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 Chesapeake.

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 property.

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 night."


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 railroad.

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 initially rebuffed.

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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