When many people learn about the Underground Railroad, they often learn about a very regimented movement taking place from 1830-1860. They learn that white abolitionist allies ushered freedom seekers from one location to another until they reached freedom in Canada. In reality – the history of the Underground Railroad is much more complex.
The Underground Railroad would not have existed without the brave men and women who made the decision to exercise their autonomy, escape from their enslavers, and claim their freedom. Freedom seekers traveled in whatever direction necessary to find a destination where they could live freely. As long as people enslaved others, freedom seekers escaped to build a better life for themselves, and if possible, their families.
Wherever and whenever slavery existed, there were efforts to escape. Free Black communities and some Indigenous tribes came together to aid freedom seekers in their fight for freedom; not just Quakers and wealthy white abolitionists. Freedom seekers who made the decision to escape traveled not just North to Canada; but South to locations like Spanish Florida, the Caribbean, and Mexico in order to claim their freedom. In other countries where people of African descent were enslaved, some also chose to self-liberate. This helps us understand the Underground Railroad as one of the first international Civil Rights movements.
Some freedom seekers chose to leave the United States when escaping slavery in part because of oppressive laws that allowed enslavers to capture and re-enslave them. The United States codified the ability of enslavers to capture freedom seekers. This is evident in the U.S. Constitution’s Fugitive Slave Clause as well as the Fugitive Slave Law of 1793. These laws were strengthened after the passage of the Fugitive Slave Law of 1850, which made the federal government responsible for capturing and returning freedom seekers to their enslavers. Furthermore, Federal Marshals could capture freedom seekers in any state, regardless of state laws. Private citizens could be deputized on the spot to assist in capturing freedom seekers, and failure to do so could result in a six month prison sentence or a $1,000 fine. After extensive international legal battles, nations such as Canada created laws that did not allow for Americans to extradite freedom seekers after they crossed the international boundary. After exiting the United States – it became more difficult for enslavers not only to locate freedom seekers, but to force them back to a life of enslavement.
Outside of the United States, freedom seekers continued to face challenges. Regardless of location, many freedom seekers continued to combat racism and fight for equality. Others had to grieve their family members who were sold away or chose not to escape. Many constructed new lives for themselves, despite dangers of being kidnapped and sold by slave catchers after they emigrated. As in the United States, the resilience of those who escaped slavery continue to serve as inspiration for countless individuals.
The National Park Service’s National Underground Railroad Network to Freedom Program, established in 1998, serves to document and share Underground Railroad histories. As of September 2021, there are no international listings within the Network to Freedom.
The story map below, created in partnership with the National Committees in Canada, the United States, and the Netherlands of the International Council on Monuments and Sites (I.C.O.M.O.S.), serves to provide an international context for Underground Railroad History. This story map works in conjunction with a mapping project to seek out and highlight locations connected to freedom seeking outside of the United States.
The maps embedded in the story map are interactive. To interact with the maps, click "View full screen" below the story map, or "Explore Map" on the right side of the map itself.