The Underground Railroad was not a real railroad but a metaphoric one, the name given to a clandestine operation that aided fugitives slaves before the Civil War.
Slaves had been fleeing from their masters since the beginning of the American colonies. Herbert Aptheker’s groundbreaking work, American Negro Slave Revolts, published in 1939, documented the ceaseless efforts of slaves to resist. Another study, Lathan Windley’s Runaway Slave Advertisements, published in 1983,collected 7,286 such advertisements from 1732-to-1790.
Early Resistance to Slavery
The evil of slavery was recognized in America as early as 1688, when the Germantown Friends Meeting in northern Philadelphia made the first public condemnation of slavery, citing the Bible:“Thou shalt not deliver unto his master the servant which is escaped from his master unto thee. He shall dwell with thee, even among you, in that place in which he shall choose in one of thy gates, where it liketh him best; thou shalt not oppress him.”
This early assault on slavery by Quakers put them in a leadership role, and the first known organization to help slaves who had escaped was a Quaker group, the Philadelphia Abolition Society, which formed in 1775 with Benjamin Franklin one of its leading members. A 1786 letter of George Washington refers to it: “And if the practice of this Society . . . is not discountenanced, none of those whose misfortune it is to have slaves as attendants, will visit the city if they can possibly avoid it . . .”
Fugitive Slave Law of 1793
Slaves were valuable property and it was common for slave owners to publish advertisements with descriptions of those who fled, offering rewards for their recapture. Providing legal assistance was the first Fugitive Slave Law passed in 1793. It imposed a fine of $500 (about $5,000 today) on those convicted of aiding fugitive slaves. These rewards, as well as the provision that denied alleged fugitive slaves the right to testify in court on their own behalf, induced unscrupulous individuals not only to hunt fugitive slaves but to kidnap free blacks and sell them into slavery.
Nevertheless, increasing numbers of fugitive slaves from the eastern shore of Maryland began fleeing up through Delaware and New Jersey where considerable numbers of sympathetic Quakers and free blacks were ready to help.
Among the earliest established Underground Railroad stops was in Wrightsville, Pennsylvania, along the Susquehanna River not far from the Maryland border, near where the mother-in-law of noted Underground Railroad conductor William Whipper was the subject of a documented case of aid to an escaped slave in 1804. Along the Ohio River Valley, fugitive slaves began coming with increasing regularity after the battles of the War of 1812 brought to slaves the awareness of freedom north of the Mason Dixon Line. On ships bound for New England and New York City, docked in the harbors of the Carolinas and Virginia, slaves began stowing away, often with the complicity of seaman, many of whom were black and sympathetic.
In the South, some of the earliest manifestations occurred, as in Guilford County and the New Garden Quaker meeting of Levi Coffin’s youth, where escaped slaves were being assisted as early as 1815. Also, in the South, came the first public call for immediate emancipation from Charles Osborn, a Quaker and native of North Carolina, when he formed the Tennessee Manumission Society in December, 1814.
One Philadelphia Abolition Society member, Isaac T. Hopper, is credited by some as being the father of the Underground Railroad. He began using the courts and his connection to the city’s black community as early as 1797 to create a system that became a model for future Underground Railroad organizations. However, he was not the first to combat slavery in this manner. The English abolitionist, Granville Sharp, and the Baltimore Quaker, Elisha Tyson, had used similar methods to gain the freedom of slaves and weaken the legitimacy of slavery. The courts were an important tool of the Underground Railroad throughout the antebellum period, spawning one Supreme Court Chief Justice, Salmon Chase, called the “attorney-general for the fugitive slave,” and two future Presidents, Chester Arthur and Rutherford B. Hayes.
During the 1820s, the three most prominent Underground Railroad stationmasters began setting up their operations: In 1822, John Rankin moved to Ripley, Ohio, across the Ohio River from Kentucky, where he and a large group of conductors would aid fugitive slaves up through the Civil, and Thomas Garrett moved to Wilmington, where he would aid fugitive slaves for more than 40 years; in 1826, Levi Coffin moved to Newport, Indiana until 1847 where he regularly aided fugitive slaves, and then to Cincinnati, Ohio, where he continued this aid. All three personally aided more than 2,000 fugitive slaves, with Coffin estimating his beneficence to be offered to as many as 3,300.
These early efforts spawned a vast decentralized network of individuals and vigilance committees that grew progressively up through the Civil War and communicated through letters, telegraph, code, and in at least one reported instance by smoke signals. These associations sometimes reached across states, and even into Canada, and a number of noted stationmasters and conductors, like Levi Coffin, undertook missions to Canada to visit fugitive slave colonies and those they had assisted.
- Levi Coffin, Reminiscences (Cincinnati: Robert Clarke & Co, 1880).
- Wilbur H. Siebert, The Underground Railroad from Slavery to Freedom (New York: Macmillan, 1898).
- Robert C. Smedley, History of the Underground Railroad in Chester and Neighboring Counties of Pennsylvania (Lancaster PA, 1883).
- Horatio Strother, The Underground Railroad in Connecticut (Middletown, CT: Wesleyan University Press, 1962).