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 between 1,000 and 5,000 a year between 1830 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 represented a humanitarian ideal of the pre–Civil War period but strayed far from reality.

W. Still's The Underground Railroad (1872) contains the narratives of slaves who escaped the South through Philadelphia. See also W. H. Siebert's pioneering though somewhat misleading The Underground Railroad from Slavery to Freedom (1898, repr. 1968); for extensively revised accounts, see L. Gara, The Liberty Line (1961), D. Blight, ed., Passages to Freedom (2004), F. Bordewich, Bound for Canaan (2005), and E. Foner, Gateway to Freedom (2015).

The Columbia Encyclopedia, 6th ed. Copyright© 2018, The Columbia University Press.

Underground Railroad: Selected full-text books and articles

Making Freedom: The Underground Railroad and the Politics of Slavery By R. J. M. Blackett University of North Carolina Press, 2013
Harriet, the Moses of Her People By Sarah H. Bradford University of North Carolina Press, 2012
The Underground Railroad in Connecticut By Horatio T. Strother Wesleyan University Press, 1962
"Still They Come": Some Eyewitness Accounts of the Underground Railroad in Buffalo By 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 By Kotlowski, Dean J International Social Science Review, Vol. 78, No. 3-4, Fall-Winter 2003
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).
On the Edge of Freedom: The Fugitive Slave Issue in South Central Pennsylvania, 1820-1870 By 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 By 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 By 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 By 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 By Loren Schweninger; John Hope Franklin Oxford University Press, 2000
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