The Underground Railroad

In the 19th century, slavery in the United States was common. There were millions of slaves being used, especially in the south. Slaves were used to perform hard labor or other work by their masters. Around the time the Civil War started, attitudes about slavery had started changing and many people wanted the slaves to be freed. The Underground Railroad helped many slaves attain their freedom.

Yet, it’s not easy. In many places, slavery was still legal and slaves who tried to escape would be returned to their masters once they were caught. These runaway slaves were usually punished severely. However, the slaves that made it to the northern states were often protected and not returned to their owners. This is why many slaves tried to make their way north, without getting caught. The main function of the Underground Railroad is to get slaves to safety before they were captured by bounty hunters and returned to their owners. The railroad itself wasn’t underground in the sense that it was a train that ran under the ground. Rather, it was a network of secret safe houses. People would open up their homes to runaway slaves, providing shelter at night as well as supplies along their journey north. Often, small groups of slaves would travel from one “station” to the next. The railroad’s “conductors” would then assist them.

Conductors came in all forms. Many were free whites, free-born blacks, former slaves, and even Native Americans. Church groups were heavily involved in helping the slaves escape as well. The most common places of refuge were Mexico or Canada, and many slaves would have to travel hundreds and hundreds of miles before they could get to safety. Most trips were made by foot or wagon. Secrecy was absolutely necessary because people who were found to be helping runaway slaves were often heavily fined or jailed. It wasn’t uncommon for a black man to leave his family behind so that he could attain freedom and then save up money to purchase the rest of his family from slavery, causing an interesting ripple effect. In fact, many more slaves gained their freedom this way than they did from actually fleeing north.

The railroad even had its own terminology. “Stations” were hiding places, “conductors” were the guides, abolitionists would fix the “tracks” or escape routes, “stationmasters” were the ones who hid the slaves in their homes, and the slaves themselves were referred to as “cargo” or “passengers.” Many famous figures helped slaves escape. William Still was known as the Father of the Underground and helped free as many as 60 slaves a month. Harriet Tubman escaped slavery and then helped many others escape via the Railroad as well.

It’s estimated the Underground Railroad helped 100,000 slaves escape by 1850.