About the Underground Railroad
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.
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.
How We Know About the Underground Railroad
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.
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: March 3, 2021