The Underground Railroad

Reference: National Parks Service

The Slave Trade

Resistance to lifetime servitude began with the first Africans forcibly brought to the Western Hemisphere in the 1500s, and resistance continued until the last emancipations in the Americas. For the former British colonies which became the United States, colonial-era resistance and early antislavery activities are the base on which the Underground Railroad was built. Without resistance, there would have been no need for the extensive legal codes which upheld property rights in human beings or for the brutal intimidation which always existed just beneath the surface of this coercive social system.

The circumstances which gave rise to the Underground Railroad were based on the transportation of Africans to North America as part of the Atlantic slave trade. About twelve million Africans were transported across the Atlantic to the Western Hemisphere in the 400 years from 1450 to 1850. Of this number, only about five per cent were brought to British North America and, later, to the United States from Africa, most of them arriving between 1680 and 1808. Varied forms of bonded labor had existed in Europe and Africa, but as the need for labor grew in the New World’s plantations and mines, the importation of unwilling Africans also grew. In early North America, the system of lifetime servitude, or slavery, was supported by an elaborate and severe legal code based on race. A few Africans slipped through that legal net and were free, but not many.

Early Anti-Slavery

While colonial North America received few slaves compared to other places in the Western Hemisphere, it was deeply involved in the slave trade and the first protests against slavery were efforts to end the slave trade. English reformers took the lead in this and were joined by Americans with varied motives. Some southerners feared slave revolts if importation continued. Religious societies stressed the moral evil of the trade, and free blacks saw the end of the slave trade as a first step toward general emancipation.

In colonial North America, newly enslaved Africans often ran away in groups of men and women intending to create a new community in a remote area. For these groups, called maroons, their very numbers made them easier to discover, although bands of fugitives, primarily men, continued to live in swamps and mountains and to elude capture throughout the slavery era. Spanish Florida and Mexico were favored destinations for many enslaved in the lower South. The northern states and Canada became goals when they adopted emancipation laws.

The American Revolution created more free blacks, both through those who actively supported the Patriot cause and were freed and those who took the opportunity to work for or leave with the British. The rhetoric of liberty and human rights effected a change in some slaveholders who emancipated their slaves in the years after the Revolution. But these events were more than counterbalanced by the fact that the United States Constitution, adopted in 1787, protected the rights of slaveholders to slave property throughout the union. Some actions by the new American government and the individual states did limit slavery. The Northwest Territory was forbidden to slavery and the northern states enacted gradual emancipation laws. But the passage of the Fugitive Slave Law of 1793 explicitly stated that slaveholders could retrieve their slave “property” from free states and territories. That was to discourage enslaved persons from trying to reach free regions.

Hundreds of slaves fled bondage each year in the decades between the American Revolution and the Civil War. Some stayed in the South, seeking family from whom they had been separated or a temporary refuge from slavery. Other fugitives stayed in southern towns and cities, often with forged “free” papers. Whether they sought free territory or remained in the south, they were primarily aided by other slaves and by free blacks while in the south. In each decade after the Revolution, the assistance of some whites became more apparent. The Religious Society of Friends (Quakers) was prominent in the antislavery societies which sprang up after the Revolution, and, for a while, the Baptists and Methodists were antislavery. The early antislavery societies promoted gradual emancipation and they faded from the national scene by the War of 1812. As the free black population grew, their concern for the status of the African American became the center of the antislavery movement.

The debate in Congress in 1819 and 1820 over whether Missouri should enter the Union as a slave or free state made it clear to the entire nation that the slavery issue was not going to simply evaporate in the American republic. For free blacks, the formation of the national American Colonization Society persuaded them to organize for the abolition of slavery rather than act individually. The Colonization Society wanted federal government funds to pay the costs of settling free blacks in an African colony they founded and called Liberia. The threat to free African Americans that this appeared to represent called for a more organized black response and for more white allies. The era of immediate abolitionism is generally acknowledged to have begun on
January 1, 1831, when William Lloyd Garrison first published his abolitionist newspaper,The Liberator.

Operating the Underground Railroad

The debate in Congress in 1819 and 1820 over whether Missouri should enter the Union as a slave or free state made it clear to the entire nation that the slavery issue was not going to simply evaporate in the American republic. For free blacks, the formation of the national American Colonization Society persuaded them to organize for the abolition of slavery rather than act individually. The Colonization Society wanted federal government funds to pay the costs of settling free blacks in an African colony they founded and called Liberia. The threat to free African Americans that this appeared to represent called for a more organized black response and for more white allies. The era of immediate abolitionism is generally acknowledged to have begun on January 1, 1831, when William Lloyd Garrison first published his abolitionist newspaper, The Liberator.

The abolitionists were divided over strategy and tactics, but they were very active and very visible. Many of them were part of the organized Underground Railroad that flourished between 1830 and 1861. Not all abolitionists favored aiding fugitive slaves, and some believed that money and energy should go to political action. Even those who were not abolitionists might be willing to help when they encountered a fugitive, or they might not. It was very difficult for fugitives to know who could be trusted.

Southerners were outraged that escaping slaves received assistance from so many sources and that they lived and worked in the North and Canada. As a part of the Compromise of 1850, a new Fugitive Slave Act was passed that made it both possible and profitable to hire slave catchers to find and arrest runaways. This was a disaster for the free black communities of the North, especially since the slave catchers often kidnapped legally-free blacks as well as fugitives. But these seizures and kidnappings brought the brutality of slavery into the North and persuaded many more people to assist fugitives. Vigilance Committees acted as contact points for runaways and watched out vigilantly for the rights of northern free blacks. They worked together with local abolition societies, African American churches and a variety of individuals to help fugitives move further on or to find them homes and work. Those who went to Canada in the mid-nineteenth century went primarily to what was then called Canada West, now Ontario.

The Civil War

The national argument over where slavery should be legal and where it would be prohibited spiraled the nation toward Civil War in 1861. By 1862, the Union Army occupied sections of the South from Fortress Monroe, Virginia, to New Orleans. Enslaved men, women and children found their way to Union lines and became “contraband” of war, many of them working for the Union army or beginning new lives. In the North, after initial opposition, black men formed military companies. While the Massachusetts 54th was the most famous of these units, the 180,000 African Americans who served in the Civil War came from every part of the now-disunited States. As many soldiers had their origins in the South as in the North. By the time that the Emancipation Proclamation went into effect, in January, 1863, many slaves had emancipated themselves.