The Underground Railroad was an important event in American History, and is often discussed alongside other issues such as: slavery in the United States, the American Civil War and the American Abolitionist Movement. In general, the Underground Railroad was a system under which slaves from the Southern United States could escape into the Northern United States and Canada, and is considered to have occurred from the late 1700s until the events of the American Civil War in 1863. The Underground Railroad involved a series of routes, networks, and safe houses that escaped slaves could use as they travelled from the plantations in the south, to their freedom in the north. As well, many of the escaped slaves were aided by abolitionists who disagreed with the practise of slavery in the United States. For example, one of the most famous figures of the Underground Railroad was Harriet Tubman. It is generally accepted that as many as 100,000 slaves escaped their situation through the Underground Railroad by the middle of the 19th century.
SLAVERY IN THE UNITED STATES
Slavery was a common practise for much of human history. However, it reached a significant peak during the events of the Atlantic Slave Trade. The Atlantic Slave Trade began in the mid-15th century, reached its peak in the 18th century and concluded near the end of the 19th century. During the time of the Atlantic Slave Trade, approximately 12 million Africans were put on slave ships, sailed across the Atlantic Ocean and sold into slavery. In fact, approximately 600,000 African slaves were brought to the United States as part of the Atlantic Slave Trade, which amounts to about 5% of the total number of slaves from the time. Many of these slaves ended up working on plantations and households across the United States, and played a significant role in the production of certain goods. Click here to read more about the history of slavery in the United States.
Life for slaves in the United States was difficult, which caused many to want to flee. This eventually gave rise to the main elements of the Underground Railroad, as slaves sought to escape their terrible conditions. The life for slaves in the United States is best evidenced in the writings and speeches of Frederick Douglass. Born as a slave in 1818 in Maryland, and escaping twenty years later, Douglass is one of the few people in history to know life on both sides of the coin, per say. After his escape, Douglass wrote the ‘Narrative of the Life of Frederick Douglass, An American Slave’ which was written in 1845 and gave people insight into what life as a slave was really like, opening the eyes of many to the injustice that was taking place around them. This, along with two other autobiographies written by Douglass are regarded as the best examples of slave narrative tradition in history. Because of these accomplishments, Frederick Douglass is often considered to be the single most important black American leader of the 19th century. Douglass discussed his life as a slave in his ‘Narrative of the Life of Frederick Douglass, An American Slave’. For instance, he wrote the following about his time as a slave on a plantation.
“I suffered much from hunger, but much more from cold. In hottest summer and coldest winter, I was kept almost naked-no shoes, no stockings, no jacket, no trousers, nothing on but a coarse tow linen shirt, reaching only to my knees. I had no bed. I must have perished with cold, but that, the coldest nights, I used to steal a bag which was used for carrying corn to the mill. I would crawl into this bag, and there sleep on the cold, damp, clay floor, with my head in and feet out. My feet have been so cracked with the frost, that the pen with which I am writing might be laid in the gashes. We were not regularly allowanced. Our food was coarse corn meal boiled. This was called mush. It was put into a large wooden tray or trough, and set down upon the ground. The children were then called, like so many pigs, and like so many pigs they would come and devour the mush.”
AMERICAN ABOLITIONIST MOVEMENT
The development of the Underground Railroad was heightened by the issue of slavery in the United States and the divide that emerged between the Northern and Southern states. This was especially true in regards to the Abolitionist Movement in the 19th century. The Abolitionist Movement was the organized effort to bring an end to slavery. More specifically, the Northern states were the first to support the American Abolitionist Movement and by the end of the 18th century, most Northern states has some sort of anti-slavery legislation. However, the situation in the Southern states was much different, with most people supporting the practise of slavery well into the 19th century. In fact, by 1830 there were nearly 2 million slaves in the United States, and the vast majority of them were located in the Southern states. As such, the Southern states were economically centered on the practise of slavery, and the salve owners held a lot of financial and political influence at the time. This situation led to the establishment of the Underground Railroad, as slaves attempted to flee to the Northern states and Canada.
HOW DID THE UNDERGROUND RAILROAD OPERATE?
The Underground Railroad was not a single route, and was not necessarily on a map. Rather, it was a series of routes, networks, and safe houses that stretched from the slave states in the South to the free states in the North. Many of the people who helped the slaves escape with the Underground Railroad were former slaves themselves, or white abolitionists. The way that it would work was to communicate a safe path away from those that would harm the slaves, and provide shelter and comforts to the slaves as they made their trek north. As such, there were many different roles in the Underground Railroad, which included:
- ‘Agents’ or ‘Shepherds’ – helped slaves find the safe route on the Underground Railroad.
- ‘Conductors’ – helped guide slaves along a safe route of the Underground Railroad.
- ‘Station Masters’ – helped by hiding slaves in their homes along the Underground Railroad.
- ‘Stockholders’ – helped by financially supporting the Underground Railroad.
For the most part, individual members of the Underground Railroad only knew their own small part of the overall process and did not have knowledge of the entire system of routes. For example, ‘conductors’ guided the slaves, which were referred to as ‘passengers’ or ‘cargo’, from one safe house to another. Safe houses were referred to as ‘stations’ and were arranged and controlled by ‘station masters’. In general, these safe houses were usually churches, barns or homes. Furthermore, sometimes ‘conductors’ would pretend to be slaves themselves in order to enter a plantation and help guide slaves to their escape along the Underground Railroad and towards safe houses.
The process of helping the slaves escape the southern plantations was difficult for ‘conductors’, ‘agents’, ‘station masters’, and ‘stockholders’. For example, these people always risked being caught. This was made even more difficult when assisting slaves from the most Southern states. First, slaves from the Deep South had a longer journey to undertake, which meant there was a higher likelihood that they could be captured. Second, the laws of the time provided incentive for people to capture and turn in escaped slaves. For instance, the Fugitive Slave Act of 1793 allowed people to receive rewards for capturing escaped slaves. Furthermore, the Fugitive Slave Act of 1850 made things even more difficult for the Underground Railroad as it gave more rights towards slave owners and allowed escaped slaves to be recaptured and returned to the slave plantations in the South. This was especially true when escaped slaves were captured in the Northern states, since each of the Fugitive Slave Acts allowed slaves to be returned to the Southern slave owners from these Northern states. As such, many of the escaped slaves preferred to flee even further north into Canada, where they could not be returned to slavery. In fact, estimates claim that anywhere from about 30,000 to as many as 100,000 slaves arrived in Canada during the timeframe of the Underground Railroad. Canada was such a desired destination for the escaping slaves that it was often referred to as ‘Heaven’ or the ‘Promised Land’.
The conditions that the escaped slaves experienced along the Underground Railroad was sometimes very harsh and difficult. The escaped slaves often travelled at night, and used the stars (such as the North Star) to guide their way north towards the free states and Canada. Travelling at night allowed the escaped slaves to hide under the cover of darkness. As such, the slaves would generally wait at the ‘stations’ during the day, where they would eat and rest. The journey was difficult because for the most part the slaves had to travel by foot, and needed to at go least 10 to 20 miles (15 to 30 kms) every night. As well, the ‘conductors’ often led the slaves on routes that weaved across the terrain in an attempt to prevent them from being captured. This added to the distance that the slaves had to travel, but helped them avoid slave catchers. Most of the slaves that participated in the Underground Railroad were men, because it was difficult for women and children to complete the journey. In terms of female slaves, they were often not allowed to leave the plantation, which made escape near impossible. As well, travelling along the Underground Railroad was a difficult task for slave children, as they were less likely to be able to travel as fast and as far as the adult males. Thus, children added to the risk of being caught and returned.
In 1863, the Underground Railroad ceased operation, simply because there was no longer a need to be underground. The country was embroiled in the American Civil War, of which the issue of slavery was the main issue between the Northern and Southern states. Essentially, the Underground Railroad and those responsible for its operation now had other opportunities to make a difference, putting their support behind Abraham Lincoln and the Union forces.
FAMOUS PEOPLE OF THE UNDERGROUND RAILROAD
There was not necessarily one single leader who oversaw the operation of the Underground Railroad. Rather, the Underground Railroad was made up of many individuals who played smaller parts, and assisted escaped slaves. As such, there were many influential and important people in the timeframe of the Underground Railroad. A few of the most important are listed below.
John Brown was a significant person in relation to the Underground railroad, but is mostly remembered today for his famous raid at Harpers Ferry. This raid was his violent response to the practise of slavery in the United States. In fact, Brown was a staunch abolitionist and prominent figure in the American Abolitionist Movement. However, Brown assisted the Underground Railroad by acting as a ‘conductor’ and helped guide slaves along safe routes. Furthermore, when he lived in Springfield Massachusetts in the 1840s, he helped to develop the city as a safe haven for escaped slaves. As a result, Springfield became one of the most significant stops along the Underground Railroad. As well, Brown established the League of Gileadites, which was also a group, devoted to help fugitive slaves reach Canada. He did this following the passage of the Fugitive Slave Act of 1850, which called on slaves found in the Northern states to be returned to the Southern plantations. As such, he thought that by helping the slaves reach Canada, they could avoid being returned to a life of slavery.
Levi Coffin was a central figure of the Underground Railroad and its early history. He was an American Quaker and participant in the American Abolitionist Movement in both Indiana and Ohio. In fact, many people consider him to the be the ‘President of the Underground Railroad’. This is because, Coffin is credited with assisting as many as 3000 slaves escape slavery. From his homes in Indiana and Ohio, he would house and feed fleeing slaves as they made their way north to the Northern states and Canada.
Frederick Douglass was one of the most important African-American leaders of the 19th century, and played a significant role in many different things including the Underground Railroad. As discussed above, Frederick Douglass, was a former slave himself. However, Douglass eventually gained his freedom and became an important voice for African-Americans. For instance, he was an impassioned writer and speaker, especially in relation to the American Abolitionist Movement. In terms of the Underground Railroad, Douglass made use of his home in Rochester, New York to house over 400 escaped slaves as they made their way north to Canada.
William Still was a prominent African-American abolitionist in the 19th century. He was based out of Philadelphia, Pennsylvania and helped as many as 800 slaves escape. He worked as an agent in the Underground Railroad, and kept records of the slaves. Furthermore, Harriet Tubman famously worked with Still to help escaping slaves. For his efforts, he is often referred to as the ‘Father of the Underground Railroad’.
Harriet Tubman is one of the most famous people from the Underground Railroad. She was born as a slave, and once freed, made regular trips south to help others achieve the same. In fact, she worked as a ‘conductor’ in the Underground Railroad and helped to save people from slavery in the United States. After helping her family escape from the same plantation in Maryland that she was born on, she continued to help slaves from across the United States. Tubman would lead groups up to Canada because she was afraid that they might be recaptured in the Northern ‘free’ states and returned to the plantations in the South. Today, she is a considered to be a symbol for the overall history and significance of the Underground Railroad.
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