Side Trail
Freedom and the Underground Railroad
Scott A. Gese


Emancipation Proclamation (1863)

"That on the first day of January, in the year of our Lord one thousand eight hundred and sixty-three, all persons held as slaves within any State or designated part of a State, the people whereof shall then be in rebellion against the United States, shall be then, thenceforward, and forever free...

Until January 1st, 1863 the United States was a slave holding nation. But, where slavery exists, freedom persists. The underground railroad was a risky road to freedom for many slaves.

Negro slaves 1862 Edisto Island, S.C. (plantation of James Hopkinson) / Source: Wikimedia

What was the “Underground Railroad” and when did it exist ?

The Underground Railroad came about as a result of the yearning we all have to be free. It was a grassroots effort by those opposed to the enslavement of another human being. A carefully planned network of secret routes, passageways and safe houses used to move escaped slaves North to free states and on to as far as Canada.

Since before the U.S. Constitution came into force in 1789, slaves in this country had struggled to be free. Those who believed in that struggle helped them to gain that freedom.

It's been noted that as early as 1786 George Washington, the future first President of the United States, was a slave owner. He had once complained that one of his runaway slaves had been helped by what he called a “Society of Quakers, formed for such purposes.” He was not a fan of the Quakers.

As slavery in this country grew, so did the number of those trying to escape their fate. And as Washington had called them, the “Society of Quakers, formed for such purposes”, also grew.

Helping slaves escape their bondage was an illegal act which violated both state laws and the U.S. Constitution.

The “Society of Quakers” was a slang term and should have been more accurately called the “Religious society of Friends”. They were found mainly in the state of Pennsylvania, which was the first state to ban slavery.

By now the effort was vast and well organized. It consisted of many whites, and even more former slaves. The organization protected itself by compartmentalizing its efforts. Each person had their own job. They were only aware of their own efforts in their local area. Even though they knew the generalities of the railroad's existence, no one knew the workings of the overall operation.

It wasn't until around 1831 that the effort was dubbed the “Underground Railroad”.

Why was it called the “Underground Railroad”?

The operation had many similarities to a legitimate railroad in that it was an established route. It was ran by a network of individuals utilizing safe houses, ships and secret meeting points. It was a clandestine network that operated “under the radar” so to speak. This would be why it was called “underground”. The term “railroad” was used because much of the terminology used to communicate between themselves and slaves was railroad terminology. Some of the terminology is as follows:

  • Stations or Depot's: these were points along the route such as safe houses, businesses, boats and trains. The depot's were anywhere from 10 to 20 miles apart. Here fugitives could rest and find something to eat.
  • Stationmasters: These were the people who ran the stations.
  • Conductors: Individuals who helped slaves escape from where they were being held. They moved them from one station to the next. Many conductors were escaped slaves themselves who put themselves at great risk in order to help others escape. Conductors also included Free slaves, white abolitionists and religious organizations.
  • Stockholders: People sympathetic to the cause who donated food, clothing and even money. All were needed to keep runaways from being easily detected. Wearing old work clothes would have been a dead giveaway. [3]

Some biblical references were also used by fugitives. They referred to Canada as the "Promised Land" or "Heaven" and the Ohio River as the "River Jordan". The Ohio River marked the boundary between slave and free states.

Levi and Catherine Coffin / Source: Wikimedia

Who organized the underground railroad?

It's believed the first organized means of escape was established by the Religious Society of Friends (Quackers). More specifically a husband and wife team named Levi and Catherine Coffin. It's believed that through their efforts alone, over 3000 slaves were able to escape to freedom. [4]

Quakers set up escape routes in Philadelphia and North Carolina

The African Methodist Episcopal Church and numerous Vigilance Committees in New York and Philadelphia protected slaves from bounty hunters. They “conducted” escaped slaves along several routes. [2]

How did slaves find out about the Underground Railroad?

Escaped slaves that were captured and returned to their owners would tell others about the railroad.

Sometimes Conductors posing as slaves would infiltrate a plantation and assist slaves who wanted to escape. They would be given guidance to the first station.

Attempting to escape was dangerous. Slave owners were well aware that most slaves would try to escape under cover of darkness. Some went so far as to keep guards on lookout throughout the night.

Where did the routes lead to?

Some of the escape routes led to Mexico. Most led to the free states in the north such as Indiana and Iowa. Others went into the New England states, and a few went through Detroit all the way to Canada where slavery was prohibited. [1] [2]Canada was a popular destination as it offered escaped slaves the freedom to live where they wanted. Efforts to extradite runaways were rarely if ever successful. Owners could not legally cross the Canadian border to retrieve their runaway slaves. Some of the Railroad operators were based in Canada. They helped the arriving fugitives settle in. [2]

How many runaway slaves used the underground railroad?

One estimate suggests that by 1850, over 100,000 slaves had used the railroad as their means of escape.

Most escaped from border states like Kentucky and Virginia. [1] [2]

How did runaways know where to go?

Conductors would instruct them to "Keep your eye on the North Star" as they led them on to the first station. [4]

Harriet Tubman / Source: Wikimedia

Help along the way, who and how.

At times, those who escaped were moved along the underground railroad by an actual train or even a boat. To do this, escapees needed to look respectable. Their tattered clothes would have attracted suspicion. It also required money to pay for tickets. Most fugitives didn't have either. Money and clothing were donated by sympathetic individuals or raised by groups, including vigilance committees.

Vigilance committees were big supporters of the underground railroad. They operated out of larger towns and cities of the North. They were well known in New York, Philadelphia, and Boston. Not only did they raise money, They also provided food, lodging, letters of recommendation and even jobs when possible. [3]

  • The railroads most noted conductor is Harriet Tubman. Tubman was born into slavery and escaped to Maryland with two of her brothers. Her brothers had second thoughts and returned. She went on to cross the Mason Dixon line and become a free woman.

  • Tubman infiltrated plantations on several occasions in order to help other family members escape. She eventually joined the underground railroad. On nineteen separate occasions she guided slaves to freedom. Overall she guided more than 300 runaways to Maryland and on to Canada. [2]
  • Reverend Jermain Loguen, who lived in neighboring Syracuse, helped 1,500 slaves go north.
  • Escaped slave Robert Purvis,He formed the Vigilance Committee there in 1838.
  • Former slave Josiah HensonHe created the Dawn Institute in 1842. The institute helped escaped slaves who entered Canada learn needed work skills.
  • Abolitionist John BrownHe established the League of Gileadites. An organization devoted to helping fugitive slaves get to Canada. Created an armed force that entered the deep south and freed slaves at gunpoint.
  • Reverend Calvin FairbankHe helped slaves escape from Kentucky into Ohio. He spent 12 years in prison for it.
  • Charles TorreyTorrey spent six years in a Maryland prison for helping a slave family escape through Virginia.
  • Sea captain Jonathan WalkerWalker spent a year in prison and was branded as a slave stealer when he was caught with a boatload of escaped slaves. [2]

Underground Railroad Quilt - Each pattern represents a coded message / Source: Flikr

Were quilts used to help guide escaped slaves?

For close to forty years now, members of the quilting industry have claimed that quilt patterns were used as a means to direct and assist slaves along escape routes. A total of ten patterns have been identified as being used as signals.

Here's a list of the patterns:

  • Bear's Paw
  • Bow tie
  • Crossroads
  • Drunkard's Path
  • Flying Geese
  • Log Cabin
  • Monkey Wrench
  • Shoofly
  • Wagon Wheel
  • Star


It is said that relaying the signals was accomplished by hanging the quilt over a fence or out of a window so the pattern could be seen. The patterns presumably instructed slaves to prepare to escape or indicated travel directions.

The legend of secret signals was brought out into the open by Jacqueline Tobin and Raymond Dobard in their book titled Hidden in Plain View: A Secret Story of Quilts and the Underground Railroad.

The quilt code theory has always been disputed. Scholars of the era including underground railroad and quilt historians agree that the theory is nothing more than legend. An oral history of one families experience handed down the line for generations.

All there is to go on is this oral history. There's nothing that proves it as fact. There's no valid evidence that the quilt code is anything more than folklore. Even so, the theory persists as fact.[1] [5]

Dangers along the way?

Operators of the Underground Railroad faced their own dangers. If someone living in the North was convicted of helping fugitives escape, he or she could be fined hundreds or even thousands of dollars. This was a tremendous amount of money. yet, in areas where abolitionism was strong, the underground railroad operated quite openly.

For example,

Former slave and newspaper owner Stephen Myers of Upstate New York, wrote about his work helping other slaves escape. Myers became the most important leader of the Underground Railroad in the Albany area. "Vigilance committees" that aided runaways sometimes openly advertised their meetings.

Being caught aiding escaped slaves in a slave state was much more dangerous than in northern free states. White men and women caught helping escaped slaves could expect jail time. The harshest punishments were reservedfor any blacks caught in the act of aiding fugitives. Their punishments included whippings, prison or even hanging. [4]

Source: Wikimedia

Bounty Hunters and the Fugitive Slave Act

With heavy lobbying by southern politicians, Congress passed the Compromise of 1850. Also known as the Fugitive Slave Act. It stipulated a more stringent fugitive slave law.

The act granted slave catchers immunity to enter free states and capture runaway slaves. It also compelled officials in free states to give assistance to slave catchers.

The compromise required slave catchers to carry little documentation claiming a person was a fugitive. They took advantage of this by kidnapped free blacks. Children, and healthy blacks in their prime working and reproductive years were prime targets.

They were then sold into slavery. The law deprived suspected slaves of the right to defend themselves in court, making it difficult to prove their status as free.

Judges were paid a fee of $10 for a ruling that confirmed a suspect as a slave, but only $5 for a ruling that the suspect was free. [1]

Some blacks carried “Certificate of Freedom” papers. These were signed and notarized papers attesting to their free status. These papers were easily destroyed and provided little protection. [1]

End of the line

With no official records to rely on, it has been estimated that the underground railroad helped 30,000 to 100,000 slaves escape to freedom. Most settled in Canada through Ontario. It's estimated that as many as 30 escaped slaves per day were landing there by steamboat.

Canada was not all roses as many slaves had been led to believe. Even though they were now free, racism and discrimination was found to be a common occurrence.

A mass European immigration was underway at the same time former slaves were entering the country. Trying to make a new life for themselves proved to be difficult. Competition for jobs and any other means of survival was fierce. Some cities went so far as amending their charters. They excluded blacks from such things as practicing a trade, selling goods or even fishing coastal waters.

In this country, things were no different. Racism and discrimination was accepted and tolerated well into the 1960's. Things may be better, but there will always be those who are unwilling to accept the words of the Emancipation Proclamation. ..."all persons held as slaves within any State or designated part of a state...shall be then, thenceforward, and forever free."

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