The Underground Railroad was an informal network of secret routes and safe houses used by 19th-century black slaves in the United States to escape to free states and Canada with the aid of abolitionists and allies who were sympathetic to their cause. The term is also applied to the abolitionists, both black and white, free and enslaved, who aided the fugitives. Other various routes led to Mexico or overseas. Created in the early 19th century, the Underground Railroad was at its height between 1850 and 1860. One estimate suggests that by 1850, 100,000 slaves had escaped via the "Railroad". British North America, where slavery was prohibited, was a popular destination, as its long border gave many points of access. More than 30,000 people were said to have escaped there via the network at its peak, although US Census figures account for only 6,000. The Underground Railroad fugitives' stories are documented in the Underground Railroad Records.
Political backgroundEven at the height of the Underground Railroad, fewer than one thousand slaves from all slave-holding states were able to escape each year (just over 5,000 court cases for escaped slaves recorded), a quantity much smaller than the natural annual increase of the enslaved population. Though the economic impact was small, the psychological impact upon slaveholders of an informal network to assist escaped slaves was immense. Under the original Fugitive Slave Law of 1793, the responsibility for catching runaway slaves fell to officials of the states whence the slaves came, and the Underground Railroad thrived.
With heavy political lobbying, the Compromise of 1850, passed by Congress after the Mexican-American War, stipulated a more stringent Fugitive Slave Law. Ostensibly, the compromise redressed all regional problems. However, it coerced officials of free states to assist slave catchers if there were runaway slaves in the area, and granted slave catchers national immunity when in free states to do their job. Additionally, free blacks of the North could easily be forced into slavery, whether they had been freed earlier or had never been slaves. Suspected slaves were unable to defend themselves in court, and it was difficult to prove a free status. In a de facto bribe, judges were paid more ($10) for a decision that forced a suspected slave back into slavery than for a decision that the suspected slave was in fact free ($5). Thus, many Northerners who would have otherwise been able and content to ignore far-away regional slavery chafed under nationally-sanctioned slavery, leading to one of the primary grievances of the Union cause by the Civil War's outbreak.
The escape network was solely "underground" in the sense of being an underground resistance. The network was known as a "railroad" by way of the use of rail terminology in the code. The Underground Railroad consisted of meeting points, secret routes, transportation, and safe houses, and assistance provided by abolitionist sympathizers. Individuals were often organized in small, independent groups, which helped to maintain secrecy since some knew of connecting "stations" along the route but few details of their immediate area. Escaped slaves would move along the route from one way station to the next, steadily making their way north. "Conductors" on the railroad came from various backgrounds and included free-born blacks, white abolitionists, former slaves (either escaped or manumitted), and Native Americans. Churches also often played a role, especially the Religious Society of Friends (Quakers), Congregationalists, Wesleyans, and Reformed Presbyterians as well as certain sects of mainstream denominations such as branches of the Methodist church and American Baptists.
To reduce the risk of infiltration, many people associated with the Underground Railroad knew only their part of the operation and not of the whole scheme.
The resting spots where the runaways could sleep and eat were given the code names “stations” and “depots” which were held by “station masters”. There were also those known as “stockholders” who gave money or supplies for assistance. There were the “conductors” who ultimately moved the runaways from station to station. The “conductor” would sometimes act as if he or she were a slave and enter a plantation. Once a part of a plantation the "conductor" would direct the runaways to the North. During the night the slaves would move, traveling about 10–20 miles (15–30 km) per night. They would stop at the so-called “stations” or "depots" during the day and rest. While resting at one station, a message was sent to the next station to let the station master know the runaways were on their way. Sometimes boats or trains would be used for transportation.
 Traveling conditionsAlthough the fugitives sometimes traveled on real railways, the primary means of transportation were on foot or by wagon.
In addition, routes were often purposely indirect in order to throw off pursuers. Most escapes were by individuals or small groups; occasionally, such as with the Pearl incident, there were mass escapes. The journey was often seen as too arduous and treacherous for women or children to complete.
Due to the risk of discovery, information about routes and safe havens was passed along by word of mouth. Southern newspapers of the day were often filled with pages of notices soliciting information about escaped slaves and offering sizable rewards for their capture and return. Federal marshals and professional bounty hunters known as slave catchers pursued fugitives as far as the Canadian border.
The risk was not limited solely to actual fugitives. Because strong, healthy blacks in their prime working and reproductive years were seen and treated as highly valuable commodities, it was not unusual for free blacks – both freedmen (former slaves) and those who had lived their entire lives in freedom – to be kidnapped and sold into slavery. "Certificates of freedom" – signed, notarized statements attesting to the free status of individual blacks – could easily be destroyed and thus afforded their owners little protection. Moreover, under the terms of the Fugitive Slave Law of 1850, when suspected fugitives were seized and brought to a special magistrate known as a commissioner, they had no right to a jury trial and could not testify in their own behalf, since technically they were guilty of no crime. The marshal or private slave-catcher needed only to swear an oath to acquire a writ of replevin for the return of property.
Nevertheless, Congress believed the fugitive slave laws were necessary because of public sympathy for the fugitives and the lack of co-operation by the police, courts, and public outside of the Deep South. States such as Michigan passed laws interfering with the federal bounty system, which politicians from the South felt was grossly inadequate. This interference became a key motivation for secession. In some parts of the North, slave-catchers needed police protection to exercise their federal authority. Despite their resistance to pro-slavery laws, several states still made blacks unwelcome. Indiana
TerminologyMembers of The Underground Railroad often used specific jargon, based on the metaphor of the railway. For example:
- People who helped slaves find the railroad were "agents" (or "shepherds")
- Guides were known as "conductors"
- Hiding places were "stations"
- Abolitionists would fix the "tracks"
- "Stationmasters" hid slaves in their homes
- Escaped slaves were referred to as "passengers" or "cargo"
- Slaves would obtain a "ticket."
- Just as in common gospel lore, the "wheels would keep on turning"
- Financial benefactors of the Railroad were known as "stockholders".
William Still, often called "The Father of the Underground Railroad", helped hundreds of slaves to escape (as many as 60 a month), sometimes hiding them in his Philadelphia home. He kept careful records, including short biographies of the people, that contained frequent railway metaphors. He maintained correspondence with many of them, often acting as a middleman in communications between escaped slaves and those left behind. He then published these accounts in the book The Underground Railroad in 1872.
According to Still, messages were often encoded so that messages could be understood only by those active in the railroad. For example, the following message, "I have sent via at two o'clock four large hams and two small hams", indicated that four adults and two children were sent by train from Harrisburg to Philadelphia. However, the additional word via indicated that the "passengers" were not sent on the usual train, but rather via Reading, Pennsylvania. In this case, the authorities were tricked into going to the regular train station in an attempt to intercept the runaways, while Still was able to meet them at the correct station and guide them to safety, where they eventually escaped either to the North or to British North America, where slavery had been abolished during the 1830s.