The Underground Railroad
How it works
“Fugitive slaves were reported in the American colonies as early as the 1640s, and escapes escalated with the growth of slavery over the next two hundred years.” (Encyclopedia). Slaves were being traded throughout the South for many years and the south wouldn’t have been able to prosper without the hands of the slaves (Underground Railroad). They worked long hours in the heat and their living conditions were horrible. They were whipped, killed, and torn away from their loved ones whenever a master wanted to make some money. Some thought the risk of escaping was too high and if they were to ever get caught, they would be brutalized. They had to make a decision based off of whether they wanted to be held in bondage and die a slave or at least attempt to be free. Many gave up the idea of ever escaping, but the bravest souls went on their journey using the Underground Railroad. The Underground Railroad, a passage to freedom, was a term used to describe a system of abolitionists that helped thousands of escaped slaves to finally be released from their bondage to slavery. Majority escaped to the Northern free states and Canada or they escaped to Florida or Mexico. It lasted from 1800 to 1865. This movement changed not only our ancestors, but our lives as well. It is the most known antislavery movement and it played a big role in the cause of the Civil War resulting in the beginning of the end of slavery.
There are many different stories with their own versions, but the most common story on how the Underground Railroad was originated all started with a man named Tice Davids. Tice Davids was a slave who fled from his owner in Kentucky. His owner chased him all the way to the Ohio river in a hot pursuit until Davids disappeared into thin air. His owner was left bamboozled and people say that he wondered if Davids “had gone off on some underground road.” In reality, the idea of the railroad began due to the fugitive slave act in 1793. The fugitive slave act stated if an escaped slave was ever caught, they must be returned to their rightful owner. It meant all slaves who were runaways and the African Americans who were already free must be returned or killed. All of the freed slaves felt terrified of returning back to their old life. Many of the indentured slaves were freed after serving their time. Majority of the runaways were men because women and children would be the ones to get caught the fastest. Sometimes those who successfully escaped would come back a few months later to save their own family or they helped other families to escape. Owners would go around posting reward sheets to offer payments to anyone who returned their property. Slaves were considered stolen property rather than human beings. If they were recaptured, they were either branded, whipped, jailed, sold back into slavery, or killed. Many was successful though and there were more than 100,000 runaway slaves who was able to set foot in the Promised Land.
How it works
The Underground Railroad had no specific location. It was a big secret. There were various paths spreading out from Canada all through the United States to Mexico. They only had the options to travel by foot, horse, buggy, or boat. They even had their own lingo that only the people who was associated with the railroad knew about. The lingo was their secret codes. Canada and the northern free states were called “The Promise Land” or “Heaven”. The Underground Railroad routes were referred to as “lines”. The routes were extremely long and in order for the fugitives to survive they would fend off of animals. They even survived the most severe weather temperatures. In order to stay on the right track, they relied on clues. For example, they knew moss grew on the north side of the trees and the birds migrated north in the summer time. But the biggest clue they had was to locate Polaris also known as the North Star because it never changed positions and it always points to the north. The fugitives were known as “cargo” or “baggage”. The system was never organized so they had northern and southern abolitionists, Native Americans, freed slaves, and religious groups also known as Quakers act as “conductors”. Quakers are members of the Society of Friends which is a religious group that opposed slavery. They believed all people were equal in the eyes of God (Defining Moments). Conductors transported and guided the slaves to freedom. Sometimes they would pose as a slave to enter a plantation and at night they would make their move. They hid them in their homes, churches, and other places which were known as “safe houses”. The safe houses were along the lines of the Underground Railroad and it had a lit lantern hanging outside or a patterned quilt hanging in the window so the slaves would be able to identify it. The safe houses were also known as “stations” and the people who owned and operated the safe house was the “stationmaster”. Fugitives would travel up to twenty miles before arriving at the next station, where they ate, slept, and waited for a message to be sent out to the next station. People who contributed money, clothing, or food to help these slaves were known as “stockholders”. Some of the slaves believed the quilts hanging in the windows had secret messages hidden in the patterns for communication. For example, the Bear’s Paw Trail pattern told the slaves to follow a path that a bear would take so the hunters wouldn’t be able to find them. The Drunkard’s Path pattern reminds the fugitives to travel in a zig zag to avoid the capturers. If a Monkey Wrench was spotted, it was a signal to the slaves to gather all the tools they need for their journey onto freedom. The tools were either real tools or courage and awareness. (Pathways to Freedom).
The conductors and leaders of the Underground Railroad played a major part in the whole system. They were a diverse group of brave souls who helped these slaves no matter their race, occupation, or how rich they were. For starters, Issac T. Hopper, the father of the Underground Railroad, played a one of the biggest roles in the forming of the Underground Railroad. He was a Quaker who was active in the Philadelphia anti-slavery movement. He established the first operating cell in the Underground Railroad. While hiding fugitives in his home, he organized a safe haven and educated informants about the plans of fugitive slave hunters. He even found legalized loopholes to help slaves gain their freedom in a courtroom. He was the overseer of the Negro School for Children founded by Anthony Benezet and served as a volunteer teacher in a school for African Americans. When he moved to New York he continued on helping fugitives escape.
Harriet Tubman also known as “Moses” was the most well-known conductor because of the Underground Railroad. Her whole life she helped her people become stable. Tubman was born a slave in Dorchester County, Maryland. Her name was Araminta Ross, but she changed her last name to Tubman when she got married and she changed her first name to Harriet after her mother when she escaped from her plantation with her brothers in 1849. She went back a few times to rescue her family, but when she tried to rescue her husband, he had done remarried and refused to leave with her. After that she joined the Underground Railroad and began guiding fugitives on a regular basis. In order to communicate with them she would use the secret codes or coded songs. For example, the song “Wade in the Water” was sung to tell the slaves to hide in water and “Sweet Chariot” was sung to let slaves know to be ready for their journey. “Sweet Chariot” meant the Underground Railroad, “swing low” meant it was almost time, and “carry me home” hinted at the slaves escaping to freedom (Harriet Tubman Historical Society). During the Civil War, she became a cook, nurse, spy, spoke at women’s suffrage meetings, and she founded the Harriet Tubman home for the elder. She freed more than three hundred slaves within her nineteen trips into the south and she never lost a passenger.
In 1850, Levi Coffin, known as the president of the Underground Railroad, wrote an essay about the trials and tribulations he faced while opening up his home to more than a thousand slaves. He became an abolitionist at the age of 7 when he seen a group of slaves that were chained being driven to a slave auction. His parents and grandparents already opposed to the institution of slavery, so it made it easier to do what he felt was right. He started off with bringing food to fugitives hiding in his family’s farm. He and his cousin began a school to teach black people to read by using the bible, but eventually it got shutdown by the surrounding slave owners. Coffin grew up to become a wealthy business man which permitted him to fund the Underground Railroad stations in Ohio and Indiana. His home became known as the Grand Central Station. He was a man with morals and faith and he strongly believed it was his duty to help slaves along their journey. He did not care what anyone thought or what consequences he had to deal with. In his essay he stated, “if by doing my duty and endeavoring to fulfill the injunctions of the Bible, I injured my business, then let my business go. As to my safety, my life was in the hands of my Divine Master, and I felt that I had his approval. I had no fear of the danger that seemed to threaten my life or my business. If I was faithful to duty, and honest and industrious I felt that I would be preserved, and that I could make enough to support my family” (Documenting the South). He and his wife continued to provide slaves with food, clothing, and a place to stay for more than 20 years. Once the Emancipation Proclamation passed, he formed aid societies that provided shelter, education, clothes and food all freed slaves. It has been reported that he assisted more than 3,300 slaves (Documenting the South).
Thomas Garrett, the busiest stationmaster in the underground railroad, was a Quaker born in Pennsylvania. He moved to Wilmington, Delaware where he became the director of the Delaware Abolition Society. He had his own hardware store where he hid some slaves and his home was the last known stop of the Underground Railroad in Delaware. He provided slaves with money, food, clothing, and he even physically walked with some of them to a safe location. The Fugitive Slave Act considered transporting stolen goods, also known as slaves, to be theft. He didn’t care about being fined or going to jail. He was fined $5,000 after being caught helping a fugitive, leaving him almost bankrupt. He came back stronger by rebuilding his hardware store and helping even more fugitives than before. He aided more than 2,750 slaves before the Civil War happened.
Frederick Douglass, born Frederick Augustus Washington Bailey, was an escaped slave who later became one of the most famous abolitionists. While he was still a slave her taught himself how to read and write. In 1838, he disguised himself as a free black sailor and escaped to New Bedford, Massachusetts. (Life of Frederick Douglass) Later on, he finally reached New York and that’s where his journey of becoming an abolitionist crusader began. In 1845, he released “The Narrative of the Life of Frederick Douglass” and other autobiographies. He ran an abolitionist newspaper called the North Star where voiced his opinion on the abolishment of slavery and he also began the Frederick Douglass Paper while giving speeches on the issues the abolitionists had. He was like a spokesperson for them. He hid fugitives in his home in Rochester, New York. His home was considered the last stop before crossing the border to Canada and he helped 400 fugitives escape. He even had eleven runaways in his home at one time. He influenced policy and he advocated for women’s rights. When the civil war came into play, he helped recruit soldiers for the Union Army.
John Brown was a white abolitionist for the Underground Railroad like his father. He believed armed insurrection was the only way to suppress slavery. He harbored fugitives in his home and warehouse, and he formed an anti-slave catcher military force called the league of Gileadites when the Fugitive Slave Act was established. He participated in the Bleeding Kansas with his sons which resulted in the freeing of eleven slaves. In October of 1859, he carried out the Harper’s Ferry Raid in Harper’s Ferry, Virginia where him and twenty-one other people seized hold of the federal armory and arsenal in an attempt to rebel against slavery. After that, he was caught and convicted, he was hanged to his death as the result.
There was an underground railroad cell set up in Madison, Indiana created by Elijah Anderson and others. He worked as a conductor and because of his light skin complexion he was able to pose as a slave owner and travel with fugitives to Canada via steamboat. He would take up to twenty to thirty slaves at a time. He helped more than eight hundred fugitives before being incarcerated. In 1856, he was arrested for transporting fugitives from Lawrenceburg, Indiana to Cleveland, Ohio. He was sentenced to eight years and the day of his release in March of 1861, he was found dead in his cell.
In my opinion, The Underground Railroad helped people take control of what they should’ve taken control of years before. The era of slavery was the worst time for African Americans. They were considered inferior to whites and treated as species. Some did anything they could to escape the wrath of slavery. Some committed suicide because they felt as though death was better than slavery. Slave were stripped away from all they knew, and they were deprived from their freedom no matter if they were supposed to be. For example, the “Dred Scott Case” is the best way to explain how slaves fought to get their freedom. He was a slave who was taken to free territory from a slave state by his master. Scott and his wife filed lawsuits on grounds of them living in a free state and being in free territory freed from being slaves. They considered themselves free, but Chief Justice Roger B. Taney stated that state citizenship did not validate national citizenship and African Americans-slaves nor their descendants-could not sue in a federal court because they can never be citizens of the United States.
In Conclusion, Slaves found ways to blend in with people up north to live their best life while others met up with their families who previously escaped. The civil war sparked, and other runaways found shelter with the Union Army. The civil war began, and others found shelter with the Union Army. Others died from the exposure from the cold winter in the North. Some died from exposure, after not finding shelter from the North’s frozen winter. As the fight for abolishment decreased, so did the need for the Underground railroad. In 1863, the operations were ceased completely. Once Abraham Lincoln signed the Emancipation Proclamation, the need for abolishing slavery put to a stop. The Underground Railroad not only stood for a good cause, but it showed the value of teamwork and cooperation. It played a huge part in abolishing slavery, and freed millions of slaves.