ALLEN AND HIS PASSENGER (THE ROAD TO CANADA)
The Underground Railroad was the name by
which the secret organization was known that helped
escaping slaves to freedom in pre-Civil War days in
the United States.
The "Railroad" had actually been operating for
years before it received its name. In 1831 a slave
named Tice Davids escaped from Kentucky. He came
to the Ohio River, plunged in, and managed to
swim across. His master was close on his heels, and
finding a skiff, rowed after the bobbing head in the
water. He was swiftly overtaking Tice when the slave
touched bottom and waded ashore near the little
town of Ripley. It seemed to the master only a matter
of moments now until he would overtake him. But
the slave disappeared, and though he was dripping
wet, there was no trace of him anywhere. His master
searched the locality in vain, and said ruefully, "He
must have gotten away by an underground road."
In those days the steam railroad was new, and to
many people mysterious. The supposition that per-
haps a "railroad" figured in some way in the escape
system was welcomed by the Quakers, whose activ-
ities must necessarily be veiled and secret. So the
friends of escaping slaves completed the phrase,
making it "The Underground Railroad," under which
name the system operated until slaves were totally
freed by the Civil War.
All the States north of Maryland soon after the
Revolutionary War passed laws providing for setting
their slaves free gradually. However, the Quakers
and numerous other persons had freed their slaves
even before the Constitution of the United States was
adopted in 1789.
The Quakers, or Friends, had come to believe that
it was wrong to hold people in slavery, whatever
their color. Even as early as 1786, some Quakers were
helping runaway slaves to reach places where they
could live as free men. This was the small beginning
of the Railroad. One incident that gave impetus to
local organization occurred about twenty years later,
when a runaway slave found refuge in Columbia,
Pennsylvania. His mistress learned where he was,
and came to demand that he be given back to her.
She was so overbearing and rude in manner, and the
slave was so terrified at being taken back, that some
inhabitants of the town determined to make sure
that no other escaped slaves should be captured in
Small groups in other towns and cities banded
themselves together for the same purpose. The organ-
ization grew swiftly, but always secretly, for it was
against the law to help a runaway slave. Even in
States whose own Negroes had all become free, any
escaped slave could be legally taken back by his
master or by a professidnal slave-catcher, and any
person who helped a slave to safety was liable to be
punished if found out.
The first Fugitive Slave Law, of 1793, provided a
fine of $500 upon anyone who helped a runaway
slave. However, people in the Northern States paid
less and less attention to this as time went on, and
some of the States even passed their own laws order-
ing magistrates of the courts not to take any part in
carrying out the Fugitive Slave Law.
So in 1850, Congress, which represented the slave
owners as well as those opposed to slavery, passed
the second Fugitive Slave Law, which provided that
anyone who hid a slave or helped him to freedom
might be fined $1000 or imprisoned for six months,
and also might have to pay $1000 for each fugitive
thus lost to the owner. A man in Baltimore was sen-
tenced to forty-five years imprisonment for helping a
slave family of nine to escape. Moreover, all officers
of the law were required to help owners take their
slaves back, and any citizen could be compelled under
the law to help capture fugitives.
This law made it more dangerous than ever to
help runaway slaves, but its unjustness also made
more people eager to help them and see them all free.
In the early 1800's runaway slaves simply found
homes and work in free States, and only once in a
while would a determined owner pursue and find his
slave and take him back. Many bought their freedom
from their owners, or escaped again. Isaac T. Hopper
and other workers in the Abolition Society helped
many Negroes to do both.
However, as the years went on, and slaves escaped
in increasing numbers, their owners became more
earnest in pursuing them. And after the passage of
the Fugitive Slave Law of 1850, there was no safety
for them in the United States, so Canada was the
goal of all. Thousands of runaways who had been
settled in the North for years were forced to flee
A hymn, based on God's message to Pharoah, "Let
my people go," was whispered from one slave to an-
other on plantations. Forbidden by the masters as
being too significant to suit them, it was sung aloud
only when the Negroes found themselves in safety
north of the Ohio River, or the Mason-Dixon Line.
"Go down, Moses,
'Way down in Egypt Land,
And tell old Pharaoh
To let my people go."
As the number of escaping slaves increased, so
grew the Underground Railroad. It was increasingly
active up to the very beginning of the Civil War.
Quakers were the leaders in the work. A discouraged
slave-hunter once said, "It's as easy, to find a needle
in a haymow as a nigger among Quakers." But there
were many other workers besides Quakers. Both
Negroes and Whites co-operated in aiding escaping
slaves. In Ohio a group of Presbyterian ministers
were leaders in the work. Oberlin College was a
source of helpfulness to the Negro. So was Lane
Theological Seminary, at Cincinnati, Ohio. Numer-
ous groups of free Negroes, as in Sandusky, handled
fugitives without the aid of white men. There were
helpers in the South itself, who would direct run-
aways to stations of the Railroad.
Also in the South there was growing emancipation
sentiment, outspoken until opposing opinion became
violent, and from the South came a great many of the
country's leading anti-slavery workers. Many owners
freed their slaves voluntarily, even at personal sacri-
fice. The number of free Negroes in slave-States
increased steadily, from 32,000 in 1790 to 260,000
Both sections of the United States were equally
responsible for the establishment of slavery. So said
Lincoln in his great debate with Stephen Douglas.
The fact that there were a larger number of slaves in
the South than in the North can be attributed chiefly
to climatic conditions. The Negro could thrive in
the warm South, more nearly like his native climate,
and could remain healthy, with less attention, hous-
ing and clothing, than he could in the colder North.
This created an economic condition whereby the
Southern slave-owner, with cheaply-kept labor, could
produce and control goods and prices in such a man-
ner that slavery was becoming a calamity for white
men, who were not slave owners and who were labor-
ers or employers of free labor.
Led by those who hated slavery in its own name,
fair-minded people, both North and South, were com-
ing to the point of abolishing slavery by the mutual
will of the people, but due to the hotheads on both
sides of the line, this unfortunately was not to be, and
the Civil War resulted.
New stations of the Underground Railroad were
constantly springing up, as new sympathizers were
found. A story is told of a white man guiding a
Negro northward. They had been obliged to turn
from their proper road, and knew of no helper now
near. So the Negro hid in a swamp, while the white
man went ahead to find a haven for him. Pretend-
ing that he was a slave-catcher, he asked a farmer if
he had seen an escaping slave, whom he described.
The farmer replied with a lecture on the right of
Negroes to their freedom. That farmer was soon con-
ducting a new station of the Railroad.
The Railroad became closely organized, yet it was
rare that any "conductor" or "brakeman" knew the
line of travel across his State. The less they knew
the better. A family would know the last place, pos-
sibly ten to twenty miles away, from which fugitives
came to them; and would know the place, or perhaps
several places, to which they should next be sent. But
that was all.
Only since the Civil War has it been possible to
trace out the routes. Investigators have gone from
station to station, and have worked out the network
of routes northward to Canada, across all the North-
ern States, from Kansas to Maine. There were many.
sympathizers among the sailors along the coast. A
runaway might be hidden in the hold of a vessel and
brought to New Bedford or Marblehead, Massachu-
setts, or Portland, Maine, to go by land into Canada.
The most dangerous time for a runaway was before
he reached a station of the Railroad. The mysterious
"grapevine telegraphy" among the slaves had told
them there were people in the North, both white and
black, who would help them to freedom. A Negro
might follow the North Star to a free State, but even
then he might not know who were his friends and
who were not. He would have to walk northward,
living on roots and berries, until he came upon a
station by chance or was directed to one by a free
Negro. Many fugitives were retaken before they had
found the Underground Railroad. But few indeed
were captured after reaching a station.
The "conductors" developed the most amazing re-
sourcefulness in hiding their passengers. Many con-
structed secret hiding-places. A cave might be cut
into a hillside. A mill might have a hiding-place
almost under the great water-wheel. Houses were
equipped with false partitions, invisible doors, mov-
A house near Marion, Ohio, had false partitions in
both attic and cellar. The attic was a carefully con-
structed labyrinth. In the cellar there were two secret
rooms, each large enough to hold a dozen refugees.
From the cellar two underground tunnels led out, one
to the barn, the other to the corn-crib, their ends so
carefully concealed that searchers for slaves never
came upon them. Several times Negroes escaped
by these tunnels while their owners watched outside.
Nothing was ever written about the Railroad while
it was in operation, and as little as possible was said
about it. Women prepared baskets of food, and left
them standing, "in case anybody should be hungry."
Three or four families might hide a common arrange-
ment "for sending produce northward." One member
of a family might hide a fugitive in the barn or the
orchard, with no word to others of the family. If
inquiry came, that person would keep out of the way,
leaving others to answer questions. A direct lie could
not be countenanced by these deeply religious people,
so evasiveness was their shield. They could not tell
what they did not know. They did not recognize
slavery as an institution, so they could always truth-
fully say there were no "slaves" in their homes. If a
questioner asked if Negroes were there, the "con-
ductor" might reply, "Look and see," or "Thee will
find no Negroes here." Thomas Garrett more than
once simply refused to answer questions.
A child might be away from home unnoticed,
while the absence of a grownup would have aroused
suspicion. So a boy or girl of ten or eleven might be
put on a horse with a fugitive behind, or put in
charge of a wagon- or carriage-load, and sent off to
the next station. Mordecai Benedict, of Marengo,
Ohio, began to drive fugitives northward when he
was only six years old.
One little boy was called on for such service who
did not even know the way to the next station. Dan-
ger was pressing for the runaway, and the grownups
dared not go, for fear of betraying him. There was
eighteen miles to travel, but the horse knew the way,
and at the end of the route pushed open the gate into
a certain lane. This was truly an instance where a
horse's instinct assisted a man to freedom.
The four persons whose lives are sketched in this
book are typical of hundreds of devoted servants of
the cause of freedom. A few others should at least be
William Cratty, of Ohio, began his work in 1839,
and during the next nine years helped 3,000 slaves
Robert Purvis, in Philadelphia, helped an average
of a fugitive a day for thirty years. From 1831 to
1861 he sent 9,000 slaves on their way to freedom.
William Still, also of Philadelphia, was the Negro
secretary of an active line of the Underground Rail-
road. His passengers went from Philadelphia to Bur-
lington, New Jersey, thence to Bordentown, and so
to New Brunswick, Rahway, and Jersey City. From
Jersey City they were taken to the railway station on
42nd Street, New York, where tickets were bought
for them to continue their journey by rail to Syracuse.
Josiah Henson, like Harriet Tubman, was an es-
caped slave. Like her, too, he repeatedly dared to re-
turn South and lead groups of freedom-seekers. Nu-
merous others went back to rescue their families, but
these two went again arid again. Henson acted as
escort for over 200 runaway slaves. Harriet Beecher
Stowe knew him well. It is said that it was he who
inspired the character Uncle Tom in her great book,
"Uncle Tom's Cabin" Henson escaped the fate of
poor Uncle Tom, but in his sterling character, abso-
lute honesty and strong Christianity, he was Uncle
All these people were constantly and deliberately
disobeying a law of the land. Respected and other-
wise law-abiding citizens, they insisted that this law
defied the law of God, which declares that all men
are brothers. In obedience to the law of God, they
fed the hungry, sheltered the homeless, poured out
money, time and strength, and constantly ran the risk
of heavy fine and imprisonment.
The Underground Railway movement possessed a
tremendous religious spirit. Its workers took literally
Christ's sermon in Nazareth: "The Spirit of the Lord
is upon me, because . . . he hath sent me to preach
deliverance to the captives . . . to set at liberty them
that are bruised."