A Brief History of the Underground Railroad

Richard S. Newman, Library Company of Philadelphia

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An illustration of a fugitive's escape that was included in William Still's The Underground Rail Road.

The Underground Railroad occupies a mythic status in American history. The legend of fugitive slaves streaming off southern plantations in search of northern freedom—with the aid of noble white abolitionists leading them to liberty—is hard to overcome. Yet by 1860, only a small fraction of the nearly 4,000,000 enslaved people below the Mason Dixon Line had escaped bondage. Just as important, northern whites did not routinely rush to the aid of runaways. So just what was the Underground Railroad and why did it become such an important part of the sectional politics that led to the Civil War?

The Underground Railroad was one part of a much bigger phenomenon in American and Atlantic slavery: runaway slaves. From the French and British Caribbean to the North American mainland, masters struggled to stop enslaved people from fleeing for freedom. Borders between empires often spelled the difference between slavery and freedom. As early as the 1680s, for instance, Spanish officials in present-day Florida promised liberty to escaping slaves from British South Carolina. In the Revolutionary era, enslaved people frequently ran from one state to another, one region to another. Sometimes runaway slaves fled briefly to forests, swamps, and uninhabited areas to protest harsh treatment by masters; sometimes they fled to reconnect with family members separated via the domestic slave trade. And sometimes, enslaved people made bold bids for final freedom. In the 1770s, when British forces promised liberty to runaway slaves of patriot masters, thousands of bondmen and women gained liberty (including those in the possession of both Thomas Jefferson and George Washington). In New York City alone, British commanders provided sanctuary to roughly 3,000 former slaves, some from as far away as South Carolina. In short, well before the Civil War era, enslaved people had been running away from bondage.

Following independence, fugitive slaves—whom we now call “freedom seekers”—impacted the development of American sectional attitudes. After Pennsylvania enacted a gradual abolition law in 1780, for instance, enslaved people from Delaware, Maryland, and Virginia sought refuge in the Quaker State. Despite the fact that the law applied only to slaves born in the state after March of 1780 (who would then be freed at the age of 28), freedom seekers targeted Pennsylvania as a haven. The Pennsylvania Abolition Society (established in 1775 and reorganized in 1784) responded to the increased number of runaways by hiring more lawyers and legal aides to adjudicate freedom cases in courts and bargain with southern masters in search of former slaves hiding in Pennsylvania. Because Philadelphia served as the nation's temporary capital in the final decade of the 18th century, southern masters also pushed for a new national law cracking down on runaways. The result, the Fugitive Slave Law of 1793, guaranteed masters the right to claim fugitive slaves who crossed state lines. Still, enslaved people found ways to circumvent the law. During the early 1800s, both masters and politicians from Virginia and Maryland urged Pennsylvania to suppress abolitionist aid to runaways. Though Pennsylvania and other emancipating states allowed southern masters to reclaim runaways in their state, fugitive slaves still came north.

By the early 1800s, fugitive slaves began seeking alternate paths to liberty. In the early national period, enslaved people often fled to mid-Atlantic and northeastern states (from New York to New England) whose physical proximity to slavery's Upper South heartland and vibrant ports allowed them a better chance to escape angry masters. In addition, the growth of free black communities in Philadelphia, New York City, Boston, and New Bedford (Massachusetts), among other places in the North, rendered key aid to fugitive slaves. But as a host of new states entered the Union in the early- to mid-1800s, the slave population shifted to the Trans-Mississippi River valley, especially Alabama, Louisiana, and Mississippi. So too did runaway networks develop in the Midwest, as freedom seekers sought refuge in new states where bondage had been banned (including Iowa, Indiana, Ohio, and Michigan). They also fled to international locales that had recently outlawed slavery (especially Mexico). British Canada, which outlawed slavery in the 1790s, now became a sanctuary for enslaved people from both the mid-Atlantic and mid-continental areas. As a more aggressive form of abolitionism emerged in the 1830s, shining a spotlight on slave resistance and runaways as never before, southern masters from Virginia and Kentucky to Louisiana and Missouri complained more loudly about freedom seekers. No matter what masters did to prevent runaways from gaining freedom, a couple of hundred (if not many more) escaped southern slavery every year after 1830. According to one story, one Kentucky master who lost a fugitive slave near the Ohio River said angrily that "he must have gone off on an underground railroad." Some slaves just seemed to disappear. And so the legend was born.

In reality, the Underground Railroad that took shape in the two decades before the Civil War was a conglomeration of several different escape networks in which enslaved people, abolitionists and free blacks aided and abetted freedom seekers. Certain networks were well-organized, with so-called agents (activists) and stations (safe houses) leading potential freedom seekers from south to north. Others were less well structured. But by the 1850s they all combined into one in the minds of many masters.

The network funneling enslaved people from mid-Atlantic bondage through the greater Philadelphia area was perhaps the best organized and most famous. Associated with the heroic activism of free black leader William Still in the 1850s, the Philadelphia line alone witnessed several hundred successful escapes (many of which made their way into Still’s epic history, The Underground Rail Road). Along the Ohio River near Cincinnati, black and white abolitionists created another vibrant network, helping freedom seekers from Kentucky, Tennessee, and other south-central locales to Great Lakes ports such as Detroit, Cleveland, and Buffalo. Many stepped over the international border into British Canada. Even in California, which entered the Union in 1850 as a free state, fugitive slaves ran from migrating southern masters, who had come west in search of gold and silver. These far western freedom seekers relied on networks of free blacks and white abolitionists.

Nevertheless, the oldest and most consistent advocates of runaway slaves in antebellum society were free blacks. Forming self-defense networks and vigilance societies in the early 1800s, they were often the first line of sanctuary for runaways arriving in the North. Yet the passage of a stronger Fugitive Slave Act in 1850, in which northern whites were now deputized in the rendition of fugitive slaves (under penalty of fine, imprisonment, or both), transformed many northerners' understanding of bondage and with it their support of runaway slaves. More citizens than ever joined the fray over fugitive slaves. Physical confrontations among masters, abolitionists, and regular citizens occurred in several cities, including Philadelphia, Boston, Syracuse, and Oberlin (Ohio). Fugitive slaves were now a sensational issue in the antebellum press as well, with both newspaper stories and book-length slave narratives detailing runaway slaves’ noble struggle for freedom. Harriet Beecher Stowe’s runaway best-seller Uncle Tom’s Cabin featured the escape of one enslaved character, captivating northern hearts and minds for years to come. When challenged by masters about its authenticity, Stowe pointed to slave narratives as proof of blacks’ desire for freedom. This further angered southern masters, who sought even stronger laws on the fugitive slave problem. Although many of the roughly 330 runaway slaves claimed under the Fugitive Slave Act of 1850 were returned to southern bondage, several high-profile freedom seekers eluded capture. Perhaps more importantly, hundreds of other runaways escaped slavery just before the Civil War. The matter soon spilled over into the politics of secession. Indeed, between 1860 and 1861, several Deep South states cited fugitive slaves as a reason to leave the Union. Thus, even if the absolute number of fugitives remained relatively small—even abolitionists estimated that the largest group of runaway slaves, which resided in Upper Canada, was about 20,000 strong, or less than 0.5 percent of the American slave population in 1860—the politics of the fugitive slave issue grew in intensity in the middle of the 19th century.

Runaway slaves continued to impact sectional politics during the 1860s. Scholars estimate that between 400,000 and 600,000 enslaved people ran to Union lines during the Civil War, compelling Confederate masters to fight Unionists and fugitive slaves. And of the roughly 180,000 African Americans who served in the Union army, three-quarters were runaway slaves. Perhaps for this reason, the Underground Railroad became synonymous with runaway slaves in the 1860s—and both became part of the victorious Union cause. In the postwar era, as the veterans of abolitionism began writing reminiscences of the past, many claimed to be involved in the Underground Railroad. So too did average citizens claim some of this seemingly noble past. And so the legend grew.

The history of the Underground Railroad was much more complex than that. But one thing remains certain: from the nation’s founding to its near death in the Civil War, runaway slaves were constant in American life. And that reminds us that the struggle for black freedom was much older than the civil rights movement in the 20th century—and much bigger than something conveniently labeled the Underground Railroad.

Further Reading

Craft, William and Ellen Craft. Running a Thousand Miles for Freedom: The Escape of William and Ellen Craft from Slavery. Edited by R. J. M. Blackett. Baton Rouge: Louisiana State University Press, 1999.

Douglass, Frederick. My Bondage and My Freedom. Edited by David Blight. New Haven, CT: Yale University Press, 2014.

Drew, Benjamin. Refugees from Slavery: Autobiographies of Fugitive Slaves in Canada. Mineola, NY: Dover Publications, 2004.

Franklin, John Hope and Loren Schweninger. Runaway Slaves: Rebels on the Plantation. New York: Oxford University Press, 1999.

Newman, Richard. The Transformation of American Abolitionism: Fighting Slavery in the Early Republic. Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 2002.