About the Underground Railroad
The Underground Railroad refers to efforts 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. 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, particularly after the Fugitive Slave Act of 1850, the Underground Railroad was deliberate and organized. Operatives worked through networks connected by family or faith.
"Freedom seekers" were those individuals who self-liberated. Formerly known as "fugitives" or "runaways" because of the laws at the time, in retrospect "freedom seeker" seems a more accurate description.
Quilts and their use as a secret code along the Underground has generated lots of interest. Like many popular myths, the story highlights how the oppressed obtained secret knowledge that their oppressor could not discern. However, quilt codes are very controversial and are no longer widely accepted, as they lack historical documentation. This is not to discount the importance of oral history or the secrecy necessary for the Underground Railroad. Understanding how, where, and why significant oral traditions came about is incredibly important to how we understand the past.
A great deal of historical documentation exists describing how the Underground Railroad operated. After the United States abolished slavery, many people involved with the Underground Railroad shared their lived experiences or documentation they previously kept secret. Throughout these accounts, individuals who endured enslavement and the Underground Railroad provide examples of the coded language used by enslaved people or freedom seekers to discuss escape or other topics that would be dangerous to discuss in front of enslavers or people supportive of enslaving practices. To date, there has been no documented first-hand accounts of freedom seekers or allies interacting with the quilt code. Furthermore, many of the patterns cited as patterns used in the quilt code did not exist until after the Civil War.
There are many resources to learn about the origins of Quilt Code. Here are a couple of digital resources that you might find helpful:
Marie Claire Bryant, “Underground Railroad Quilt Codes: What We Know, What We Believe, and What Inspires Us,” Folklife Magazine, May 3, 2019. Accessed November 22, 2022. https://folklife.si.edu/magazine/underground-railroad-quilt-codes
Edited by Kimberly Wulfert, “The Myth of Quilts on the Underground Railroad,” on New Pathways into Quilt History. Accessed November 21, 2022. https://www.antiquequiltdating.com/UGRR_index.html
The Underground Railroad was not a physical railroad. It refers to the actions of enslaved people who escaped slavery, and those who provided assistance on the journey to freedom. The routes included safe houses and stations where freedom seekers could avoid being caught by slave owners. Landscape features such as rivers, forests, and caves were also commonly used. And, in a number of cases, freedom seekers did use actual trains, though doing so could be very dangerous.
Anywhere that freedom seekers could be free. Routes on the Underground Railroad stretched like a spider web up the east coast, the Appalachians, through Ohio, and across Iowa. Before the Fugitive Slave Act of 1850, many freedom seekers settled in northern states where slavery had been outlawed. Following this law, a second migration took place where many fled to Canada, which has outlawed slavery in 1834. Not only did freedom seekers escape to Canada and northern free states, many migrated to Spanish Florida, the Caribbean and Mexico. Some freedom seekers got on whaling vessels and stayed behind in locations such as San Francisco and Hawaii.
Conductors, both male and female, would guide freedom seekers to stations and safe houses that would eventually lead them to freedom. Many freedom seekers completed their journey without the aid of a conductor.
While Quakers believed that slavery was morally wrong, they did not all agree on the approach to ending slavery. Some participated in the Underground Railroad but many did not. Read more on the discussion of Quakers and the Underground Railroad.
Moreover, many groups and individuals beyond Quakers were actively engaged in the Underground Railroad. The African American community, both free and enslaved, was central to assisting freedom seekers. Religious groups were often central to Underground Railroad networks, particularly denominations such as African Methodist Episcopal, Presbyterian, and Methodist Episcopal. Vigilance committees—groups of African American who organized to protect their fellow citizens from slave catchers and kidnappers—were critical to Underground Railroad operations in urban areas such as Philadelphia, New York, and Boston. A number of anti-slavery societies also played a role.
Abolitionists were those people who favored the abolition or eradication of slavery. They often differed on strategies and methods for ending slavery. Some abolitionists helped on the Underground Railroad and took political action, while others did not. Some further advocated for equal rights for African Americans, but not all abolitionists supported this.
The Underground Railroad continued through the Civil War until at least the 13th Amendment ended legal slavery. There are isolated examples of enslaved people not being told of their free status into the 1870s.
The general understanding of the term Underground Railroad relates to the historical use of the metaphor of the railroads beginning in the 1840s by the growing network of people in the midwest and along the east coast who were interested in assisting those seeking freedom on their journeys. But, in actuality, wherever and whenever slavery existed, people escaped. Evidence of the Underground Railroad, or resistance to slavery through escape and flight, exists as early as the 17th century, or 1600s. The National Underground Railroad Network to Freedom Program recognizes all who took their freedom, through time and across the entire territory that became the United States of America.
Studying the Underground Railroad
While the Underground Railroad was illegal, and it was illegal to teach literacy to enslaved people, it is possible to know about the Underground Railroad. Oral traditions—first person accounts passed down through families or communities are an important source of information. African Americans, coming from a cultural tradition of griots (keepers of history and memory), often had specialized patterns for transmitting this knowledge. Today, oral traditions can be analyzed for their "genealogy" and specific facts or details that might be corroborated. All historical sources—written and oral—should be analyzed by triangulating the information with other sources.
There remain a number of written sources that illuminate Underground Railroad history. Newspaper accounts of dramatic events and court cases related to the Fugitive Slave Acts sometimes provide important details. Records and petitions from churches, anti-slavery societies, and vigilance committees also contain information. A number of participants kept journals and wrote letters that survive. Many of these documents are still owned by descendants rather than being found in archives or libraries.
Oral traditions can be broken down into three categories: myths, legends and personal or familial recollections. Myths are tales that explain the origin of things. Legends are tales that took place long ago, but in a time and place that is familiar to the teller and audience. They describe the exploits of people who are believed to have actually lived. Lastly, personal or familial accounts are told as true stories that took place in a known time.
Researchers have found that some oral traditions are remarkably accurate portrayals of past events, while others appear fanciful. In general, myths rarely withstand the scrutiny of close study, while legends often turn out to be based on the actual exploits of real people, though exaggeration can reduce their accuracy. Personal and familial accounts are most easily tested and most likely to be accurate. With Underground Railroad oral traditions, there is generally some aspect of truth in the story. Analyzing the oral tradition and comparing it with data gleaned from other sources often reveals where the story may have evolved over time. However, they are an important part of unraveling the Underground Railroad past.
Last updated: December 5, 2022