Underground Railroad

Underground Railroad, in U.S. history, loosely organized system for helping fugitive slaves escape to Canada or to areas of safety in free states. It was run by local groups of Northern abolitionists, both white and free blacks. The metaphor first appeared in print in the early 1840s, and other railroad terminology was soon added. The escaping slaves were called passengers; the homes where they were sheltered, stations; and those who guided them, conductors. This nomenclature, along with the numerous, somewhat glorified, personal reminiscences written by conductors in the postwar period, created the impression that the Underground Railroad was a highly systematized, national, secret organization that accomplished prodigious feats in stealing slaves away from the South. In fact, most of the help given to fugitive slaves on their varied routes north was spontaneously offered and came not only from abolitionists or self-styled members of the Underground Railroad, but from anyone moved to sympathy by the plight of the runaway slave before his eyes. The major part played by free blacks, of both North and South, and by slaves on plantations along the way in helping fugitives escape to freedom was underestimated in nearly all early accounts of the railroad. Moreover, the resourcefulness and daring of the fleeing slaves themselves, who were usually helped only after the most dangerous part of their journey (i.e., the Southern part) was over, were probably more important factors in the success of their escape than many conductors readily admitted. In some localities, like Philadelphia, Cincinnati, Wilmington, Del., and Newport, Ind. (site of the activities of Levi Coffin), energetic organizers did manage to loosely systematize the work; Quakers were particularly prominent as conductors, and among the free blacks the exploits of Harriet Tubman stand out. In all cases, however, it is extremely difficult to separate fact from legend, especially since relatively few enslaved blacks, probably no more than a few thousand a year between 1840 and 1860, escaped successfully. Far from being kept secret, details of escapes on the Underground Railroad were highly publicized and exaggerated in both the North and the South, although for different reasons. The abolitionists used the Underground Railroad as a propaganda device to dramatize the evils of slavery; Southern slaveholders publicized it to illustrate Northern infidelity to the fugitive slave laws. The effect of this publicity, with its repeated tellings and exaggerations of slave escapes, was to create an Underground Railroad legend that correctly represented a humanitarian ideal of the pre–Civil War period, but that strayed far from reality. The pioneer study is W. H. Siebert, The Underground Railroad from Slavery to Freedom (1898, repr. 1968); for an extensively revised account, see Larry Gara, The Liberty Line (1961).

The Columbia Encyclopedia, 6th ed. Copyright© 2014, The Columbia University Press.

Selected full-text books and articles on this topic

Making Freedom: The Underground Railroad and the Politics of Slavery
R. J. M. Blackett.
University of North Carolina Press, 2013
Harriet, the Moses of Her People
Sarah H. Bradford.
University of North Carolina Press, 2012
The Underground Railroad in Connecticut
Horatio T. Strother.
Wesleyan University Press, 1962
Escape Betwixt Two Suns: A True Tale of the Underground Railroad in Illinois
Carol Pirtle.
Southern Illinois University Press, 2000
Of Waterways and Runaways: Reflections on the Great Lakes in Underground Railroad History
Miles, Tiya.
Michigan Quarterly Review, Vol. 50, No. 3, Summer 2011
Some Notes on the Extent of New York City's Involvement in the Underground Railroad
J, A.
Afro-Americans in New York Life and History, Vol. 29, No. 2, July 2005
"Still They Come": Some Eyewitness Accounts of the Underground Railroad in Buffalo
Van Ness, Cynthia M.
Afro-Americans in New York Life and History, Vol. 36, No. 1, January 2012
"The Jordan Is a Hard Road to Travel": Hoosier Responses to Fugitive Slave Cases, 1850-1860
Kotlowski, Dean J.
International Social Science Review, Vol. 78, No. 3-4, Fall-Winter 2003
PEER-REVIEWED PERIODICAL
Peer-reviewed publications on Questia are publications containing articles which were subject to evaluation for accuracy and substance by professional peers of the article's author(s).
Thomas Garrett and the Underground Railroad
Folsom, Burton, Jr.
Freeman, Vol. 55, No. 1, January/February 2005
On the Edge of Freedom: The Fugitive Slave Issue in South Central Pennsylvania, 1820-1870
David G. Smith.
Fordham University Press, 2013
Librarian’s tip: Chap. 1 "South Central Pennsylvania, Fugitive Slaves, and the Underground Railroad"
Bloody Dawn: The Christiana Riot and Racial Violence in the Antebellum North
Thomas P. Slaughter.
Oxford University Press, 1994
Librarian’s tip: Discussion of the underground railroad begins on p. 187
The Town That Started the Civil War
Nat Brandt.
Syracuse University Press, 1990
Librarian’s tip: Chap. One "The Slave and the Student"
The Great Silent Army of Abolitionism: Ordinary Women in the Antislavery Movement
Julie Roy Jeffrey.
University of North Carolina Press, 1998
Librarian’s tip: Discussion of the underground railroad begins on p. 180
Runaway Slaves: Rebels on the Plantation
John Hope Franklin; Loren Schweninger.
Oxford University Press, 2000
Looking for a topic idea? Use Questia's Topic Generator