The Underground Railroad was not a real railroad. It didn’t have train cars, tracks, or any form of a schedule. The Underground Railroad was a secret network of people all over the United States, who operated in the dark of the night. Their mission was a risky one_ to help runaway slaves escape from slavery in the Southern states. The Underground transported the largest amount of passengers between 1830 and 1860, but slaves had been trying to escape as early as the 1500’s. That is when Spain had begun starting colonies along the islands of North America’s southeastern coast.
Spaniards introduced abducted African American men, women, and children to their North American colonies. These people were then forced into slavery on large plantations, and they all started resisting right away. Eventually the English began settling the main land of North America. Post the revolutionary war, people who occupied the northern and southern regions of the United States began to lead much different ways of life. In the North manufacturing and trade were the main industry. Whilst in the South there was a greater dependence on agriculture, specifically cotton plantations.
Slave traders began to bring boatloads of African Americans to sell to Southern planters who needed workers for their massive plantations. Some slaves resisted by committing suicide before the sales began. Strong and healthy men and women were sold for a whopping $1,000 each, where they would be forced to labor for the rest of their lives. Plantation owners considered their purchased slaves to be property, for example a Virginian law enabled owners to have the power to “kill and destroy” runaway slaves. Some slave owners treated their slaves with dignity and respect.
But for the general population, owners treated their slaves in the most inhuman ways. Slaves had to work in fields from the moment the sun rose to the moment it went down. They were often malnourished and lived in rundown shacks. Anybody who disobeyed their owner or happened to work to slowly might run the risk of being chained or whipped severely. Domestic slaves did all of the cooking and house work for rich families and often took care of their owners children. Like plantation slaves domestic slaves were also badly mistreated.
One of the most heartbreaking things for slaves to face was when their owner participated in slave sales. Hundreds of families were ripped apart, this being because slave marriages were not considered valid by the state. A husband, his wife, and three children ran the risk of being sold to three different owners. This fact was why many slaves chose to run away. The Fugitive Slave Act of 1793 permitted Southern slave owners to capture their runaways. By this point, most of the Northern states had since outlawed slavery.
Once a slave reached Northern territory he or she was considered to be “safe. ” Because of this the stage was set and before long the Underground Railroad was up and running. The Underground Railroad ran along two main routes. Slaves from the Southeast took the Eastern line. They then traveled by land or sea to Free states on the Northeastern coast. Philadelphia had become an important port for ships full of runaways. From there, slaves moved northwards to the state of New York. They travelled to cities such as: Rochester or Niagara (located near Lake Ontario).
All that was left was to cross the lake into Canada. Some slaves decided to go to Vermont which shared a land border with Canada. Slaves who did not live near the coast took a different route. They traveled by land north towards the Ohio River. Once they entered Ohio or Indiana, they could relax a little bit. Along the northern bank of the Ohio River lay entire towns of abolitionists. Runaways knew these areas well. From Ohio, some slaves chose to move on to Detroit, Michigan. A narrow strip of water was the only thing that lay between Detroit and Canada.
Other runaways headed towards Sandusky Ohio, which is located adjacent to Lake Erie and Canada. Some slaves even traveled to cities like Baltimore, Maryland and New Orleans, Louisiana and attempted to blend in with the free black population. The railroad was dangerous for both slaves and those who helped them along their route. Runaways who were caught could potentially be shot, beaten to the extremes, bitten by dogs, have a foot cut off or even be hanged. Any citizen that had hidden or helped slaves in any way faced a serious amount of jail time, not to mention criticism from the public eye.
Despite the risks of assisting runaways, as many as 100,000 slaves “rode” the Underground Railroad to the freedom they would face in the North. More than 3,000 “railroad workers” were willing to help in any way possible (Although the exact number is not known due to the railroad’s secrecy). Some workers hid slaves in wagons or boats under bags of grain and sent them on their way to the next stop. Henry “Box” Brown went even further than that. Henry had some friends who nailed him into a box and shipped it to Philadelphia, Pennsylvania.
It was a bumpy journey, ut Henry arrived and was alive and free. More common cases were that workers hid runaways in their own homes until it was safe to move on with the rest of their journey. Still others offered meals, articles of clothing slaves were lacking, or just simple kindness. All of the “workers” had one thing in common; they believed that every human no matter their race is born with the privilege to “life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness. ” People involved with the underground used a unique language to keep the railroad a secret from the average spectator.
Those who led runaways on a safe journey were called “conductors”. “Agents” hid slaves and gave them food, clothes, and temporary shelter. If agents chose to work in the day time, they would often pretend they had domestic slaves. Many slaves swept decks and did laundry while the agent would talk to bounty hunters seeking runaways. Along the railroad there were safe houses called “stations”. Runaways themselves were called “passengers” “baggage” or “freight. ” Through the use of several of these terms, escapees would seem to be having a normal conversation about train rides.
Railroad terminology was chosen because the railroad was an emerging form of transportation and its communication language was not widespread. A runaway slaves, day-to day life was a living nightmare. They were able to only travel during the night for just a few short hours. The slaves map was the night sky, where the northern star pointed them in the right direction. With every step they took, they were constantly holding their breathes listening for barking of bloodhounds in the night. They ran and ran, all the while twigs and thorns ripped through their clothes and exposed skin.
Runaways often tramped through swamps and any body of water they could find, solely to cut down on any form of trail they could possibly leave behind. During the day fugitives hid in woods, hills or swamps. If bounty hunters were nearby life quickly became more desperate. A family of runaways might have to split up, and then they all lose track of each other. Bounty hunters were equipped with guns intended to be used to injure, not kill. This was because each slave had a bounty on their head and were no good to the hunters dead.
Still plenty of “accidents” occurred, many slaves died from a gunshot wound in their back. Most runaway slaves tended to be men. Life on the run was considered to be much harder and more dangerous for women and children. If a child cried or got tired the whole group of fugitives would be in jeopardy. If a baby did happen to come along, conductors or parents would drug the child. More commonly, the mother and child stayed at the plantation, while the father and older siblings ran away. Once a man reached freedom, he usually saved money intending to either buy back his family or to aid them in escaping.
Little by little, the North and the South were reaching the boiling point. The Northerners were predominantly anti-slavery whilst the Southerners were pro slavery. In the year 1860, the civil war began. In 1865, once the war was over and slavery was abolished the Underground Railroad shut down. Following the civil war previously enslaved Africans were still treated unfairly. Some families were able to reunite, while others still remained broken apart from the previous slave sales. Today African Americans get to have all the same privileges their ancestors that travelled the railroad could only dream of.