One of the most valuable weapons that the abolitionist movement used in its war against slavery was the so-called "Underground Railroad." This was the name given to a secret network of free blacks and whites who helped slaves escape from their masters and gain freedom in the Northern United States and in Canada, where slavery was prohibited. The Underground Railroad system consisted of a chain of barns and homes known as "safe houses" or "depots" that ran from the South up into the North. The free blacks and whites who helped runaway slaves make it from one safe house to the next were called "conductors" or "stationmasters." The total number of runaway slaves who "rode" the Underground Railroad to freedom is unknown, but historians estimate that as many as fifty thousand blacks may have reached the free states or Canada through this method.
An early version of the Underground Railroad was constructed in the 1780s by Quakers and other church groups, but the network did not become a significant force until the 1830s. At that time, the growing abolitionist movement pumped new energy and resources into the network, and increasing numbers of runaway slaves used it to escape from the South.
Blacks living in the North were largely responsible for the success of the Underground Railroad. These activists included free blacks who had purchased their freedom from their masters and moved North, as well as former slaves like Frederick Douglass who, after successfully escaping themselves, risked their lives and freedom time after time in order to help other slaves. The most famous of the black "conductors" was Harriet Tubman (c. 1820-1913), an escaped slave who made nineteen dangerous trips back into slave territory to help more than three hundred runaways gain their freedom. White abolitionists aided the effort as well, even though they knew they would be harshly punished if their activities were discovered. For example, a Maryland minister named Charles T. Torrey, who helped hundreds of runaways escape, died in a state penitentiary after being imprisoned for his activities. Another white abolitionist named Calvin Fairbanks was imprisoned for seventeen years for his efforts on behalf of runaway slaves.
The men and women who operated the Underground Railroad were brave, but their courage was matched by that of the fugitive slaves. Many of these runaways had never traveled more than a few miles from the plantation or home in which they toiled, and they knew that they would be beaten, whipped, or perhaps even killed if they were recaptured. Yet thousands of slaves dashed for freedom every year during the mid-1800s, traveling through unfamiliar territory by night with the knowledge that
angry slavecatchers might be only minutes behind them.
Most runaway slaves who escaped from the South lived in slave states that bordered the North, like Maryland, Kentucky, and Virginia. Even though it was dangerous for slaves from these states to attempt escape, they did not have to travel nearly as far as slaves from Alabama or Mississippi to reach soil where slavery was not permitted. In fact, some runaway slaves from the Deep South remained in the region since they figured that they probably would not be able to make it all the way to the
North. Instead, some fled to large Southern cities like Charleston in hopes of melting into the free black population that lived there. Others hid in remote regions where few people lived. One such spot was the Florida Everglades, where fugitive slaves were aided by the Seminole Indians who made their home there. Finally, some slaves from the Deep South found refuge in Mexico, where slavery had been outlawed.
Runaway slaves became a big problem for the South from the 1830s until the Civil War began in 1861, even though slave states took several measures to stop them. Southern communities organized groups of white citizens called slave patrols that roamed the countryside. These patrols were designed to capture fugitives and intimidate slaves who might be thinking about running away. Southern representatives also insisted that the North enforce national fugitive slave laws. The primary fugitive slave law used by the South was one that had been passed in 1793. This law, known as the Fugitive Slave Law, was essentially a stronger version of a fugitive slave clause that had been included in the U.S. Constitution. It permitted slaveholders to recapture fugitive slaves living in America's free states and compelled Northern courts and legal officials to help the slaveowners in their efforts. The law also made it illegal for anyone to interfere with slaveholders attempting to regain control of their "property."
By the late 1830s, however, it was clear that many fugitive slaves using the Underground Railroad were able to evade the slave patrols and avoid slavecatchers sent North to retrieve them. The task of recapturing runaway slaves was made even more difficult for slaveholders in 1842, when the U.S. Supreme Court made a ruling that infuriated the South. In a case called Prigg v. Pennsylvania, the Court decided that a slaveholder could still "seize and recapture his slave [in a free state], whenever he can do it without any breach of the peace, or any illegal violence." But the Court's decision also stated that the Northern states did not have to help Southern-
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