In the decades before the Civil War some committed individuals helped Southern slaves escape to freedom in the North and in Canada. The routes they took and safe houses along the way were known as the “Underground Railroad.”
The Underground Railroad was a loosely organized effort by African American and white abolitionists. It consisted of a network of secret routes and safe houses to help runaway slaves reach safety in the free states and Canada. The railroad had got its name from the escape of a Kentucky slave called Tice Davids in 1831. The pursuing slaveowner suddenly lost sight of Davids and exclaimed that he must have disappeared into an underground railroad. In the following decades antislavery groups sent people south disguised as peddlers to spread word of the Underground Railroad among slaves. When runaways reached the North, helpers, known as “conductors,” would guide them along the route.
There was no national organization to aid runaway slaves, but in some areas individuals such as Levi Coffin of Cincinnati, Thomas Garrett of Delaware, and William Still of Philadelphia provided organized help. Northern abolitionists formed urban vigilance committees to assist fugitive slaves. Those committees were especially active after the Fugitive Slave Act was passed in 1850. The new law created commissioners to return runaways and required citizens to aid them. The law inspired Harriet Beecher Stowe to write Uncle Tom's Cabin.
Permission: Library of Congress
An engraving from William Still's book The Underground Railroad, showing desperate runaway slaves shooting at the slave catchers pursuing them. Even when they reached the free states, runaways were not safe from being recaptured and returned to their Southern masters.
The Underground Railroad could help fugitives only after they had made their own way to the free states, but a few daring activists ventured into the South to free slaves. One was John Parker, a former slave living in Ripley, Ohio, who made several trips into Kentucky to rescue slaves. The best known rescuer was Harriet Tubman, whose Southern forays freed as many as 300 slaves. It is thought that 100,000 slaves had escaped to freedom along the Underground Railroad by 1860.
Many runaways traveled on foot at night, surviving on stolen farm produce and menaced by slave hunters with dogs. Others traveled by boat as stowaways or illegal passengers. The influential abolitionist Frederick Douglass went north by train, using a free man's papers, which he had borrowed from a friend. Some devised intricate escape plans.