What was the Underground Railroad?

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"The Underground Railroad" by Charles T. Webber, 1891 Levi Coffin leading a group of fugitive slaves.

The modern understanding of the Underground Railroad is a distorted view of a network comprised of white abolitionist “stationmasters,” “safe houses,” and “conductors.”  Early twentieth century Underground Railroad scholars portrayed it as highly elaborate, organized network of escape routes, absent of African American contribution.  Later scholars argued the Underground Railroad should be viewed as a form of resistance fueled by the buoyancy of fugitive slaves and free blacks to end slavery.[1] 

Underground Railroad activity in the Kentucky, Indiana, and Ohio borderland peaked between the years 1840 – 1860.  An estimated 100,000 slaves escaped bondage between the years 1810 – 1850 costing Southern slaveholders $40 million in lost “property.”[2]  More fugitives escaped through the Ohio River Valley borderland than any other region of the United States.  This is due to in part to the numerous black settlements along the river and active abolitionist communities.  Thirty-four percent of blacks in Indiana and twenty-one percent of Ohio blacks lived in close proximity to the Ohio River.  By 1860, 64,687 blacks lived in Ohio River counties in all three states combined; fifty-thousand in Kentucky alone.[3]  From the inception of slave escapes, the tenacious efforts of black communities constituted the foundation of support for fugitives.  After the formation of the modern image of the Underground Railroad white abolitionists’ attempts to minimize black involvement, however, African Americans maintained their position at the forefront of slave resistance. 




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Runaway slave advertisement 1853

The most agreed upon story of how the name Underground Railroad originated derives from a story about a fugitive Tice Davids.  In 1831, Davids’ escaped from his Kentucky owner by swimming across the Ohio River.  His owner perused Davids, but could not catch up to him on the Ohio side of the river.  His owner exclaimed, ". . . he must have gone off on an underground road."  Within a decade, the terms "passenger," "conductor," "safe house," and "stationmasters" became common terminology. 

The Underground Railroad organized as a result of the influx of fugitive slaves crossing into Indiana, Ohio and other Northern States.  While fugitives escaped without Underground Railroad assistance, the Underground Railroad could not have existed without fugitives.  The Underground Railroad became a victim of its own success.  The more efficacious the network, the more legendary its existence.  In some areas, knowledge of Underground Railroad activity was so prominent those wishing to aid fugitives, asked area slave catchers. 

The Underground Railroad could not have existed without a network of supporters both black and white.  This clandestine network became the backbone to slaves’ resistance to bondage.  Those who assisted fugitive slaves were bound together by the sentiment that no human should be enslaved.  Reverend John Rankin stated, “ . . . disobedience to [slave laws] is obedience to God.”[4]  Former slave and Underground Railroad operative John Parker said of the network, “ . . . the success of the fugitive was absolutely dependent upon a few conscientious men [and women] north of the [Mason-Dixon ] line who received no compensation, in fact made themselves poor serving the helpless fugitives who came to their door.”[5]



Fugitive Slaves

[1] Blaine Hudson, Fugitive Slaves and The Underground Railroad in the Kentucky Borderland (Jefferson: McFarland & Co., 2002) 158.  Daniel Sayers, "The Underground Railroad Reconsidered," The Western Journal of Black Studies 28, no. 4 (2004)

[2] Hudson. Fugitive Slaves, 4.  Kerry Walters, The Underground Railroad: A Reference Guide (Santa Barbara: ABC-CLIO, 2012) 30.

[3] Darrel Bingham, On Jordan's Banks(Lexington : University of Kentucky Press, 2006) 6.

[4] Walters, The Underground Railroad, 2.

[5] Ibid., 7.

What was the Underground Railroad?