidden from sight. (Think of the “underground” resistance that operated in European countries controlled by the Nazis during WWII.) The term, “railroad” emanated from the use of railroad terminology. For example, meeting points were “stations,” and guides were “conductors.” Conductors could be clergy, transplanted northerners, free blacks or anyone else who was sympathetic.
- Shepherds – those who helped runaways utilize the railroad.
- Station masters – those who hid runaways in their homes or barns.
- Passengers/cargo- escaped slaves being transported
- Stockholders – financial benefactors
Methods and locations were constantly being changed in an effort to stay one step of the slave catchers, who were very aggressive, resourceful and ruthless. Furthermore, under the law they were entitled to the assistance of local law enforcement, even in the “free” states.
Although a primitive version of the UR operated as far back as the late 17th century, with Spanish-owned Florida as the destination, the peak period was between 1850 and 1860. Although precise numbers are unknown, primarily because recordkeeping was very haphazard and few written records were maintained, it is estimated that as many as 1,000 slaves per year were able to escape via the UR during this period alone. As I mentioned above, the ultimate destination was Canada, but many escapees settled in northern states.
Although those numbers seem high they amounted to a drop in the bucket compared to the total slave population in the South, and the economic impact was insignificant. So then, why did the slave owners try so hard to recapture them? Why post rewards in the newspapers? Why retain slavecatchers or bounty hunters? The owners considered slaves to be their property. It was a blow to their pride and authority, and they wanted to make an example of escapees in order to dissuade others from trying. Those who were caught were beaten and/or hung publicly, with their bodies remaining on display for all to see.
As a result of their strong influence in Congress, the law, such as it was, favored the slave owners. Pursuant to the Compromise of 1850 officials in free states were required to assist slave catchers recapture runaways, even in states where slavery was outlawed. Sometimes, slave catchers even pursued runaways into Canada. The law required law enforcement personnel to detain runaways and hand them over, often with little or no documentation that they were actually runaways. Forget due process. Accused blacks had no legal rights or means to defend themselves in court. Often, judges would be bribed to find in favor of the slave catcher. Certificates of Freedom or other documents were often ignored, stolen or destroyed. Thus, as unconscionable as it may seem, from time to time free blacks were “captured” and subsequently sold into slavery. By today’s standards, the whole process seems brutal, but attitudes were different then.
Many escapees found it difficult to adjust to life as a free man. For them, their life as a free man in the North or in Canada, was not the panacea they had expected. Despite the official opposition to slavery, many northern states did not exactly roll out the red carpet. Although discrimination was more subtle, it was still present. Moreover, some states, such as Indiana, passed a law actually barring free blacks from settling in the state to begin with.
As many as 100,000 escaped slaves settled in Canada, primarily Ontario and Nova Scotia. Again, many of them found that even though slavery had been outlawed, discrimination was still alive and well. Working class people viewed them as unwanted competition for jobs. Moreover, in some areas, blacks were restricted from entering certain trades or occupations.
With the advent of the Civil War many of these runaways enlisted in the Union Army to fight. Following the war, they stayed in the US. Some even returned to the South to familiar territory and loved ones that they had left behind. As those who have studied history know, despite their freedom life remained very difficult for blacks regardless of where they ultimately settled.
If you have an interest in the UR I recommend a book entitled The Underground Railroad by Coleson Whitehead. It is an interesting and informative account of the UR as experienced by fictional slaves circa 1860.