The Underground Railroad refers to the effort of enslaved African Americans to gain their freedom by escaping bondage.
Wherever slavery existed, there were efforts to escape, at first to maroon communities in remote or rugged terrain on the edge of settled areas. Their acts of self-emancipation made them "fugitives" according to the laws of the times, though in retropsect "freedom seeker" seems a more accurate description. While most freedom seekers 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 active efforts to assist escape.
In many cases the decision to assist a freedom seeker may have been a spontaneous reaction as the opportunity presented itself. However, in some places, and particularly after the Fugitive Slave Act of 1850, the Underground Railroad was deliberate and organized. Despite the illegality of their actions, and with little regard for their own personal safety, people of all races, classes and genders participated in this widespread form of civil disobedience. Spanish territories to the south in Florida, British areas to the north in Canada, Mexico, the Caribbean, and other foreign countries offered additional destinations for freedom. Free African American communities in urban areas in both the South and the North were the destination of some freedom seekers.
The maritime industry was an important source for spreading information as well as offering employment and transportation. Through ties to the whaling industry, the Pacific West Coast and perhaps Alaska became a destination. Military service provided another avenue as thousands of African Americans joined the military, from the colonial era to the Civil War, as a means to gain their freedom. During the Civil War, many freedom seekers sought protection and liberty by escaping to the lines of the advancing Union army.