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The Underground Railroad Essay, Research Paper

The underground railroad wasn’t really underground nor a railroad but, routes that the enslaved took to get to freedom. It was also nicknamed Liberty Line. Escape routes ranged from the North to the Western territories, Mexico, and even the Caribbean. Although no one really knows exactly when it was started, some reports of aid being given to the runaways in the early 1700’s and ended promptly in 1856 due to the union’s victory over the Confederacy. There were many people involved in these escapes through the underground railroad although, they all might not have been directly involved, they all helped out in one way or another.

Abolitionists were people in favor of getting rid of certain laws. The underground railroad was run by abolitionists. In this case they were fighting against the law that made slavery legal. The abolitionist movement was against human bondage, therefore the underground railroad secretly lead slave runaways to freedom. It was know to the slave-owners as “organized theft”. It was a very mysterious thing. “It confronted human bondage without any direct demands or intended violence; yet, its efforts played a prominent role in the destruction of the institution of slavery.”(National Geographic Society, pg.1) This was very intimidating to the owners.

Slave owners in the South certainly weren’t happy about the loss of “property”. It seemed like too much money was being lost. This caused the South to pass the Fugitive Slave Act of 1793. This titled slaves as property of their owners and gave permission to the owners to retrieve runaways any where in the states, even those that were free. The North was angry about the treatment of the slaves and was not happy about owners being allowed to come into their states to take the slaves back. Finally, the North decided to do something about it. To return the fire thrown at them by the South, they would take away something that the North thought was morally wrong, and the South’s riches. They would help the slaves escape to freedom. The slaves were now angry, scared, and confused. Hearing of this Underground Railroad, they slowly began to run, more and more.

The slaves mostly traveled at night to avoid detection. They were usually young adults, male, unattached, and highly skilled. Very rarely, if ever, did families flee all at once. They would use the North Star for guidance. They would have to walk anywhere from ten to thirty miles in one night, which was figured to be the amount a healthy male could travel. They would take shelter in isolated stations, or farms, and vigilance committees, or agents in the town, where free blacks would conceal them until the next night. They would sleep through the day and travel at night. Although when possible, conductors would meet them at border points such as Cincinnati Ohio and Wilmington, Delaware. There were different forms of escaping as well as different paths. The slaves could travel on boats. When the slaves would try for Canada, the lake ports of Detroit, Michigan; Sandusky, Ohio; Erie, Pennsylvania; and Buffalo, New York would help tremendously.

As a matter of fact, our very own Niagara County was traveled through by the Underground Railroad. A farm known

(display of slave routes) (see page # for further information on the map)

as Murphy Orchards has been a fruit farm ever since the

early 1800’s. In the years between 1850 and 1861 this farm served as a safe spot for escaping slaves. It is located about 20 miles from the Niagara River in Lewiston. This would be the last stop the slave would make, or one of the last stops, before he or she ventured into Canada where they would be free. Our county was very active in the effort to help people escaping from slavery out of the United States and into CanadaThe thing that was most amazing about the underground railroad was the lack of formal organization. The prosperity of the railroad was mainly relied on efforts of cooperating people of different ethnic and religious groups who helped bondsmen escape from slavery. This was a very mysterious thing and the add to it, records are scarce for individuals who actually participated in its activities. Usually, the people involved would hide out or destroy their personal journals in order to protect the runaways and themselves. A few identities were learned of not to long ago. These being David Ruggles, Calvin Fairbank, Josiah Henson, Robert Purvis, William Still and Erastus Hussey. ” Though scholars estimate that Underground Railroad conductors assisted thousands of refugees, the total number of runaways whom they aided to freedom will never be known simply because of the movement’s secrecy.”(National Park Service, pg.1) Even though some conductors have come forward to tell about this, they would only count how many people they, themselves helped. This wouldn’t included the slaves that tried to escape on their own means and not with the help of the railroad. People will most likely never learn how many slaves actually used the railroad to obtain freedom.

A big shot in the railroad was known as “Moses”. Her name was Harriet Tubman. She escaped from the East Shore of Maryland in 1849. She became known as “Moses” when she made 19 trips to the south and lead at least 300 fellow captives and family members to liberation. Another great person who stood out was a man named John Parker. Although from Ripley, Ohio, John often ventured into Kentucky and Virginia to help transport hundreds of runaways across the Ohio River by boat.

The conductors often left a number of signs for the slaves to follow so they didn’t go to houses that belonged to allies of the slave owners. A quilt on the clothes line showing the picture of a house with smoke coming out of the chimney was a sign of a safe station. A white ring of bricks around the top of a house’s chimney was another sign of a good hiding spot. Shops that were safe often had a figure of a running man or woman on its sign. Other signs were used to guide the slaves, too. The slaves had certain knocks they would use when approaching a house, animal calls, and lights hung in windows. When a slave was moving to the next house along the railroad, this was called “catching the next train.”

A lot of the terms come from things found along railroads. This is because real railroads at this time were the newest thing and happened to be the topic of choice for conversation. This made it all the easier for the helpers of the railroad to communicate while going unnoticed.

There were also songs that have directions for slaves that were taught to everyone. This was in hopes that they might memorize the way. One verse that exemplifies this was “Follow the Drinking Gourd” The drinking gourd was the slaves’ term for the big dipper. The Big Dipper’s “handle” points to the north star, which they would use to find their way north. The song gave landmarks along the way to follow and another verse from it says ” the dead trees will show you the way.” This was put in the song for a reason. The writer of this song, who’s name was Peg-leg Joe, drew pictures of a peg leg on the dead trees along the track with charcoal. The verse after that sings, “Left foot, peg foot traveling on,.”

The slaves often walked in zig zag patterns so they would be less likely to be captured. The people of the North that were willing to help made up some elaborate disguises for the slaves. Men were dressed as women, women were dressed as men, slave’s would exchange clothes for those of a colored rich man that was free to disguise the true identity of the slave when seen in public. There were also some slaves that traveled the road. Some would go by foot, in a carriage, or in a wagon usually containing a fake bottom making a tiny space where slaves could travel, unnoticed to freedom. Some traveled on “surface lines,” the actual railroads of this time. Lightly colored slaves would dress as whites, and others would be put in with the luggage and freight. Some of the more daring folk would actually travel as baggage. Henry “Box” Brown was one of those people. He made the long trip to freedom in a large box labeled “this side up,” and “Fragile.” I guess when you want to be free so bad, you’ll do anything to achieve it!

In Spanish America, some slaves escaped and went to Native American groups. The groups would welcome the slaves as one of the tribe. Other escapees would travel unclaimed territory or secluded areas where they formed free societies. These movements by the slaves were giving the nearby settlers a threat, like in the British, French, Danish, and Dutch territories. The runaway slaves would eventually wed with those in the tribe. Specific groups who were well-known for doing this were the Creeks and the Muscogee tribes. These groups eventually developed the name Seminoles. This is the Native American word for runaway. This took place with hundreds of slaves. They would join the Seminoles and live with them.

Runaways would seldom come up with a complicated escape plans since flights on the railroad would occur at random. They would commonly go on weekends, holidays, and/or during harvest season. This would help them out by giving them a two day start even before the authorities sent out to hunt for them. If for any reason they couldn’t get to a conductors house, they would take shelter in nearby caves, swamps, hills, and trenches.

In 1850, Congress passed the Compromise of 1850 to try to settle the differences between the North and South. The Compromise consisted of the declaration that demanded the return of runaways. It also stated that federal and state officials as well as citizens had to help to capture them. This created the problem that the Northern states weren’t safe for runaways any longer. This law even put the status of free black men at risk. Slave catchers would then frequently kidnap free black men and sell them into bondage. Places in major urban centers were no longer safe for runaways.

While the United States was consumed with the Civil War, the Underground Railroad was is full force. The slaves would escape and take refuge in Union lines. Immediately after the war ended, the Underground Railroad did, too. This was due to the passing of the 13th amendment into the United States Constitution which freed over four million enslaved African Americans.

All in all, “the true heroes of the underground were not the abolitionists or sympathizers, but those runaway bondsmen who were willing to risk their lives to gain freedom.”

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