Andrew Cayton et al., America: Pathways to the Present (Needham, M.A.: Prentice Hall, 2005), 322-323.
Some abolitionists insisted on using only legal methods, such as protest and political action. But with tremendous human suffering going on, other people could not wait for long-term legal strategies to work. They attacked slavery every way they could, legal and illegal.
A Dangerous OperationRisking arrest, and sometimes risking their lives, abolitionists created the Underground Railroad, a network of escape routes that provided protection and transportation for slaves fleeing north to freedom. The term railroad referred o 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.
Underground meant that the operation was carried out in secret, usually on dark nights in deep woods. Men and women known as conductors acted as guides. They opened their homes to the fugitives and gave them money, supplies, and medial attention. Historians’ estimates on the number of slaves rescued vary widely, from about 40,000 to 100,000.
A Courageous Leader: Harriet Tubman African Americans, some with friends and family still enslaved, made up the majority of the conductors. By far the most famous was a courageous former slave named Harriet Tubman.
Tubman herself escaped from a plantation in Maryland in 1849 and fled north on the Underground Railroad. Remarkably, she returned the next year to rescue family members and lead them to safety. Thereafter, she made frequent trips to the South, rescuing more than 300 slaves and gaining the nickname “Black Moses.” (The name refers to the Bible story of the prophet Moses leading Jewish slaves out of captivity in Egypt.)
The River Route On a map, the routes of the Underground Railroad look like a tangled clump of lines. (See the map on page 309.) One of those pathways came from the West, where the Mississippi River valley offered a natural escape route. Some slaves managed to get a ticket for riverboat passage northward. If they were lucky, they could reach the Underground Railroad routes that started in western Illinois.
The Mississippi River route was dangerous, however. Slave hunters, who often received generous payments for their work, stalked the riverboat towns and boarded the ships looking for slaves on the run.
Through the Eastern Swamps The East Coast, by contrast, had a physical feature that offered protection from human pursuers, but posed serious natural dangers. This feature was the string of low-lying swamps stretching along the Atlantic Coast from southern Georgia to southern Virginia. Fugitives who traveled north through the swamps could link up with one of the eastern Underground Railroad routes to Canada, shown on the map. The travelers faced hazards, however, such as poisonous snakes and disease-bearing mosquitoes.
The Mountain Route The physical feature that most influenced the choice of a route was the Appalachian Mountains. The mountain chain, extending from northern Georgia into Pennsylvania, has narrow, steep-sided valleys separated by forested ridges.
The Appalachians served as an escape route for two reasons. First, the forests and limestone caves sheltered fugitives as they avoided capture on their way north. Second, the Appalachians acted as a barrier for western runaways, leading them northward into a region of intense Underground Railroad activity.
A Refuge for Runaways The center of Underground Railroad activity included Ohio and parts of two states that border it, Indiana and Pennsylvania. This region shared a long boundary with two slave states, Virginia and Kentucky.