The "Underground Railroad" and Slavery in the United States

Presentation (Elaboration), 2016

13 Pages



Remark on the use of the word “Negro” for African Americans:

What was the Underground Railroad (UR)?.

Terms and explanations.

Supporters of the Underground Railroad:

Harriet Tubman.

William Still

Levi Coffin – Catherine Coffin.

Historical Background.

Economy and slavery.

Concluding remarks.

List of References.

Online sources:

Remark on the use of the word “Negro” for African Americans: up to the 1960s, this was the word used by white and black Americans to designate Americans of African descent. Even fighters for black equality like Martin L. Kind or Malcolm X used the term “Negro” when speaking of their fellow African Americans. For that reason the term is used throughout this paper.

What was the Underground Railroad (UR)?

The UR “was neither a railroad nor underground, but merely a conviction set to action”[1].

“Was the Underground Railroad truly a nationwide conspiracy with ‘conductors’, ‘agents’, and ‘depots’, or did popular imagination simply construct this figment out of a series of ad hoc, un­connected escapes? Were its principal heroes brave Southern blacks, or sympathetic Northern whites? The answers depend on which historians you believe”[2]

It is easier to say what the Underground Railroad was not than to say what it really was. And any attempt at defining it depends very much on the sources used, as the quotation above indicates.

It was not an organization, not even a network or an established set of routes that slaves could follow. It was rather an ever-changing, but also ever-growing number of options for slaves from the south to escape slavery and to reach the northern states and particularly Canada, the country which would guarantee complete and unrestricted protection from persecution. It consisted of secret paths, safe houses, ways of clandestine communication, various means of transportation, but the most important aspect was the existence and the determination of people who were ready to help their enslaved fellow man or woman to reach a place where they could live in freedom.

And often enough these people – black and white, male and female – risked their own freedom, their belongings and even their lives to help others. Particularly after the adoption of the Fugitive Slave Act of 1850 citizens were running a big risk when they helped Negro slaves, as this law made helping fugitive Negroes a crime.

Secret escape routes for black slaves started in the 17th century but what today is called the UR began in the early 19th century and reached its peak between 1840 and 1860. According to estimates, about 100,000 slaves escaped to the north in the first half of the 19th century.[3] It ceased to exist after the Emancipation Proclamation of 1862 and the end of the Civil War in 1865.

Most fugitives came from the states bordering the free North. From the more western slave states escape routes mainly lead to the states north of the Ohio river (called “River Jordan” by the slaves): Ohio, Indiana, Illinois, but also to Iowa and Wisconsin.

Routes from states more to the east, like Georgia, the Carolinas and Virginia lead to Pennsylvania and the New England states.

However many fugitives didn’t stop there, but continued their flight to Canada, the only really safe place for Negro slaves.

As it was next to impossible to reach the North from Texas, there was an escape route to Mexico. A similar situation existed in Florida, from where most fugitives went to the Caribbean.

Terms and explanations

The term “Underground Railroad” came into use in the 1830. The origin of the term being unknown, there are various stories trying to explain it. One explanation for the “underground” aspect is the following anecdote: The owner of a fugitive slave who had tracked down and almost reached his “possession” had to get a boat to follow him across the river into which the desperate Negro had jumped, this being his only chance to escape his hunters. While the people who were with the slave holder organized the boat, the gentleman never lost sight of his prey, but when the slave had reached the opposite shore, he suddenly disappeared. After crossing the river, the slave owner tried everything possible to find the slave, but without success. This allegedly led him to the only explanation possible: “’he must have gone on an underground road’”.[4]

Railroad terms were used to describe the system, as the railroad was the emerging transportation system of the day. Safe places were called “stations”, run by “station masters”, who gave information called “tickets” to their prospective “packages” or “freight”, with “conductors” guiding them on secret “lines”. “Stockholders” were people who supported the system with money or supplies.[5] An important aspect of help by “stockholders” was that they often donated clothing so that fugitives who travelled by boat or on real trains did not have to wear their work clothes and could therefore not easily be detected.[6]

Traveling conditions, organization

Running away was a risky and very dangerous endeavor, for long distances had to be covered, help was scarce despite the existence of the UR and often the Negroes had to rely on their own resources, at least at the beginning of their flight. There was the constant threat of the slave master trying to get back his “possession”, either by going after the runaway himself or by using professional slave hunters who even followed him or her into the free Northern states.

What added to their difficulties was that Negroes in the South were often kept in complete ignorance by their masters, they normally didn’t get any school education, most of them could not read or write, they hardly ever left their farm or only knew the immediate surroundings of the place where they lived and worked. So finding their way to places hundreds of miles away was an enormous challenge for them. ‘Follow the North Star’ was the only information that many of them had.

Once their getaway had been successful, most of the time the slaves walked at night, about 10 to 20 miles to the next “station”, if possible. There they would rest and eat, often hidden in basements, barns or attics until the next “conductor” would lead them to another “station”.

Sometimes white people or light-skinned Negroes would lead a group of fugitives, posing as a slave master leading their slaves in some kind of business. They would even travel by ship or by railroad. If that was not possible, fugitives would sometimes be transported on wagons with false bottoms or hidden under layers of straw.[7]

Some runaways stayed close to their farms, lived on hunting, fishing or stealing food from neighboring farms, often supported by their fellow-slaves who looked the other way. There were even slaves who fled to the nearest mountains, to remote places like the bayous of Louisiana, built houses and started farming in faraway, inaccessible areas inside the slave states.[8]

To reduce the risk of infiltration, many people associated with the Underground Railroad knew only their part of the operation and not of the whole scheme, for example the way to the next station and the people who would guide the fugitives to their next stop.

And even when the flight was successful, when a Northern state was reached, the slave’s trouble was not over. Although they were no longer slaves, they were not accepted as equals by white society and racism was widespread. The Blacks’ worst enemies were poor Whites who saw them first of all as competitors for jobs.


[1] H. Buckmaster, p. 29.



[4] H. Buckmaster, p. 59.




[8] H. Buckmaster, p. 17.

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The "Underground Railroad" and Slavery in the United States
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Underground Railroad, slavery, United States, 19th century, freedom, African Americans, Afro-Americans, negroes, Black Americans, Blacks, racism, Quakers, Harriet Tubman
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Bernd Müller-Knospe (Author), 2016, The "Underground Railroad" and Slavery in the United States, Munich, GRIN Verlag,


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