The Underground Railroad was an informal network of secret routes and safe houses used by 19th century Black slaves in the United States to escape to free states and Canada with the aid of abolitionists who were sympathetic to their cause. The term is also applied to the abolitionists who aided the fugitives. Other routes led to Mexico or overseas. The Underground Railroad was at its height between 1810 and 1850, with over 30,000 people escaping enslavement (mainly to Canada) via the network, though US Census figures only account for 6,000.
With heavy political lobbying, the Compromise of 1850, passed by Congress after the Mexican-American War, stipulated a more stringent Fugitive Slave Law. Ostensibly, the compromise redressed all regional problems. However, it coerced officials of free states to assist slave catchers if there were runaway slaves in the area, and granted slave catchers national immunity when in free states to do their job. Additionally, free blacks of the North could easily be forced into slavery, whether they had been freed earlier or had never been slaves. Suspected slaves were unable to defend themselves in court, and it was difficult to prove a free status. In a de facto bribe, judges were paid more ($10) for a decision that forced a suspected slave back into slavery than ($5) for a decision that the suspected slave was in fact free. Thus, many Northerners who would have otherwise been able and content to ignore far-away regional slavery chafed under nationally-sanctioned slavery, leading to one of the primary grievances of the Union cause by the Civil War's outbreak.
Many people associated with the Underground Railroad only knew their part of the operation and not of the whole scheme. Though this may seem like an unreliable route for slaves to gain their freedom, hundreds of slaves obtained freedom to the North every year.
The resting spots where the runaways could sleep and eat were given the code names “stations” and “depots” which were held by “station masters”. There were also those known as “stockholders” who gave money or supplies for assistance. There were the “conductors” who ultimately moved the runaways from station to station. The “conductor” would sometimes act as if he or she were a slave and enter a plantation. Once a part of a plantation the "conductor" would direct the fugitives to the North. During the night the slaves would move, traveling on about 10–20 miles (15–30 km) per night. They would stop at the so-called “stations” or "depots" during the day and rest. While resting at one station, a message was sent to the next station to let the station master know the runaways were on their way. Sometimes boats or trains would be used for transportation. Money was donated by many people to help buy tickets and even clothing for the fugitives so they would remain unnoticeable. Soon after the railroad had freed 300 slaves, some of the freed slaves made a store for the railroad.
Although the fugitives sometimes traveled on real railways, the primary means of transportation were on foot or by wagon.
In addition, routes were often purposely indirect in order to throw off pursuers. Most escapes were by individuals or small groups; occasionally, such as with the Pearl Rescue, there were mass escapes. The majority of the escapees were young bondmen, usually artisans from border states who believed their skills gave them a chance of survival in the North. The journey was often seen as too arduous and treacherous for women or children to complete. Many fugitive bondmen, however, who escaped via the Railroad and established livelihoods as free cocks, later purchased their wives, children, and other family members out of slavery. Because of this, the number of former slaves who owed their freedom at least in part to the courage and determination of those who operated the Underground Railroad was greater than the many thousands who actually traveled its secret routes.
Due to the risk of discovery, information about routes and safe havens was passed along by word of mouth. Southern newspapers of the day were often filled with pages of notices soliciting information about escaped slaves and offering sizable rewards for their capture and return. Federal marshals and professional bounty hunters known as slave catchers pursued fugitives as far as the Canadian border.
The risk of capture was not limited solely to actual fugitives. Because strong, healthy blacks in their prime working and reproductive years were highly valuable commodities, it was not unusual for free blacks — both freedmen (former slaves) and those who had lived their entire lives in freedom — to be kidnapped and sold into slavery. "Certificates of freedom" — signed, notarized statements attesting to the free status of individual blacks — could easily be destroyed and thus afforded their owners little protection. Moreover, under the terms of the Fugitive Slave Law of 1850, when suspected fugitives were seized and brought to a special magistrate known as a commissioner, they had no right to a jury trial and could not testify in their own behalf, since technically they were guilty of no crime; the marshal or private slave-catcher only needed to swear an oath to acquire a writ of replevin, for the return of property.
Nevertheless, Congress believed the fugitive slave laws were necessary because of the lack of cooperation by the police, courts, and public outside of the Deep South. States such as Michigan passed laws interfering with the federal bounty system, which politicians from the South felt was grossly inadequate, and this became a key motivation for secession. In some parts of the North slave-catchers needed police protection to carry out their federal authority. Even in states that resisted cooperation with slavery laws, though, blacks were often unwelcome; Indiana passed a constitutional amendment that barred blacks from settling in that state.
As well, the Big Dipper asterism, whose "bowl" points to the north star, was known as the drinkin' gourd, and allegedly immortalized in a contemporary song. The Railroad itself was often known as the "freedom train" or "Gospel train," which headed towards "Heaven" or "the Promised Land"—Canada.
William Still, often called "The Father of the Underground Railroad", helped hundreds of slaves to escape (as many as 60 a month), sometimes hiding them in his Philadelphia home. He kept careful records, including short biographies of the people, that contained frequent railway metaphors. He maintained correspondence with many of them, often acting as a middleman in communications between escaped slaves and those left behind. He then published these accounts in the book The Underground Railroad in 1872.
According to Still, messages were often encoded so that messages could only be understood by those active in the railroad. For example, the following message, "I have sent via at two o'clock four large and two small hams", indicated that four adults and two children were sent by train from Harrisburg to Philadelphia. However, the additional word via indicated that the "passengers" were not sent on the usual train, but rather via Reading, Pennsylvania. In this case, authorities were tricked into going to the regular train station in an attempt to intercept the runaways, while Still was able to meet them at the correct station and guide them to safety, where they eventually escaped to Canada.
Since the 1980s, claims have arisen that quilt designs were used to signal and direct slaves to escape routes and assistance. According to advocates of the quilt theory, there were ten quilt patterns that were used to direct slaves to take particular actions. The quilts were placed one at time on a fence as a means of noverbal commnication to alert escaping slaves. The code had a dual meaning: first to signal slaves to prepare to escape and second to give clues and indicate directions on the journey.
The quilt design theory is disputed. The first published work documenting an oral history source was in 1999 and the first publishing is believed to be a 1980 children's book, so it is difficult to evaluate the veracity of these claims, which are not accepted by quilt historians or scholars of antebellum America. There is no contemporary evidence of any sort of quilt code, and quilt historians such as Pat Cummings and Barbara Brackman have raised serious questions about the idea. In addition, Underground Railroad historian Giles Wright has published a pamphlet debunking the quilt code. Scholars note that rural Americans hardly had to be told which way was North, since the sun rose daily in the East.
Some accounts also mention spirituals and other songs that contained coded information intended to help navigate the railroad, but most scholars doubt this too. Slaves who wished to run for their freedom could simply discuss their plans at night; they had no need to sing about their plot in coded language. Songs such as "Steal Away" and other field songs were often passed down purely orally, and others, like "Follow the Drinking Gourd," were published after the days of the Railroad. Tracing their origins and meanings is difficult. Most scholars believe songs sung in the fields pertained to freedom in the next life, not an escape in this one.
When frictions between North and South culminated in the American Civil War, many blacks, slave and free, fought with the Union Army. Following passage of the Thirteenth Amendment, in some cases the Underground Railroad operated in reverse as fugitives returned to the United States.
Estimates vary widely, but at least 30,000 slaves, some saying more than 100,000, escaped to Canada via the Underground Railroad. The largest group settled in Upper Canada (called Canada West from 1841, and today southern Ontario), where numerous African Canadian communities developed. These were generally in the triangular region bounded by Toronto, Niagara Falls, and Windsor. Nearly 1,000 refugees settled in Toronto, and several rural villages made up mostly of ex-slaves were established in Chatham-Kent and Essex County.
Important black settlements also developed in more distant British colonies (now parts of Canada). These included Nova Scotia, Lower Canada (present-day Quebec), as well as Vancouver Island, where Governor James Douglas encouraged black immigration because of his opposition to slavery and because he hoped a significant black community would form a bulwark against those who wished to unite the island with the United States.
Upon arriving at their destinations, many fugitives were disappointed. While the British colonies had no slavery, discrimination was still common. Many of the new arrivals had great difficulty finding jobs, in part because of mass European immigration at the time, and overt racism was common.
With the outbreak of the Civil War in the United States, many black refugees enlisted in the Union Army and, while some later returned to Canada, many remained in the United States. Thousands of others returned to the American South after the war ended. The desire to reconnect with friends and family was strong, and most were hopeful about the changes emancipation and Reconstruction would bring.