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date: 10 December 2022

The Underground Railroadfree

The Underground Railroadfree

  • Diane MillerDiane MillerNational Park Service Northeast Region, National Underground Railroad Network to Freedom

Summary

Africans and their descendants enslaved in the western hemisphere resisted their status in several ways. One of the most consequential methods was self-liberation. While many date the Underground Railroad as starting in the 1830s, when railroad terminology became common, enslaved people began escaping from the earliest colonial period. Allies assisted in journeys to freedom, but the Underground Railroad is centered around the enslaved people who resisted their status and asserted their humanity. Fugitives exhibited creativity, determination, courage, and fortitude in their bids for freedom. Together with their allies—white, Black, and Native American—they represented a grassroots resistance movement in which people united across racial, gender, religious, and class lines in hopes of promoting social change. While some participation was serendipitous and fleeting, the Underground Railroad operated through local and regional networks built on trusted circles of extended families and faith communities. These networks ebbed and flowed over time and space. At its root, the Underground Railroad was both a migration story and a resistance movement. African Americans were key participants in this work as self-liberators and as operators helping others to freedom. Their quest for freedom extended to all parts of what became the United States and internationally to Canada, Mexico, Caribbean nations, and beyond.

Subjects

  • Slavery and Abolition
  • African American History
  • Antebellum History

Freedom Seeking in the Colonial and Revolutionary Periods

All of the European colonies established in North America allowed slavery, though the racialized system of African slavery took almost a century to evolve. To thrive in the Americas, colonizing powers needed to secure a labor force. Indentured servants and enslaved indigenous peoples proved to be a short-term solution. Increasingly Africans, both free and enslaved, became integral to the development of the colonies. Colonial powers all adopted slave codes, as early as the 16th and 17th centuries, to control the Black population and ensure a reliable labor force. A 1662 Virginia law, for example, declared that children born to Black women “shall be held bond or free only according to the condition of the mother.”1 These laws limited Black rights and the paths to freedom. While a free Black population existed since the colonial era, by the 18th century most Africans and their descendants in what is now the United States were subject to hereditary enslavement as chattel. Slavery and the legal infrastructure that supported it were designed to dehumanize the enslaved. Through their resilience, enslaved Africans resisted this status from the beginning.

In 1526, Lucas Vázquez de Ayllón brought several hundred Spanish and a large number of enslaved Africans from Hispaniola to settle near Sapelo Sound in Georgia. Disease and dissent doomed the effort. Emboldened by a mutiny among the Spanish, the enslaved Africans burned the compound while the indigenous Guale attacked the colony. Indeed, the first group of enslaved Africans brought to North America became the first to self-liberate. Settling among the Guale they became an early maroon community, forecasting a pattern of Native and African cooperation.2 Future Spanish settlement in Florida, however, successfully established slavery. Spanish slave codes allowed for legal protections, church membership, and manumission. The Catholic Church provided sacraments of marriage and baptism; concerned for the souls of their enslaved members, the church discouraged breaking up enslaved families.

British slave codes, however, reduced the enslaved to chattel—movable personal property—and regulated them with harsh codes. Manumission was discouraged. As British planters developed rice cultivation in the Carolinas they imported skilled Africans, who soon learned the differences between the British and Spanish systems. Africans enslaved on the sea islands of the Carolina coast escaped south into Spanish Florida. As early as 1688, the governor of South Carolina sent an envoy to St. Augustine to negotiate the return of fugitives.3 In 1738, Governor Don Manuel de Montiano enforced royal edicts of 1693 and 1733 that granted unconditional freedom to enslaved people escaping from the British southeast. In 1738, a group of formerly enslaved and free people of color established the legally sanctioned town of Gracia Real de Santa Teresa de Mose or Fort Mose, two miles north of St. Augustine.4

Tobacco, the staple crop in the Chesapeake region, also required intensive labor performed by Africans, motivating resistance and escapes. Frustrated governors of Virginia and Maryland sought to negotiate with the Shawnees to return the runaways. Virginia governor Spotswood offered bounties of guns and blankets. Maryland’s governor sent delegations to the Shawnees to negotiate the return of fugitive slaves, offering silk stockings and woolen coats.5 In October 1722, the Maryland General Assembly discussed the matter of Indians being allowed to harbor runaway slaves, “as the Shuannoes at this Time do and protect them under the pretence of their having set such Slaves free. This Gentlemen we look upon as a Matter of Great Importance.”6 At the confluence of the north and south branches of the Potomac River, near what is now Cumberland, Maryland, by the 1690s a band of Shawnees established a village, said to be led by King Opessa. The village was deserted before 1738, when it was already shown on maps as “Shawno Ind. Fields deserted.” Through at least the 1720s, Shawnees living at King Opessa’s Town and neighboring sites offered refuge to fugitive slaves who had fled from their Virginia and Maryland masters. Repeated attempts failed to return any runaways.

In the vast territory that was added to the United States through the Louisiana Purchase, a power struggle among European nations led to control changing from France (1682) to Spain (1762), and back to France (1800) again before being sold in 1803. Enslaved Africans played an important role in European efforts to establish a productive colony and control the region. The brutal and precarious conditions on the frontier gave rise to a fluid environment in which the enslaved population navigated. Plantations carved out of the wilderness were surrounded by swamps and waterways, proximately located to Indian settlements. Africans resisted their status by running away, often with assistance from nearby Native Americans. The cypress swamps provided a refuge for permanent maroon settlements comprised of escaped Africans. Extensive networks of secret passageways linked these maroon communities with plantations, and the free and enslaved populations regularly communicated with each other. At various times, this fluidity facilitated conspiracies and revolts.7

The number of slaves who found refuge with Native American tribes during the colonial period must have been substantial, given the number of treaties that included clauses for their return.8 In seven of eight treaties negotiated with Native American tribes from 1784 to 1786, clauses were introduced for the return of “negroes and other property.”9 By the time of the American Revolution, enslaved Africans had been self-liberating for 250 years. The Enlightenment ideals of freedom and liberty percolated in the colonies, giving rise to revolutionary fervor and the Declaration of Independence. This irony was understood by enslaved people, some of whom made their own break for freedom.

Societal disruption and the presence of competing loyalist and patriot factions opened opportunities for self-emancipation; some enslaved people exploited these opportunities to self-liberate. Military service was one of the means by which enslaved people attained freedom. Significantly, both the British and continental armies offered emancipation in return for service. Unable to field a sufficient number of white soldiers, for example, the Rhode Island Assembly in 1778 voted that every enslaved man who enlisted would be immediately discharged from service and absolutely free.10 Eventually, every state except South Carolina and Georgia enlisted Blacks. In 1775, Lord Dunsmore, Royal Governor of Virginia, issued a proclamation offering freedom to any enslaved person who fought on the side of the British. Not only did this bring hundreds of soldiers to the British army, it also deprived the patriots of their labor. When the British army withdrew in 1783, thousands of Black loyalists went with them. The British evacuated about three thousand to Nova Scotia, recording their names and descriptions in the Book of Negroes. Ultimately, most Black loyalists went to Britain, and some settled in the Caribbean.

The Freedom Seeker’s Journey

Of all the horrors of slavery, the cruelest was its effect on the spirit of the enslaved. Frederick Douglass, who escaped in 1838 and became a leading antislavery orator, described a period of his enslavement when he became a field hand hired to a notorious “slave breaker.” In his account, Douglass acknowledged that, after a few months, “I was broken in body, soul, and spirit. My natural elasticity was crushed, my intellect languished . . . the dark night of slavery closed in upon me.”11 In a letter to Douglass published as a preface to the autobiography, abolitionist Wendell Phillips lauded him for describing the wretchedness of slavery by the “cruel and blighting death which gathers over his soul” rather than by the hunger, toil, and punishment he endured.12 Freedom seekers had to overcome the soul-destroying nature of enslavement to self-liberate; they often also had to leave behind family and everyone they knew and loved. While a number of factors could precipitate self-liberation, it was the compelling need for freedom and self-determination that sustained freedom seekers. When asked by Underground Railroad activist Calvin Fairbank why he wanted his freedom, for example, Lewis Hayden replied “Because I’m a man.”13

While most freedom seekers were young, single men, women and groups also made the journey. For women, the decision was complicated when they had young children. Harriet Tubman tried several times to rescue her sister, Rachel, who would not leave without her children. To her lasting regret, Tubman was never able to liberate Rachel, who died while enslaved. Another enslaved mother, Margaret Garner, attempted to flee with her husband and four of their children after two had been sold away. They made it across the Ohio River from Kentucky but were soon tracked down. Rather than see her children returned to a life of slavery, Margaret used a butcher knife to kill her two-year-old daughter. She tried to kill the other children but did not succeed. The Garners were returned to their enslaver, disquieting Ohio abolitionists, who did not want the precedent set allowing Kentucky enslavers to reclaim freedom seekers. Margaret’s desperate act illuminated the inhumanity of slavery.

Yet another mother, Ann Maria Jackson, succeeded in escaping from Delaware with seven of her children after another two were sold away. The grief of losing two of his children caused their father, a free Black man named John Jackson, to lose his sanity. Ann Maria, driven by a need to have autonomy to raise her children without fear of separation, decided that escaping was her best option. Bringing children on such a journey could easily compromise the safety of the group if they cried out or could not keep up. Jackson succeeded in escaping to Philadelphia as illustrated in Figure 1. The consequences of being caught included being tortured, killed, maimed, or sold away.

Figure 1. Ann Maria Jackson arrives with her children at the Philadelphia Vigilance Committee.

Source: William Still, The Underground Railroad (Philadelphia, PA: Porter & Coates, 1872). Smithsonian Library. In the public domain.

On their journeys, freedom seekers had to be courageous, creative, adaptable, and resourceful. Most had to navigate their way to an indeterminate destination. Lucy Delaney recalled her mother using the North Star to guide her escape from Missouri.14 John Brown used his knowledge of science to navigate using the moss found growing on trees. Concluding that the sun had dried the moss on the south side of the trees, he went in the direction “towards which the long, green moss pointed.”15 Josiah Henson, shown in Figure 2, described escaping slavery in 1830 with his wife and children. Thinking that they could find food from people along the way, Henson did not bring a supply. They found the Scioto trail but did not realize it cut through wilderness. Henson’s wife fainted from hunger but revived from the little morsel of food he had remaining. Their second day in the wilderness, the family came upon some Native Americans, who provided bountiful food and a comfortable place to sleep.16 Knowing who to trust was one of the most important skills for freedom seekers on their journeys.

Figure 2. Josiah Henson, formerly enslaved author, abolitionist, and minister.

Source: John Moffat, photographer, 1877. Library of Congress. In the public domain.

Free Black Communities and Vigilance Committees

The revolutionary fervor that compelled the United States to independence did not extend to the enslaved. While northern states enacted laws in the revolutionary period allowing for emancipation, in most states it took decades for slavery to actually end. Vermont abolished slavery by a constitutional amendment in 1777, while slavery was ended in Massachusetts as a result of a legal decision. In New York and New Jersey, the largest slaveholding states in the north, however, slavery persisted until the mid-19th century.17 Nevertheless, a free Black population developed in the north, particularly in cities such as Boston, New York, and Philadelphia. These communities became key to the success of the Underground Railroad in the east. Freedom seekers could find refuge and employment amongst these populations, which were also a source of shelter, food, clothing, medical attention, legal aid, money, and transportation.

Vigilance committees formed among free Black communities and their white allies played a critical role in protecting freedom seekers. Beyond providing material and financial assistance, vigilance committees took direct action to rescue captured fugitives and kidnapped free Blacks who had been caught by slave catchers, empowered by the Fugitive Slave Laws of 1793 and 1850. David Ruggles established the New York Vigilant Committee in 1835. Initially focused on protecting free Blacks, particularly children, from kidnapping, the Committee evolved to provide assistance to fugitives. In 1838, Ruggles notably sheltered Frederick Douglass (born Frederick Bailey) when he arrived in New York alone and without a plan. Ruggles summoned his fiancée, Anna Murray, to New York, where she married Douglass in Ruggles’s parlor. Ruggles gave them five dollars and sent them to another Black abolitionist in New Bedford.18

Figure 3. Portrait of William Still

Source: William Still, The Underground Railroad (Philadelphia, PA: Porter & Coates, 1872). Smithsonian Library. In the public domain.

Inspired by Ruggles’s example, Robert Purvis convinced his associates to follow suit in 1837 when they formed the Vigilant Association of Philadelphia. It reorganized several times, with its last iteration formed in 1852 in response to the Fugitive Slave Law of 1850. William Still (Figure 3) was appointed chair of the acting committee, which would assist individual cases, raise funds, and record their activities.19 Still became the leader of the Underground Railroad network in Philadelphia. In 1872, Still published The Underground Rail Road (Figure 4) based on the records of his work with the Vigilance Committee. Still’s work documents the stories of hundreds of freedom seekers, including Harriet Tubman and his long-lost brother, Peter Still. Further, he provided sketches of the network of white and Black abolitionists with whom he worked: Quakers Thomas Garrett and John Hunn; abolitionists William Lloyd Garrison, J. Miller McKim, and Lewis Tappan; and African American activists William Whipper, Samuel Burris, Frances Ellen Watkins Harper, and Harriet Tubman. In Boston, African American activist William Cooper Nell declared that “eternal vigilance is the price of liberty, and that they who would be free, themselves must strike the blow.”20 The Boston Vigilance Committee posted broadsides (Figure 5) warning the community to remain alert to slave catchers. Lewis Hayden, who had previously escaped slavery in Kentucky and was one of the most active members of the Vigilance Committee, demonstrated this sentiment in October 1850 in one of the first tests of the new Fugitive Slave Law. William and Ellen Craft had escaped enslavement in Georgia using an elaborate disguise, with Ellen posing as a white male slaveholder traveling by train and ship with her enslaved servant, William. The ruse succeeded, and they made their way to Boston, where Hayden provided shelter. Slave catchers tracked the couple to Hayden’s house seeking their return. William Craft described the scene: “Lewis Hayden and I had a keg of gunpowder under his house in Phillips Street, with a fuse attached ready to light it should any attempt be made to capture us.”21 After passage of the Fugitive Slave Law of 1850, the Crafts emigrated to England to ensure their freedom

Figure 4. The Underground Railroad.

Source: William Still, The Underground Railroad (Philadelphia, PA: Porter & Coates, 1872). Smithsonian Library. In the public domain.

Figure 5. Fugitive Slave Law Warning Poster, 1851, Boston African American Historic Site.

Source: NPGallery. In the public domain.

Fugitive Slave Law of 1850

As the number of slave escapes escalated over the 1830s and 1840s, sectional tensions heightened. Southern slaveholding states pushed for enforcement of fugitive slave laws, while free states passed personal liberty laws to protect freedom seekers who had reached their borders. The Fugitive Slave Law of 1793 provided a mechanism to enforce the Fugitive Slave Clause of the Constitution and return fugitives to their enslavers, though they may have been caught in free states. The law denied alleged slaves access to fair trials, due process of law, or the right to prove their freedom in court, in violation of several articles of the Bill of Rights. It also subverted the Constitution’s protection of the right to habeas corpus, which ensures that people arrested will be brought to court for a fair trial. In 1842, the Supreme Court ruled in Prigg v Pennsylvania that states could refuse to allow their officials to enforce the fugitive slave law. A number of northern states based their refusal to assist in rendition of freedom seekers on this ruling. Used as a tool in the antislavery arsenal, Prigg v Pennsylvania led to calls for a new fugitive slave law.22

The Fugitive Slave Law of 1850 supplemented the 1793 act by a series of amendments. Federal officials were appointed in each county to enforce the law by issuing arrest warrants and appointing deputies and posse comitatus for capturing fugitives. It required law enforcement officers to assist recapturing freedom seekers and punished anyone found assisting escapes. It also denied appeals once a certificate to remove a fugitive from a free state had been issued. Not even the Supreme Court could issue a writ of habeas corpus once a justice of the peace had issued a certificate of removal after an informal hearing.23 Alleged fugitives were prohibited from testifying on their own behalf, and jury trials were forbidden. Additionally, if the magistrate ruled in favor of the enslaver, they received a ten-dollar fee, rather than the five-dollar fee they received if they decided for the freedom seeker. Anyone interfering in a rendition faced a thousand-dollar fine, as did federal marshals who failed to safeguard a fugitive.24 This law inspired a spate of personal liberty laws in northern states designed to protect their Black populations from kidnapping and freedom seekers from rendition back to slavery. Many freedom seekers who had settled in the north made a subsequent journey to Canada, because they were no longer safe in the United States.

The Fugitive Slave Law of 1850 set the stage for a series of dramatic cases and confrontations. On February 15, 1851, Shadrach Minkins, who had escaped to Boston from Norfolk, was arrested by a federal marshal and taken to the courthouse. He became the first freedom seeker in New England captured under the Fugitive Slave Act of 1850.25 A group of Black men led by Lewis Hayden (Figure 6) rushed the courtroom and seized Minkins, shepherding him to safety. The authorities failed to pursue the rescue party. Minkins was hidden in the attic of a widow in the African American community of Beacon Hill, before Hayden got him out of town, and Minkins was able to make his way to safety in Quebec. In September 1851, Maryland enslaver Edward Gorsuch attempted to seize a group of freedom seekers near Christiana, Pennsylvania. A predawn raiding party at the home of freedom seeker William Parker resulted in Gorsuch’s death and a severe wound to his son. Consequently, the federal government indicted forty-one men, including thirty-six Blacks and five whites, for treason. The trial took place at Independence Hall in Philadelphia, with Supreme Court Justice Robert Grier presiding and Congressman Thaddeus Stevens leading the defense. Castner Hanway, who refused to join the posse or to prevent the attack on the slave catchers, was the first tried. Justice Grier charged the jury that refusing to aid in a rendition did not constitute treason. The jury found Hanway not guilty, and the other indictments were eventually dropped. The Christiana Rebellion was not the most violent episode related to the enforcement of the Fugitive Slave Law of 1850, but it garnered national attention due to the high-profile participants.26

Figure 6. Lewis Hayden (1811–1889).

Source: National Park Service, NPGallery. In the public domain.

Another early attempt to enforce the 1850 law occurred in Syracuse in October 1851, when a fugitive known as Jerry was arrested and placed in custody of US Deputy Marshal Henry Allen. A large crowd gathered at the courthouse attempting to rescue Jerry, who escaped to the streets but was recaptured. Organized by Gerrit Smith, Rev. Samuel J. May, and two Black ministers, Rev. Jermain Loguen and Rev. Samuel Ringgold Ward, a crowd attacked the jail where Jerry was held and succeeded in rescuing him and taking him to Canada. To further embarrass federal officials, deputy marshal Allen was indicted and tried for kidnapping. While he was not convicted, the trial provided a forum for abolitionists to attack slavery and the 1850 law.27

Enforcement of the Fugitive Slave Law continued to stoke sectional tensions. One of the most famous and dramatic renditions occurred in 1854 when Anthony Burns was caught in Boston. This time, despite mass meetings and a failed rescue attempt where abolitionists broke down the courthouse door, the federal government returned to Burns slavery. Federal troops were deployed to guard the courthouse and prevent another rescue. They escorted Burns to Long Wharf while fifty thousand people lined the streets and abolitionists strung a coffin over the street with the word “Liberty” inscribed on it. The spectacle of federal troops escorting a freedom seeker back to slavery inspired many citizens to become abolitionists.28 Massachusetts subsequently passed some of the strongest personal liberty laws in the country. Boston abolitionists ultimately raised funds to purchase Burns’s freedom.

Free states chafed at the federal enforcement of the fugitive slave law. The 1859 capture of Joshua Glover in Wisconsin led to a jurisdictional confrontation between state and federal authority. Glover had escaped slavery in Missouri and settled near Racine. His enslaver obtained a warrant under the Fugitive Slave Law, and Glover was jailed in Milwaukee due to concerns about a potential rescue in Racine. As might be expected, a large crowd gathered in protest, and a hundred men were sent to Milwaukee. They succeeded in rescuing Glover from jail, and he made it safely to Canada, where he died in 1888. Sherman Booth, a newspaper editor who helped organize the protest, was arrested under the Fugitive Slave Act for aiding and abetting an escape. Federal prosecution of Booth led to defiance by Wisconsin courts over the issue of state habeas corpus jurisdiction versus federal judicial authority. The Wisconsin Supreme Court even defied the US Supreme Court by asking their clerk to make no return to a writ issued by the US Supreme Court. Chief Justice Roger Taney issued a unanimous opinion in the companion cases Abelman v Booth and United States v Booth that a state could not issue a writ of habeas corpus to remove a person from federal custody, establishing the supremacy of federal jurisdiction.29 The assertion of federal over states’ rights incensed Wisconsin legislators and citizens, leading to discussion about secession from the union over federal enforcement of the Fugitive Slave Law.

Geography of the Underground Railroad

Stereotypically, fugitives on the Underground Railroad sought freedom in Canada. While that is certainly true for many, the Underground Railroad was much more dynamic and complex. Self-liberators went in any direction where they could achieve freedom. Before the Fugitive Slave Law of 1850 increased the risk of re-enslavement, many freedom seekers settled in states such as Pennsylvania, New York, and Massachusetts, where slavery had been abolished during the late 1700s or early 1800s. When the Northwest Ordinance of 1787 proclaimed the territory north and west of the Ohio River to be free from slavery, Ohio, Indiana, Illinois, Michigan, and Wisconsin became destinations for freedom seekers from the trans-Appalachian south.

Despite the prohibition of slavery, however, Article 6 of the Northwest Ordinance provided that any fugitive escaping to the territory may be lawfully reclaimed and returned to their enslaver.30 Ohio, Indiana, and Illinois shared boundaries with slave states, and many settlers in the southern parts of these states had migrated from the Upper South. Significantly, restrictive Black Codes discouraged settlement of African Americans in these states. In Ohio, for example, an 1804 law required free Blacks to obtain a certificate of freedom from the court for a fee. An 1807 law further stipulated that free Blacks had to find two people who would guarantee a surety of five hundred dollars for their good behavior.

Nevertheless, the Ohio River became one of the most important borders between slavery and freedom. People enslaved in Kentucky began making their way to freedom across the river. Ohio became a busy thoroughfare, with Lake Erie and Detroit offering quick routes to Canada, a common destination after slavery was abolished there in 1833. Blacks established communities in remote areas throughout the state and supported their enslaved brethren in their bids for freedom. These small communities became critical centers of Underground Railroad activities: “Such localities were fearless in the defense of their visitors and sometimes induced fugitives to settle among them.”31 Along with white and Native American allies, they formed an interracial freedom movement, risking their lives in defense of freedom seekers.32

Black communities scattered across the Midwest, settling on marginal land, near waterways and natural features that afforded shelter. Often these communities were located in proximity to Quaker and other abolitionist strongholds. Extended families and church communities formed the cornerstone of these communities, which offered safe havens for fugitives and sometimes a place to settle.33 Congregations of Quakers, Presbyterians, Congregationalists, Baptists, Methodists, and African Methodist Episcopalians helped organize these efforts. In the sometimes deadly and often contested flights to freedom, safety could be found by support from a group of people working in concert. Blacks worked with each other and some trusted white abolitionists. Whites who had left the South over disagreements about slavery such as Presbyterian Reverend John Rankin and Quaker Levi Coffin became engaged in the work of actively assisting freedom seekers. In Ripley, on the Ohio River, for example, Rankin, who built his home on the hill overlooking the town and the river (Figure 7), worked with formerly enslaved John Parker, whose forays into Kentucky to liberate slaves and assist with river crossings earned a price on his head. Anti-slavery sentiment ran high in Ohio where Oberlin College, founded in 1833 to train teachers and Christian leaders for the western territories, became an incubator for Underground Railroad activists. Oberlin had a reputation for progressive causes and social justice, admitting women since its beginning and African Americans since 1835. It became an active force in the Underground Railroad in Ohio and a number of the Underground Railroad activists in Iowa and Kansas shared a connection to Oberlin. In April 1835, abolitionist leaders in Ohio such as Asa Mahan, John Rankin, Theodore Dwight Weld, and Charles Finney, many associated with Oberlin College, established the Ohio Anti-Slavery Society in Zanesville. The Ohio association based their organization on the model of the American Anti-Slavery Society, founded in 1833. By 1836, the Ohio society had 120 chapters in every part of the state and numbered about 10,000 members. A spider web of Underground Railroad routes crossed the state leading to Cleveland, Sandusky and other towns along Lake Erie where freedom seekers departed to Canada. Despite this rapid growth, however, the Ohio abolitionists and Underground Railroad activists faced opposition from those who did not share their goals of immediate emancipation and civil rights for African Americans. Mob violence was directed against sympathetic newspaper publisher James Birney, Reverend John Rankin, and the Anti-Slavery society’s meetings.

Figure 7. The John Rankin House on Liberty Hill in Ripley, Ohio.

Source: Rick Dikeman, photographer, 2005. In the public domain.

Further downriver in the river town of Madison, Indiana, the African American neighborhood known as Georgetown developed as early as 1820. Before the modern lock system was created on the Ohio River, it was shallow and narrow at this point, with several creeks draining into the river from the east end of town. These features made Madison a prime location for river crossings. Georgetown, where activists George DeBaptiste, William Anderson, and Elijah Anderson lived, became a central site for the Underground Railroad, helping hundreds of enslaved African Americans to freedom. In nearby Eagle Hollow a mile from town, African American Chapman Harris’s home on high ground above the Ohio River was another crossing point. Harris was instrumental in forming a communication network to abolitionists in the Lancaster area, near Madison. In 1848, activists from the Neil’s Creek Anti-Slavery Society established Eleutherian College to educate students regardless of race or gender. The leaders of this group of Baptists, Lyman Hoyt, Samuel Tibbets, and James Nelson, were active with the Underground Railroad, providing safe houses and couriers. George DeBaptiste referred to this group as the “New England Settlement.”

Further north, Quaker Levi Coffin, known by some as the “president” of the Underground Railroad, received freedom seekers at his home in Newport (now Fountain City). The Quaker community worked together to provide assistance, with Levi’s wife Catherine providing food and lodging for fugitives and hosting women from the community to sew clothing to supply them. The Coffins arrived from North Carolina in 1826 and discovered that an established line of the Underground Railroad ran through the area, passing through the Greenville settlement of wealthy African American farmers such as James Clemens and Thornton Alexander. The African American farmers and Quakers including Levi Coffin established the Union Literary Institute to provide education for Black and white children. The Greenville community and Union Literary Institute were deeply involved with the Underground Railroad. By 1847, Levi Coffin moved to Cincinnati to open a wholesale free produce store that only sold goods not grown by enslaved labor. The Coffins continued their Underground Railroad work in Ohio.

The Underground Railroad landscape in Indiana witnessed additional adjustments during the 1840s. Southeast Indiana proved to be contested territory, as were all borderlands between slave and free territories. Slave catchers such as Wright Ray operated in the Madison-Lancaster area. He was the sheriff of Jefferson County for many years and “was known all over Kentucky and was always applied to when a slave got away and by this means he obtained (many) rewards.”34 In the 1840s there were several attacks on free Blacks in Madison. Around 1849, responding to the loss of enslaved laborers, white Kentuckians attacked Georgetown, driving several Underground Railroad and community leaders to move away. George DeBaptiste relocated to Detroit, where he continued his Underground Railroad activities. Elijah Anderson moved to Lawrenceburg on the Ohio River west of Cincinnati. He continued his repeated trips to Kentucky and accompanied hundreds of freedom seekers to Canada. In December 1856, he was captured on a steamboat, found guilty of violating Kentucky law, and sentenced to eight years in prison. The day that he was to be released, March 4, 1861, he was found dead in his cell.

The Underground Railroad Moves West

As the nation moved westward, the question of slavery became more divisive. The Missouri Compromise ostensibly settled the question by admitting Missouri as a slave state but prohibiting slavery north of latitude 36° 30´. Even before the Kansas-Nebraska Act created new territories allowing the status of slavery to be determined by popular sovereignty, Indian agents and missionaries were introducing slavery to the Ohio tribes that had been removed there, in violation of the Missouri Compromise. The hallmarks of the Underground Railroad and Bleeding Kansas that marked the region following the Kansas-Nebraska Act had their origins while it was still known as Indian Territory.

The Kansas-Nebraska Act of 1854 set the stage for the violent confrontation over the expansion of slavery in the territory known as Bleeding Kansas, as whites poured into the newly opened Indian Territory. The Kansas-Nebraska Act ended the Missouri Compromise and formally opened Kansas to the possibility of slavery. Under the doctrine of popular sovereignty, local laws would either establish slavery or prohibit it. Waves of emigrants flowed into Kansas from the East, claiming land and supporting the free state cause. From Boston came ardent abolitionists of the New England Emigrant Aid Company, who founded Lawrence, the most active Underground Railroad community in the territory. American Missionary Association emigrants from New York founded Osawatomie, another active abolitionist and Underground Railroad stronghold.35

Proslavery advocates poured across the border from Missouri, if not always to settle, then at least to take part in the electoral process. Alabama, Georgia, and South Carolina sponsored southern emigrants. Alabama appropriated $25,000 to help its emigrants, though mostly they did not enjoy the same level of support as their northern counterparts.36 Many southerners came to Kansas without slaves or means, looking for the opportunity to make their fortune. Some of these settlers found slave catching and kidnapping to be lucrative pursuits. The largest number of proslavery settlers came in the first two years and brought their slaves, intending to found new homes. In the territorial census of 1855, although southerners were in the majority, enslaved laborers made up only 2.2 percent of the population (186 of 8,525 people). The average slaveholding was small—2.3, compared to 6.1 in Missouri’s Little Dixie or 7.7 in the Upper South.37 Some estimates show that the slave population more than doubled by 1857, and the average size of slaveholdings likely increased.38

The Underground Railroad in Kansas threatened the ability of slave owners in the region to control their property, however, and contributed to the ultimate success of the Free State cause. Indeed, abolitionists caused such disruption that slaveholders hesitated to bring their property to Kansas or even western Missouri. When the partisan strife broke around them, many removed their slaves to a safe distance or sold them, lest they lose them to the Underground Railroad.39 Underground Railroad activity in the Kansas-Missouri border region was both more deliberate and more violent than found in more established areas. Activists, even Quakers, made trips into Missouri to bring slaves off plantations. Abolitionists adopted an established route, the Lane Trail, to send fugitives on the way to Canada.

In the turmoil of Bleeding Kansas, antislavery advocates reconsidered the nonviolent ideals of Garrisonian abolitionists. Northern women, some of them Quaker pacifists, picked up Sharpe’s rifles and threatened men at gunpoint. Northern men, often noted as law-abiding and industrious, justified betraying territorial laws and exchanging gunfire with proslavery men in response to perceived southern excesses.40 Against this backdrop, Kansas settlers struggled over the enslaved status of African Americans in their midst. Slaveholders concentrated along the Missouri River, though they brought few enslaved people to Kansas. Most Missouri slaves lived in the “Little Dixie” region of western Missouri, where hemp production occupied the slave labor force. Among the antislavery settlers, some came to Kansas from Underground Railroad communities to the east. Others came with abstract convictions about slavery that were tested once they reached the front lines in Kansas. Congregationalist minister Richard Cordley grew up near Ann Arbor, Michigan. He recalled his indignation when the Fugitive Slave Law passed in 1850 while he was a student at Andover Theological Seminary. At the time, Cordley declared his intention to shelter a fugitive if ever confronted with the opportunity. Once in Kansas, Cordley observed, “It is easy to be brave a thousand miles away. But now I must face the question at short range. . . . But I felt there was only one thing to do.”41 Cordley told his friend Monteith that he would help shelter Lizzie, a young woman who was seeking her escape to Canada. Lizzie stayed with Reverend Cordley’s family for several months before Monteith made plans for the next part of her journey.

The Lane Trail, a route established for Free State emigrants to Kansas, became the primary Underground Railroad route out of Kansas. Proslavery forces controlled the Missouri River west of St. Louis and had virtually closed the river route to Free State passengers and freight by 1856. Missourians turned back the Star of the West and the Sultan in June, forcing northerners to seek an overland route through free territory.42 Running west from Chicago, the Lane Trail crossed Iowa, the southeast corner of Nebraska, and south to Topeka, thereby skirting Missouri. Lane marked the route with stone cairns, “Lane Chimneys,” built on elevations such that they could be seen across the plains. Dr. Ira Blanchard, who operated an Underground Railroad station in Civil Bend, Iowa, proposed to John Brown that the Lane Trail was the most practical route for transporting fugitives in Kansas to freedom in Canada. Brown brought Blanchard to Topeka in 1856 to arrange the network of supporters at the trailhead.

In response to the threat of slave catchers, abolitionists in Kansas sheltered fugitives in their homes until arrangements could be made to take a group north with an armed escort. Underground Railroad conductors required money, food, arms, transportation, and clothing to assist freedom seekers to safety. As in the borderlands further east where communities of supporters were essential to the success of the Underground Railroad, in Kansas the networks of collaboration were also crucial. John Armstrong, John Ritchie, Jacob Willits, Daniel Sheridan, and others pledged that they would safely conduct all fugitives arriving in Topeka to Blanchard’s stop in Civil Bend, Iowa.43 From there, the Lane Trail crossed the free state of Iowa headed toward Chicago. Freedom seekers often continued to Detroit and across into Windsor, Canada.

The Topeka men inaugurated the route in February 1857 when activist John Armstrong helped Ann Clarke, a woman enslaved by government officials who lived near Lecompton, to escape. John Brown forwarded another three slaves to Armstrong, in the charge of a man named Mills. Mills and Armstrong took the fugitives in a covered wagon north on the Lane Trail. The group passed through Kansas without incident, but border ruffians stopped the wagon outside Nebraska City. Escaping detection as they hid in the false bottom of the wagon, the group pushed on. John Kagi, one of Brown’s inner circle, had gone ahead of this first group and met them at Nebraska City, where his father and sister lived. Kagi helped Armstrong at the river crossing, where they persuaded the ferryman at gunpoint to risk the ice laden river. After the ice pushed them half a mile downriver, the group made the far shore and continued without incident to Civil Bend. The first trip thus successfully completed, Brown considered the Underground Railroad through Kansas firmly established.44

This trip demonstrated a tactic further developed by Kansas Underground Railroad conductors. As fugitives found their way to Lawrence or Topeka, abolitionists sheltered them until an armed escort could convey them to Iowa. Groups of a dozen or more freedom seekers with several armed protectors comprised such convoys. Dr. John Doy, John Brown, Reverend John Stewart, Charles Leonhardt, and even the Quaker “Iowa boys” who settled in Pardee organized trips of this type. In January 1859, Doy wrote to Massachusetts abolitionist Samuel May, requesting financial assistance and describing the Kansas operation. Doy waited with seventeen fugitives for an armed escort to Iowa. In a previous trip, he had appointed conductors every fifteen miles to secure a protected route and a well-organized society with officers.45

From the diatribes of proslavery leaders, the enslaved population of Missouri knew that Lawrence was a place to trust, and therefore it became a destination. Slave hunters also knew Lawrence as a place to find fugitives, or failing that, to kidnap free Blacks. Abolitionist James Abbott observed that kidnapping free Blacks was more lucrative to slave catchers, because the proceeds from selling them were generally more than the reward for returning a fugitive.46 After several episodes with kidnappers, the African Americans of Lawrence appealed to the white citizens for protection. Together they made a plan for the Blacks to emigrate to Iowa, where they could live without fear. Dr. Doy agreed to escort a group of thirteen people to Holton, Kansas.47

While African Americans in Lawrence made preparations to avoid kidnapping into slavery, John Brown was busy liberating a group of a dozen enslaved Missourians. With a party of about a dozen, Brown went into Missouri on the night of December 20, 1858. A second party of about eight, led by Aaron D. Stevens, also conducted a raid that night. Brown liberated an enslaved family, taking personal property belonging to the estate to help finance the long journey ahead. Brown reasoned that the property, having been bought with enslaved labor, rightly belonged to them. The party led by Stevens succeeded in getting an enslaved woman whom they had sought but, in so doing, killed her owner Mr. Cruise.48 Several safe houses in the Osawatomie area offered shelter to the fugitives for about a month once they had safely arrived in Kansas. Brown was anxious to depart, because he had heard rumors of threats to either kill him or hand him over to the Missourians. With his party of twelve fugitives, Brown and his men proceeded to Lawrence, where he arranged finances and provisions before proceeding to Topeka.

Plans originally called for Doy’s party of Lawrence refugees to travel with John Brown’s group of Missourians. An armed guard of ten men was to accompany both groups and was deemed sufficient to secure their safety. Circumstances prevented the groups from traveling together, and Brown overruled Doy, taking the entire escort. Brown argued that his group of fugitives, having been taken from Missouri in open defiance, faced a greater risk than Doy’s group of free Blacks. Determined to proceed, Doy risked the twenty-mile trip from Lawrence to Oskaloosa unprotected.49 About twelve miles out from Lawrence, a party of twenty armed and mounted border ruffians ambushed Doy’s party, taking them to Weston, Missouri. Slave traders sold the thirteen African Americans in the party into slavery, wives and children being separated from their husbands and fathers. The Missouri court found Dr. Doy guilty and sentenced him to five years of hard labor in the state penitentiary. While awaiting an appeal to the state Supreme Court, Doy’s Kansas allies launched a daring rescue in July 1859. The “Immortal Ten” bluffed their way into the jail at St. Joseph, to which the court had transferred Doy. They walked out with him, making their escape across the Missouri River in boats they had hidden on the banks for that purpose.50

As Doy languished in jail, Brown’s group made their way up the Lane Trail. Stopped by proslavery forces, the group had to send to Topeka for assistance. The Topeka men traveled with the party to Tabor, Iowa, for additional protection. Indeed, arriving in Civil Bend, Iowa, Brown learned that a posse had preceded him and searched the place thoroughly. Brown and his party with twelve fugitives continued through Detroit to Canada, from where he continued his preparations for the raid at Harpers Ferry.

Border regions between slave and free territories presented opportunities for the enslaved and challenges for their enslavers. James Abbott, who led the Doy rescue party, observed that slaves learned where to find freedom from the slaveholders themselves. The masters came to understand the danger of holding people as property so close to a free state and began to move the slaves farther south. Facing the threat of sale, many slaves in the region took action to free themselves.51 In strategic terms, if Kansas became a free state, slavery in Missouri was seriously threatened. Bordered on three sides by free states (Kansas, Iowa, and Illinois), Missouri would be isolated, and runaway slaves would be more likely. By the time that Kansas was opened to settlement by US citizens, the nationwide debate over slavery had grown acrimonious. Moreover, Underground Railroad activity in Kanas was marked by more violence than its eastern counterparts.

The Southern Underground Railroad

For Africans and their descendants enslaved in the Carolinas, Georgia, and along the Gulf Coast, the path to freedom often went south to Florida. While some allied with the Spanish in St. Augustine, many others escaped to the wilderness. Most of these fugitives were Gullah people who escaped from the rice growing sea islands along the coast; they retained much of their African language and culture and developed rice growing settlements in Florida. Native tribes also being pushed into Florida at the time allied with these maroon communities. They formed a multiethnic, biracial alliance. In return for paying tribute to the Seminoles, the Black communities gained sanctuary among the Indians and were able to live relatively independently. Most importantly, the groups were military allies. The Black Seminoles functioned as warriors, spies, interpreters, and intermediaries. As proslavery factions gained control in Florida, Seminoles and the Black allies headed further down the Florida peninsula. From Cape Florida on the southern tip of Key Biscayne, Black Seminoles made their way to the British Bahamas. Influenced by their African members, the Seminoles resisted removal and fought the US army in two wars that lasted until 1842. They felt that their freedom and families were jeopardized if they acquiesced to removal.52 To bring the war to a speedier conclusion, General Thomas Jesup began offering freedom to Blacks if they would surrender and agree to removal.53 When they arrived in Indian Territory, confusion about the status of the Black Seminoles complicated intertribal relations for years.

Though they had been part of the Creek Confederation, in Oklahoma the Seminole feared that they would lose their independence to the larger tribe should they move into the area of the Creek nation. The fate of the Black Seminoles was a key issue, as by this time the Creek had adopted a more stringent form of slavery. The Blacks would not be free, as many claimed to be according to General Jesup’s agreement. And, if enslaved, Black Seminoles would not be able to live separately in their own communities. To exacerbate the situation, some Creeks claimed ownership of almost all of the Black Seminoles, since they had been required to pay for them when they joined the tribe as runaways from Georgia and South Carolina.54 Led by John Horse, the Black Seminoles struggled to maintain their independence. In 1848 Attorney General John Mason ruled that General Jesup had no authority to free the Black Seminoles, and that they would have to revert to slaves under the Creek system as chattel.55 After ten years of freedom, the prospect was untenable. Allied with Wild Cat, a Seminole leader and friend, John Horse and many of the Black Seminoles left Indian Territory for Mexico, where they established Nacimiento de los Negros near Coahuila.

In the fluid frontier of western Louisiana and eastern Texas, enslaved people sought refuge in bayous. After the Louisiana Purchase of 1803, Spanish-controlled Texas became a destination and portions of El Camino Real de las Tejas a route to freedom. Rather than a single road, the “King’s Highway” was a series of paths that intercepted at various points along a main thoroughfare that extended from Nachitoches, Louisiana, to Monclova, Mexico, over 2,400 miles.56 In 1711 Nachitoches, Louisiana, was founded to serve the French military as a trading post and block Spanish settlement. It played a significant trading role during the French and American periods. El Camino Real, leading from Nachitoches westward, was a primary route used for trade—legal and illegal. Enslaved people escaped to freedom through this pathway. An initial destination was the Spanish fort Los Adaes that was constructed to prevent French expansion. Some fugitives stayed at the fort and worked for government officials. Others continued westward for the Spanish interior regions such as San Antonio and northern Mexico. Las Adaes continued as a place of safety until it closed in 1774.57

In 1804 a group of people enslaved on several plantations in Nachitoches parish escaped westward. Within several weeks, the group was caught and returned to Nachitoches. Two white Spanish men were apprehended with eight fugitives. The entire territory of Louisiana was in alarm as the Haitian revolution had occurred shortly before this escape. Not only did they have to contend with potential slave insurrections, they were also alarmed about Spanish complicity. While Fort Adaes had closed, freedom seekers looked to Nagadoches, Texas, where Spanish policy prohibited the return of fugitives.58

As the cotton south pushed westward into Texas, Mexico became a destination for fugitives. Slavery was completely outlawed in Mexico in 1837. Knowing this, some enslaved people made the arduous journey south. Without the abolitionist networks that existed in the east, freedom seekers from Louisiana and Texas received little assistance. Court records and runaway ads from Texas newspapers attest to the determination of more than 2,500 fugitives to gain their freedom.59

Despite entering the United States as a free state through the Compromise of 1850, enslaved laborers were brought to California. This was especially noticeable in the gold fields. The legal status of the enslaved was arbitrated through court cases, freedom claims, imprisonment, and rescues. California was a destination for some freedom seekers, particularly those who came there on whaling ships from New Bedford, Massachusetts. Though African Americans were ostensibly free, they struggled to achieve equal rights. A fugitive slave law was passed in 1852 protecting the right of slaveholders to bring enslaved laborers to work in California. In 1855 African Americans held the First Colored Convention, mainly concerned with the right to testify in court in cases where white men were involved, an important issue with fugitive slave cases. The 1857 Archy Lee case tested whether Lee, who escaped when his enslaver returned to Mississippi, was free because California was a free state. Maintaining that Lee’s enslaver was not a resident of California, the State Supreme Court maintained Lee’s enslaved status. The US District Court overturned this ruling, but the state legislature passed new restrictive laws in response.

Civil War and Contraband

The Underground Railroad continued through the Civil War. When the war began, Lincoln resisted freeing fugitives for fear of antagonizing border states that had remained in the Union though they still allowed slavery. Abolitionist army officers in the field, however, made contradictory orders, such as General Frémont, whose proclamation effectively freed people enslaved in Missouri, and General Hunter, who likewise issued a similar order covering Georgia, South Carolina, and Florida. In May 1861 General Benjamin Butler at Fort Monroe, Hampton Roads, Virginia devised a more acceptable plan. Refusing to return three freedom seekers, Butler declared that they were being used to wage war against the Union. Following this logic, Congress issued Confiscation Acts in 1861 and 1862, stating that if slaves are property and are owned by a person in active rebellion to the United States, the military had the right to seize them. They were described as “contraband of war.”

The Emancipation Proclamation, which took effect on January 1, 1863, only freed people enslaved in areas that had seceded from the union. As the Union army gained control of Confederate territory, enslaved people escaped to their lines in droves. Contraband camps sprung up across the south with several hundred thousand refuges. Many of the men joined the Union Army. All told, about two hundred thousand men—contraband, free Blacks, and former freedom seekers, some returned from Canada—fought with the Union army for the freedom of their people. The Thirteenth Amendment, which passed Congress on January 31, 1865, was ratified on December 6, 1865, abolishing slavery in the United States and formally ending the necessity for the Underground Railroad.

Discussion of the Literature

Traditionally, the Underground Railroad has been understood as an organized effort by white religious groups, often Quakers, to aid helpless, enslaved African Americans. Historians typically date its beginning to the 1830s. Northern abolitionists were the heroes of the story—benevolent protectors of the African American slave—while southerners were vilified. Following the Civil War, it became fashionable for abolitionists to publish reminiscences about their Underground Railroad exploits.60 Notable publications in this period included The Reminiscences of Levi Coffin and The Underground Rail Road by William Still. Both Coffin and Still portrayed the Underground Railroad based on their personal involvement, and their publications reflected their realities. Coffin, a white Quaker from Indiana and Ohio nicknamed “President of the Underground Railroad,” focused on his assistance to freedom seekers.61 Coffin placed the white abolitionists squarely in the center of the Underground Railroad and signified a structured, organized operation.

William Still, in contrast, placed the fugitive slave at the center of the story in The Underground Rail Road. Still was working at the Pennsylvania Anti-Slavery Society in Philadelphia when he heard his long-lost brother seeking information about his parents. He resolved to record the details of the fugitive slaves that he interviewed through his work as secretary of the Philadelphia Vigilance Committee to help reunite other families. Still hid his diaries rather than destroy them after the Fugitive Slave Act of 1850. In 1872, at the request of the Society, he published his book based on these notes.

The first scholarly effort to examine the Underground Railroad was undertaken by Wilbur Siebert, an Ohio State University professor working with his students. Beginning in the 1890s, Siebert and his students collected a vast array of correspondence, interviews, manuscripts, student papers, maps, photographs, and other materials related to the Underground Railroad, drawn from informants who had participated in or witnessed the events. From this material, Siebert created detailed maps of Underground Railroad routes and lists of participants. He published two books, The Underground Railroad from Slavery to Freedom and Mysteries of Ohio’s Underground Railroads.62 His collection of research materials is at the Ohio Historical Society and available online. While Siebert’s work is not definitive, it remains one of the most systematic and largest studies of the Underground Railroad ever conducted. Siebert’s informants were mainly white, leading to significant gaps in his understanding and portrayal of the Underground Railroad.

By the mid-20th century, scholars began dismissing accounts of Underground Railroad activities as largely myth and hyperbole. Since much of what had been written relied on the testimony of participants and their descendants, critics characterized it as self-aggrandizing or the product of faulty memories. The Underground Railroad, common wisdom held, was illegal and secret and so therefore could not be known. However, court cases related to enforcement of the Fugitive Slave Act contain information, sometimes with detailed accounts. Civil claims for losses of enslaved property are another source. Government actions such as treaties and legislative reports contain information. Pension records of men who served in the US Colored Troops often contain accounts of their escapes from slavery. Many Underground Railroad incidents were covered in local newspapers. Some participants operated within a network of extended family and church connections—the people they knew best and could trust the most. Letters and diaries still exist and are often in the possession of descendants. For this reason, family history and genealogy are often the most useful tools for exploring Underground Railroad activities.

Larry Gara, in his seminal 1961 work The Liberty Line, argued that much of the depiction of the Underground Railroad should be classified as folklore, rather than history. Gara astutely credited fugitive slaves themselves with agency in effecting their escapes. He also emphasized the role of the African American community, both slave and free, in supporting fugitives. Gara took issue, however, with portrayals of the Underground Railroad as organized. He concluded that there was not much support for the existence of a well-developed network, as the abolition movement was too fractured for such organization. Most abolitionists preferred to focus on legal means of securing freedom for the enslaved or buying freedom for fugitives.63

Gara’s work seemed to close the discussion on this topic. Few scholars addressed their attention to the Underground Railroad in the decades following The Liberty Line. Among descendants and in the communities where this history occurred, however, the memory of the Underground Railroad endured. Charles Blockson, whose great-grandfather James escaped from Seaford, Delaware, recalled listening to his grandfather tell the story of his father’s escape from slavery.64 Discovering a copy of William Still’s book, Blockson found the story of his great grandfather, who had recounted his journey to Still. Thus inspired, Blockson devoted years to studying the Underground Railroad and visiting historic sites around the country. National Geographic commissioned him to write an article on the topic, and the resulting 1984 cover story reintroduced the public to the inspirational story of the Underground Railroad. Undue focus on assistance provided by white abolitionists, Blockson observed, “tended to make the people whom the Railroad was designed to aid—the fugitive slaves—seem either invisible or passive and helpless without aid from others.”65

This broader understanding of the Underground Railroad has informed the National Park Service’s National Underground Railroad Network to Freedom (NTF), a program established by Congress following a study conducted under the guidance of a federal Advisory Committee chaired by Charles Blockson. As communities have documented their sites, stories, and heroes through this program, the database of verified Underground Railroad sites across the country is growing and expanding the map of the Underground Railroad (Figure 8). These documented stories reveal local and regional networks operating within trusted circles of extended families and faith communities. These networks ebbed and flowed over time and space. With the passage of the Network to Freedom Act and the opening of the National Underground Railroad Freedom Center in Cincinnati, renewed interest in the Underground Railroad resulted in a resurgence of scholarly and popular interest. In 2004 David Blight edited Passages to Freedom: The Underground Railroad in History and Memory, in association with the Freedom Center, which particularly explored public memory of the Underground Railroad.66 New studies of the Underground Railroad tend to be regionally, biographically, or thematically focused. The Ohio-Kentucky borderland has received much scholarly attention. Keith Griffler’s Front Lines of Freedom: African Americans and the Forging of the Underground Railroad in the Ohio Valley and Cheryl LaRoche’s Free Black Communities and the Underground Railroad: The Geography of Resistance both focus on the important role of the African American community in the north to the freedom movement.67 James Blaine Hudson examined freedom seekers escaping from Kentucky in Fugitive Slaves and the Underground Railroad in the Kentucky Borderland.68

Figure 8. Routes of the Underground Railroad.

Source: National Underground Railroad Network to Freedom, National Park Service, 2018. In the public domain.

Harriet Tubman has been the subject of several biographies including by Kate Larson, Bound for the Promised Land; Catherine Clinton, Harriet Tubman: The Road to Freedom; Jean Humez, Harriet Tubman: The Life and Stories; and Lois Horton, Harriet Tubman and the Fight for Freedom: A Brief History with Documents.69 Nikki Taylor explored the burden of slavery on women in Driven toward Madness: The Fugitive Slave Margaret Garner and Tragedy on the Ohio.70 Frederick Douglass was the subject of the Pulitzer Prize–winning biography by David Blight, Frederick Douglass: Prophet of Freedom.71

Several studies have explored maroonage, where enslaved people self-liberated and lived outside the control of enslavers and plantations. John Hope Franklin and Loren Schweninger, in Runaway Slaves: Rebels on the Plantation, emphasize the importance of temporary escapes within the south but also explore settlements of freedom seekers.72 Gwendolyn Midlo Hall examined maroonage and cultural creation in Africans in Colonial Louisiana: The Development of Afro-Creole Culture in the Eighteenth Century, demonstrating that this form of resistance develops under a variety of slavery regimes.73 Sylviane Diouf delivers a comprehensive examination of how freedom seekers survived in maroon communities found throughout the South in Slavery’s Exiles: The Story of the American Maroon.74

Primary Sources

While the Underground Railroad is a story of international scope and significance, it was a grassroots movement comprised of thousands of individual stories. There were organized networks of operatives but no centralized control. These networks can be studied through records of vigilance committees or papers of high-profile participants. But understanding the full scope of the Underground Railroad requires investigating its history at the local or regional level. The operations of the Underground Railroad often were not recorded in sources that historians have traditionally privileged, such as government documents, correspondence, and newspapers that reside in national collections. Many of the documents that do exist are located in local libraries or historical societies or with the families of descendants. The National Underground Railroad Network to Freedom Program, working with communities around the country, has recognized seven hundred historic sites, research facilities, and educational programs with documented ties to the Underground Railroad. An interactive map of these listings is available online, and the applications supporting the listings are available upon request. Completed by local researchers and genealogists, these applications include citations to resources that would be difficult to discover from more centralized research. Among these listings are dozens of historical societies, local libraries, and state archives that have records for researching the Underground Railroad with finding aids.

The story of the Underground Railroad lived on in the memory of families and communities across the country, and thus oral traditions are often an important tool for uncovering Underground Railroad history. Skeptics dismiss oral testimony as unreliable and self-serving; that can be true. Carefully analyzed and weighed along with other evidence, however, oral traditions are a useful tool. They can be analyzed in a similar fashion to written sources. Many Underground Railroad oral traditions are merely community memories widely circulated with few specific details and unknown origin. Some, however, have a genealogy that can be traced to the originator as a participant in, or investigator or witness of, the events. They have been passed primarily through vertical transmission from one generation to the next, often in a very deliberate and almost ritualistic fashion. These surviving oral accounts have preserved their integrity, as evidenced by accuracy, completeness, and retention of the originator’s values. While there may be inaccuracies, typically they have an element of truth and specific details that can be sorted out and corroborated through other evidence. This is the starting point for further investigation.

Building a case for Underground Railroad involvement starts with creating a profile of the individuals or groups involved. For example, some families today may claim an Underground Railroad heritage, though further investigation reveals their ancestors to have been slave owners. While this inconsistency may not preclude Underground Railroad involvement, it makes it less likely. More often, though, specific oral traditions are supported by evidence of abolitionism, specific connections to other known Underground Railroad operatives, or membership in churches of abolitionist Christian denominations. These associations can be documented through genealogical research, census records, letters to family members or associates, journal entries, newspaper accounts of events, court records of fugitive slave cases, membership in antislavery societies, signing antislavery petitions, and similar sources. A preponderance of consistent evidence can support information from oral traditions or help interpret veiled references in written documents.

Some significant primary source collections do exist for documenting the Underground Railroad. The explosion of databases and digitized records is facilitating new research possibilities for the Underground Railroad. Slave narratives are available online, and many recount journeys to freedom. Wilbur Siebert’s research materials are available from Ohio Memory. William Still’s surviving records and the Pennsylvania Abolition Society records are available from the Historical Society of Pennsylvania. Boston Vigilance Committee records are available in Account Book of Francis Jackson, Treasurer, the Vigilance Committee of Boston. Several state and university archives projects have digitized pertinent records and made them available online. Databases for runaway slave ads are available for different parts of the country and states such as North Carolina, Texas, and Maryland. The Yale Slavery and Abolition Portal has links to many of these resources. Freedom on the Move is an online crowd-sourced project dedicated to creating a database of runaway ads of fugitives from slavery in North America. Because churches and family relationships were significant factors in the Underground Railroad, church and genealogical resources should not be overlooked.

Further Reading

  • Berlin, Ira. Many Thousands Gone: The First Two Centuries of Slavery in North America. Cambridge, MA: Belknap Press, 1998.
  • Blight, David, ed. Passages to Freedom: The Underground Railroad in History and Memory. Washington, DC: Smithsonian Books, 2004.
  • Bordewich, Fergus. Bound for Canaan: The Underground Railroad and the War for the Soul of America. New York: Amistad, 2005.
  • Diouf, Sylviane A. Slavery’s Exiles: The Story of American Maroons. New York: New York University Press, 2016.
  • Foner, Eric. Gateway to Freedom: The Hidden History of the Underground Railroad. New York: W. W. Norton, 2015.
  • Franklin, John Hope, and Loren Schweninger. Runaway Slaves: Rebels on the Plantation. New York: Oxford University Press, 2000.
  • Gara, Larry. The Liberty Line: The Legend of the Underground Railroad. 1961. Reprint, Lexington: University Press of Kentucky, 1996.
  • Griffler, Keith P. Front Line of Freedom: African Americans and the Forging of the Underground Railroad in the Ohio Valley. Lexington: University Press of Kentucky, 2004.
  • Hall, Gwendolyn Midlo. Africans in Colonial Louisiana: The Development of Afro-Creole Culture in the Eighteenth Century. Baton Rouge: Louisiana State University Press, 1992.
  • Hudson III, James Blaine. Encyclopedia of the Underground Railroad. Jefferson, NC: McFarland, 2006.
  • Landers, Jane. Black Society in Spanish Florida. Urbana: University of Illinois Press, 1999.
  • LaRoche, Cheryl Janifer. Free Black Communities and the Underground Railroad: The Geography of Resistance. Urbana: University of Illinois Press, 2014.
  • Pargas, Damian Alan, ed. Fugitive Slaves and Spaces of Freedom in North America. Gainesville: University Press of Florida, 2018.
  • Smardz Frost, Karolyn, and Veta Smith Tucker, eds. A Fluid Frontier: Slavery, Resistance, and the Underground Railroad in the Detroit River Borderland. Detroit, MI: Wayne State University Press, 2016.

Notes