For more than forty years before the civil war, there existed an organised system in the North, established to help slaves who escaped to reach places of safety. In the North and in Canada this was called the Underground Railroad because its activities were carried out in secret and because railway terms were used to describe the system in order to disguise the real nature of the operation.
The Underground Railway extended throughout 14 Northern States from Maine to Nebraska, but most of the activities were concentrated in Pennsylvania, Ohio, Indiana, New York and the New England States. The freed slaves were called 'freight'; routes were called 'lines'; stopping places were 'stations' and those who helped the slaves along the way were 'conductors'. Slaves were helped from one place to another until they reached Canada. Hundreds of slaves avoided the overland journey by travelling to New England as stowaways on ships from Southern ports. From New England they made their way to New Brunswick. Once in Canada, slaves were free from prosecution, mandated by the fugitive slave acts. These statutes, passed by Congress in 1793 and 1850, provided for the capture and return of slaves who escaped into free states and territories. To counteract these laws, personal liberty laws were passed by some northern states. Although these personal liberty laws could not make slaves free, they did hamper federal officials and judges in implementing the fugitive slave acts. Those who were most active in helping slaves to escape by way of the 'railroad' were Northern abolitionists and other anti-slavery groups including members of several Protestant denominations, Quakers, Methodists and Mennonites. The Quaker leader, Thomas Garrett, is reputed to have helped about 2700 slaves escape to freedom. Estimates of the total number of slaves who reached freedom vary between 40,000 and 100,000. Activities ceased at the start of the War.
The above article first appeared in the ACWS Newsletter, April 1998
Following a series of articles written under the auspices of the Underground Railroad, it has been pointed out to us that some of you may not know the history of this organisation. So here we will try to dispel any ignorance on your behalf.
The Underground Railroad was a loose-knit organisation which aided runaway slaves escape from the vicious servitude happened upon them by the white plantation owners of the Deep South. Very few people knew the entire structure of the organisation beyond the next link in the chain which passed the runaways from their point of departure northwards to the Free States of the North, or to Canada after the passing of the iniquitous Fugitive Slave Laws in the late-1850's.
It should be pointed out at this stage, that many of the links in the Underground Railroad were anti-slavery Southerners, for the system could not have worked within the Deep South if this were not the case. Indeed, it is believed that a proportion of the existing Underground Railroad is made up of like-minded Southerners. However, for reasons of security, none of us knows who the others are.
As the runaways moved northwards, "signposts" were left out to indicate to them that safe houses were at hand. These "signposts" took many forms, but one of the most common is believed to have been quilts. Yes, quilts. These were left hanging out of windows, ostensibly for airing. The quilt patterns indicated that this was a safe house. A similar system was used during the Holocaust of World War II to aid Jews escaping from Nazi oppression. Of course, we do not intend to reveal the nature of these designs, since they may be required in the future.
One of the main problems facing runaways was, of course, clothing. Most were only clothed in course home-spun attire, and few of the women had access to hats or gloves, without which most ladies of the times would not be seen dead out of the house. The necessary clothes were provided by the members of the Underground Railroad, and kept in stockpiles along the route. On one occasion, a member noticed that a young girl was leaving a "station" without hat or gloves, and quickly took off her own and gave them to the runaway. Such a selfless attitude shows the strength of the bonds that held the Railroad together.
The Underground Railroad was a metaphor, of course. There was no actual "railroad". But the organisation was styled after a normal Railroad in that it consisted of "stations" (safe houses), and "stationmasters, engineers and conductors" (those members who assisted and passed the runaways along the line). A "ticket" was information which directed a runaway to a "station", and the runaways themselves were known as "packages, merchandise, or goods".
The above article first appeared in the ACWS Newsletter, April 2000