The Underground Railroad was neither underground nor a railroad. According to legend it received its name when a slave owner, hot on the heels of his runaway, lost his prey, who seemed to vanish as if on a railroad below ground.
From the 1820s and winding through sixteen states, these daring acts of civil disobedience remained active into the Civil War. The Underground Railroad wound through swamps and forests, over mountains, across rivers, and by sea and cannot be precisely documented because it was a clandestine, illegal network.
The Fugitive Slave Act of 1850, known as the “Bloodhound Bill,” required Northerners to cooperate in the capture of escaped slaves and sent blacks rushing to Canada. It is estimated that 100,000 fugitives reached the “Promised Land.” This Act decreed that any person who assisted runaway slaves was breaking federal law and liable to a $1000 fine and imprisonment. African-Americans who purchased their own liberty and had been living free for years were now in peril of being captured and sold south, as were their children who were born free.
Rivers were superhighways in those days and vessels often sailed out of southern ports with stowaways as anti-slavery supporters received such advance messages as ‘expect prime article arriving on the next coastal vessel.’
When Boston author and abolitionist Lydia Maria Child was asked how fugitives requested help, she replied, “There was a password that carried any escaping slave to safety. Sometimes it was written on a slip of torn, soiled paper. Sometimes it was whispered. But any who came to us with the words “I was a stranger, and ye took me in,” was received and moved on to the next station without question.”
Those who moved fugitive slaves were called conductors. Dwellings that promised temporary safety were stations and the brave people who fed and clothed desperate runaways were known as station masters. Agents helped plot escape routes and frequently forged ‘proof papers’ that enslaved persons were required to carry. Stockholders were fund-raisers who also donated clothing and food.
“I knew not what hour of the night we would be roused from slumber by a rap at our door. Often, there was a two-horse wagon outside, loaded with fugitives. They would follow me inside without a word for they did not know who might be watching or listening. When all were safe inside and the door fastened, I would cover the windows and build a fire to warm them. My wife prepared victuals, and the cold, hungry fugitives would be made comfortable. Then I would take the ‘conductor’ to the stable and care for his horses.” – Levi Coffin –
Because the Underground Railroad was against the law and highly dangerous, much of its history is undocumented and shrouded in myth. Many people these days like to boast of ‘hidey-holes’ even though their homes were built after the Civil War. Some claim slaves found sanctuary in what were really coal bins or root cellars. Stories of tunnels are but tall tales and safe houses were not designated by paint color on a chimney nor were secret codes hidden in quilts hanging on clotheslines! Slave catchers were too smart to be fooled by such obvious clues. On the contrary, the Underground Railroad had to be secretive if those involved were to survive. Old lines were continually abandoned, and new lines formed.
Some risked recapture, even their lives, by leading other slaves to freedom after they were themselves were free. Josiah Henson and Harriet Tubman crossed the border back into the United States to lead others to liberty. A $40,000 reward was offered for Harriet Tubman’s capture, dead or alive.
The Underground Railroad threatened the economic survival and way of life of Southern slaveholders who considered it organized theft and hired bounty hunters to recapture their personal property. Spies of both races were common for many were happy to report runaways or sell them back for any reward.
Scars left by the cat o’ nine tails and mutilations helped identify escapees and made it easier to apprehend them should they dare flee again. The majority of runaways were caught, severely punished and often, sold away from their families to discourage others from escaping.
When George Washington’s female slave ran away, the first president put a notice in The Philadelphia Gazette. “Ten dollars paid to any person who will bring Oney Judge home, if taken in the city, or on board any vessel in the harbor.” Martha Washington had planned to give Oney to her granddaughter as a wedding gift, but she fled as the Washingtons were preparing to return to Virginia between sessions of Congress. “Whilst they were packing up to go to Virginia,” 22-year-old Judge later said, “I was packing to go too. I didn’t know where, but I knew if I went back to Virginia, I should never get my liberty. I left Washington’s house while they were eating dinner.”
Harriet Jacobs hid upstairs in a shanty in North Carolina, where she watched her children at play through a window. She later found refuge in a swamp, then hid out for seven years in her grandmother’s attic before escaping by boat to Philadelphia.
Known as ‘Quaker City,’ Philadelphia was an anti-slavery stronghold. African-American abolitionists like William Still, a conductor on the Underground Railroad, took the greatest risks. Chairman of the Vigilance Committee of the Pennsylvania Anti-Slavery Society, he aided fugitives like Oney Judge and Harriet Jacobs, keeping detailed records that helped reunite families separated by slavery.
Frederick Douglass became a national leader of the abolitionist movement. Born in February 1818 on a Maryland plantation, he was separated from his mother as an infant and never knew his father who was likely his master. After several attempts, Douglass finally made his getaway by train on September 3, 1838, dressed in a sailor’s uniform and carrying false identification papers obtained from a free black sailor. He then boarded a ferry out of Philadelphia, then a train and another ferry, until he landed in New York City.
An acquaintance he met there warned him that the city was filled with slave catchers, so Douglass slept on a wharf behind a stack of barrels. He then stayed with David Ruggles, a black journalist who helped hundreds of fugitives. After Douglass and Anna Murray were married in Ruggles’ home, the couple made their way to New Bedford, Massachusetts where the fugitive heard that the whaling and the maritime trades there welcomed African-Americans. The newly-weds boarded a steamship for Newport and when they ran out of money, were assisted on the stagecoach by Quakers.
‘I have often been asked, how I felt when first I found myself on free soil. A new world opened upon me… I lived more in one day than in a year of my slave life. I felt as one might feel upon escape from a den of hungry lions.’ – Frederick Douglass –
Henry “Box” Brown was born into slavery in Virginia and sent to Richmond to work in a tobacco factory at the age of fifteen was. Later, although he was married and had four children, he was not permitted to live with his family, and his wife and children were sold to a plantation in North Carolina. On March 23, 1849, Brown’s friends nailed him inside a wooden crate labeled ‘dry goods’ and shipped him express from Richmond to Philadelphia. His box, lined with cloth, had a single hole cut in the top so he could breathe. Twenty-seven hours later, Brown arrived at the headquarters of the Philadelphia Anti-Slavery Society upside-down and emerging, sang a Psalm.
Another ingenious escape was by Ellen and William Craft, a married couple from Georgia, who hid in plain sight. They traveled first-class in trains, dined with a steamboat captain and stayed in fancy hotels en route to Philadelphia. Ellen, a fair-skinned quadroon, disguised herself as a cotton planter traveling with ‘his’ slave. ‘Running a Thousand Miles for Freedom,’ the book they later published, described their daring adventures.
Before starting get-away on December 21, 1848, William cut Ellen’s hair and to avoid signing any hotel registry or other documents, Ellen kept her arm in a sling. Her face was wrapped in a bandage as if suffering a toothache which also prevented conversation with other passengers. She donned men’s trousers, green spectacles, and a top hat. Disembarking from the train in Savannah, the fugitives then boarded a steamer for Charleston, South Carolina where the captain warned ‘him’ to beware of “cut-throat abolitionists” in the North who might coax William to run away.
In Baltimore, the Crafts were ordered to get off the train and report to the authorities for verification of “his” slave’s ownership, but they were saved by the train’s signal for departure. Indicating Ellen’s bandage, the officer commented, “This gentleman is unwell. Tell the conductor to allow the traveler and his slave on board.”
The Crafts received assistance in Philadelphia through the abolitionist network, then moved to Boston where William worked as a cabinetmaker, and Ellen was a seamstress. However, in 1850, slave hunters hired to return them to their master in Georgia, caused them to flee again, this time to England.
Harriet Jacobs was born a slave in Edenton, North Carolina, in 1813 and was sexually abused by her master while still a child. Determined to avoid his advances, Jacobs took a white lawyer as her lover and had two children with him. By law, Harriet’s biracial children became slaves because their mother was enslaved. Jacobs’ domestic situation became increasingly unbearable, and she managed to escape. She hid in a neighboring home where she could watch her children at play and then took refuge in a swamp. She later hid for seven years in her grandmother’s attic before finally escaping by boat to Philadelphia and New York.
Henry Bibb was born on a Kentucky plantation to an enslaved mother in 1815. He was told his white father was a state senator though Henry never knew him. Bibb witnessed each of his six younger brothers sold away to different slaveholders. He escaped to Detroit in 1842, where he hoped to gain freedom for his wife and daughter. After learning his wife had been sold as a mistress to a white planter, Bibb became a fervent abolitionist, traveling and lecturing throughout the country. Following the 1850 Fugitive Slave Law, he fled to Canada where he edited the weekly, “Voice of the Fugitive.”
Josiah Henson fled Kentucky in 1830 with his wife and four sons, the two youngest carried in a knapsack upon his crippled back. It was far more precarious to escape on the underground railroad with one’s children, but Henson could not bear the thought of his boys being sold away from the family as his own six siblings had been. Helped along the route by Native Americans and boat captains, they arrived six weeks later exhausted, filthy, and starving. As soon as they reached Canada, Henson leaped off the ferry and threw himself on the ground. He rolled in the sand and danced in circles.
“Now there’s one crazy fellow,” a man on the levee commented. “Perhaps ’tis some unfortunate man felled by a fit.”
“Oh no, sir,” Henson exclaimed. “I’m not crazy. Just a free man for the first time!”
Yet here they were now, “strangers in a strange land, ragged and penniless.” Yes, he and his family were homeless, hungry, and helpless, but the only thing of importance was that they were no longer six pieces of property belonging to a white master. (Mofford, “I Shall Use My Freedom Well”: Josiah Henson, Fugitive Slave (1789-1883) Touch Point Press, 2017, p. 89).
The Underground Railroad represents the major example of an interracial movement. Blacks and whites worked together in political and moral protests against the institution of slavery, committing acts of civil disobedience for a common goal.