The Underground Railroad History

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Updated: Apr 30, 2024
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The Underground Railroad History

This essay will provide an overview of the history of the Underground Railroad, its significance in the abolitionist movement, and the heroes who risked their lives to help slaves escape to freedom. At PapersOwl, you’ll also come across free essay samples that pertain to Harriet Tubman.

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The Underground Railroad was very important in history by helping many slaves to escape. The Underground Railroad holds a fascinating history, many plots and plans to escape, as well as people that helped slaves to escape, but escaping was often dangerous due to multiple reasons. The Underground Railroad helped tremendously with slave escapes by means of all of the routes and safehouses set up along the country. Due to roughly 100,000 escaped slaves, there was a lack of workers which made it harder for slavery to continue.

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Later, the Emancipation Proclamation along with the Thirteenth Amendment were passed making slavery illegal. All three events led to the end of slavery.

The Underground Railroad goes back a couple of centuries in time. The Underground Railroad was formed in the early 19th century. (Harriet Tubman) The first record of this system was on May 12, 1786. Most of the information we have about the Underground Railroad comes from accounts that happened after the Civil War, but we may never know the exact number of slaves that were able to escape or become free by using this system. (Harriet Tubman) The system was a network of Northerners who helped runaway slaves. The Underground Railroad came to an end in 1865 after the Thirteenth Amendment was passed getting rid of all slavery in the United States. (Harriet Tubman)

There were many working parts involved in the Underground Railroad one of them was escape trails. Slave escape routes were called lines. It is believed that about 3,000 miles of Underground Railroad trails were in Ohio. (Ohio History Central) Escape routes were often indirect to confuse the slave catchers. There was never an exact route to escape but many different ones to choose from. (Harriet Tubman) Slaves often traveled on foot and they had very little to no food while on their journey. After 1850, routes led fugitive slaves to either Canada, Mexico, or the Caribbean. (Eiu.Edu) Canada was known by slaves as the promised land because once the slaves reached there they were officially away from the slave catchers.

Safe houses were another major part of the Underground Railroad. The safe houses were called depots or stations. As many as 1,000 houses in the north were used as stations. (Harriet Tubman) Stations were recognized by lit lanterns hanging outside. Slaves often made their escapes at night and hid in barns, basements, train cars, churches, or cupboards. (Harriet Tubman) Ashtabula, Painesville, Cleveland, Sandusky, Toledo, Huron, Lorain, and Conneaut were cities along Lake Erie that were the starting points of slave transport from Ohio to Canada. (Ohio History Central)

Special codes played a huge part in the Underground Railroad as well. People that worked with the Underground Railroad had special codes and knocks to get into the safe houses that the station keepers knew. (Sawyer 38-39) One of the common passwords was “William Penn”. (Sawyer 38-39) Slaves used railroad code and songs called spirituals to communicate with each other. (Harriet Tubman) The Underground Railroad organization was not very tight due to the fact that it was illegal. About 100,000 slaves escaped through the Underground Railroad from 1810 – 1860. Most slaves came from Kentucky, Virginia, and Maryland but few slaves escaped from the south.

There are famous people and organizations in history that played a major point in slave escapes. Harriet Tubman escaped slavery and helped start the Underground Railroad. (Taylor 3) She was nicknamed Moses because she was the person in history who led the most slaves to freedom. She also successfully freed all of her slaves and never lost one. Almost all slaves were helped by whites during their escape, Slaves rarely escaped without help. (Sawyer 7) Quakers started helping slaves escape all the way back to the 1780’s. (Ohio History Central)

Levi Coffin helped over 3,000 slaves escape their masters and he was nicknamed the president of the underground railroad by abolitionists. (Ohio History Central) There was a 100 stair staircase known as the freedom stairway that went from the bottom of the Ohio River to the top of the hill. John Rankin lived here and he put out a light in the window that signified when it was safe for the slaves to pass the river and come to the house. William Wells Brown helped many slaves by taking them across Lake Erie to Buffalo or Detroit. (Sawyer 5) Some slaves that escaped through the Underground Railroad came back to slavery to be conductors and help others escape. John Parker is a former slave who conducted one of the busiest sections of the Underground Railroad and transported slaves across the Ohio River. (Eiu.Edu) Organizations in New York, Boston, and Philadelphia raised money to set up temporary jobs and houses for the slaves.

The Underground Railroad was a very dangerous organization due to all of the aspects that took place. If slaves were captured they were branded, put in jail, sold back into slavery, sometimes killed, or flogged which is another word for whipped. (Eiu.Edu) Traveling slaves had to fight against animals and severe temperatures as well. In 1850 the fugitive slave law put whites who helped slaves in jail or made them pay a high fine. If they got caught they were either put in jail for 6 months or they had to pay a 1,000 dollar fine. (Harriet Tubman) Free Africans could still be caught and sent back to slavery though. (Harriet Tubman) This happened when slave catchers destroyed their free papers which took away their ticket out of slavery.

Slavery was a huge problem for a period of time in the 19th century. Many people thought it was wrong and tried to stop it but it didn’t end for many more years. Since slavery wasn’t stopped right away people tried to find ways to help slaves escape. The Underground Railroad was one of the most well known and important systems that carried out this task. Many people and places were involved in this system and in the end it turned out to be successful based off of the fact that around 100,000 slaves in total escaped using the Underground Railroad.”

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The Underground Railroad History. (2021, Apr 10). Retrieved from