The Underground Railroad and How it Began
The Underground Railroad carried thousands of slaves to freedom, but it was no ordinary train. In the face of Constitutional amendments protecting slavery and rancorous debate over whether new states would be free or slave, some abolitionists decided to take even more proactive measures to end slavery by helping runaway slaves escape to freedom. Hundreds of years later, people still marvel at the legends of the Underground Railroad.
Runaway slaves from the South often found freedom in Northern states, especially as the North began to ban slavery. Yet the odds of successfully eluding a slaveholder and actually making it to the North weren’t high, especially if one were unassisted. To increase the success rate of such bold action, the Underground Railroad developed.
Although scholars believe that the railroad’s complex system of escape tactics and routes, secret agents, and safe houses began in 1787, it reached its height between 1810 and 1850. An estimated 30,000 to 100,000 slaves escaped via the Underground Railroad over the course of its operation.
Heavily staffed by Quakers, the Underground Railroad evolved over time. Initially some slave owners permitted the purchase of runaway slaves, so members of the Underground Railroad gathered funds to facilitate freedom in that manner. As more slaves fled, however, slave owners insisted on their return. Underground Railroad supporters remained undaunted. Sometimes entire towns backed up the Underground Railroad and stood firm against slaveholders or their agents who tried to retrieve fugitive slaves.
To avoid capture, runaway slaves typically traveled at night, using the North Star as their guide. Therefore, the Underground Railroad became most useful during the day, so abolitionists established secret stations along the way to provide places for slaves to rest.
These stations were particularly critical in the South where the free black population remained relatively small and slave recovery efforts were particularly intense. Either someone took runaway slaves to stations or safe houses, or the runaway slaves usually identified the safe houses by the quilt hanging in the window, a lit lantern at the front of the house, or other signs. Secrecy was required within the safe houses as well, so they often contained secret passageways and attics where runaway slaves could hide.
Usually, it was the responsibility of the slave to plan his or her own escape. Sometimes, free blacks, posing as slaves, came to plantations to help slaves flee. Other times runaway slaves had to reach certain points where agents known as conductors greeted them. The journey north was usually a combination of travel by foot, by horse and buggy, and even by boat.
For example, Calvin Fairbanks, a white man who developed his distaste for slavery while attending Oberlin College, regularly transported fugitives who made it to Kentucky across the Ohio River to freedom. Since slave catchers also patrolled the North, some runaway slaves settled in Canada.
Escaping slavery was just one aspect of the process. Money, food, and clothes were also necessary. Participating in the Underground Railroad was very dangerous, even for white people. Calvin Fairbanks spent over a decade in a Kentucky prison for his role in aiding fugitive slaves. It was also costly. Thomas Garrett of Wilmington, Delaware, went bankrupt paying a $10,000 fine for his admitted role in assisting fugitive slaves.