The Underground Railroad

A route of escape

It was called the Underground Railroad, but it didn’t run-on tracks. It was a secret escape system for runaway slaves. Those using it needed courage and determination – not tickets. The runaways travelled through fields and swamps woods and back roads; across rivers, creeks, and mountains; by boats, wagons, horse, train, and on foot. Sometimes they headed north towards Canada, sometimes west towards Mexico, and sometimes south towards Spanish owned Florida, the Bahamas, and the free islands of the Caribbean. Yet, no matter in which direction these men and women headed, their destination was always the same – freedom.

The first twenty black indentured servants arrived in Jamestown, Virginia, around the end of August 1619, by 1641 the U.S, state of Massachusetts had legalised slavery, and other colonies soon followed.

From the beginning, there was resistance to slavery – resistance that grew stronger with the signing of the Declaration of Independence proclaiming freedom as an inalienable right. In 1777 Vermont became the first colony to abolish slavery. The next year, the continental Congress forbade slavery in the Northwest Territory. By 1804 slavery had been outlawed either partially or completely in the states of Massachusetts, New Hampshire, Rhode Island, Pennsylvania, Connecticut and New Jersey.

Although the slave system remained strong throughout the South, pressure against it continued, eventually Congress was forced to forbid the importation of new slaves into the U.S. after 1st January, 1808. Twelve years later, in 1820, the Missouri Compromise outlawed slavery north of 36 degree (30’) north latitude.

The pressure to end slavery came from abolitionist, both whites and freed blacks. Within this group were individuals such as Benjamin Franklin, Thomas Paine, and the Marquis de Lafayette, who made hundreds of speeches, organised dozens of antislavery meetings, and repeatedly petitioned the president and other political leaders to end slavery.

Those people willing to help slaves escape became the agents of the Underground Railroad and included human rights leaders Frederick Douglas, Harriet Tubman, Sojourner Truth, William Loud Garrison, Susan B. Anthony, Congressman Thaddeus Stevens and Harriet Beecher Stowe.*

Some of these people, such as Harriet Tubman acted as “conductors,” slipping deep into slave territory to meet with the runaways and guide them to safety. Others, such as, Frederick Douglass, operated ‘stations’ or ‘depots’- safe places where runaways could hide as they made their way to freedom. Jermaine Loguen, who had been a slave himself, helped more than 1,500 people to escape, and Levi Coffin, a Quaker who was called the ‘president of the Underground Railroad,’ helped more than 3.000 to escape.

Slaves also found safety and support among American Indians, such as the Ottawa of Ohio, the Shinnecock of New England, and the Seminole of Florida.

Although slaveholders insisted that their slaves were happy and contented, it was clear that the opposite was true. No one knows for sure how many slaves fled – 100,000, 200,000, maybe more.

To convey secret information and provide useful instructions for successful escape the slaves used song lyrics. For example, the old spiritual ‘Wade in the Water,’ gave the essential instructions, to wade in the waters of the river and streams so that the dogs could not pick up your scent. The hymn ‘Follow the Lord’ was turned into ‘Follow the Drinking Ground.’ The drinking ground referred to the Little Dipper, the constellation in the sky that included the North Star, a guide to the north. And ‘Swing Low, Sweet Chariot, Coming for to Carry Me Home’ meant the conductor of the Underground was coming to ‘carry’ you home to freedom.

Slave owners hired slave hunters to track down and recapture escaped slaves, and they offered money for information leading to the whereabouts of people like Harriet Tubman. In return for allowing California to enter the Union as a free state, slaveholders insisted that Congress pass the Fugitive Slave Law, which required citizens to help law officers apprehend and return escaped slaves.

Many Underground Railroad activists were sent to prison. Others like newspaper editor Elijah Lovejoy were murdered. But slaves continued to run away, and the Underground Railway continued to function, until the Civil War finally ran slavery off the track.

Fort Negro – a place for runaways, see file: The Wild West – Black Cowboys

On to Liberty, by Theodor kaufmann

*Harriet Tubman needs to be added to list of Politicians and activists