The Underground Railroad
The History Cat Classroom
Slaves making their way to freedom often left in the night. In pitch darkness, they had only a few hours to get as far away as possible. Once they were found missing, bounty hunters would be hired to bring them back where punishment was certain.
An untold number of slaves tried to escape to freedom. Only a fraction made it past a few miles from their plantation. The chances of escaping to freedom for any slave was a risky business and the punishments of being recaptured were severe. A recaptured slave could most certainly count on a beating. Sometimes they might be punished with a collar fixed to bells. The worst punishment was to be sold “down south” forever separated from friends and family. No wonder that many slaves chose not to run away. Instead, they used other ways to defy their masters.
Despite the lies the plantation owners told to justify their system, no slave actually enjoyed living a life of bondage. More than being physically cruel, slavery was psychological terrorism. Slaves were taught that they were property, not human beings.
Even the masters became victims of their own abuse, after all, slavery trained them to become emotionally crippled individuals. The whole system corrupted anyone who came in contact with it.
Slaves dealt with their situation the best way they could. Mostly they would find ways of slowing down their work without risking a lashing by the overseer. Other slaves – like resistance fighters in occupied territory – engaged in sabotage. They set "accidental" fires to outbuildings or damaged tools. Some became so desperate that they murdered their own children rather than let them become the property of the master.
For a slave, this was the ultimate act of sabotage.
One common method of defying their master was to abscond. A slave would run away and hide–usually in the nearby woods–for a few days. A hunting party would be sent out and, if the slave could hold out long enough, the master would believe them to have run away. A runaway slave was big money lost but, the chances of actually reaching freedom were slim. An absconding slave didn’t intend to run away forever but scare their master just enough that they gave into some small demand (like better food or keeping the family together). In this way, a slave could take control of a bad situation.
On the Run
Frederick Douglass once said that a slave that was beaten down the most was the least likely to run away.
“Keep him hungry and spiritless and he will follow the chain of his master like a dog.”
The way the history books make it sound, escaping from bondage was as simple as catching a ride on the Underground Railroad–a dangerous journey for sure– but once you made it, an ex-slave could live in freedom in some northern city like New York or Boston–safe and sound. The reality was way more complicated than this.
Slavery was big business–one field slave costs ten to fifteen times as much as the average farmer could make in a year– and slave owners were not going to simply let their property walk off to freedom. An entire economy developed around keeping slaves on the plantation. Each state set the distance is considered a slave to be a runaway. In Mississippi, a slave was a runaway if they were caught more than eight miles from their plantation without the proper papers. Each state hired patrols armed with rifles and bloodhounds to patrol the main road and waterways that a slave might escape from. The ten percent reward for returning an escaped slave was good money and many poor whites from the north and south took up the calling of the Patroller.
A slave attempting to escape north to freedom had the cards stacked against him. Most of the slaves who escaped were young men. Even before he stepped foot off the plantation he had to worry about his plan being given away by a slave looking to gain some favor with the master. Once he decided to leave, he often took off at night. The night was the safest way to travel to avoid the patrollers.
There was no map pointing the way to freedom – most slaves probably couldn’t have read it anyway. Therefore, slaves used geography to make their way north. Slaves looked for common landmarks, they felt the trees for the thickest patch of moss –because that’s the side that pointed north. The most reliable landmark was in the sky. In the northern hemisphere, the handle of the Little Dipper always points to the North Star, no matter what season.
Slaves escaped whenever and wherever they found a good opportunity. A slave escaping from Kentucky would logically make her way north to the Ohio River. This is the most heavily patrolled area but also the place where the abolitionists operating the Underground Railroad would be most active.
A Mississippi slave would try to escape west to Indian Territory. Many Native Americans welcomed escape slaves into their tribes where African-Americans and Native Americans intermixed.
A slave from Texas would logically head to Mexico where slavery was illegal. Patrollers would be hired to guard the Rio Grande River - which marked the border with Mexico. Texas had its own natural patroller. The harsh desert climate, venomous snakes, and scorpions killed more than a handful of escaped slaves.
Henry "Box" Brown
A slave near the coast would try to escape on a ship – most merchant ships were owned by northerners. A southern slave might bribe a ship’s captain or fellow free blacks working as deck hands to smuggle him on board. Henry"Box" Brown did something similar by mailing himself inside a locked crate. For much of his journey to Pennsylvania he lay upside down in the cargo hold, the blood rushing to his head to the point where his eyeballs felt like they would burst from his head.
Runaways in Disguise
Our favorite freedom story is of Ellen and William Craft, a married couple who lived on nearby plantations in Macon, Georgia. Ellen was a light-skinned house slave, the daughter of a slave and a white planter. In 1848, Ellen disguised herself as a white male planter traveling with his black “manservant”. To disguise the fact that neither could read nor write, Ellen wore a sling on her writing arm.
Ellen had a trusting master who allowed her to take trips into town. For months the co-conspirators found a way to obtain the papers and tickets necessary to make their escape. On December 21, they boarded a train to Savannah and from there a steamship to Philadelphia.
It was William’s idea to hide in plain sight. Unlike most slaves who hid in swamps or in the blazing hot holds of a ship, the Crafts made their way to freedom in style. First class tickets and hotels the whole way. With their disguises in place, they traveled with the rich and powerful. The whole time they traveled in constant fear of being discovered. At one point Ellen was forced to sit next to the neighbor of her master; an influential judge who dined often at her master’s home.
Once they arrived in Philadelphia they became celebrities of the abolitionist circles. Like Frederick Douglass, they did speaking tours talking about the evils of slavery. Like Douglass, they also lived with a huge bounty on their heads and finally escaped to England where they raised their five children in freedom.
Fugitive Slave Act
One of the biggest complaints that southern plantation owners had was that the Fugitive Slave Act of 1793 wasn't working because northern states refused to enforce it. The law was supposed to require runaway slaves to be returned to their masters. The police often looked the other way and sometimes anti-slavery mobs prevented slave catchers from doing their jobs.
Slave catching was big business and the loss of runaway slaves was costing the South millions of dollars. Almost 1,000 slaves ran away each year- many on the Underground Railroad that spirited slaves to freedom using a series of safe houses and clever disguises. Southerners demanded a tougher fugitive slave act and they got it. The Fugitive Slave Act of 1850 made it a crime for anyone, even police, to help a runaway slave.
John Calhoun, that staunch pro-slavery Senator from South Carolina, even proposed that the United States have two presidents- one from the North and one from the South. This idea was turned down.
The real victory of the Compromise of 1850 was that the Missouri Compromise was declared dead. New territories would now be allowed to choose for themselves whether slavery would be allowed and whether they would eventually join the Union as a free or slave state.
William and Ellen Craft
The final stop on the Underground Railroad wasn't always Canada. Mexico outlawed slavery in 1810; and many slaves headed south of the border or integrated with Indian tribes.
Some wagons used to carry escaping slaves had hidden compartments built in
Attics, hidden rooms, and cellars were used to hide runaway slaves if the police showed up asking questions
Harriet Tubman: Heroine of the UR
You simply can’t have a discussion about the Underground Railroad without talking about Harriet Tubman, or “Moses” as she was often called. She was one of the escaped slaves from Maryland in the 1840's and she became one of the major “conductors” in the underground network. She was so courageous that she even returned to Maryland two years after escaping so she could help the rest of her family get to freedom. But that wasn't the only return trip she had. She made more than a dozen trips back to the South via the Underground Railroad to help free slaves. In all, she is reported to have helped at least 150 slaves escape from their brutal slaveholders despite the fact that she would have surely been killed if she ever showed her face in the South after her initial escape.
The Underground Railroad:
Although the name sounds like a hipster band that’s trying to divert the mainstream, the Underground Railroad was one of the most important operations in the formation of the United States in the 1800's. The Underground Railroad was an extremely vital system which helped slaves secretly move away from their slaveholders in the South to a place in the North where they could be free. Many of the slaves moved all the way to Canada where they found freedom. Others simply moved to the northern states in the nation where they could live their lives as they pleased.
The Underground Railroad’s Beginnings:
In the 1840's, the term “Underground Railroad” started being used to refer to a network of freed slaves and sympathizers who helped slaves escape to freedom. But the idea of this network started long before the term started being used. Many historians have found evidence that some groups of Quakers who were living in the North during the 1820's and 1830's were helping slaves escape to a place where they could freely live. Some of them even moved to the southern states where they could begin helping slaves begin their journey to the North through this secretive network.
Levi Coffin is often credited with being the main organizer of what eventually became the Underground Railroad. He began a network throughout Indiana and Ohio which helped slaves crossing the Ohio River, essentially breaking free from slave territory. His organization mainly helped those escapees move all the way to Canada so they couldn’t be caught and taken back to their slaveholder.
Hip to the Lingo: The UR’s Secret Vocabulary
In order to remain secretive and keep the underground network moving along, the people involved with it had to use code words so the slaveholders and the federal government wouldn’t catch on to what they were doing. The word “conductors,” for instance, was used to refer to the people who operated the network and showed the slaves the route to freedom.
“Freedom Seekers” was the phrase used to refer to the slaves who were taking a trip on the Underground Railroad. “The Promised Land” often referred to Canada because once there, the slaves could not be brought back to the United States for prosecution. Safe houses where sympathizers would give escapees a place to rest and eat were called “stations.” Even the network itself was often referred to as “The Gospel Train” to help hide the fact of what it really was.
Swing Low Sweet Chariot
- sung by Etta James
"... Buffalo (New York) being a place through which many fugitives passed while on their way to Canada. Mr. Brown spent much time in assisting those who sought his aid. His house might literally have been called the 'fugitive's house.' As Niagara Falls were only twenty miles from Buffalo, slaveholders not unfrequently passed through the latter place attended by one or more slave servants. Mr. Brown was always on the look-out for such, to inform them that they were free by the laws of New York, and to give them necessary aid. The case of every colored servant who was seen accompanying a white person was strictly inquired into, Mr. Brown's residence also became the home of Anti-Slavery agents, and lecturers on all reformatory movements."
Daughter of William Wells Brown, abolitionist and conductor.