A long way to
The so-called Underground Railroad was the name of a system
which helped slaves in their escape to the Northern States, Canada, Texas,
Mexico and the Caribbean Sea. The UGRR was neither in the underground nor was it
a railroad, but a secret network of safe houses, called stations, and
antislavery supporters, who were people from different kinds of races and all
walks of life. Although the UGRR was never formally organised, it consisted of
3,2000 members, who helped tens of thousands of slaves to escape to freedom.
Even people who simply offered food or clothes were considered part of this
Probably, the UGRR originated in 1787 when a Quaker, called
Isaac T. Hooper, organised a system for hiding fugitive slaves. In other sources
it reads that it had already started in the 1500s when the first African
captives were brought over to America. Not many facts and dates are known about
the UGRR’s history because it was passed down orally through generations.
Usually, Blacks were illiterate and the members of the UGRR were so afraid of
detection that they destroyed all the records.
The term “Underground Railroad” probably comes
from a slave called Tice Davids who fled from Kentucky by the help of the white
abolitionist John Rankin. His owner searched for him but he had disappeared.
This guy wondered, if his servant had “gone off on some underground
The UGRR went through 14 Northern states and Canada, and it
reached its peak during 1830 and 1860.
During their servitude slaves were forced to labour on
fields under inhuman conditions and they endured harsh treatment from their
owners. They were usually beaten, tortured and they were undernourished.
Families were often departed because members were sold away. Under these
conditions many slaves wanted to escape to reach personal liberty in the
To actually get freedom they had to travel hundreds of
miles. They usually travelled at night using the North Star as a compass. The
fugitives could only carry little food, so that they were always hungry and
weak. They travelled on foot or by wagon, sometimes on coaches, trains or
Mostly, the “stations” were about twenty miles
apart. Covered wagons with false bottoms were used to smuggle slaves from on
station to another. The stations’ owners were called stationmasters,
people who contributed food etc. were ”stockholders”. The
“conductors” moved slaves between the stations. On of the most
famous conductors was Harriet Tubman. This Black Lady made 19 secret trips to
the South to rescue more than 300 slaves. Some plantation owners offered $40,000
for Harriet’s capture.
The fugitives were known as “freight” or
The stationmaster Levi Coffin from Newport, Indiana, was
called the President of the Underground Railroad. He and his wife Catharine
Coffin were very successful. They helped many former slaves to escape to Canada
and not a single one failed to reach freedom. The famous slave
“Eliza”, whose story is told in the novel “Uncle Tom’s
Cabin”, hid in the Coffin’s house. Although the Coffins moved to
Cincinnati in 1847, they continued their work and helped another 1,300 slaves to
At night, the runaways were notified by candles in the
windows of the stations. By the middle of the 19th century, over
50,000 slaves had escaped from the South by the UGRR. Slaves from the Deep South
often married Native Americans and stayed with them. Some runaways never left
the South. They founded free settlements in swamps or in the mountains of North
Carolina, Louisiana, Tennessee and Kentucky.
Most fugitives were men from 16-35. Unfortunately, women and
children were often captured and taken back to their owners.
Since very many slaves had escaped, the plantation owners
became concerned about the situation. In 1850, the Fugitive Slave Act was
enacted. A marshal who did not arrest a fugitive slave was fined $1,000. Any
person helping a slave escape had to pay $1,000 as well and was in prison for
six months. Professional slave hunters had to capture runaways, even in a free
state. These hunters were on the slaves’ track by using
Many female slaves dressed up as males and males dressed up
as females. Some fair-skinned slaves pretended to be Americans. The others lied,
that they were messengers of their masters. Since, the slaves needed a two-day
start, they planned their escapes on weekends, holidays, or during the
When Abraham Lincoln issued the Emancipation Proclamation,
he declared all slaves free. The actual end of slavery came, when the
13th Amendment of the Constitution was ratified in 1865, which says
that forever after “neither slavery nor involuntary servitude...shall
exist within the United States”.