Over the years, the Underground Railroad had a number of conductors, but it wasn’t a train that they were operating. It was an informal network of safe houses that would help to protect slaves who were escaping from their owners so they could start a new life in freedom. Over the years of its operation, officials estimate that more than 10,000 people were able to achieve freedom because of the underground railroad.
1. A Lot of Unusual Places
When the United States passed a law that made it easier for slave owners to claim their “property” back after escaping, the Underground Railroad had to shift gears from moving people to the North to moving them to Canada. Part of the 1850 law made it illegal to harbor escaped slaves as well. People faced up to 6 months in prison and an extensive fine. For those that were a safe house, hiding spaces had to get creative. It was not unusual for escaped slaves to hide behind walls or even inside of built-out areas behind a cabinet.
2. Creativity Ruled the Day
It wasn’t always easy to move large groups of escaped slaves from Point A to Point B without suspicion. Many conductors like Harriet Tubman would work late at night when most of the world was asleep. Others, however, got extremely creative. John Fairfield once had 28 escaped slaves that he needed to move through Cincinnati. To accomplish this task, he decided to hire a hearse and then had all of the escaped slaves pretend to be a funeral possession.
3. Just a Fraction
Although the 10,000 slaves that were believed to have been freed because of the Underground Railroad represent an impressive number, it was just a small fraction of the overall population. When the first US census was taken in 1790, there were 3.9 million people who were living in the newly formed United States. Out of that population base, over 700,000 people were listed as slaves.
Slaves were considered to be incredibly valuable, especially in the 19th century. A person was easily worth the equivalent of $40,000 today if they were strong and able to work hard on a consistent basis. Because slave owners had a lot of money tied up in these people, they believed that the workers of the Underground Railroad were thieves and should be treated as such.
4. That’s an Interesting Cabin
One of the most influential books of the era was Uncle Tom’s Cabin by Harriet Beecher Stowe. It took the anti-slave states by storm of its account of dramatizing the escape from slavery that Stowe made with her young child. The book also chronicled how cruel slave masters could be and it definitely made the impact that was intended. It was not uncommon for someone to be arrested on the spot in the South for trying to purchase the book after it was published.
5. Get to Know John Rankin
It is believed that Rankin was a conductor for the Underground Railroad for over 40 years. He was helping slaves find freedom before the process of freeing them was officially organized into a series of safe houses. It wasn’t just him that was involved with the process either. His entire family, including his children, were involved in the process of helping people find freedom. Rankin’s home was on the Ohio River and was often considered one of the first stations on its route toward freedom.
There are many stories of how slave owners would track down their people to Rankin’s home and attack it. Time after time, Rankin and his sons would defend their property and drive the slave owners away. They always kept a lighted candle in the window and it was comparable to the hope that immigrants felt when they first saw the Statue of Liberty.
6. Posers Unite
In a world where suspicion lies around every bend, conductors on the Underground Railroad would rarely identify themselves as they were helping people escape. Even when people were being sent to a new safe house, the only identification provided to the escaped slaves would be a lighted window or lamp post. This indicated that the property was safe. Slave owners quickly noticed this trick and recaptured numerous slaves because they were able to fool escaped slaves into believing that the location was a safe house.
7. A Potent Villain
The United States was desperate for more than a decade to fend off the Civil War. Tensions were building because of slavery and the rights that states had within the construct of an overall nation. Many compromises were made as a way to placate the slave states into sticking around with the Union. From the laws that made it illegal to harbor escaped slaves to the ability of new states to join as a slave or free state, all of it ended up backfiring. Through it all, the Underground Railroad and its conductors were often seen as villains, yet they continued to push on, rescuing people so they could start a new life.
8. Songs Were Codes
Many of the spiritual songs from the day that are sung today were actually created exclusively as a way to pass along codes to one another. The chariot in the song was a mention of the hopes of freedom that slaves hoped to feel one day. The song became popular when it was performed for Queen Victoria and she was visibly impressed by the deep feelings in the songs. Some would change the lyric “chariot” to “Harriet” to help communicate information at times.
Other songs like Roll Jordan Roll and Steal Away to Jesus were thought to include codes as well. They could be used to describe the route being taken to Canada, which homes were safe, or how to navigate at night by using just the stars.
9. Forget the Lamps
As the Underground Railroad has been examined more thoroughly by historians, they’ve discovered something quite unique about its structure. Many Quakers were involved with the organization because they were morally opposed to slavery. Quakers would often create quilts as a way to make some extra money or to give away as gifts and it is believed that hanging quilts on a porch was a way to communicate the location of a safe house.
The use of quilts goes beyond just the indication of a helper. Historians believe that codes were woven into quilts by the Quakers or even some of the free slaves themselves so that people could reach the next station on their trip.
10. Desperate For Harriet
Harriet Tubman was the most hated of the conductors on the Underground Railroad. She was very active in the campaign to free slaves and even acted as a spy for the Union Army at times. It has been said that she never lost a slave that she was helping to lead to freedom and that made her a prime target for slave owners. A group of them got together and pushed the reward up to $40,000 for her capture. In today’s money, that’s the equivalent of half a million dollars.
Harriet Tubman knew the full value of the Underground Railroad. She had used it herself to achieve freedom. Many of the conductors, in fact, were escaped slaves that had come back to assist others. Names like John Parker, Josiah Henson, Henry Bibb, and Addison White all escaped and then came back to help others escape.
11. A Close Encounter
Sometimes those who were looking for freedom took the railroad part of the Underground Railroad a little too seriously. Frederick Douglass was one of those folks, who climbed on board a real train and was posing as a sailor. He needed to provide the conductor evidence that he was a free man, which he obviously didn’t have at the time of his escape. He had proof of a sailor’s protection certificate that he’d managed to procure.
The conductor of the train didn’t look very closely at the paperwork and it allowed Douglass to reach freedom. He would go on to become one of the leading abolitionists of the era.
12. In a Box
Henry Brown didn’t have the option to follow a conductor along the Underground Railroad. He also desperately wanted his freedom. He decided that the best way to reach freedom would be to ship himself to some place new. He put himself into a box that was 3 feet by 2 feet by 2 feet and rode his way to freedom. It’s said that he came out of the box singing and it earned him the nickname “Box” for the rest of his life.
Most slaves didn’t ever get the chance to escape. A vast majority of those who did wound up being captured shortly afterward. Only a rare few ever made it to actual freedom, whether that was in Canada, the Caribbean, or even in Mexico. The Underground Railroad is an important part of US history and these important facts are just a small reflection of what life was like on this journey.