by Wilbur H. Siebert

DURING the entire period of our country's history up to the time of the Civil War, numbers of slaves tried to gain their liberty by running away from their masters.  When the fugitive's absence was discovered it was the custom to publish a description of him, closing with a reward for his recovery, and to send out pursuers on his track.  It was frequently the case that runaway slaves sought refuge in unfrequented islands, swamps or caves in their own neighborhood; but these hiding places were not safe.  It was only when the ignorant slave was aided by intelligent friends, guides and helpers and assisted northward to a land of freedom that he was tolerably sure of gaining his liberty.
     These friends of the fugitives were scattered all over the Northern States, and those living in the same neighborhood were likely to know one another intimately through social, political or religious affiliations.  They were many of them, Quakers, Convenanters, Free Presbyterians and Wesleyan Methodists, and they freely co-operated with colored people in their communities in receiving, concealing and forwarding escaped slaves from one "underground station: to another.
     In this way a great network of "underground routes" was developed throughout the free states, with feeders at numberless points along the northern and eastern boundaries of the slave states.  Slaves escaping from Delaware, Maryland, Virginia or other seaboard states, would either go as stowaways on vessels to some New England port and thence by an underground route to Canada, or taking an overland course, would pass by way of underground stations through eastern Pennsylvania, New Jersey and New York to Canada.  Fugitives from West Virginia and Kentucky who once got across the Ohio River ran little risk of recapture after arriving at the initial "station" of one of the numerous lines or branches traversing western Pennsylvania, Ohio, Indiana and Michigan.  From Missouri, slaves made their way to the shore of Lake Michigan and thence to Canada - their "Promised Land," by the aid of friends in Kansas and Nebraska on the west, Iowa on the north, and Illinois on the east.  For a map of these lines see the author's book entitled "The Underground Railroad from Slavery to Freedom,"  page 113. (of Ohio History Sketches - 1903)
     All of this work of helping fugitives to escape had to be carried on secretly.  The Constitution and Laws to be carried on secretly.  The Constitution and Laws of the United States provided for the restoration of escaped slaves to their masters.  The fugitive slave law of 1793 named $500 as the penalty for hindering the arrest of a runaway or rescuing or harboring him, and the later law of 1850 increased the penalty "to a fine not exceeding $1000 and imprisonment not exceeding six months" and declared the person guilty of rendering aid liable for civil damages to the slave-owner, in the sum of $1000 for each fugitive so lost.  Secrecy was required, therefore, for the protection both of the fugitive and his friends.  The journeys from station to station were made in the night-time, the wayfarers lying in concealment during the day in the barn-lofts, hazel-thickets, hollow hayricks or secret chambers in cellar or garret to which they were conducted.  These were the so-called stations.  In emergencies, such as pursuit, when the fugitives had to be gotten away even in day light, disguises were made use of; and short-cuts through the woods to other routes would serve to throw the slave-hunters off the track.  It will thus be seen that the name "Underground Railroad" had an air of mystery and concealment about it, and for years it was employed as the convenient and bewildering designation of an extensive system of secret trails, and the methods used by abolitionists in guiding fugitives along these trails to places of freedom and safety.  The name was entirely figurative but very apt.
     The incident that probably led to the naming of the Road occurred in Ohio, the state most favorably located for underground adventures.  This incident is related by Mr. Rush R. Sloane, of Sandusky, O., who was himself a "conductor" on the Underground Railroad and was once fined $3000 and costs for assisting runaways to Canada.  Mr. Sloane says that in the year 1831, a fugitive named Tice Davids came over the line [Mason and Dixon's] and lived just back of Sandusky.  He had come direct from Ripley, Ohio, where he crossed the Ohio River.  When he was running away, his master, a Kentuckian, was in close pursuit and pressing him so hard that when the Ohio River was reached he had no alternative but to jump in and swim across.  It took his master some time to secure a skiff, in which he and his aid followed the swimming fugitive, keeping him in sight until he had landed.  Once on shore, however, the master could not find him.  No one had seen him; and after a long search the disappointed slave master declared, "That nigger must have gone off on an underground road."  The truth was that Tice had fallen into the hands of some abolitionists in Ripley and had been spirited away over the hills of Brown County to a safer place, whence he had been guided from station to station until arriving at Sandusky.  The incident made so good a story that it soon became current, and the abolitionists promptly adopted the name "Underground Railroad" for their operations.
     Ripley was one of the initial stations of the Road in the Buckeye state.  Slaves crossed the Ohio River at almost any point, and once on Ohio soil, were pretty sure to receive the directions or personal guidance that would bring them to one or another of the ports of entry for runaways along the river front.  It is difficult to say how many of these there were.  Certainly there were not less than twenty-three, and there were probably many more.  From these initial stations the routes ran in zigzag and interlacing lines, trending generally in a northeastern direction, across the state, linking station with station till a place of deportation was reached on Lake Erie.
     We have an interesting memorandum of the arrival and departure of fugitives at one of these river stations, Point Harmar in Washington County.  The memorandum is that of Mr. David Putnam, a well-known resident of the town, and an active "agent" there, and was made during the latter part of August, 1843.  It is given with all the abbreviations.
     Aug. 13/43 Sunday Morn.  2 o'clock arrived.
     Sunday Eve. 8 o'clock departed for B.
     16 Wednesday Morn. 2 o'clock arrived.
     20 Sunday Eve.  10 o'clock departed for N.
     Wife and children 21 Monday morn. 2 o'clock arrived from B.
     Monday Eve. 10 o'clock departed for Mr. H.
     22 Tuesday Eve. 11 o'clock left for W.
     A. L. & S. J. 28 Monday morn.  1 o'clock arrived left 2 o'clock.
     It will be noticed that this memorandum observes a discreet silence both as regards the names of those arriving and the names of places, or the persons to whom they were taken.  A bit of evidence containing such particulars would have been too explicit, and would have laid others liable to severe penalties under the fugitive slave law.
     The caution here exhibited was characteristic of underground methods.  Written communications between those engaged in this dangerous and unlawful business were therefore avoided as much as possible.  When, however, such communications between those engaged in this dangerous and unlawful business were therefore avoided as much as possible.  When, however, such communications were employed, they had to be carefully worded, as witnessed the following note, sent by John Stone of Belpre, Ohio, to his friend David Putnam, who is mentioned above:
                                                            BELPRE, FRIDAY MORNING.
- Business is arranged for Saturday night.  Be on the lookout, and if practicable let a carriage come and meet the caravan.                        J. S.
     There must have been women and children in the "caravan" referred to in this note, otherwise it is improbable that Mr. Stone would have asked for a carriage.  When the fugitives were men they could get along on foot, but the frequency with which women and children were found in escaping parties, and the need of rapid transit as the business of the Road increased, and pursuit became more common, led to the use of covered wagons, closed carriages and deep-bedded farm wagons for day service.  A few enterprising abolitionists of Ohio had vehicles of special construction, through innocent in outward appearance, in which a load of refugees could be taken on long journeys with comparatives safety.  Abram Allen, a Quaker of Oakland, Clinton County, Ohio, had a large, three-seated curtained wagon, which would hold eight or ten persons.  To one of the axles of this vehicle was attached a mechanism with a bell to record the number of miles traveled.  A citizen of Troy, Ohio, a bookbinder, by trade, had a large wagon built about with drawers in such a way as to leave a hiding place in the center.  As the bookbinder drove through the country he found opportunity to help many a fugitive on his way to Canada.  Horace Holt of Rutland, Meigs County, sold reeds to his neighbors in southern Ohio.  He was the owner of a box-bed wagon with a lid that fastened with a padlock.  In this he hauled his supply of reeds; it was well understood by a few that he also hauled fugitive slaves.  Levi Coffin, a Quaker of Cincinnati, Ohio, called the president of the Underground Railroad, employed all sorts of devices in assisting more than 3000 persons to their liberty.  It was by methods such as these that thousands of runaways were conveyed to places of safety in northern Ohio, or to ports on Lake Erie from which they went by boat to the Canadian shore.  Of these lake ports there were not less than six in Ohio, that were important shipping points for fugitives, not to mention Detroit which was the terminal of some of the western Ohio lines.
     When the refugee arrived in Canada, he hardly knew how to conduct himself so great was his delight at being free.  In 1860, Captain Chapman, the commander of a vessel on Lake Erie, landed two fugitives in Canada.  To him they seemed brutish and almost incapable of realizing what liberty meant.  How much he was mistaken is best told in his own words.  On being put ashore the slaves asked, "Is this Canada?"  The captain said, "Yes, there are no slaves in this country; then," he continued, "I witnessed a scene I shall never forget.  They seemed to be transformed; a new light shone in their eyes, their tongues were loosed, they laughed and cried, prayed and sang praises, fell upon the ground and kissed it, hugged and kissed each other, crying, "Bress de Lord!  Oh! Ise free before I die!'"  Fortunate it was for people such as these, who had undergone all sorts of toil and hardship to reach the goal of liberty, that the country in which they found themselves received them hospitably, helped them in establishing homes, and endowed them with the right of citizenship.
     It is impossible to say how many slaves were emancipated by the Underground Railroad.  A computation based on a record kept in one of the Ohio centers indicates that probably more than 40,000 were aided in Ohio alone during the years 1830 to 1860.  The fight of the slaves spread an abhorrence of slavery in the North and caused irritation in the South.  The operations of the Underground lay beyond the reach of compromise.  Thus the fugitive was a missionary in the cause of freedom.  Personal liberty laws were passed by the free states to defend him; Uncle Tom's Cabin was written to portray to the world his aspirations for liberty and his endeavors to secure it; John Brown proposed to make use of underground methods as a part of the Harper's Ferry scheme of liberation.  The South complained bitterly of the losses of slave property she sustained, and their losses certainly constituted one of the chief reasons for the secession of the Southern States at the beginning of the Civil War.


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