For hundreds of years people have referred to America as the land of freedom. A long time ago, that was not really the case. Before the Civil War, Americans were allowed to enslave blacks, foreigners, and criminals to do work for them. The northern states and Canada believed this was wrong, so slavery was abolished in these places. However, in the south slavery remained a massive part of their lifestyle and industries. Little did the slaveowners know, many slaves were planning their escapes.
Over the course of 40 years, the south would lose thousands of slaves, escaping to freedom guided by the anti-slavery movement, the Underground Railroad. This railroad and the people that worked on it turned our country upside down, and changed history forever. The origins of the Underground Railroad date back to the 18th century, and historians say the actual years were c. 1780 – 1862. It begins with the story of a slave named Tice Davids. Tice was attempting to escape from his owner.
To do it, he ran to the Ohio river and began to swim across.
Meanwhile his owner pursued him in a small rowboat. However, the owner lost sight of Tice in the current and so he went searching for him in the town of Ripley on the opposite side of the river. After many hours of searching the owner gave up on trying to find his slave. He was so surprised that he could not locate the slave, he concluded Tice Davids ‘must have gone on an underground road. ’¹ And thus the legendary Underground Railroad was born. The Underground Railroad was a vast network of people who helped fugitive slaves escape to the North and to Canada.
It was not run by one person or group, but by hundreds of individuals, many whites and free blacks. Most only knew of local efforts in their area to aid fugitives and not of the overall network. Around 1831 it was officially given the title “The Underground Railroad,” named after the emerging steam railroads that carried passengers from place to place. The Underground Railroad even used terms used in railroading. The homes and businesses where slaves would rest and eat were called “stations” and “depots”.
These places were run by “stationmasters. ” People who contributed money or goods were “stockholders,” and the “conductors” were responsible for moving fugitive slaves from one station to the next. ² The railroad effectively moved hundreds of slaves northward each year, and according to one estimate, the South lost 100,000 slaves between 1810 and 1850. ³ The escaped slaves traveled from place to place on the railroad any way they could; by foot, small boats, or covered wagons. Some were even shipped in boxes by rail or sea.
Stations were hiding places in people’s homes and businesses, such as barns, cellars, attics, and secret rooms. The routes used most by fugitive slaves on the railroad ran through Indiana, Ohio, and western Pennsylvania. 4 In 1850, the United States government passed the Fugitive Act. This act gave slave owners increased rights regarding the capture and return of their slaves. Passing this act also negatively affected free blacks living in the northern states. It put their freedom in danger and would allow them to be taken back to the south by their owners.
The Mason-Dixon Line which ran along the bottom border of Pennsylvania, Delaware, and Maryland, was the cultural divide of the northern and southern United States. South of this line, professional slave catchers could legally capture and hold anyone of African descent as a runaway slave. This was terrifying to fugitive slaves who were escaping alone, so the flow of traffic increased along the Underground Railroad, as more slaves made the choice to not travel by themselves and to be assisted by friends who supported their journey.
In order for a slave to get to freedom, they first had to escape from their plantation and slaveholder. Slaves used different symbols, songs, and things in nature to communicate a path to the north or to a station. While these songs the slaves would sing or the conversations they had would seem like nothing to an overseer, they were really providing crucial information to the slaves that wanted to escape to freedom. 5 The escapees would always move at night, traveling between 10-20 miles to the next station, where they would rest and eat in secret.
While they waited for their next move, a message would be sent to the next station to alert its stationmaster. Escaped slaves had many clues in nature that they could rely on to find out where “north” actually was. Many escapees knew moss grew on the north sides of trees. They also observed that migrating birds flew north in the summer. 6 To help themselves find the north star, slaves looked at the pattern of stars around it. Many people thought the group of stars looked like a drinking gourd. The slaves knew that the two stars on the cup’s edge always point to the North Star.
By finding the “drinking gourd” in the sky, people traveling at night could always find the North Star and follow it to freedom. Other symbols that people of the Underground Railroad used to communicate with each other were on quilts. Conductors, safe houses, stations, and other people of the railroad would weave certain patterns and symbols into quilts so they could communicate to each other and to slaves without being caught. The symbols would often indicate information, directions, and warnings about what was in and around a particular area.
The symbols that were used in Underground Railroad quilts usually did not resemble what the actual meaning was, which was another reason why the Underground Railroad was such a successful secret. Many patterns were used but these are the most common: Flying Geese were indicated by six triangles pointing in different directions around a central point. They were a signal to follow the direction of the flying geese as they migrated north in the spring. Most slaves escaped during the spring; along the way, the flying geese could be used as a guide to find water, food and places to rest.
The North Star pattern was indicated by triangles radiating out from the center point of the quilt square. This signal had two messages; one was that a slave should prepare to escape and the other was to escape and follow the North Star to freedom in Canada. The Drunkard’s Path pattern was indicated by swirly lines going diagonally from each corner of the square to the other. It was warning to escapees to take a zigzag route to get away from slave hunters that were in the area. This was a helpful warning because if a slave was seen traveling south, they would not be suspected of escaping.
The Sailboat signal was indicated by triangles arranged to look similar to a boat. It meant that either a body of water was nearby or that boats were available to fugitive slaves. The last common pattern in Underground Railroad quilts was the Monkey Wrench, which was indicated by interlocking diamonds. This was meant to tell slaves to gather all the tools required for the escape journey, physical and mental. 7 Slaves used these symbols of the railroad on their journey to freedom, but they weren’t alone.
Hundreds of people worked on the Underground Railroad, helping slaves out of the south and to the safety of the northern states and Canada. Conductors and abolitionists were an extremely important part of the underground railroad. Without them, many slaves would have never made it to freedom. One who was especially phenomenal was Harriet Tubman. She escaped from slavery in 1849, fleeing her plantation in the middle of the night. She then traveled alone on foot using the north star to guide herself to free land in Pennsylvania.
When she got to her destination, she then went to Philadelphia and found work cooking and cleaning, and saved money to finance rescue trips. It’s here where she became involved with the city’s organizers of the Underground Railroad. 8 To free her people she would sometimes pose as a slave, enter a plantation and then guide the runaways northward. Harriet Tubman reentered the slave-holding south approximately 19 times and lead more than 300 men, women, and children, to freedom in the North and Canada.
She was given the nickname “moses” because she was a leader who brought her people to the promised free land, just like Moses did with the Israelites thousands of years ago. Today Harriet Tubman is honored for work on the Underground Railroad, service in the Civil War, and other anti-slavery work. However, there were other brave individuals that worked for the good of the people in this country. An abolitionist that was very significant to the underground railroad and spoke on behalf of the anti-slavery movement was Frederick Douglass.
He was born Frederick Augustus Washington Baile. Throughout his life he tried to escape and many times, but finally on September 3, 1838 he fled for New York City under the alias of free black sailor. Taking the new name Frederick Douglass, he was able to gain his freedom and settled in New Bedford, Massachusetts. Douglass gave his first speech on Anti-Slavery in 1841 and then became a full time lecturer for the Massachusetts Anti-Slavery Society. ? Frederick Douglass became a very successful public speaker and writer.
He published his own newspaper, The North Star, which talked of equal rights and freedom for all black people and slaves. He was internationally recognized as an uncompromising abolitionist, and one of the strongest voices for justice and equal opportunity. ¹° Many faith groups and other organizations aided and supported the Underground Railroad, because they had a firm belief in equal rights and the abolishment of slavery. These groups included Quakers, Black fraternal organizations, antislavery societies, and even Native American Indians.
Many churches in this time period worked against slavery too. Some included the African Methodist Episcopal Church, the Methodist Church, the Presbyterian Church, the Baptist church and the African Methodist Episcopal Zion Church. Some other very exceptional people of the Underground Railroad were John Fairfield of Ohio, who risked his life many times to free slaves; and a Quaker Levi Coffin, who helped more than 3,000 slaves. Around 1860 the era of the Underground Railroad came to an end, and out of it came a new uprising in this country, the Civil War. ¹¹
The effects of the Underground Railroad and anti-slavery movements on America came to a climax in 1861 at the start of the Civil War. The slave states of South Carolina, Mississippi, Florida, Alabama, Georgia, Louisiana, Texas, Virginia, Arkansas, Tennessee, and North Carolina were fighting to keep slavery alive in the US and to continue operating their business the same way. The union states of Connecticut, Massachusetts, Michigan, Minnesota, New Hampshire, New Jersey, New York, Pennsylvania, Rhode Island, Vermont, West Virginia, Wisconsin and numerous others were fighting the confederates to abolish slavery and keep america united. ² The two sides fought for four years from 1861 – 1865 but finally on April 18, 1865 the Confederate army surrendered and the Civil War ended. About 617,000 Americans lost their lives in this war, which was the same amount of casualties the country had in all it’s other wars combined. This was a new beginning in American history. In January of 1865, the Thirteenth Amendment was passed. This Amendment abolished slavery in the United States, and with the stroke of a pen 4 million African slaves were free. ¹³ The Underground Railroad was a path that led to safety and freedom for thousands of slaves.
This railroad helped many fugitives escape from the chains of injustice, inhumane living, confinement and abuse of slavery. It was no easy task to maintain the secrecy and operation of the railroad and it took the cooperation of many abolitionists, political figures, writers, and free slaves to make it thrive and start an uprising. The anti-slavery movement created this underground organization to guide and protect escaped slaves on their way to the northern states and Canada, the land of freedom. The Underground Railroad was a crucial part in the turning point of American history.
Without the well organized and meticulous work of the brave, strong people that worked on this movement our country may have turned out a very different place then what we have today. The advancements we have made since this period in time with slavery and human equality are enormous. Look around you and be grateful for all the rights you are given as a free and equal human being. If it hadn’t been for the Underground Railroad, and the incredibly brave people that fought tirelessly for equal rights, our country would not be what it is today.
Cite this Underground Railroad
Underground Railroad. (2016, Oct 25). Retrieved from https://graduateway.com/underground-railroad/