The Underground Railroad

The Underground Railroad

To escape the bondage of the slave system, slaves often fled the plantation and took to the neighboring woods or swamps seeking refuge.  Many found their way to freedom in the North via the Underground Railroad – an informal network of safe houses stretching from Georgia to Canada operated by “conductors” both black and white.  There are numerous documented accounts of runaway slaves in the 1600s and 1700s along with evidence that Quakers and free blacks in Pennsylvania harbored runaways as early as the 1780s.  However, it was not until sometime in the 1830s that the term “underground railroad” began to surface. This coincided with the formation of staunch abolitionist groups that would later assist runaway slaves.

Groups that endorsed abolition began to appear with more frequency in the 1830s, perhaps due to the publication of the abolitionist newspaper, The Liberator. William Lloyd Garrison published the first edition of the outspoken paper on January 1, 1831 and immediately declared war on slavery, stating: "I do not wish to think, or speak, or write, with moderation. . . . I am in earnest -- I will not equivocate -- I will not excuse -- I will not retreat a single inch -- AND I WILL BE HEARD."  For more than thirty years, Garrison’s paper vehemently spoke against slavery and those who supported it.  In 1832, just one year after launching The Liberator, Garrison formed the New England Anti-Slavery Society and soon gained a reputation for his radicalism.  Some members of the group considered Garrison too radical and split from the organization to create rival factions such as the American Anti-Slavery Society and the American and Foreign Anti-Slavery Society.  It was members of groups like these, along with free blacks, who conducted the Underground Railroad, sheltered runaway slaves, and led them to the next stop along the way to their final destination.

Though precise routes of the Underground Railroad are almost impossible to determine, it is known that many runaway slaves used the railroad to make their way from plantations in the South to northern states such as Ohio, Pennsylvania, New York, and Massachusetts.  A small number continued on to Canada into what is now Ontario.  However, after the passage of the Fugitive Slave Act in 1850, the number of runaways seeking refuge in Canada dramatically increased. 

The Fugitive Slave Act was part of a group of laws known as the Compromise of 1850.  Under the compromise, California was admitted as a free state, while New Mexico and Utah were permitted to allow slavery.  To appease slaveholders, the Fugitive Slave Act created a federal commission to oversee the apprehension and return of runaway slaves to their owners. Entrepreneurs took advantage of the law by creating businesses to track down and return fugitive slaves, charging slave owners as much as fifty dollars per slave returned.  Because no statute of limitations applied, even runaways who had been free for years could be returned.  Often, overzealous or unscrupulous slave hunters hoping to claim a reward from a slave owner apprehended free blacks.  This prompted large numbers of fugitives and free blacks to flee to Canada.  It is estimated that as many as 20,000 to 45,000 African Americans made their way to Canada.

The passage and enforcement of the Fugitive Slave Act in 1850 enraged abolitionists and increased sectional tensions between the North and South.  Industrialization and immigration in the North had created a society that was largely urban, hardworking and thrifty. Religious beliefs encouraged many northerners to embrace reform movements to ease the ills of society.  To the south, lay an agrarian-based society largely dependent upon slave labor.  Although approximately only twenty to thirty percent of Southerners actually owned slaves, those who did dominated the region’s political and social arenas, thus greatly influencing the viewpoint of everyone in the region.  Southerners, perceived as lazy, uneducated, morally bankrupt people by Northerners, viewed the North as an alien nation of abolitionists intent on destroying the foundation of southern society.  The passage of the Compromise of 1850 and its Fugitive Slave Act only further expanded the growing rift between the North and the South.

After the passage of the Fugitive Slave Act, supporters of the Underground Railroad became even more active. Providing a safe house for a fugitive or transporting a runaway to their next destination became a form of passive resistance to the federal laws that many Northerners found offensive. Reaching its peak between 1850 and 1860, it is estimated that approximately 1,000 slaves per year escaped to freedom via the Underground Railroad.