Evolution of the Underground Railroad

The Underground Railroad consisted of groups of black and white anti-slavery activists that helped escaped slaves to reach places of safety in the North or Canada.

The development of the Underground Railroad was given impetus by the launching of William Lloyd Garrison’s newspaper, The Liberator, in 1831
Antislavery Sentiment in the South

Prior to the advent of Garrison, the bulk of anti-slavery agitation occurred in the South. However, that changed following the invention of the cotton gin in 1793, the outlawing of the international slave trade in 1808, and the aborted slave revolts of Gabriel Prosser in 1800 and Denmark Vesey in 1822. These developments led to an increase in the number of slaves and a more repressive system that resulted in greater numbers of slaves fleeing.


By the 1820’s, slaves were regularly fleeing across the Ohio River and the domestic slave trade had stimulated a market for kidnappers of free blacks. One kidnapping ring included more than 30 members working between Virginia and Philadelphia. In addition, kidnappings of free blacks along the Ohio River Valley were common in southern Illinois. The inability of whites in America to accept free blacks as their equals led to continuing conflict. The Cincinnati race riot of 1829 led black citizens there to form Wilberforce, the first expatriate black American colony in Canada. Before long Canada became the asylum of thousands of fugitive slaves.

Tensions in the South also increased tensions following the Nat Turner insurrection in Virginia when rebelling slaves brutally murdered 50 whites. White vigilantes went on a rampage, assaulting and lynching innocent blacks, some who were free, and southern states instituted yet harsher restrictions governing slaves and free blacks.

Antislavery Societies and Vigilance Committees

The passionate efforts of Garrison captured the hearts and minds of a small group of morally righteous individuals who gradually spread the message of immediate emancipation, recruiting many who would become part of the Underground Railroad.

After the formation of the American Anti-Slavery Society in 1833 under Garrison’s leadership, hundreds of auxiliary branches formed mainly through the outreach efforts of Theodore Weld and his band of 70 from 1835-to-1837, many of the networks of the Underground Railroad were established. The New York Committee of Vigilance founded in 1835 brought the Underground Railroad to a new level of organization and led to similar committees in Philadelphia and Boston. Committees also formed in smaller communities, as in upstate New York, where the state society called for their establishment based on the New York model in 1838. An inexorable march of events had set the stage for laying down the tracks of the Underground Railroad by the end of the decade.

Fugitive Slave Law of 1850

The success of the Underground Railroad resulted in the passage of a much stronger Fugitive Slave Law in 1850. This panicked many blacks, who had been fugitive slaves but had settled into normal lives in the North. It caused a mass exodus of blacks, fugitive and free, to Canada.

Main Routes of the Underground Railroad

Three major arteries developed from which branched a multitude of tributaries.

The eastern route led up through Virginia, Maryland, and Delaware to southeastern Pennsylvania, where fugitive slaves were forwarded north through the state and New York, or to Philadelphia and New York City. Sometimes fugitive slaves took passage on ships to New York City or New England seaports like New Bedford, Massachusetts. From New York City, they were sent up the Hudson River. In 1842, Charles Torrey organized an Underground Railroad network in the District of Columbia that used this route until the Civil War. Foremost stationmasters were Thomas Garrett of Wilmington, Delaware; William Still of Philadelphia, Pennsylvania; Charles Ray and Sidney Howard Gay of New York City; Stephen Myers of Albany, New York; and Jermaine Loguen of Syracuse, New York.

The central route had major crossing points along the Ohio River at Evansville, New Albany, and Madison, Indiana, and at Cincinnati, Ripley, and Marietta, Ohio. These led through a multitude of stations throughout Indiana and Ohio to lake ports along Lake Erie, notably Sandusky and Cleveland, and sometimes to Detroit. Prominent stationmasters included John Rankin of Ripley, Ohio; Levi Coffin of Newport, Indiana and Cincinnati, Ohio; Elijah Anderson of Madison, Indiana and Porter, Ohio.

The western route developed during the early 1840’s under the leadership of John Cross; it led mainly from Quincy, Illinois through Galesburg, Princeton, Chicago, and southern Michigan, ending in Detroit. It extended across Iowa by 1854. Other major conductors in addition to Cross were Owen Lovejoy of Princeton, Illinois; Erastus Hussey of Battlecreek, Michigan; George DeBaptiste and William Lambert of Detroit, Michigan

Slave Rescuers

These stationmasters organized communities of conductors to forward fugitive slaves. Some like Coffin, Rankin, and Garrett had an unwritten rule to avoid entering the South and enticing slaves to freedom. A few like Elijah Anderson did both. But this work fell primarily to those daring individuals who might be called slave rescuers. Among the most notable were Harriet Tubman, John Fairfield, Charles Torrey, John Parker, Calvin Fairbank, Delia Webster,and William L. Chaplin.

Some accounts, like that of William M. Cockrum, of Oakland City, Indiana, claim that clandestine, paramilitary agencies, like the Antislavery League described by him, operated during the 1850s across most of the Ohio River Valley. They made use of guerilla war tactics and terrorized slavecatchers who were active in southern Illinois and Indiana. But mainstream historians are dubious of Cockrum’s claims because of the lack of corroborative evidence.


  1. Fergus Bordewich, Bound for Canaan (New York: HarperCollins, 2005).
  2. William M. Cockrum, History of the Underground Railroad: as it was conducted by the Anti-Slavery League (Oakland City, IN: J.M. Cockrum Press, 1915).
  3. Owen Muelder, The Underground Railroad in Western Illinois (Jefferson, N.C.: McFarland and Company, 2008).
  4. William Still, The Underground Railroad (Philadelphia: Porter and Coates, 1872).
  5. Carol Wilson, Freedom at Risk: The Kidnapping of Free Blacks in America—1780-186 (Lexington: University Press of Kentucky, 1994).