When is a railroad not a railroad?

Harriet Tubman, an African American abolitioni...
Harriet Tubman, an African American abolitionist and conductor of the Underground Railroad. (Photo credit: Wikipedia)
English: The exterior of the Slave Pen, the fo...
The exterior of the Slave Pen, the focal point of the National Underground Railroad Freedom Center in Cincinnati. (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

The underground railroad is neither underground, nor an actual railroad. Underground was akin to today’s deals on the side in that much of it was secret. And railroad referred to the code used.

It was actually a network of secret routes and safe houses used by back slaves in the United States to escape and go to free states and Canada. Some led to Mexico and even overseas. The term is also used in reference to abolitionists and allies, both white and black, both free and enslaved, who brought aid to the fugitives.

It consisted of meeting points, secret routes, transportation, safe houses and help provided by abolitionist sympathizers. Individuals were often made up of small, independent groups so that secrecy could be maintained. Some would know of connecting “stations” but knew little else of the operation. Escaped slaves were led north along the route, moving from one station to another.

“Conductors” came from various backgrounds: free-born blacks, white abolitionists, former slaves, Native Americans and various churches.

To cut the risk of infiltration, many people affiliated with the Underground Railroad knew only of their part of the operation, and nothing of the whole scheme. The conductress were the ones one who moved the slaves from station to station. Sometimes that meant a conductor would pose as a slave in order to enter a plantation. The slaves would travel mostly at night, about 10 to 20 miles (15 to 30 km) to each station. Then they would stop at each “depot” or “station” during the day to eat and rest. The stations were usually out of the way like barns. While resting, a message was relayed to the next station, to let the owner there to let the station master know that the runaways were on their way.

Many references are akin to the railway system. Some examples are:
* the people who helped slaves find the stations were called “agents”.
* guides were known as “conductors”.
* hiding places were called “stations”.
* “station masters” hid slaves in their homes or barns.
* escaped slaves were sometimes called “cargo” or “passengers”.
* financial backers were known as “stockholders”.

Refugees would refer to Canada as The Promised Land, and the Mississippi River as The Jordan River as biblical references.

Routes were often indirect on purpose. The journey was difficult especially for women and children. Yet one of the more famous abductors was a woman, Harriet Tubman.

Another famous abductee was a man named William Stills. He was known as “the father of the Underground Railroad”. He helped hundreds of slaves escape, sometimes as. Many as 60 a month! He kept careful records, often each entry included a short biography, always with railway terminology. He kept in touch with many and would act as a middle man in communication between them and those left behind. He lat published the accounts in the book The Underground Railroad in 1872.

He wrote in a code that only those involved would understand. For instance, one record states, “I have sent via at two o’clock four large hams. And two small hams” indicating that four adults and two children were sent by train from Harrisburg to Philadelphia. The word “via” meant that they were not passengers on a usual train, but rather via Reading, Pennsylvania. In this particular case, The authorities were tricked into going to the regular train station, while Stills was able to meet them at the correct station and lead them to safety.

Some estimates that by 1850, roughly 100,000 slaves escaped via the underground railroad.

You can read so much of this on Wikipedia. To find out more about the remarkable Harriet Tubman, I suggest About.com – a wonderful article written by Jone Johnson Lewis. If you are willing to pay, I recommend Amazon.com for the book Fleeing for Freedom: Stories of the Underground Railroad (ISBN: 1566635462)


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