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. 8½ 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
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
BELPRE, FRIDAY MORNING.
DAVID PUTNAM: - Business is arranged for Saturday
night. Be on the lookout, and if practicable let a carriage
come and meet the caravan.
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
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
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.