The Underground Railroad was a network of secret escape routes and safe houses that African slaves in the United States used to escape from the south to free states such as Minnesota and Ohio, or as far north as Canada and they also provided protection and transportation fleeing to freedom. This network of secret routs freed roughly from 40,000 to 100,000 slaves in the 1800s. Many slaves tried to make it to Canada but did not make it to the end of there journey. This network of routes was also a huge part of history. The Underground Railroad had a huge impact on history such as the people involved, the goals accomplished and the secrets kept by many.
The Underground Railroad was not actually an underground railroad. The word “underground” was used in the sense of resistance but was rarely literally subterranean. It also meant that the operation was carried out in secret, usually on dark nights in deep woods. The word “railroad” referred to the paths that African Americans traveled, either on foot or in wagons, across the North-South border and finally into Canada, where slave-hunters could not go. The network consisted of clandestine routes, transportation, meeting points, safe houses and other retreats, and assistance maintained by abolitionists and other people who wanted to help. Abolitionists are people who are against slavery. The people helping along the Underground Railroad were organized into small groups who new of connecting “stations” or “stops” along the rout. They were put into small groups so that this information would be kept secret. Fleeing slaves would stop at one station to the next carefully and cautiously making there way north. The many diverse guides, known as conductors, on the railroad included people such as free-born blacks, white abolitionists, former slaves (either escaped or freed bye there owner), and Native Americans. These people also gave slaves money, supplies, and medical attention that they needed. Churches played a huge role of stations in the Underground Railroad. Doing all this abolitionists and fugitives would risk being arrested or even risk possibly being killed. Some slaves wanted out so badly that they packed themselves up and shipped the box away. Others would dress up and act like someone ells to be free. Some slave owners would put up rewards for there missing slaves. Sometimes the reward would be great amounts. If a slave gets caught they must suffer the consequences no matter how harsh and painful they were.
There are many different routes to take on the Underground Railroad such as the river route, through the Eastern Swamps, and the route through the mountains. The river route comes from the west where the Mississippi River valley offered a natural escape route. Some slaves achieved to get a ticket for the riverboat passage northward of the river. If the slaves got lucky they would be able to reach the Underground Railroad routes that started in western Illinois. However this route was very dangerous. Slave hunters stalked the riverboat towns and boarded the ships looking for loose slaves. These slave hunters were given generous amounts of payment for the well work they had done for the slave owners. This caused a huge issue for the slaves that wanted to travel the River Route. The Eastern Swap Route had a physical feature that offered protection from human pursuers, but this did have some serious natural dangers. This feature was the string of low to the ground swamps going along the Atlantic Coast from southern Georgia to southern Virginia. Fugitives in which traveled north through the swamps could link up with one of the eastern Underground Railroad routes to Canada. However these travelers faced deathly hazards such as poisonous snakes and disease-bearing mosquitoes. The mountain route was through the Appalachian Mountains. The mountains were the physical feature that most influenced this route. The chain of mountains extends from northern Georgia into Pennsylvania. The chain has narrow, steep-sided valleys separated by forested ridges. One reason the Appalachians served as an escape route was that forests and limestone caves sheltered fugitives as they avoided being captured on there was north. Another reason is that the Appalachians acted as a barrier for western runaways, leading them northward into a region of intense Underground Railroad activity.
For the slave, running away to the North was anything but easy. The first step was to escape from the slaveholder. For many slaves, this meant relying on his or her own resources. Sometimes a “conductor,” posing as a slave, would enter a plantation and then guide the runaways northward. The fugitives would move at night. They would generally travel between 10 and 20 miles to the next station, where they would rest and eat, hiding in barns and other places that were not in view. While they waited, a message would be sent to the next station to alert its stationmaster. The fugitives would also travel by train and boat, conveyances that sometimes had to be paid for. Money was also needed to improve the appearance of the runaways, a black man, woman, or child in tattered clothes would invariably attract suspicious eyes. This money was donated by individuals and also raised by various groups, including vigilance committees. The routes taken were indirect to throw off pursuers. Most escapes were by individuals or small groups. There were occasionally huge escapes. Most of the escapes were believed to be by male field workers under the age of forty years old. The journey was usually to rough for women and children to accomplish successfully. However it was usually common for fugitive bondsmen who had escaped slavery by the Railroad and established livelihoods as free men to purchase their wives, children, and other family members out of slavery in series, and then arrange to be reunited with them. Due to the risk of discovery, information about routes and safe havens was passed along by word of mouth. Southern newspapers of the day were often filled with pages of notices soliciting information about escaped slaves and offering sizable rewards for their capture and return. The risk of capture was not limited solely to actual fugitives. Because strong, healthy blacks in their prime working and reproductive years were highly valuable commodities, it was not unusual for free blacks, both freedmen and those who had lived their entire lives in freedom, to be kidnapped and sold into slavery. “Certificates of freedom”, signed, notarized statements attesting to the free status of individual blacks, could easily be destroyed and thus afforded their owners little protection. Moreover, under the terms of the Fugitive Slave Law of 1850, when suspected fugitives were seized and brought to a special magistrate known as a commissioner, they had no right to a jury trial and could not testify in their own behalf, for the return of property. Congress believed the fugitive slave laws were necessary because of the lack of cooperation by the police, courts, and public outside of the Deep South. States such as Michigan passed laws interfering with the federal bounty system, which politicians from the South felt was grossly inadequate, and this became a key motivation for secession. In some parts of the North slave-catchers needed police protection to carry out their federal authority. Even in states that resisted cooperation with slavery laws, though, blacks were often unwelcome; Indiana passed a constitutional amendment that barred blacks from settling in that state.
There were songs that slaves would sing to disguise the routes so they would stay a secret. One song was called “Follow the Drinkin’ Gourd”. The first verse is, “When the sun comes back and the first quail calls, Follow the Drinking Gourd. For the old man is waiting for to carry you to freedom, If you follow the Drinking Gourd”. “When the sun comes back” means winter and spring when the altitude of the sun at noon is higher each day. Quail are birds wintering in the South. The Drinking Gourd is the Big Dipper. The old man is Peg Leg Joe. The verse tells slaves to leave in the winter and walk towards the Drinking Gourd. Eventually they will meet a guide who will escort them for the remainder of the trip. Most escapees had to cross the Ohio River which is too wide and too swift to swim. The Railroad struggled with the problem of how to get escapees across, and with experience, came to believe the best crossing time was winter. Then the river was frozen, and escapees could walk across on the ice. Since it took most escapees a year to travel from the South to the Ohio, the Railroad urged slaves to start their trip in winter in order to be at the Ohio the next winter. The next verse is, “The river bank makes a very good road, The dead trees show you the way, Left foot, peg foot, traveling on Follow the Drinking Gourd”. This verse taught slaves to follow the bank of the Tombigbee River north looking for dead trees that were marked with drawings of a left foot and a peg foot. The markings distinguished the Tombigbee from other north-south rivers that flow into it. The next verse is, “The river ends between two hills, Follow the Drinking Gourd. There’s another river on the other side, Follow the Drinking Gourd”. These words told the slaves that when they reached the headwaters of the Tombigbee, they were to continue north over the hills until they met another river. Then they were to travel north along the new river which is the Tennessee River. A number of the southern escape routes converged on the Tennessee. The final verse is, “Where the great big river meets the little river, Follow the Drinking Gourd. For the old man is awaiting to carry you to freedom if you, follow the Drinking Gourd”. This verse told the slaves the Tennessee joined another river. They were to cross that river (which is the Ohio River), and on the north bank, meet a guide from the Underground Railroad. Songs can help fugitives very much with escaping and few words can mean many very helpful things to get threw the Underground Railroad.
There were many important people involved in the Underground Railroad. One in which is a woman named Harriet Tubman. She is an African American abolitionist. After freeing herself from slavery, Harriet Tubman returned to Maryland to rescue other members of her family. Tubman returned to the South again and again. She devised clever techniques that helped make her “forays” successful, including using the master’s horse and buggy for the first leg of the journey; leaving on a Saturday night, since runaway notices couldn’t be placed in newspapers until Monday morning; turning about and heading south if she encountered possible slave hunters; and carrying a drug to use on a baby if its crying might put the fugitives in danger. Tubman even carried a gun which she used to threaten the fugitives if they became too tired or decided to turn back, telling them, “You’ll be free or die.” Tubman’s capture would have brought a $40,000 reward from the South. During a ten-year span she made 19 trips into the South. She helped free approximately 300 people to the north. Another important person is Frederick Douglass. He is an African American abolitionist leader who spoke eloquently for abolition in the United States. Also he was one of the most popular speakers and a key leader of the American Anti-Slavery Society. Douglass was a prominent publisher and brilliant writer. When he was 21 he escaped from slavery. He started an abolitionist newspaper, the North Star, which he published from 1847 to 1860. Although Douglass opposed the use of violence, he also believed that slavery should be fought with deeds as well as words.
The Underground Railroad is part of what makes the United Stated what it is today. It taught so much to Americans all over. The journey from south to north was rough for most slaves but they made it but, there were some that did not do so. For the fugitives that did, they had a chance to start a new life in the north. Most travelers were men but once they were free they would go back and buy there wives, children, and the rest of there families. Without the Underground Railroad we would not be what we are today. This network of routes was also a huge part of history. The Underground Railroad had a huge impact on history such as the people involved, the goals accomplished and the secrets kept by many.
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