The Underground Railroad
For as long as there were slaves in the United States, there were runaways trying to escape, either to Northern states or to Canada. From the early 1800s a loose network grew of people sympathetic to runaways. Free African Americans and white abolitionists began helping fugitive slaves flee north, hiding and feeding and transporting them. This network became known as the Underground Railroad.
The origin of the phrase is uncertain, but the most repeated story is that of a southern owner pursuing his slave in 1831. The runaway crossed the Ohio River between Kentucky and Ohio and disappeared, and the owner apparently said, “He must have gone off on an underground road.” Whatever its origins, by the 1840s the phrase Underground Railroad was commonly used. Indeed, people helping runaways began using railroad terminology, calling themselves conductors and stationmasters, their houses depots or stations, their charges passengers.
Recent scholars estimate around 30,000 slaves escaped using the Underground Railroad. By 1860, just prior to the Civil War that finally ended slavery, there was a population of 3.9 million slaves. The Underground Railroad was less significant than we might hope.
However, it was perhaps more effective as an aggravation rather than as a means of escape. Its existence enraged slave owners, undermining their power, making them nervous about keeping their “property” intact, and forcing them to spend time and money pursuing those who did flee. It also gave hope to slaves continuing to live in misery.
This map show the Underground Railroad routes through Ohio: