Underground Railroad
• History 115
• African American History
• Slavery begins to come undone
Underground Railroad
• From the beginning of
class, the theme has been
and remains to thwart evil
good people must act.
• Regardless of indenture of
slavery, people have
sought to free themselves.
• We now see a concerted
effort to thwart the slave
Underground Railroad and Abolition
• As we have already seen, some
good people did step up and
voice concerns and outrage at
the system.
• The Quakers, Mennonites, and
German Dunkers were early
prominent voices espousing
• These were the first groups to
actually organize and begin a
process that would become the
frontrunner to the abolition
Road to Abolition
• Quakers urged members to emancipate their
• Could be ex-communicated;
• Teach slaves to become literate and work for their
own labor
• By 1782, Quakers had dedicated their lives to
abolition of slavery.
Road to Abolition
• 1st abolition society organized in Philadelphia
• The society made Benjamin Franklin President.
• The aims of the first society:
• Make public aware with speeches, essays and
• Petition courts for more humane laws;
• Aid and assist blacks to assimilate and become
productive members of society.
Peaceful Alternatives for Abolition
• In the beginning, the Abolition societies tried to
convince slave owners to allow slaves to work
one per week for their own labor—this would
allow them to save money to purchase their
• Another option offered to end slavery peaceably,
was to sell the slaves to the West Indies;
• There was also the colonizing option being
bantered around.
Peaceful Alternatives Cont’d
• Compensate slave owners for freeing slaves with
western lands or money;
• Establish a law that slaves must be freed by the
age of 21;
• Make them literate—more productive to society;
• Boycott all plantation products and commodities.
• Because slavery, though tied to race, was always
explained in economic terms, the Quakers
conceded that to end slavery, the slave owners
economic ledgers had to be hurt—
• The new idea,now became abscond with their
property depriving the slave owner of the saves
economic value.
Going Underground
• The actual term “Underground Railroad”
probably began sometime in the early 19th
• A slave owner was following closely on the heels
of a runaway—as the slave David Tice came to
the Ohio, he had no choice but to swim for it.
• Slave owner close behind on a skiff, upon
approaching shore he could find evidence of
Tice—”must’ve gone off underground …”
Underground Cont’d
• As the society became more organized and
efficient, there would appear rumors that there
was an underground railway system running
underground all the way to Boston.
• In fact the society organized itself based on
principles of the railroad system—using railroad
nomenclature, such as conductors, etc …
• As slave codes and Laws
became more harsh and
restrictive; more and more
good people, White and
Free black and ex-Slaves
joined the ranks of the
underground railroad.
• Once the “tracks” became laid and more
organized, many people joined the ranks.
• Some were government officials, others were
ordinary folks;
• Some members were more enthusiastic and
motivated than others;
• These guys desired immediate action and results.
John Fairfield
• Daring and apparently did
not fear death;
• He possessed no
compulsion to use
violence to free slaves;
• He would go into the
South disguised and
abscond with slaves;
• Many times he returned
with his charges with
bullet holes in his clothes
and even wounded
several times.
John Brown
• A Ne’er do well who
committed his soul and
conscience to the
abolition of slavery;
• He did a great deal to
ignite the Civil War
because of his deeds at
Harpers Ferry Arsenal;
• He had hoped his actions
would ignite an
insurrection and lead to
violent abolition.
Laura Haviland
• Though daring,
aggressively actionoriented, The John
Browns and John
Fairfield's were the
exception, Most
conductors and members
of the railroad were less
conspicuous and more
Laura Haviland
• Petite Michigan Quaker;
• Spent most of her energies raising money to
become a primary “stock holder” in underground
railroad stock;
• She helped ex-slaves to finance the purchasing of
family members.
William McKeever
• The most active railroad
worker in Pennsylvania;
• Gave money, led slaves to
freedom personally;
• His house and property
one of the mainstay
depots or stops on the
way North.
Levi Coffin
• Leading Early
• Born in NC in 1789;
• As a child bought and
sold produce from slaves;
• Heard their stories and
resolved to act;
• He would be called the
President of the railroad
Runaways and the Railroad
• Many fugitives, once free placed their freedom in
jeopardy to become very active members of the
• John Mason, an ex-slave slipped back into
Kentucky many times eventually leading 265
slaves to freedom;
• Frederick Douglass, though very active in the
awareness phase of speaking, writing and raising
funds, never went back South until after the war.
Other Runaways
• Caveat—many runaways had to stay hidden or
move on to Canada because as the ‘Fugitive
Clause’ became more strict, many slave catchers
would grab free blacks off the streets and re-sell
them into slavery. Why the strong movement
was so important.
• Ermene Cain a runaway actively worked for 45
years covertly;
• Samuel Dorsey, barber, also worked covertly in
the network; more famously was “Old Naylor”
William Still and Josiah Henson.
Reverend Josiah Henson
• He began a Black Community
to help assimilate ex-slaves to
a free society;
• Formed Tobacco Co-ops to
provide economy for exslaves;
• Personally made trips to
secure freedom at risk of his
own freedom;
• First ex-slave to have
audience with Queen Victoria
William Still
• Became executive
secretary of the
Philadelphia Anti-Slave
• He kept meticulous
records giving us much of
what we know now;
• Wrote Book,
Underground Railroad in
Harriet Tubman
• The most acclaimed and
celebrated Railroad
• Born in Maryland; was
subjected to a brutal attack
by an overseer, which
caused her to often fall
into a sudden swoon or
altered state of
consciousness; after her
escape, she helped her
sister and family escape.
Harriet Tubman
• She was a fervent and very successful
• She was no none sense; she carried a revolver for
any circumstance, which one time required her to
impress upon some slaves in her charge to keep
going or she would shoot them—freedom was to
important to everyone for a few to spoil it by
complaining—if she felt they were endangering
the group. “You go on or die.”
Harriet Tubman
• No one really knows how many trips she made
South to Conduct slaves to freedom or how many
she actually led, some say around 300—suffice it
say it was a lot and often.
• She became to be called “General Tubman” and
“Moses.” The higher the price on her head
($40,000), the more times she returned to the
• Sometimes lucky to get out without capture.
Tubman Cont’d
• William Still author of The
Underground Railroad stated
she was the most unassuming,
non-pretentious, and ordinary
specimen of humanity, to be
found among the farm hands
of the South … She blended
well and was seen as no threat
to anyone—
• She often disguised herself as
an old ‘Granny’ to hide her
athleticism and strong gait.
• She didn’t just simply ‘Conduct’ them to freedom,
she saw them all the way to Canada;
• At the Court House in Auburn New York there is a
quote on her statue, “On my underground railroad,
I never run my train off the track, and I never lost
a passenger.”
• Her famous quip to new slaves when entering free
soil, “You done shook the Lion’s Paw.” He was
Reality of the Railroad
• Dangerous and
• Disputes about funding
and financing;
• Charges of corruption;
• Traitors and Money
• There was claims that these agents of the railroad
were leaving the slaves destitute without any
financial help and pocketing the money for
• Was a direct cause of breaking up families, by
their presence slave owners were forced to sell
slaves deep into the interior to avoid escape;
• All money raised in these abolition societies
should be used for emancipation of all slaves, not
just feeing some through clandestine means.
• Largest complaint—was accountability and the
corruption of funds.
• Railroad workers suffered ridcule from others,
were shouted down at meetings, their children
were harassed; many were shunned at work and in
the community.
• Some were even asked to withdraw from their
church membership.
Social Effects
• The biggest assumed cause was the Civil War itself—the
losses of slave property escalated the chances of war;
• It was also argued that the railroad by aiding so many
runaways, it eliminated any chance for insurrection and
rebellion ending the institution earlier than the 1860s.
• George W. Williams, A Black scholar, argued that the
railroad provided a safety valve to the slave institution.
Many of the slaves prone to rebellion and and desiring to
throw off the yoke of slavery just absconded North,
rather than a Haiti type rebellion in the South.
Personal Cost
• Because of the harsher penalties for assisting fugitive
slaves, many railroad workers suffered terrible financial
• They were incarcerated; had their businesses impounded;
forced to seek expensive legal counsel;
• In other cases when an underground worker saw an
advertisement in the paper for the sale of slaves, they
would use their own money to buy and then fee the
slave—this caused financial hardship
Physical Hardship
• Black and White railroaders alike suffered
physical abuse, threats, and sometimes death;
• Rewards were offered for the capture of railroad
workers; Thomas Garrett had $20,000 placed on
his head—Tubman had $40,000 placed on her
• Garrett responded in the paper that he was worth
twice that.
Hardship Cont’d
• Abolitionist Lewis Tappan barely escaped with
his life as Slave Catchers tore down his house and
destroyed his belongings;
• He was hanged in effigy and threatened with tar
and Feathering.
• William Lloyd Garrison, editor of the abolitionist
paper The Liberator, also barely escaped an angry
Pro-Slavery mob with his life on several
Elijah Lovejoy
• The first Whiteman to die in
the cause of Abolition,
polarizing the camps;
• Editor of the Observer;
• More and more Whites began
to put their life on the line for
• It became a cause celebre’
and not just some local
community cause.
• Others were imprisoned such as Charles Torren.
He was caught assisting fugitive slaves. He died
in prison.
• Seth Concklin traveled to Alabama to rescue Peter
Sill’s family. Sill a free ex-slave solicited
assistance. Concklin rescued the family but was
overtaken in Indiana. He was found later,
drowned and still in chains.
• Regardless of the hazards, white and black alike
continued to fill the ranks of the railroad.
Underground Railroad
• To establish a link in the
railroad system, two
factors were necessary:
• 1) Geographical location
• 2) Availability of
Underground workers and
• One of the most well
known and largest staging
areas of the Underground
Railroad was in New York
City located at the 42nd St
Station—We know it as
Grand Central Station.
• The trip could take days,
months, even up to a year.
• The name of the game
was surreptition and
to “Shake the Lion’s
Paw” Not in how fast
it could be achieved.
• Haste makes waste.
• One Alabama runaway took a year to get to Ohio;
• Another runaway traveled some 1200 miles
before arriving in Pennsylvania;
• Factors to a successful flight: Proximity of slave
owner and catcher, the route taken, Weather,
mode of transportation (water, foot, or actual
Specific Routes and Modes of Escape
• Waterway was the
conventional choice; it was the
fastest, but also the most
guarded and watched;
• Unfortunately many runaways
would be recaptured wasting
time looking for a boat, skiff,
log any flotation device.
• Many slaves were not raised
around or near water and could
not swim, or knew nothing
about navigation.
Escape Modes Cont’d
• Many slaves with the help of
abolitionist used Steamboats,
Roads and canals to avoid
slave catchers.
• Levi Coffin would receive a
telegram suggesting he go to
box 72 (berth), at P.O.(dock),
take charge of letters
(fugitives), and pay postage of
$43 (stateroom) to a Mr.
Peck(usually Ship captain)—
this was code.
• Many times, if the
Captain was offered more
money by slave catchers,
they betrayed their
fugitives and kept both
parties money;
• But, Northerners were the
owners of most of the
River Boat lines—plus
freedom was worth it.
• Any kind or mode of absconding, the slave was
dependent on the morality and veracity of the
Underground workers.
• The greatest tragedy was when Free blacks (some exslaves) accepted money and bribes betraying the
• Slaves were ignorant of the geography and had little
choice but to believe when told about a certain route—
the end could be freedom or a return to bondage.
• To aid in deception and avoid capture, the
Railroad used secret codes and signs. They also
used disguises and subterfuge.
• They used code numbers signifying friendly
houses and communities—10 was Philadelphia,
20 for Seville, Ohio, and 27 for Medina, Ohio.
• The Good Ship Zion meant rescue was soon.
• A Quilt hanging on a clothesline with an
embroidery of a Chimney with white smoke
meant friendly confines …etc …
Emancipation Proclamation
• Ended the need for the Underground Railroad.
• The railroad was more than a Society of high
moral fiber, it was a belief and an act that all men
white and black could join together in common
cause to right a dreadful wrong.
• “It was an opportunity for the bold and
adventurous, it had the excitement of piracy,
burglary, the daring of insurrection … and the
added triumph of snapping one’s fingers in the
face of the slave owner …

Underground Railroad