The Underground Railroad was the name given to a loose network of activists which helped escaped slaves from the American South find lives of freedom in northern states or across the international border in Canada.
There was no official membership in the organization, and while specific networks did exist, the term is often loosely used to describe anyone who helped escaped slaves. Members might range from former slaves to prominent abolitionists to ordinary citizens who would spontaneously help the cause.
Because the Underground Railroad was a secretive organization which existed to thwart federal laws against helping escaped slaves, it kept no records.
In the years following the Civil War some major figures in the Underground Railroad revealed themselves and told their stories. But the history of the organization is often shrouded in mystery.
Beginnings of the Underground Railroad
The term Underground Railroad first began to appear in the 1840s, but efforts by free blacks and sympathetic whites to help slaves escape bondage had occurred earlier. Historians have noted that groups of Quakers in the North, most notably around Philadelphia, had a tradition of helping escaped slaves. And Quakers who had moved from Massachusetts to North Carolina began helping slaves travel to freedom in the North as early as the 1820s and 1830s.
A North Carolina Quaker, Levi Coffin, was offended by slavery and moved to Indiana in the mid-1820s. He eventually organized a network in Ohio and Indiana that helped slaves who had managed to cross the Ohio River, thus leaving slave territory. Coffin's organization generally helped the escaped slaves move onward to Canada, where they could not be captured and returned to slavery in the American South.
A prominent figure associated with the Underground Railroad was Harriet Tubman, who escaped from slavery in Maryland in the late 1840s. She returned two years later to help some of her relatives escape. Throughout the 1850s she made at least a dozen journeys back to the South, and helped at least 150 slaves escape. Tubman demonstrated great bravery in her work, as she faced death if captured in the South.
The Reputation of the Underground Railroad
By the early 1850s stories about the shadowy organization were not uncommon in newspapers. For instance, a small article in the New York Times of November 26, 1852 claimed that slaves in Kentucky were "daily escaping to Ohio, and by the Underground Railroad, to Canada."
In northern papers the shadowy network was often portrayed as a heroic endeavor. In the South, stories of slaves being helped to escape were portrayed quite differently. The organization was considered a criminal enterprise, seeking to overturn a way of life and potentially instigate slave revolts.
With both sides of the slavery debate referring to it often, the organization appeared to be much larger and far more organized than it actually was.
It is difficult to know for certain how many escaped slaves were actually helped. It has been estimated that perhaps a thousand slaves a year reached free territory and were then helped to move onward to Canada.
Operations of the Underground Railroad
While Harriet Tubman actually ventured into the South to help slaves escape, most operations of the Underground Railroad actually took place in the free states of the North. Laws concerning fugitive slaves required that they be returned to their owners, so those who helped them in the North were essentially subverting federal laws.
Most of the slaves who were helped were from the "upper South," slave states such as Virginia, Maryland, and Kentucky. It was, of course, much more difficult for slaves from farther south to travel the greater distances to reach free territory in Pennsylvania or Ohio.
In a typical scenario, a slave who reached free territory would be hidden and escorted northward without attracting attention. At households and farms along the way the fugitive slaves would be fed and sheltered.
There was always a danger that an escaped slave could be captured in the North and returned to slavery in the South, where they might face punishment that could include whippings or torture.
There are many legends today about houses and farms that were "stations." Some of those stories are undoubtedly true, but they are often difficult to verify as the activities of the Underground Railroad were necessarily secret at the time.