Underground Railroad Flourishes

The Underground Railroad was a loose network of secret routes by which fugitive slaves made their way from the slave states in the American South to freedom in the North with the help of both black and white abolitionists. Its origins are uncertain, but it clearly peaked during the decade leading up to the Civil War.

Summary of Event

The origins of the Underground Railroad are not fully known. Parts of it may have been in place as early as 1786. Regardless of when it may have begun, it steadily grew during the early nineteenth century and clearly reached its peak between 1850 and 1860—the decade leading up to the Civil War (1861-1865). Underground Railroad
Abolitionism;Underground Railroad
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[kw]Underground Railroad Flourishes (c. 1850-1860)
[kw]Railroad Flourishes, Underground (c. 1850-1860)
[kw]Flourishes, Underground Railroad (c. 1850-1860)
Underground Railroad
Abolitionism;Underground Railroad
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[g]Canada;c. 1850-1860: Underground Railroad Flourishes[2720]
[g]United States;c. 1850-1860: Underground Railroad Flourishes[2720]
[c]Human rights;c. 1850-1860: Underground Railroad Flourishes[2720]
[c]Civil rights and liberties;c. 1850-1860: Underground Railroad Flourishes[2720]
[c]Social issues and reform;c. 1850-1860: Underground Railroad Flourishes[2720]
Tubman, Harriet
Coffin, Levi
Garrett, Thomas
Still, William

Late nineteenth century painting by Charles T. Webber of slaves fleeing north to freedom.

(Library of Congress)

Many slaves reached freedom without the aid of the Underground Railroad, and many, especially those in the Deep South, did not flee north but went instead to Mexico or found refuge with the Seminoles, Cherokees, and other Native American Native Americans;and African Americans[African Americans]
African Americans;and Native Americans[Native Americans] tribes. However, the majority of escaped slaves fled from the border states and fled north. The most dangerous leg of their journey was usually reaching the first station on the underground line. Once they arrived at a station safely, “conductors” would pass them from site to site toward safety.

The Underground Railroad During the 1850’s

It was almost impossible for runaway slaves to reach freedom without assistance. Most slaves had little or no knowledge of geography and fled with only vague notions of where they were headed. Moreover, most left with no money and few provisions and had to risk asking strangers along the way for food, shelter, and protection from pursuers. For the most part, people who helped runaways performed impulsive acts of compassion and did not consider themselves to be part of a resistance group. In parts of the country, however, the numbers of fugitives passing through were so great that predetermined escape routes, safe houses, and plans of action were organized. In time, some Underground Railroad lines were highly organized, and routes arose in most of the states between the South and Canada.

The two most frequent escape corridors were from Kentucky Kentucky;Underground Railroad and Virginia Virginia;Underground Railroad into Ohio Ohio;Underground Railroad and from there north, and up the eastern seaboard through New England. Ohio was crisscrossed with routes of escape, as were western Pennsylvania Pennsylvania;Underground Railroad and New York New York State;Underground Railroad , eastern Indiana, and northwestern Illinois. The Middle Atlantic states and New England New England;Underground Railroad also had many well-established routes. Lines existed west of Ohio and even, to some degree, in the South. After passage of the second federal Fugitive Slave Fugitive Slave Law of 1850 Law in 1850, organized aid to runaways grew, as threats to both fugitive slaves and free African Americans increased and increasing numbers of antislavery sympathizers felt a moral obligation to risk civil disobedience.

No one knows exactly when or how the name Underground Railroad began, but legend has it that its name was coined after a frustrated slavecatcher swore that the fugitives he was pursuing had disappeared as thoroughly and suddenly as if they had found an underground road. As knowledge of the existence of escape routes spread, so did the railroad terminology, with words such as “conductors,” “stations,” “stationkeepers,” and “lines.”

Conductors on the Underground Railroad often used inventive means to transport fugitives safely from station to station. Many fugitives were hidden under goods or in secret compartments in wagons. A few, such as Henry “Box” Brown Brown, Henry “Box” , were actually put in crates and shipped by train or boat. At least once, slaves were hidden in carriages forming a fake funeral procession. So many routing options were available along some lines that tracing the movements of fugitives was difficult. Barns, thickets, attics, spare rooms, woodsheds, smokehouses, and cellars were used as stations.

Fugitives often were disguised. The simple act of carrying of a hoe could make a runaway slave look like a day laborer. Fine clothes could make runaway field hands appear to be the servants of gentlefolk. Cross-dressing often kept fugitives from matching descriptions on handbills. Light-skinned slaves could sometimes pass as whites.

One of the most famous escapes effected through disguise was that of William and Ellen Craft Craft, William and Ellen . Ellen disguised herself as a white southern gentleman, and her husband disguised himself as her valet. Together, they made it from Georgia to Philadelphia, where the Underground Railroad then transported them to safety. After reaching stations, fugitives were given shelter, food, clothing, and sometimes money, as well as help in reaching their next stops.

Quakers Quakers;and Underground Railroad[Underground Railroad] —mostly of the Hicksite sect—played a large and early role in maintaining the Underground Railroad. As early as 1797, President George Washington Washington, George
[p]Washington, George;and slavery[Slavery] complained of Quakers helping one of his slaves escape. Members of other religious sects, such as Covenanters and Wesleyan Methodists, Methodists;and slavery[Slavery] also contributed a number of agents. Particular locations, such as Oberlin College Oberlin College in Ohio, became important centers of activity. Women as well as men played active roles, especially in providing food and clothing to fugitives, and women often organized auxiliaries to support the more visible vigilance and abolitionist committees.

Although the role played by white antislavery sympathizers was important, it has often been overemphasized. In southern states, fellow slaves usually were the most common sources of food and hiding places for escapees. In border states, free blacks provided the most important help to fugitives, in both all-black settlements and cities in which black abolitionists worked alongside their white counterparts. Many African American churches and vigilance committees extended protection, support, and help in relocation to fugitives who reached the free states.

White people rarely took the initiative to go south and effect escapes, but many former slaves returned to the South to help their friends and relatives escape. The most famous conductor to recruit escapees was the remarkable Harriet Tubman Tubman, Harriet . After escaping from slavery herself, she made nineteen daring and successful trips into southern states to bring out groups of slaves, despite having a forty-thousand-dollar bounty on her head. She is credited with personally leading more than three hundred slaves to safety, without losing a single person in her charge. She richly earned the title “Moses of her people.”

The period of greatest activity for the Underground Railroad was from 1850 to 1860. Among the most active white stationkeepers was Levi Coffin Coffin, Levi . In thirty-five years of Underground Railroad activity in Indiana and Ohio, Coffin helped three thousand fugitive slaves on their way north. The Quaker Thomas Garrett Garrett, Thomas of Wilmington, Delaware, also aided several thousand fugitives over a forty-year period. He lost all his property to court fines as a result of his work but refused to quit helping slaves escape.

Important black members of the Underground Railroad included the Reverend William H. Mitchell Mitchell, William H. of Ohio, Ohio;Underground Railroad who in twelve years provided temporary shelter for thirteen hundred fleeing slaves; Robert Purvis Purvis, Robert of Philadelphia, Pennsylvania; William Whipper Whipper, William of Columbia, Pennsylvania; Henry Highland Garnet Garnet, Henry Highland of New York; Lewis Hayden Hayden, Lewis of Boston, Massachusetts; Frederick Douglass Douglass, Frederick
[p]Douglass, Frederick;and Underground Railroad[Underground Railroad] of Rochester, New York; and William Wells Brown Brown, William Wells of Buffalo, New York.

Most people who aided fugitive slaves remained unknown to history. Likewise, records about the fugitives themselves are scarce. Following the Civil War, several prominent activists published memoirs about their Underground Railroad activities that included accounts of some of the slaves they aided. Black stationkeeper William Still Still, William of Philadelphia Philadelphia;Underground Railroad kept notes on almost seven hundred fugitives he helped, providing valuable statistics. His records indicate that 80 percent of runaways were male and that significant numbers of house servants as well as field hands fled. However, the names and profiles of the vast majority of the thousands of men, women, and children who braved the hazards of flight in desperate bids for freedom remain unknown.


Because of the Underground Railroad’s inherently secretive nature, precise data on its operations do not exist, but it clearly helped to lead many thousands of slaves to freedom in the North, while keeping alive a spirit of resistance to the institution of slavery. By 1850, southern slave owners were claiming enormous loss of slave property to it, but many scholars believe that their claims were exaggerated. In any case, it is impossible to know how exactly many slaves escaped to freedom—estimates range from 60,000 to 100,000 between 1800 and 1865.

Further Reading

  • Buckmaster, Henrietta. Let My People Go: The Story of the Underground Railroad and the Growth of the Abolition Movement. Boston: Beacon Press, 1941. This early history discusses the Underground Railroad within the broader context of the growth of antislavery sentiment.
  • Clinton, Catherine. Harriet Tubman: The Road to Freedom. New York: Little, Brown, 2004. Meticulous and detailed biography that places Tubman’s life within the context of the abolitionist movement and the nineteenth century American South.
  • Coffin, Levi. Reminiscences of Levi Coffin. New York: Arno Press, 1968. Massive memoir than remains an important primary source; this work reprints his third edition of 1898.
  • Gara, Larry. The Liberty Line: The Legend of the Underground Railroad. Lexington: University Press of Kentucky, 1961. A correction of overly romanticized depictions of the Underground Railroad that plays down the role of white abolitionists and emphasizes the contributions of African Americans in helping fugitive slaves.
  • Humez, Jean M. Harriet Tubman: The Life and the Life Stories. Madison: University of Wisconsin Press, 2003. Collection including letters, diaries, memorials, and speeches that provide a description of Tubman’s life and personality.
  • Larson, Kate Clifford. Bound for the Promised Land: Harriet Tubman, Portrait of an American Hero. New York: Ballantine, 2004. Comprehensive account of Tubman’s life, based in part on new sources, including court records, contemporary newspapers, wills, and letters.
  • Quarles, Benjamin. Black Abolitionists. New York: Oxford University Press, 1969. Situates the work of free black stationkeepers and conductors within the larger context of overall African American involvement with antislavery efforts.
  • Siebert, Wilbur H. The Underground Railroad from Slavery to Freedom. 1898. Reprint. New York: Arno Press, 1968. Landmark history that was the first scholarly study of the Underground Railroad. Although somewhat romanticized and at times too reliant on personal memories, it is a thorough and well-researched examination of much value.
  • Still, William. The Underground Railroad. 1872. Reprint. Chicago: Johnson, 1972. A vast collection of narratives and sketches, focusing on the fugitives’ stories. Includes miscellaneous materials by and about “aiders and advisers of the road.”

Ohio Enacts the First Black Codes

Garrison Begins Publishing The Liberator

American Anti-Slavery Society Is Founded

Douglass Launches The North Star

Second Fugitive Slave Law

Stowe Publishes Uncle Tom’s Cabin

Brown’s Raid on Harpers Ferry

Lincoln Issues the Emancipation Proclamation

Thirteenth Amendment Is Ratified

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