HISTORIC CONTEXT FOR THE UNDERGROUND RAILROAD
Defining the "Underground Railroad"
The Underground Railroad refers to the effort --sometimes spontaneous,
sometimes highly organized -- to assist persons held in bondage in North
America to escape from slavery. While most runaways began their journey
unaided and many completed their self-emancipation without assistance, each
decade in which slavery was legal in the United States saw an increase in
the public perception of an underground network and in the number of persons
willing to give aid to the runaway. Although this study encompasses the
period from American independence to the end of the Civil War (1770s to
1865), it focuses on the years between 1820 and 1865 when most antislavery
advocates abandoned their hope for gradual emancipation and adopted immediate
abolition of slavery as their goal. Although divided on this issue, the
abolitionist movement was successful in expanding and publicizing the informal
network known as the underground railroad.
The term "underground railroad" had no meaning to the generations
before the first rails and engines of the 1820s, but many earlier events
were precursors of the underground railroad. This study includes incidents
which have all the characteristics of underground railroad activity but
which occurred before 1820. These activities foreshadowed and helped to
shape the underground railroad. While the primary focus will be on the most
active period of underground railroad activity, it is important to document
earlier and related events which contribute to an understanding of this
nationally-significant, geographically-widespread enterprise.
The origin of the term cannot be precisely determined although there
are several claims for the honor. What is known is that both those who aided
escapes from slavery and those who were outraged by loss of slave property
began to refer to runaways as part of an "underground railroad"
by the 1830s. The "underground railroad" described an activity
that was locally organized, but which had no real national center. It existed
rather openly in the North and just beneath the surface of daily life in
the upper South and certain Southern cities. Where it existed, the underground
railroad offered local service to runaway slaves by assisting them from
one point to another. Farther along, others would take the passenger into
their transportation system until the final destination had been reached.
The rapidity with which the term became commonly used did not mean that
incidents of resistance to slavery increased significantly around 1830 or
that more attempts were made to escape from bondage. It did mean, however,
that more white Americans were prepared to aid runaways and to give some
assistance to the free blacks who had always made it their business to help
fugitive slaves. Publication of the first issue of William Lloyd Garrison's
newspaper, The Liberator, on January 1, 1831, marks the traditional
beginning of the abolitionist era and of angry and defensive responses from
the slaveholding South. The high visibility of the abolitionist attack on
slavery has perhaps encouraged historians to overemphasize the abolitionist
involvement with the underground railroad.
Several factors less frequently emphasized are noted in this booklet.
First, there were active attempts at escape from slavery in North America
during the late 1600s and the 1700s, both individual and in groups. By the
1800s, various forces, from the national Constitution to local slave patrols
in the South, were all aligned to prevent escapes. A second factor is that,
while most slave escapes were to the free states of the North and to Canada,
there were runaways into Spanish Florida and into Spanish Mexico and the
subsequent Mexican Republic. Although the numbers escaping never threatened
to destabilize slavery, there were very serious consequences for American
diplomacy, prompting a desire to acquire Spanish territory on the continent
to secure the national borders and prevent slave escapes. A third factor
is that the majority of assistance to runaways came from slaves and free
blacks and the greatest responsibility for providing shelter, financial
support, and direction to successful runaways came from the organized efforts
of northern free blacks.
Perhaps the most important aspect of the underground railroad is that
its importance is not measured by the number of attempted or successful
escapes, but by the manner in which it consistently exposed the grim realities
of slavery and --more importantly-- refuted the claim that African Americans
could not act or organize on their own behalf. It also encouraged, however
uneasily at times, men and women of both races to begin to set aside assumptions
about the other race and to work together on issues of mutual concern. At
its most dramatic, the underground railroad provided stories of complex
communication systems and individual acts of bravery and suffering. While
most of the accounts of secret passageways, sliding wall panels, and hidden
rooms will never be documented with historical evidence, there were indeed
sufficient dramas to be interpreted and verified.
The Origins of American Slavery
The Atlantic slave trade, which carried unwilling Africans to the Western
Hemisphere, was one part of a long history of international trade in goods
and people in Europe, Africa, North and South America, and even Asia. Between
1450 and 1850, about 12 million Africans were transported westward across
the Atlantic. Of this number, only about five percent were brought to British
North America and, later, to the United States, most of them arriving between
1680 and 1808. It is estimated that between 450,000 and 600,000 Africans
arrived in North America in waves of forced migration that coincided with
changes in military power or commercial advantage in Africa, Europe or America.
When Europe, Africa, and the Americas made early contact for trade and
exploration, it was not certain what the status of either Africans or Europeans
would be in the Americas. That status varied from Mexico to Brazil to the
Carolinas to New Amsterdam. The development of slavery in the Chesapeake
Bay region in the 1600s exemplified the manner in which a plantation economy,
based on one-crop (tobacco) commercial agriculture, developed a legal system
that validated slavery . For the first few decades, some Africans were treated
as indentured servants and freed after a term of service, often fourteen
years. By the 1640s, court decisions began to reflect a different standard
for Africans than for white servants and to accept the concept of lifetime
black servitude. In the 1660s, Virginia decreed that a child followed the
status of its mother, thus making lifetime servitude inheritable. A series
of court decisions from the 1660s forward locked slavery into place in the
While British North America received few slaves and most of those in
the 1700s, it was deeply involved in the slave trade which began to be dominated
by British shipping in the 1700s. For much of the eighteenth century, Britain's
prosperity was involved with the purchase, capture and export of slaves
from western Africa to the European colonies of the Western Hemisphere.
Colonial slaves, recently arrived from Africa or the Caribbean, often believed
that they could escape from the system of slavery and start their own community.
Since the British colonies in North America were not yet "free,"
their only recourse was to cross an international border, pass themselves
as free in a new region, or live outside colonial society with Native Americans
or in "maroon" societies.
Maroon societies were bands or communities of fugitive slaves who succeeded
in establishing a society of their own in some geographic area, such as
swamp or mountain, usually difficult to penetrate. While the colonial era
saw attempts at group escape, by the time of the American republic, such
unsettled refuges were fewer. Further, the North American back country was
already inhabited by Native Americans who sometimes accepted Africans into
their communities, sometimes kept them in slavery, and sometimes returned
them to their masters. Finally, Africans learned that they were more likely
to be recaptured if they ran away in large groups.
Early Antislavery in America
When British North America severed ties with England, the slave trade
between West Africa, the British West Indies, and North America was disrupted.
Since the Americans had argued for natural rights in their Declaration of
Independence, there was some sentiment for ending the slave trade, although
less political will for ending slavery. The Constitutional compromise of
1787 put an end to the slave trade by 1808, but the Constitution and the
Fugitive Slave Law of 1793 confirmed the rights of slaveholders to their
The early antislavery movement and examples of resistance to slavery
from the eighteenth and early nineteenth century are the immediate precursors
of the underground railroad. These include the early abolition societies
(1780s-1812) which were present in almost every state and the religious
antislavery movement which began in the 1700s. The Society of Friends (Quakers)
provided much of the antislavery leadership, early and late, but other denominations
as well as Enlightenment political philosophies contributed to the antislavery
movement. Free blacks in every state made political and economic efforts
to encourage emancipations, to end the slave trade, and, ultimately, to
abolish slavery in the new American republic. Also among the precursors
to the underground railroad are African American war-related efforts to
leave the United States during the Revolutionary War and the War of 1812,
to sue for freedom on the basis of military service in these wars, and to
organize slave rebellions based on belief in republican liberty, as in the
Stono Rebellion (1739) and Gabriel's Conspiracy (1800.)
In much of the North, the end of legal slaveholding came with the adoption
of new state constitutions after the American Revolution. Most northern
states adopted gradual abolition plans that could take a long time; it could
mean that children served to age thirty or that old persons remained in
bondage if it appeared that they would have to be supported by the state.
In addition, the first national Congress in 1787 passed the Northwest Ordinance
which prohibited the introduction of slaves into the territory west of the
Ohio River. This area, which became the states of Ohio, Indiana, Illinois,
Michigan, and Wisconsin was permanently free. The belief that slavery was
a moral evil and the hope, held widely in the north and south during the
early republic, that somehow the slavery issue might resolve itself as the
American economy changed and as slaveholders were persuaded of the evils
of slavery, evaporated as slaves became more valuable and after the bitter
Congressional fight over the admission of Missouri to the Union as a slave
state in 1820. It was, as Thomas Jefferson, claimed, "a firebell in
The Underground Railroad Era 1820-1860
Thousands of slaves fled bondage each year in the decades before the
Civil War. The most frequent calculation is that around one thousand per
year actually escaped. Some runaways sought a brief respite from slavery
or simply wanted to reach family and friends. Other fugitives settled in
southern towns and cities, often with forged "free" papers. The
majority of slaves attempting to escape from the South went to the North
and many continued to Canada. Some runaways returned to their masters and
others were caught by bloodhounds and slave patrols, accidents and informants.
For those who attempted to reach the North, assistance from black and white
abolitionists and other sympathizers may have become more frequent and certainly
became more obvious as the decades passed. Especially after 1830, there
was an increased commitment to abolitionism, the formation of predominantly-black
vigilance committees, and support for what came to be called the underground
Free blacks played the central role in aid to fugitive bondspeople and
in the protection of free blacks likely to be kidnapped and sold in the
South. In Northern cities they formed Vigilance Committees and filled the
positions of officers. In the midwest, they provided refuge. Levi Coffin,
celebrated as the "president of the Underground Railroad", left
North Carolina and settled in Newport, Indiana, in 1826 where he noted that
"fugitives often passed through that place and generally stopped among
the colored people." Coffin, originally from an antislavery Quaker
family in North Carolina, was active in the underground railroad in both
Indiana and Cincinnati, Ohio. Still, James G. Birney, while in Cincinnati,
observed about the underground railroad that "such matters are almost
uniformly managed by the colored people. I know nothing of them generally
till they are past."
In 1832, the New England Anti-Slavery Society was formed and, within
five years, it had several hundred local chapters primarily in Massachusetts,
New York, and Ohio. In late 1833, Garrison allied with black and white abolitionists
to form the American Anti-Slavery Society which had, as associate members,
interracial female antislavery societies in Philadelphia and Boston. This
Society also grew quickly and had almost a quarter of a million members
by 1838. The American Anti-slavery Society divided at its 1840 convention
when a woman, Abby Kelley, was elected to a committee. Garrison's group
supported female participation and retained control of the much-reduced
American Anti-Slavery Society. Seeing the deep involvement of the federal
government in slavery from the Constitution onward, they advocated the dissolution
of the Union as the only means of withdrawing Northern support from slavery
and forcing emancipation. Most of the Garrisonians were pacifists who rejected
all violent means of ending slavery. They were as suspicious of organized
religion as they were of government and they explored utopian communities
and women's rights for the next two decades.
Religiously-motivated abolitionists constituted a much larger group and
were organized loosely into the American and Foreign Anti-Slavery Society
from 1840 until the mid-1850s. Political abolitionists were closely aligned
with the church-based group and were themselves divided into three regional
factions. The most radical of these political abolitionists, who urged political
action against slavery, was the faction organized around Gerrit Smith in
upstate New York. They argued that the United States Constitution, properly
interpreted, prohibited slavery in the states and that the federal government
had the power to abolish slavery in the south. Another political faction,
centered in Cincinnati, was part of the Liberty Party and then the Free
Soil Party, both third-party movements designed to force the major parties
to end slavery. The third political group were Boston-area abolitionists
who could not support Garrison. Most of the political abolitionists found
their way into the new Republican Party, organized in 1854.
Black abolitionists, who had sought white allies, often felt that they
were kept on the margins of the movement they had sustained and promoted.
Increasingly, free blacks had their own meetings and read newspapers published
by African Americans, such as Samuel Cornish's Colored American and
Frederick Douglass's Paper. The argument over which set of abolitionist
tactics was more productive sometimes obscures the fact that the abolitionist
movement, with all its divisions, was extremely effective. It did much to
bring the nation to a confrontation over slavery within thirty years.
It is virtually impossible to trace, with any precision, the routes that
runaway slaves took overland to reach free states in the northeast and midwest.
Legend and tradition, while insufficient evidence in themselves, can often
be signposts that suggest where digging for further information may be most
profitable. There were, indeed, southern whites who aided fugitive slaves.
Their activities are much more shrouded in darkness than those of the white
northerners who assisted fugitives. Such activity, in the south, brought
severe punishment, even death. As early as the 1790s, there are accounts
of whites who encouraged slave revolts in Virginia and the slave, Gabriel,
who planned a wide conspiracy in Virginia in 1800, hid out for ten days
on the river vessel of a white man and was betrayed by a black boatman.
The examples of northern abolitionists who went south and then, either impulsively
or with calculation, encouraged and abetted runaways, received more public
notice than did the work of white southerners.
The decade of the 1850s was a dispiriting time for African Americans
seeking freedom through the law or through a more personal form of self-liberation
--running away. The Fugitive Slave Law of 1850 strengthened the original
Act of 1793 and made it legal for slaveholders to pursue runaways into states
where slavery was illegal. As a result, professional slave catchers seized
black men and women, often on the street or at their work place, and hastened
them south after giving evidence that this person was indeed a fugitive
slave to a local justice of the peace or court. Such evidence as the unsavory
slave catchers had was often flimsy or false and, while the South won the
legal victory, the Abolitionist cause won a larger victory when Northerners
saw blacks struggling to escape from their captors.
Many Northerners acquired a new understanding of the slave condition
and a greater sympathy for the campaign to end slavery in the United States.
Still, the national government seemed to reflect the Southern view throughout
the decade, partly through fear of Southern defection from the Union, partly
from the central role of Southern politicians in national politics. In 1857,
Supreme Court Justice Roger B. Taney declared, in the case of Dred Scott
v. Sandford that blacks "had no rights which the white man was
bound to observe." This meant that that the status of free blacks was
entirely up to the individual states. John Brown's 1859 raid on Harper's
Ferry was a desperate attempt to inspire slaves to rebellion because all
other avenues to national manumission seemed closed.
In this atmosphere, the Civil War began as a war to save the Union from
the ever-expanding contradictions inherent in a nation "half slave,
half free." But, no sooner had Union troops appeared in the border
states, on the islands off the Atlantic coast, and in the lower Mississippi
Valley, than thousands of blacks took the opportunity to liberate themselves
by absconding to the Yankee camps. A first effort to send them back to their
masters was soon abandoned. The runaways became "contraband,"
or confiscated property of war. Many of them quickly found work within the
Union lines and members of their families began to join them. At the same
time, Northern blacks who sought to form companies and join the Army were
The Confederacy was also quick to see the advantages of such labor. Free
blacks were conscripted to dig fortifications for the southern army and
to labor on roads and in mines. Slaves accompanied their masters to army
camp and acted as cooks, grooms, and personal attendants. Early in the war,
slaveholders hired out their slaves to the army but, when slaves availed
themselves of the chance to change sides, slaveholders decided to send their
slaves to interior plantations, far away from the battles.
This enormous upheaval and movement of the black population within the
South created unprecedented opportunities for self-liberation which took
place even before the federal government acknowledged the reality. In July,
1862, after the disastrous Peninsular campaign, President Lincoln issued
the Second Confiscation Act stating that the Union could "employ .
. . persons of African descent . . . for the suppression of the rebellion."
The entry of African American units into the Union Army and the encampment
of thousands of contrabands in and near the Union Army constitutied a de
facto emancipation even before the Emancipation Proclamation went into effect
on the first of January, 1863.
The war to save the Union inevitably became the war to free the slaves,
not just to secure African Americans soldiers, weaken the Confederacy, and
acquire the approval of Europe, especially Britain, but also because African
Americans themselves used every opportunity to demonstrate that, once slavery's
chain was cracked, it would never be repaired.
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