The Voyage to the Free Land
In America’s 19th century, many slaves escaped North by way of the dangerous Underground Railroad to attain freedom. It was the most effective protest against slavery, resulting in many free lives. The term Underground Railroad does not mean underground tunnels, but rather secret routes escaped slaves followed, usually leading them north to Canada; the free land. Thousands of slaves escaped yearly through treacherous conditions to attain their freedom. Not only did the slaves have to be determined and secretive, they had to be strong as well. To defy the Fugitive Slave Act, many abolitionists risked their lives to covertly help hide the runaways, protecting them from bounty hunters. The Underground Railroad was the road the freedom for the blacks, no matter how far they needed to travel, they were determined to reach independence.
Most slaves were owned by plantation owners who used them for field and housework. There were many principal objectives for running away: long exhausting hours, malnutrition, beatings, and fear of being parted from loved ones. Most escapees were men whose ages ranged from 16 to 35 years. Many masters offered little or no pay, forcing slaves to live in unhealthy living conditions. As a result, many were determined to run away, but mainly because coloreds hungered for liberation.
The Underground Railroad spanned thousands of miles, from Kentucky and Virginia across Ohio and Indiana. In the Northerly direction, it extended from Maryland, across Pennsylvania, into New York, through New England. As a guide, thousands of slaves followed the North Star on clear nights, leading them to their next stop or station. ?Station houses were not merely places for a night’s tarrying, but homes where the ill and fatigued might remain and be cared for until strong enough for the onward journey? (James qtd. MacDougall 5). ?On clouded evenings, tree moss, which grew on the north side of tree trunks then served as a guide? (Jones 6). Routes leading from one safe-house to another were called lines. People who helped runaways were known as conductors. ?Isaac Patterson has a cave on his place where the fugitives were secreted and fed two or three weeks at a time until the hunt for them was over. The friends, in covered wagons would take them to Sandusky, Ohio. The largest number taken was seven? (Jones qtd. Blessingame 8).
In the decade before the Civil War, approximately 70,000 slaves safely escaped to Canada. The average distance traveled by an escaped slave in one night was about ten to fifteen miles. The further the slave reached north, the shorter the distance it was to reach the next station. Most blacks escaped on weekends; holidays; or harvest season, allowing them more time not to be discovered. To evade capture, fugitives depended on back roads, waterways, mountains, swamps, forests, and fields to escape. In addition, slaves needed to be clever. ?…females dressed up as males and males disguised as females; or fair-skinned African Americans passed as Whites; and others pretended to deliver messages or goods to their masters?(NiiCa qtd. Haskins).
By the 1840’s, conductors used other means of transportation: wagon, steamboat and trains, in addition some slaves may have been shipped to free states or Canada in boxes. However, escape routes were not just confined to the North, but also stretched to western territories, Mexico, and the Caribbean.
Thousands of abolitionists defied the Fugitive Slave Act by helping free slaves through he Underground Railroad. This law states that the South should accept California as a free state and allow prohibition of slave trade in the District of Columbia.
While the stringent laws of the Fugitive Slave Act were being enforced and the institution of slavery continued unabated, many abolitionists assisted escaped slaves regardless of the consequences. These abolitionists, who were primarily composed of Quakers, ex-slaves and other liberal thinking citizens, helped establish…the Underground Railroad (Beigel 3).
The Men and women would shelter frightened escapees for lengths of time to protect them from merciless bounty hunters. Usually the success of the runaway’s excursions relied upon the willingness of other slaves to give the refugee assistance.
Sometimes, Africa Americans and white abolitionists worked conjointly to help a fugitive. Black denizens risked fines and incarceration as they became involved in the Underground Railroad, providing food, shelter, and acting as conductors. Throughout northern cities and towns, coloreds created vigilance councils to organize their assistance to runaway slaves and those who were held in slavery. A notable conductor was Harriet Tubman, an escaped slave who made it her obligation to rescue other blacks from this terrible life, helping over 300 runaways achieve freedom. Quakers raised funds from church to feed and clothe the escapees.
Over 3,000 people assisted, including Levi Coffin, often called president of the Underground Railroad who helped over 3,000 slaves to escape. The Underground Railroad was not organized till the late 1830’s, yet by 1844, over 40,000 slaves had followed the North Star to Canada.
In conclusion, the Underground Railroad helped many slaves escape to the North to get freedom. Thousands of slaves fled through and from perilous environments to become free. They were determined and covert and strong. Most stayed up all night, managing to make it to their next stop fifteen miles away. Many abolitionists endangered their lives to secretly help hide the fugitives, protecting them from bounty hunters. It was a strenuous journey, but because of determination and for fighting for basic human rights, they succeeded.
Beigel, Hochschild, May. History Of the Underground Railroad. 1997. Mar 19. 1999.
James, Karen. St. James African Methodist Episcopal Church: The Underground
Railroad. 1997. Mar 17. 1999.
NiiCa. History and Geography Of the Underground railroad. 1999