How the Underground Railroad Worked

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].