One hot day in 1850, a man named Jeb staggered out of the woods, looked about him to get his bearings, and plunged down a lane toward the river. He only had a few moments of freedom before he heard the baying of hounds. He splashed up to his knees in the shallow stream and wade. The dogs tried desperately to pick up the scent but the water had destroyed it. He had no time to waste. All he could think of was the North Star. That was his hope. That was where his freedom lay. (Flight to Freedom, Henrietta Buckmaster. ) The Underground Railroad was a desire for all slaves.
They would use the Underground Railroad when they were fed up with working for their owners to escape for freedom. The Underground Railroad is a part of my history. It has always interested me so I decided to look deeper into the history, the influential people, and the actual journey of the Underground Railroad. Slavery had lain like a terrible sore on our country for two hundred years. Many were ashamed of it. Slave smuggling had became so profitable that the master of a slave ship could permit nine slaves out of ten to die from neglect and still lose no money.
Humane men were deeply shock. They protested, and then they did more than protest they helped the Negro. The Black Africans who were enslaved fought against it from the start. Men like Thomas Jefferson, preparing the Declaration of Independence and the Constitution tried to have slavery outlawed. To abolish slavery meant to abolish profits which were astronomical, profits which were shared North and South. But to not abolish slavery struck at some of the deepest principles of Americans. For the next sixty years-until the crash of the Civil War- no issue was as important as slavery.
It divided homes, it spoke for the conscience, it made political parties, it challenged religion, and it turned men into brutes and into heroes. It created the Underground Railroad. The first slave who helped a fellow slave to escape drove the spike in this invisible railroad. The unknown first fugitive, the softly stepping men and women who dared the dangers of swamps and mountains and of cold and rain, the outstretched hands of friends, the disguises, the courage, the gunshots along the border, and a long invisible “train” which chugged so silently and sent up such invisible smoke- all these proved in the end irresistible.
It was they who really broke the chains of slavery. According to Buckmaster, around 1831, the name came from a furious slaveholder whose slave disappeared after crossing the river. The slave name was Tice Davids, who eventually became a conductor on the railroad. The slaveholder became furious when he couldn’t find the slave. He said Tice must have gone on an Underground Railroad. Friends of the fugitive slave completed the name in honor of the steam trains. The operators called themselves conductors, stationmasters, brakemen, and firemen.
These were people who met fugitive slaves (passengers) and guided them along their way, giving them directions, leading them on foot or by horse, or smuggling them in carts and carriages. Conductors and stationmasters were often free blacks, or poor farmers, but they could also be wealthy, well-known citizens. They called their homes “depots” and “stations”. Stations were places where runaways could stop and rest, getting a meal and a night’s sleep, and perhaps fresh clothing or other help. It might be a barn, church, farmhouse, or a secret room in a town home. There was always talk of catching the next train.
It was operated before and during the American Revolution and throughout the 1800’s. It continued in the U. S. until the Civil War brought slavery to an end. There has been a long time mystery about the Underground Railroad. The very term Underground Railroad was a mystery. Was there really a long tunnel, dug miraculously, into which slaves disappeared? It was not a road or underground. It was any number of houses, caves, hidden rooms, attics, hay mounds, or any place that the slaves could stay without getting caught by their slave owners. There were many people who influenced the Underground Railroad.
According to Susan Altman. A large group called Quakers believed that slavery should be abolished. They were people with a religious conviction that slavery was against the will of God. They found out that the slave had been protesting for many long years and all they had to do was hold out a hand and a runaway would grasp it. They were among the first whites to help the runaways. White friends had to assume that a fugitive had no other helper in the world and had to bear as full a responsibility as the occasion demanded. They formed an important core group along with black freemen and freewomen.
Some Quakers owned slaves in the south but were so uncomfortable that they allowed their slaves to buy their freedom. To the Quakers, breaking the law was a grievous matter. In order to quiet their conscience, they often juggled with the truth. For example, a Quaker couple named John and Mary Smith proved this. Two women fugitives came to their house seeking help because the slave catchers were right on their tail. Mary took the two women into the bedroom, lifted the mattress off the bed, and told them to lie flat on the ropes. She then replaced the mattress and remade the bed.
She then went down to the door where her husband stood blocking the slave catchers from entering into the house. She told her husband to let them come and search the house. She told the slave catchers that there were not any slaves there. To the Quakers, no such creature as a slave existed. So she did tell the truth. The “President” of the Underground Railroad was a Quaker named Levi Coffin. He was based in southern Indiana. When he moved to Indiana he learned that fugitives were only receiving the scantiest help from white men. He was a director of the local bank.
Coffin used his power as bank director to strike many a good bargain for a fugitive. The Coffin house had become the converging point for several underground lines. He helped more than 3,000 slaves escape. There were plenty of black and white people who were conductors who helped thousands to escape. Elijah Anderson was known as the general superintendent of the northwestern Ohio Underground Railroad. He sent 1,000 slaves along the Railroad before he was caught and sent to prison. Some black conductors were John Malvin, Leonard Andrew Grimes, and John Morris. John Malvin worked on a limited route from one Northern station to the next.
He owned a canal boat that ran from Cleveland to Marietta Ohio, a route that took him close to the Ohio River. Leonard Andrew Grimes was the owner of a horse-and-carriage business in Washington D. C. Using his buggies he often rescued fugitives. One trip he got caught and spent two years in prison. John Morris dug a tunnel from his home to his barn so that fugitives would have a chance to crawl to safety. He built a network of false walls in his attic. Other conductors built trapdoors into the cellars, false cupboards over brick ovens, or sliding panels where firewood was ostensibly kept.
The greatest conductor was Harriet Tubman, whose nickname was Moses because she led so many slaves to freedom. According to Jacob Lawrence, sometime during her youth Tubman was hit on the head by a heavy weight thrown by her owner. The severe blow caused her to fall asleep whenever she was quiet for longer than fifteen minutes (pg. 15). However she was able to make 19 trips to Maryland in order to save slaves. She never lost one slave. There were many other influential women that played a role in the Underground Railroad and the fight for equality among blacks. Susan B.
Anthony, Lucy Stone, and Elizabeth Cady Stanton were fighting the twin fight for women’s suffrage and Negro emancipation. Jane Lewis from New Lebanon, Ohio found her way to the river and rowed runaways from the far side of the Ohio River to the Ohio freedom. Calvin Fairbanks was one of the first of the abolitionists to assume the task of going into the South and assisting slaves at the very start of their flight. He became a master in this dangerous business. On one trip into Kentucky he brought out seven children whose mother wanted them free, and on another occasion he rescued a girl from an attic room.
He depended mostly on simple disguises- men in women’s clothes and women in men’s. He bought out fugitives on foot and on horseback, in buggies, carriages, and wagons. No fugitive of his was ever captured. When the worst came, it was he himself taken, and he served five years in the Kentucky penitentiary. John Mason was another influential person. He was a Kentucky runaway. He assisted 265 slaves to Canada, then was captured and sold back into slavery. However he managed to escape again. He led over 1,000 slaves to freedom. William Still and Robert Purvis were famous abolitionists from Philadelphia.
Still wrote down the story of every fugitive who passed through the line. Over their lifetimes Still and Purvis helped some 1,000 fugitives along the Underground Railroad up Pennsylvania to freedom. Other major people and events that were involved were Frederick Douglass (signed the slips for fugitives to go to various “stations” and a very powerful speaker), Sojourner Truth, Lucretia Mott, Congressman Thaddeus Stevens, Solomon Northup, Josiah Henson, Benjamin Lay, Dred Scott case, Nat Turner, Garrison, the Vigilance Committee, and Elijah Lovejoy.
These are just a few out of the many people, organizations, and events that helped with the Underground Railroad. Slaves followed different paths, usually north to Canada, but sometimes south to Mexico, Haiti, and the Caribbean. There were ten to twenty miles between each underground stop. The runaway line of escape ran its winding course through every state from Alabama to the Canadian border. The first goal in most cases was either Ohio or Pennsylvania. The Underground Railroad never really functioned in the south because it was too dangerous.
Those slaves from the Deep South, who could stow away on a Mississippi River boat, might, with good luck, find themselves on the Ohio River. There were hundreds of conductors in Ohio alone. Because Ohio was just across the river from the slave states of Kentucky and Virginia, it had the most active and numerous Underground Railroad routes. Ohio had been settled by New Englanders in the northern part and by Southerners in the southern part. But many of these Southerners were men and women who had left their homes because they hated slavery, and the fugitive found helpers at almost any point along the shore.
As we have seen with our friend Jeb, he would be passed from house to house until he would reach the wilderness of central and western Ohio. Next in importance to Ohio was Pennsylvania, and runaways coming from Virginia and North Carolina found in the Quakers quick and ready friends who would hurry them into the northwest tip of the state from which the final plunge could be taken. Whether the escape route lay through Ohio or Pennsylvania, Indiana, or New England- the goal was Canada. In Canada the Negro found safety, opportunity, and self-respect.
However it is true that many fugitives went no farther than New York or Boston, where they got work and settled down to live as freemen. When escaping through the Underground Railroad everything was done as secretly and confusing as possible. Pathways might zigzag and cut through steams and even double back on themselves. Routes were often changed at the last moment, just in case word got out. There were even “wild-goose chase” routes, where a person would tell the slave catcher that the fugitive went one way, when in actuality they had went the opposite way days earlier.
Information was passed along by “underground telegraph”, which is by word of mouth or by mail from one conductor to the next. Runaways were referred to as packages or merchandise. According to Virginia Hamilton (pg. 88), a conductor or stationmaster who had a message that stated “by Tuesday you should receive a shipment of four large kegs of dark ale and one small one” would prepare for the arrival of four adults and a child. Running away took courage because of the repercussions. One man named Henry “Box” Brown sealed himself in a carton and had himself mailed from Richmond to Philadelphia.
Twenty-eight other slaves formed funeral processions and others traveled in wagons. These are just a few examples of what some slaves did to get to safety, so they could get one step closer to freedom. Messages were always in code such as song lyrics. According to Virginia Hamilton, the song “Swing Low Sweet Chariot” coming forth to carry me home meant that a conductor of the railroad was in the area and that an escape was due soon. The Spiritual “Wade in the Water” was a code instructing slaves to wade in rivers and streams so that dogs tracking them could not pick up their scent.
The spiritual “Follow the Risen Lord, Follow the Drinking Gourd”, instructed slaves to follow the North Star to safety (pg. 90). Most common messages were passwords- secret words that let runaways and conductors recognize each other when they had never met before. There were code names for towns and people. There were also discreet signals: a light in a specific window of a station, or a cloth or flag hanging in a certain place, would reassure a fugitive that it was safe to come in the door.
Or sometimes runaways might be told to announce their presence with a special knock or birdcall. All of these songs, passwords, and signals were used to bring fugitives to safety and freedom. The Underground Railroad has always interested me so I did look deeper into the history, the influential people, and the actual journey of the Underground Railroad. When I did my research for this paper I was astonished by the information that I found out. I can say that now I know a little bit more about my history.
Like many other fugitives “Jeb went through five days of hazard and hardship, of tenderness, care and brotherly love. Finally the wide expanse of Lake Erie danced in the Sunlight. When he got on land he was a free man” (Buckmaster). Jeb is just one person out of the many that had a story to tell. His experience encouraged other slaves to take a chance to get their freedom. Slaves were tired of belonging to someone else, getting abused for not responding correctly, and doing hard labor.
They wanted to know how it felt to be called Mr. Mrs. , own a house and bed, and not worry about their master whipping them. They longed for freedom, they could taste it, and night after night they probably dreamed about it. This desire for freedom sent more than two thousand slaves out of the south every year. The slaves that got away had a chance to start their life over. Even though they will not ever forget the harsh treatment, the labor, the heartaches, and pain they could die knowing that they were no longer in bondage, but free.