Underground Railroad

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Underground Railroad

"The Underground Railroad was an informal network of secret routes and safe houses used by 19th century Black slaves in the United States to escape to free states and Canada with the aid of abolitionists who were sympathetic to their cause.[1] The term is also applied to the abolitionists who aided the fugitives.[2] Other routes led to Mexico or overseas.[3] The Underground Railroad was at its height between 1810 and 1850,[4] with over 30,000 people escaping enslavement (mainly to Canada) via the network,[5] though US Census figures only account for 6,000."
Source: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Underground_Railroad

"The Underground Railroad originated in Lancaster County, Pennsylvania, USA in 1726. Charles Spotts said there were three routes leading into the County. The fugitives from Frederick, Maryland and Winchester, Virginia came through Franklin, Adams, and York Counties entering Lancaster County at Columbia. The second route was up the Susquehanna River. Fugitives from Baltimore gathered at Peach Bottom where they were met by a Negro who rowed them across the river after sundown. After crossing the river they were directed to the homes of John Russell and Joseph Smith. The third route gathered at Octorara Creek in Maryland which fugitives entered into Chester County. Spotts labled these routes as the 'Pilgrim's Pathway,' and they seemed to lead into Christiana and Chester Counties." Read more about the Christiana incident, (Christiana Riot), more on the Christiana Riot, Christiana Riot Historical marker. William Parker, a former slave from Roedown Plantation [1] in Anne Arundel County, Maryland, was an anti-slavery activist and a principal character in the events of September 11, 1851 in Christiana, Pennsylvania.

Throughout Lancaster County many slaves found safety behind the closed doors of Lancaster Quakers and Lancaster free blacks. Free blacks are the most forgotten group that helped during the abolition movement."

The Abigail Tent Society was a secret society operated by Quaker women.

Quakers played the most significant role in manumitting slaves after the Revolutionary War. In 1780, they began their crusade to free over eight hundred slaves who remained in Lancaster County. The first step was the creation of the Abolition Act of 1780, which freed slaves after they turned the age of twenty-eight and made it manditory for all northern slaveowners to hold official documents allowing them to own slaves. This Act also made it necessary for slaveowners to register each of their slaves for government records. Between 1780-1800, slavery gradually vanished from Lancaster County. Quakers formed the Society of Religious Friends to gather abolitionists from around the community.

Referred to as the President of the Underground Railroad, Levi Coffin was one of the most notable Quaker abolitionists. He helped more that 2,000 slaves reach freedom, and not a single one of the slaves he helped were recaptured. Coffin wrote a detailed account of his life's work attempting to abolish slavery and to free slaves in 1876. He included many heart wrenching stories of slave conditions and escape attempts both successful and unsuccessful.
Source: "African American History in Lancaster County" http://www.millersville.edu/~twstproj/HIST272/1999F/unraillanc.html

Life for a runaway slave was full of hazards. The journey to freedom meant traveling only a few miles at night, using the North Star as a map and trying to avoid search parties. Often, escaped slaves would hide in homes or on the property of antislavery supporters. These stops to freedom were called Underground Railroad stations because they resembled stops a train would make between destinations. "Underground" refers the the secret nature of the system.

To the thousand of escaped slaves, an eight-room Federal style brick home in Newport (Fountain City), Indiana, became a safe haven on their journey to Canada. Undergound Railroad Routes (4672 bytes)This was the home of Levi and Catharine Coffin, North Carolina Quakers who opposed slavery. During the 20 years they lived in Newport, the Coffins helped more than 2,000 slaves reach safety.

"The Underground Railroad refers to the effort of enslaved African Americans to gain their freedom by escaping bondage.

Wherever slavery existed, there were efforts to escape, at first to maroon communities in remote or rugged terrain on the edge of settled areas. Their acts of self-emancipation made them "fugitives" according to the laws of the times, though in retropsect "freedom seeker" seems a more accurate description. While most freedom seekers began their journey unaided and many completed their self-emancipation without assistance, each decade in which slavery was legal in the United States saw an increase in active efforts to assist escape.

In many cases the decision to assist a freedom seeker may have been a spontaneous reaction as the opportunity presented itself. However, in some places, and particularly after the Fugitive Slave Act of 1850, the Underground Railroad was deliberate and organized. Despite the illegality of their actions, and with little regard for their own personal safety, people of all races, classes and genders participated in this widespread form of civil disobedience. Spanish territories to the south in Florida, British areas to the north in Canada, Mexico, the Caribbean, and other foreign countries offered additional destinations for freedom. Free African American communities in urban areas in both the South and the North were the destination of some freedom seekers.

The maritime industry was an important source for spreading information as well as offering employment and transportation. Through ties to the whaling industry, the Pacific West Coast and perhaps Alaska became a destination. Military service provided another avenue as thousands of African Americans joined the military, from the colonial era to the Civil War, as a means to gain their freedom. During the Civil War, many freedom seekers sought protection and liberty by escaping to the lines of the advancing Union army."

Underground Railway Resources

Source: USA National Park Service. http://www.nps.gov/subjects/ugrr/discover_history/index.htm

Uncle Tom's Cabin

Read "Uncle Tom's Cabin" by Harriet Beecher Stow (1852).

Mason–Dixon Line

"The Mason–Dixon Line symbolizes a cultural boundary between the Northeastern United States and the Southern United States (Dixie) and legality of slavery as a result, although the Missouri Compromise Line had a much more definitive geographic connection to slavery in the United States leading up to the Civil War. Source: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Mason%E2%80%93Dixon_Line

Levi Coffin

"Levi Coffin was a key leader of the Underground Railroad, and claimed to have helped an average of 100 escaping slaves in his own home in Cincinnati every year for 33 years. The fabled Undergound Railroad was a network of over 3,000 homes and other "stations" that helped escaping slaves travel from the southern slave-holding states to freedom in the northern states and Canada."

Lancaster Quakers

The Quakers in Lancaster County had significant impact in raising awareness of the injustice of slavery.

The Paxton Boys Masacre

Canadian Locations for the Underground Railroad

Learn more about Ontario's Black history from "Slavery to Freedom" web resources for students, educators and researchers.

Code Words used in the Underground Railroad

Other Resources

  • Uncle Tom's Cabin was the best-selling novel of the 19th century[5] (and the second best-selling book of that century, following the Bible)[6] and is credited with helping fuel the abolitionist cause in the 1850s.[7] In the first year after it was published, 300,000 copies of the book were sold in the United States alone.