Back to top

Underground Railroad (Banks, 1997)

Textbook

James A. Banks et al., United States: Adventures in Time and Place (New York: Macmillan McGraw-Hill, 1997), 454-55.

The Underground Railroad
Meanwhile, enslaved African Americans continued to suffer. For some, like Fredrick Douglass, life under slavery was so terrible they risked their lives to escape from it. Slaves often had to travel hundreds of miles before reaching freedom in the North. Slaveowners considered their slaves valuable property. As a result slave catchers were immediately sent out to capture slaves who escaped.

A Different Kind of Railroad
Many slaves who did escape got help on the Underground Railroad. This was not a real railroad, but a system of secret routes that escaping captives followed to freedom. On this “railroad,” the slaves were called “passengers.” Those who guided and transported them were “conductors.” The places where slaves hid along the way were called “stations.” People who fed and sheltered them were “stationmasters.”

Enslaved people often used songs to signal their plan to escape. One song, “Follow the Drinking Gourd,” gave directions for escaping north in code:

The river ends between two hills,
Follow the drinking gourd.
There’s another river on the other side,
Follow the drinking gourd.
When the great big river meets the little river,
Follow the drinking gourd.
For the old man is a-waiting for to carry you to freedom
If you follow the drinking gourd.

Each of the rivers in the song was an actual river. For example, the “great big river” was the Ohio River. The “drinking gourd” was the Little Dipper. One of the stars in the Little Dipper is the North Star, which escaping slaves used to guide them north.

Levi Coffin, a Quaker from Indiana, was one of many people who helped slaves to escape. His wife Catherine Coffin fed, clothed, and hid the slaves in their house. What they did took great courage. If caught, they could have been hanged. Because their work was so secret, we will never know how many people actually worked or escaped on the Underground Railroad.

How to Cite This Page: "Underground Railroad (Banks, 1997)," House Divided: The Civil War Research Engine at Dickinson College, http://hd.housedivided.dickinson.edu/node/17120.