Is the Underground Railroad the End of Slavery or Not?

The 1800’s in America were much different than the times now. In 1855 there were only 31 states in the United States and the other parts of the country were called territories. Out of the 31 states, there were two types: slave and free (Slavery 7). The Underground Railroad started around 1780 by the people who favored the Abolitionist Movement (Mitchell 2), but got its official name in 1831 (Underground Railroad 1). The Abolitionist Movement was a movement to end slavery. In the end, the Underground Railroad helped free over 100,000 slaves between 1810 to 1850.

The Underground Railroad was not an actual railroad, but a code name for the users and operators who ran it. The meaning was a network, route, or hiding place for slaves escaping to the North (Slavery 8). The name was said to have come from the former slave, Tice Davids, who escaped from Kentucky and made his way to Ohio. When he escaped, his owner thought he had escaped using an “underground road (Kallen 13).” Blacks were not the only ones involved in the Underground Railroad.

There were hundreds of people involved including wealthy white people, Christian ministers, farmers, and housewives (Slavery 8).

Slavery has been around since the beginning of human history. The first writings made 6,000 years ago mentioned slavery. The first time slaves made their way to North America was 1619. A Dutchman from Jamestown, Virginia, had brought 20 Africans to North America to trade for food (Kallen 8). When slaves were brought over to North America, they were brought over in boats or ships. It was announced that a “fresh load of human cargo” had arrived at the city harbor.

Get quality help now

Proficient in: Human Rights

5 (339)

“ KarrieWrites did such a phenomenal job on this assignment! He completed it prior to its deadline and was thorough and informative. ”

+84 relevant experts are online
Hire writer

When the announcement was made, plantation workers would stop working to go purchase the servants. As the slaves stepped off of the ships or boats, they would be nearly naked and barefoot. The men and women slaves would be tormented while being examined by the buyers. After the slaves were examined, they were sold on auction (Kallen 15). As the slaves were being bought, the buyers did not care about the families and would buy them separately on purpose. The buyers thought that if they bought slaves that knew each other, they would try and escape (Kallen 15).

Slaves were always looking for a way to escape from their owners. On the ship ride over to North America, there would always be a handful that would jump overboard. One of the last resorts slaves considered onboard was suicide, but they did not always choose that route. In some cases, the slaves tried to take charge. On one boat trip, a group of slaves out powered the crew and took over the slave ship. The slaves did not always look to escape from the ships, but once the slave ships got to American shores, the slaves would fight for their freedom. There were many cases where the slaves were taken in by Native Americans once they arrived to America. The Native Americans fought against white settlers and would take the slaves into the tribe. The Natives knew the slaves did not like the white population and thought they would help them. Other times, slaves would just escape to remote islands and live on their own. Not all slaves tried to escape. Sometimes the slaves would try to start revolts. The revolts never succeeded, and the slave who planned the revolt would be caught and killed (Kallen 2, Kallen 9). By 1708, there were 12,000 African Americans in Virginia, and between 1710 and 1718 4,500 more slaves were brought over. In 1776 the population in Virginia was even between blacks and whites (Kallen 8).

Slaves had a very harsh life once they reached America. Many slaves worked on plantations and did a lot of dirty work. Slaves were considered property more than people. They did not have much for food or clothing. During the year, the slaves were given a wardrobe that consisted of: two coarse linen shirts, one jacket, one pair of trousers, one pair of stockings, and one pair of shoes. The whole wardrobe could not cost more than seven dollars. This only applied to the adult slaves. If the slaves had young children, their allowance would be given to their mothers (Kallen 16). Some of the children could not work and did not have any clothes. They were given two linen shirts per year, and if they were ruined, they had to go naked until they received their allowance the next day. Some slaves did not have clothes and had to go naked all year round (Kallen 16).

Due to these conditions, slaves tried to escape. If the slaves tried to escape from their owners, they had very bad punishment if they were caught. When they were caught they would be either chained up or tied together if more than one was caught, and then returned back to their owner. The worst punishment was yet to come. Once they returned back to their owner, they were whipped or sometimes even killed. The owners did these punishments to warn the other slaves thinking about escaping. The slaves that escaped were called runaways (Slavery 6) and slave catchers were people who looked for escaped slaves. The slave catchers were rewarded large amounts of money if they caught an escaped slave. These people were usually men who traveled by horse and had bloodhounds to track the slaves down (Slavery 6).

The first group that was considered to help slaves were the Quakers. In 1786, George Washington accused a Quaker of trying to “liberate” his slave (Underground 1). One year later, Isaac T. Hopper, a Quaker abolitionist from Philadelphia, created a network to hide escaped slaves. Not long after, he started helping slaves escape from New Jersey and Pennsylvania (Kallen 10). Soon after, Pennsylvania became the first state to ban slavery. This had been where a majority of Quakers lived (Mitchell 2) and when the Fugitive Slave Act of 1793 was created. This Act was created to punish the people who tried to help slaves escape. The government would arrest the escaped slaves from the borders of free states and return them back to their original place. It was now a crime to help escaped slaves, but this did not bother the northern states. They ignored the Act and continued to help the slaves (Underground 2, Kallen 10).

Quakers had started establishing groups to help escaped slaves in the early 1800’s. In 1816, an African Methodist Episcopal Church was created to help slaves escape (Underground 1). Not long after, North Carolina had routes and shelters for escaped slaves. The Quakers kept creating committees to protect the slaves. Two committees that helped the slaves were the New York Committee created in 1835 and the Philadelphia Committee created in 1839 (Underground 2).

The Underground Railroad was first introduced in 1831 when Tice Davids had escaped from Kentucky and went to Ohio. His owner believed his slave had used an “Underground Railroad” to help him escape (Underground 1). In 1839, a slave mentioned he was going to Boston using an underground railroad (Underground 1), and by 1840, the Underground Railroad was a well known term to America (Underground 2).

The slaves were escaping and heading up to Canada to try and get away from the Fugitive Slave Act (Underground 2). Canada allowed freedom to the blacks. Blacks were allowed to live wherever they wanted, sit in on juries, and even run for public office. When the blacks would arrive to Canada, there would be operators waiting to help them settle in (Underground 2). In 1826, slaveholders started complaining that there were too many slaves in Canada, but this did not stop Canada. Canada refused to return the slaves and kept on helping them (Kallen 12).

It was not long after the word got out about the Underground Railroad, that changes were made. A new act came in to play to stop escaping slaves. The Fugitive Slave Act of 1850 was created to strengthen the 1793 Act. The Act of 1850 had worse consequences and allowed slave hunters to travel north to capture slaves. This led to freed slaves being recaptured (Kallen 12, Underground 2).

The first thing slaves had to do was escape the plantations. This was hard and gave the slaves great anxiety. They were scared their owners could read their thoughts and catch them by their behavior (Kallen 32). Once they had escaped they started to head to Kentucky, Virginia, Maryland, or Canada. If they were heading west, they would use the routes from Ohio to Indiana or Ohio to Iowa. If they were heading north they would use routes from Pennsylvania to New England or Detroit to Canada (Underground 2).

When they first escaped they would head into the woods. They would always travel in small groups at night. It was illegal for blacks to attend school, so they could not read or follow maps. The slaves would follow the North Star when they traveled in the dark (Kallen 9). If it was cloudy during the night and they could not see the stars, they would feel the trees with their hands. They knew they were going North because moss grows the longest on the north side of trees (Kallen 33). Slaves would only travel 10-20 miles to the next station. During the day, they would stay in barns, safe houses, and rest and eat. While they were waiting , a message would be sent to the next station in line (Underground Railroad 2).

While slaves were traveling they faced many risks. They had to cross rivers, endure freezing winds, and deal with hunger (Slavery 6). When they traveled on foot, they could not travel with much and would wear all of their clothes at once. Some of the slaves did not have clothes and would lose fingers, toes, ears, or get frostbite (Kallen 33). When the slaves started to travel they could not stop. If the slaves wanted to turn back, they would be threatened with a gun, and so they kept on going. Escaping slavery took a lot of courage (Mitchell 5). When they traveled, they would use well known landmarks like lakes, rivers, and rocky features to know they were traveling north. Seeing these features was a good sign (Kallen 33).

When the escaped slaves would travel on foot, they would rub their shoes with red onion and spruce pine so the dogs could not track them down (Kallen 33). The only food the slaves had in the woods were wild berries. Some slaves had guns and knives to use for hunting. Traveling was not always a simple route and there were many cases where the slaves had to go off the routes and hide in potato fields or find some holes (Slavery 9, Kallen 34).

Slaves did not always escape by foot. They used many types of transportation to escape: horseback, carriages, wagons, trains, or boats. When slaves escaped using wagons, they would hide in fake bottoms of the wagon, small compartments in the wagon, or they covered up with hay (Kallen 33,32). If the slaves used trains to travel, the trains would sometimes be paid for with money that was donated by vigilance committees. These committees would also buy the slaves new clothes for the train, so people would not recognize them (Underground Railroad 2). Some slaves were not lucky and their operators would abandon them to collect a reward (Kallen 34).

As slaves traveled, they used special codes to communicate. When the slaves traveled at night, they used the watchword “keep your eye on the North star.” This was how they knew they were heading north (Mitchell 3). Africans could speak many languages which made it easy to communicate with their people and caused conflicts with other tribes (Kallen 15). They would use special words and some signals when communicating (Slavery 8). When they first escaped, operators would teach the slaves codes. They would use special knocks and passwords to get into the stations (Kallen 34).

There were two types of operators in the Underground Railroad: stockholders and conductors. Stockholders were people who contributed money and goods to the slaves. They gave slaves clothes, so people would not recognize them by their work clothes on the train. Conductors were people who helped the slaves move and find safe places (Mitchell 3). The places conductors found for slaves were private houses, churches, or school houses (Underground 2). These buildings were called stations, safe houses, or depots. The people running these hiding spots were called stationmasters (Underground 2). These stations were normally spaced 12 miles apart allowing the slaves to travel and arrive in one night. A very well known station was ran by Levi and Catharine Coffin living in Newport, Indiana. Levi had started helping slaves at the age of 15 in 1813 and was one of the earliest to help slaves. Levi would find slaves hiding places and would guide them to freedom. His house in Indiana had eight rooms to hide slaves. His house was such a popular station, it had three routes coming into it. During the time of the Underground Railroad, Levi and his wife helped 3,000 slaves and became known as the “President of the Underground Railroad.” He later moved to Cincinnati and his house is known as a National Historic Landmark. Another popular station was the Tallman House located in Janesville, Wisconsin. It had 20 rooms to hide slaves and a secret look out to see when people were coming (Kallen 59, Mitchell 2, Underground 3, 4).

There were not any requirements to become an operator in the Underground Railroad. The operators were ordinary people, farmers, business people, ministers, or wealthy people. Gernt Smith was a millionaire who ran for president twice, and bought a family to set free in 1841 (Underground 3). There were three main vigilance committees who helped slaves: New York, Philadelphia, and Boston. The main things operators did was provide food, money, housing, help slaves find jobs, and provide letters of recommendation (Underground Railroad 2).

Altogether there were around 3,211 helpers in the Underground Railroad. Some of these helpers would travel all over the states to help slaves escape, while others only traveled ten miles to the next station. There were operators for each type of travel: wagon drivers, steamboat workers, and the leaders who lead slaves on foot. There were also female conductors who helped in different ways. Women conductors would form sewing circles that made disguises for the slaves. A popular sewing circle was the Anti Slavery Sewing Society who created two types. They would either dress the slaves in formal clothes, so they blended in with the normal crowd, or they would dress the fugitives as the opposite sex (Kallen 50, 52).

Each operator that was helping the slaves escape took a huge risk. It was against the law to help slaves after the Fugitive Slave Act of 1850 was passed. This law forbid people to help escaped slaves. In 1793 if people were caught helping slaves, they would be fined 500 dollars. The fine was raised up to a 1,000 dollars in 1850 and started to cause people to go bankrupt. This did not stop the operators. When helpers would get caught, they would not give out any information or names. They were mostly loyal to the slaves they helped. The consequences were different for each race that got caught. If a person were black, he could get prison time, whipped or even hanged. If a person were white, he would just get some jail time (Slavery 8, Mitchell 3, Kallen 49).

There were many operators in the Underground Railroad, but there were a few who left a huge mark in history. Harriet Tubman was born in Maryland in 1822 or 1823. She grew up with nine siblings on a farm owned by Mr. Brodess. Tubman did not have a very fun childhood as she was rented out at the age of five. She had many bad experiences, but her worst one was with her master Miss Susan. Tubman had to watch Miss Susan’s baby, and if the baby woke Miss Susan up with her cries, Tubman would be whipped (Slavery 6, 7).

When Tubman was old enough to work, she worked in the fields. This was different for her because she got to work with other slaves. Until one day, she heard she was being sold and fled. Tubman had a very special gift; she could follow the stars. Once Tubman had escaped, it took her a week to travel 120 miles to Philadelphia, Pennsylvania, a free state. When she arrived, she got a job working at a hotel, but soon was not happy. She wanted to go save her family (Slavery 7). Tubman went back to Maryland and saved her parents, her nieces family, and her brother and his friends. Tubman was now part of the Underground Railroad (Slavery 8). Tubman had freed up to 70 to 80 slaves during the Underground Railroad and made the trip 13 times without being caught. She is now one of the most well known conductors of the Underground Railroad (Slavery 9).

William Still was a Philadelphian citizen who had worked with Tubman in the Underground Railroad. When he was traveling on the railroad, he kept a record of what he did and the conditions in a journal. His journal was published after the Civil War and can be found in libraries today. Frederick Douglass was a former slave who also hid slaves in his home in New York and helped 400 of them escape to Canada. Reverend Jermain Loguen was another former slave who helped 1,500 slaves escape to the north (Underground 3).

There were many people who risked their lives to help slaves in the Underground Railroad. John Brown was a conductor for the Railroad and established the League of Gileadites. This league helped slaves move to Canada. Brown made an army force that marched down to the south with guns to free slaves. Brown’s army was defeated and he was hanged for treason in 1859. John Fairfield was another conductor who did not have a happy ending. Fairfield had left his family, who owned slaves, to help the slaves who were left behind. He had faked being a slave trader to help slaves escape. Fairfield broke out of jail twice and died in 1860 during a slave rebellion (Underground 4).

By 1855 there were four million slaves living in America and the south had lost around 100,000 slaves between 1810 and 1850 (Slavery 4, Mitchell 2). The battle of slavery almost destroyed the United States. Until 1860, when the antislavery, Abraham Lincoln, was elected for president. South Carolina, Alabama, Florida, Georgia, Louisiana, Mississippi, and Texas had then left the Union and created their own country called the “O Confederate States of America.” The Civil War started April 4, 1861, and lasted four years. It was known as the Union effort against the Confederacy. The Underground Railroad was shut down in 1863 during the Civil War. The war ended April 9, 1865, leaving the south devastated and destroyed. The south had lost and 600,000 Americans had died. In 1865 the 13th Amendment was created and slavery was abolished in the United States (Underground 4, Kallen 79).

Cite this page

Is the Underground Railroad the End of Slavery or Not?. (2022, Feb 11). Retrieved from

Let’s chat?  We're online 24/7