How the Underground Railroad Worked

Painting of Harriet Tubman escorting escaped slaves into Canada.
Jerry Pinkney/National Geographic/Getty Images

A slave in 1850 didn't have many choices in life. He could stay on his master's plantation, resigning himself to a life of hard labor, often brutal physical punishment and possibly a broken family as he watched his loved ones be sold away. Not all slaves had the same life, but this was what he might expect if he remained in bondage.

Or he could run away.


Escaping was a very uncertain prospect. The master would either hunt the slave himself or send brutal slave hunters to track him down. If caught, not only did the runaway face almost certain death, but the rest of the slaves on his plantation were often witness to his execution and were punished themselves.

And life on the run was difficult, to say the least. The fugitive had to be wary of everyone -- strangers could recognize him as a slave and turn him in, and other slaves could rat him out to curry favor with their masters. He would have to travel at night, following the North Star when the weather was clear and sleeping in hay lofts and caves during the day. He might get some help from people along the way, but anyone who was kind to him was also suspect.

­If the runaway did make it to a Northern state, there were still perils. Plenty of people, white and black, wanted the reward money they could receive for turning him in, and the Fugitive Slave Act of 1793 (which was made even harsher in 1850) meant that if his master could find him, he could bring his "property" back South as a slave again -- if the master didn't kill him, that is. So a runaway's best hope was to get to Canada.

With all the danger, there was little chance of success. But if he did make it ... freedom.

The word was too much for many slaves even to contemplate, much less attempt. But according to at least one estimate, during the 1800s, more than 100,000 slaves would take their chances to start a new life. The Underground Railroad was their ticket to freedom [source: Freedom Center].


A Ride on the Underground Railroad

The M'Clintock House in Waterloo, N.Y., was a stop on the Underground Railroad.
Photo courtesy National Park Service

Because of the secretive nature of the Underground Railroad, its exact origins are hard to trace. There are many theories about how it started, but no hard answers. Its organizers couldn't exactly put "open for business" ads in their local newspapers. The fact that the actual railroad system wasn't invented until the 1820s gives us some clues about timing -- if there was an escape system before then, it probably wasn't called the Underground Railroad. In the early 1800s, runaways mostly relied on spontaneous help from strangers. By the 1820s, anti-slavery groups were beginning to form, and by the 1840s, there was an organized network that aided fugitive slaves.

Let's take a look at what a trip on the Underground Railroad might have been like. Each journey was different, but we'll focus on the mid-1800s, which was the height of the Underground Railroad. (There is evidence of escaped slaves throughout American history, even in letters from George Washington, but these were mostly isolated incidents.)


Free blacks would sometimes send a field agent -- often a traveling minister or doctor posing as salesperson or census-taker -- to make contact with a slave who wanted to escape. This took some time because the agent had to gain the potential runaway's trust. The agent arranged for the slave's initial escape from the plantation and would then hand him off to a conductor for the first leg of the journey.

The conductor guided the fugitive to the first station, usually a house along the route (slave quarters were also often used). Stations were typically spaced a day's journey apart. The head of the household, known as the stationmaster, usually had the responsibility of keeping the slave safe. These homes often had secret passages and secret compartments for hiding multiple fugitives.

At the station, the fugitive would be fed, sheltered and possibly given a disguise. A disguise could be as simple as a rake (so the escaped could pose as a traveling worker) -- but it wasn't uncommon to dress a runaway as a member of the opposite sex. In Wilbur H. Siebert's definitive work, "The Underground Railroad," he tells of a fugitive, disguised as an upper-class white woman, being lent a white baby as part of her disguise [source: Siebert]. All of these activities were funded by people known as stockholders, who often gave the money for bribes and any other expenses.

Runaways usually didn't travel alone -- conductors typically guided them to the stations. Sometimes, though, because of lack of personnel or trip length, the escaped slave wouldn't have company. So he would have to move at night, following the North Star, and hide during the day. According to Siebert, "When clouds obscured the stars they had recourse, perhaps, to such bits of homely knowledge as, that in forests the trunks of trees are commonly moss-grown on their north sides" [source: Siebert].

The branches or "lines" of the Underground Railroad were purposely convoluted and zigzagged to confuse slave hunters, but this also sometimes hindered the fugitives.There are numerous stories of runaways getting lost and going weeks out of their way or heading further south by accident. And while clear nights were best for traveling, rainy days were also helpful because fewer people were out.

So what happened when an escaped slave finally made it to the North? Read on to find out.


The Fugitive Slave Act

The engraving "Heavy Weights - Arrival of a Party at League Island" shows escaped slaves arriving on an island near Philadelphia.
American School/Bridgeman Art Library/Getty Images

In the Fugitive Slave Act of 1793, the federal government gave local authorities in both slave and free states the power to issue warrants to "remove" any black they thought to be an escaped slave. It also made it a federal crime to help a runaway slave. The act was rarely enforced in non-slave states, but in 1850 it was strengthened with higher fines and harsher punishments. On top of that, slave hunters could legally claim that any black person they saw was an escaped slave, which not only terrorized free blacks but outraged many white people. Northerners were horrified by rumors of slave hunters luring preschool-age free black children onto boats and shipping them to the Deep South.

Before 1850, if runaway slaves were caught, they were typically killed, and sometimes tortured in a public display to scare other slaves. Punishment in the North for white people and free blacks who assisted in escapes was originally not as harsh -- typically a fine for the loss of "property" and a short jail sentence that might not be enforced. But in 1850, penalties became much steeper and included more jail time. Whites who armed slaves, which was often necessary along the dangerous route, could be executed. In the South, anyone -- white or black -- who assisted a fugitive could face death.


The state of Pennsylvania actually considered nullifying the Fugitive Slave Act (much like South Carolina would nullify part of the Constitution when seceding from the Union). But instead of addressing the issue through legal routes, anti-slavery groups decided to fight the act subversively, supporting the Underground Railroad, defending slaves and helping them evade slave hunters and law enforcement.

Southern slave masters were none too thrilled by this and demanded that the act be enforced. The ­Supreme Court, which was heavy with Southerners, was appalled that the North was so defiant of the act. It ruled in the 1857 Dred Scott case that blacks -- free or slave -- were not citizens and so didn't have any rights to the freedoms stated in the Constitution. They could be returned to slavery no matter how long they had lived free [source: McPherson].

The Underground Railroad is often addressed separately from the Civil War, but there's a lot of evidence that its activities did much to precipitate the war. The Northwest Territory -- Ohio, Michigan, Illinois, Indiana, Wisconsin and part of Minnesota -- had never allowed slavery, so after the Dred Scott decision its residents often joined up with Northeastern abolitionists (as we learned earlier, nearly half of Underground Railroad workers were from Ohio). These anti-slavery groups formed political parties like the Free Soil party and the Republican Party, which would introduce Abraham Lincoln to the country. And the rest, as they say, is history.

So what happened when an escaped slave finally made it to the North? Read on to find out.


Life After Escape

Slaves reaching freedom via the Underground Railroad
Charles H. Phillips//Time Life Pictures/Getty Images

Depending on where the fugitive was coming from, the journey to freedom could take as little as 24 hours (on a train from Richmond, Va., to Philadelphia, for instance). It could also take years (escaping on foot from the Deep South). But where did the fugitives end up?

Most people think of the Underground Railroad as running North to free states. That is true, but the majority of fugitives headed to Canada, where they would be safe from the Fugitive Slave Act. Extreme northern areas of the U.S. were also known for protecting runaways. In the Deep South, from which the journey north was that much more treacherous, slaves also escaped to Spanish-owned Mexico and Florida.


­After days, weeks or even months of travel, the runaway might finally reach a safe settlement, typically of free blacks, friendly American Indians or a religious group (usually Quakers). There, he would often have to wait until someone secured safe passage for him on a northbound boat or train -- this is often where bribes came into play. Sometimes fugitives would settle in these first-stop communities, especially in free-black settlements. But more often they would continue to Canada.

­More and more runaways wanted to leave the country after the passage of the Fugitive Slave Act in 1850. But the act also emboldened Northern abolitionists, who could now make the case that the South was imposing slavery on the North. This encouraged more whites to sympathize with escaped slaves, and some Northern cities -- Boston, Buffalo, N.Y., and Philadelphia, for instance -- became safe havens for runaways.

Once runaways made it to their destination, interracial groups known as vigilance committees would assist them in establishing a new life. They provided some level of protection and sometimes helped them find work and a home. Successful runaways would sometimes try to buy back enslaved family members, which was dangerous because it could potentially expose their whereabouts.

The operation of the Underground Railroad obviously required the work of many people. Who were they, and how did they work together in such a secretive network?


How did people get involved with the Underground Railroad?

Harriet Tubman, an escaped slave herself, led many others out of the South.
MPI/Getty Images

Most who escaped slavery, especially early in the Underground Railroad's history, were men who traveled alone -- it was a difficult trek, and groups attracted more attention. But as the number of refugees increased, so did the creativity of conductors, who found ways for groups to travel. Railroad volunteers added hidden passages and rooms to their houses (one house in Gettysburg, Pa., now converted into a restaurant, still has a movable bookcase that reveals a hiding place for fugitives). They added curtains to stagecoaches and designed wagons with hidden compartments.

The people who helped slaves escape were mostly free and enslaved blacks, but some whites did participate. Religious groups, especially Quakers, were often involved -- as were others who were moved by stories of cruel masters or the sight of another human in agony. Before the 1830s, very few people knew anyone else along the route, except perhaps by reputation.


Fugitives typically trusted only other blacks, and sometimes the Quakers, who were fairly easy to recognize in their broad-brimmed hats and long coats. But as membership in anti-slavery societies increased, this changed. There was more organization, and people became more familiar with each other.

Underground Railroad Workers

According to some estimates, there were about 3,200 "underground workers," nearly half of them in Ohio [source: Siebert]. But because secrecy was all-important, there was no formal or written organization. Leadership was determined by individual performance and general reputation. Most of the people involved in the Underground Railroad have been lost to history, their stories untold out of fear. And because so few written records were kept, the stories that did survive are mostly sidebars in history textbooks. There is still some social stigma today against white Southerners whose ancestors helped fugitives.

The most famous Underground Railroad conductor was Harriet Tubman, who was called "the Moses of her people." Tubman was herself an escaped slave from Maryland. When she returned South for the first time to help family escape, she discovered that her free husband had taken a new wife and was unwilling to come along. This event left her hardened, according to author Fergus M. Bordewich -- and it might explain why Tubman did not tolerate scared or upset runaways. She even threatened to kill them on occasion; it was a grim necessity when a fugitive's frightened cries could betray their location to slave hunters. This lack of sentimentality helped keep Tubman alive as she made the dangerous journey 13 more times and personally guided at least 70 slaves to freedom in New York and Canada [source: Bordewich].


How many slaves escaped using the Underground Railroad?

It's difficult to determine exactly how many slaves escaped through the Underground Railroad. According to the Web site of the National Underground Railroad Freedom Center in Cincinnati, Ohio, "During the 1800s, it is estimated that more than 100,000 enslaved people sought freedom through the Underground Railroad" [source: Freedom Center]. Author James M. McPherson states in "Battle Cry of Freedom" that several hundred slaves escaped per year throughout the mid-1800s [source: McPherson], while the National Park Service Web site says that between 1820 and 1860, "The most frequent calculation is that around one thousand per year actually escaped" [source: National Park Service]. Another article in the Journal of Black Studies estimates that between 1830 and 1860, only about 2,000 escaped using the Underground Railroad. [source: Okur]

Historians do agree that, especially early on, most fugitives escaped from the border states -- Maryland, Kentucky and Virginia. Very few made it out of the Deep South, where conditions were often the most harsh, for multiple reasons. First, the journey North was much longer -- those who left usually went to Spanish-controlled Mexico or Florida. Second, when the government banned the African slave trade in 1808, slaves became much more valuable (due to a lack of supply). So in the Deep South, where the larger cotton plantations required more labor, masters were that much more inclined to control their "property." And finally, because slaves in the Deep South were farther away from the free states, they didn't have as much access to information about escape and what life was like in freedom.


Lots More Information

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More Great Links

  • Adventure Cycling Association.
  • Aratani, Lori. "Retracing Steps to Freedom, In Maryland's Back Yard; Visitors Can Follow Underground Railroad at Sandy Spring." The Washington Post. Oct. 19, 2006.
  • Bordewich, Fergus M. "Bound for Canaan." HarperCollins. 2005.
  • Clark, Jayne. "New bicycle routes trace Underground Railroad." USA Today. March 9, 2007.
  • The Emancipation Network.
  • Harris, Patricia and David Lyon. "Homes proved vital stops for Underground Railroad." The Boston Globe. April 4, 2007.
  • Howell, Steven. "Underground Railroad's secrets are explored in Exporail exhibit." The Gazette (Montreal). Feb. 9, 2007.
  • International Justice Mission.
  • McPherson, James M. "Battle Cry of Freedom: The Civil War Era." Ballantine Books. 1988.
  • The Milton House Museum.
  • National Geographic: The Underground Railroad.
  • National Park Service guide to Underground Railroad.
  • National Park Service online history book.
  • National Underground Railroad Freedom Center.
  • Okur, Nilgun Anadolu. "Underground Railroad in Philadelphia, 1830 - 1860." Journal of Black Studies. Vol. 25, No. 5 (May 1995).
  • Polaris Project.
  • Preston, E. Delorus, Jr. "The Underground Railroad in Northwest Ohio." The Journal of Negro History. Vol. 17, No. 4 (Oct., 1932)
  • "railroad." Encyclopedia Britannica. 2008. Encyclopedia Britannica Online. 28 Jan. 2008.
  • Siebert, Wilbur H. "The Underground Railroad from Slavery to Freedom." The Macmillan Company. 1898.
  • "The Underground Railroad and the Secret Codes of Antebellum Slave Quilts." The Journal of Blacks in Higher Education. No. 46 (Winter, 2004-2005).
  • Underground Railroad Living Museum: