PART I- Historic Context for the Underground Railroad

PART II- Using Primary Sources: The Historians' Toolbox

PART III- Tracking Escape: A Case Study

A Review of Sources



Although the Underground Railroad has been an integral part of American history and folklore for well over 150 years, the recent past has seen an increased public interest in the identification of historic sites associated with the experiences of fugitive slaves. Since the late 1960s, many researchers have utilized the perspectives and methodologies of archeologists, anthropologists, social historians, and material culture to focus on the lives and communities of enslaved and free Americans. Their methods permit historic site administrators, interpreters, and members of the general public to create more meaningful, inclusive, and documented accounts of the Underground Railroad. Because historic sites play a critical role in interpreting our national heritage to a broad audience, it is important that public historians supplement oral narratives and legends of the Underground Railroad with documentation that supports local accounts and places the underground railroad in a broader context of slavery and American history.

Researching and Interpreting the Underground Railroad is the second in a series of guides designed to help National Park Service staff, members of the public, and administrators of historic properties produce, review and evaluate interpretive programs and media. This booklet includes a brief contextual statement about North American slavery, a review of historical scholarship about the Underground Railroad and related topics, suggestions for using a variety of sources to construct responsible and meaningful interpretations, and examples of how to use these sources and to document and interpret specific cases of Underground Railroad activity.

This booklet is part of a National Park Service initiative to design research methods which address American history in a more integrated, diverse, and complex way. For general information about recent goals and directions of the National Park Service, see Revision of the National Park Service’s Thematic Framework (1996) and Adapting to Change (1996).

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