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Underground Railroad

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Underground Railroad

Without context, the Underground Railroad might seem like an on-the-mark term for the subway, but contrary to its name, the Underground Railroad was neither underground nor an actual railroad. Instead, it was a metaphor for the secret (underground) networks (railroad) that helped enslaved people escape to freedom.

The Underground Railroad Definition

The Underground Railroad was a network of routes and safe houses that ran across the United States from the late 1700s until the end of slavery. “Conductors” of all backgrounds would guide enslaved people on their way to freedom in Northern states, Western territory, Canada, Mexico, Caribbean territories, and Europe. Estimates suggest around 100,000 enslaved people used the Underground Railroad to escape.


individuals who guided enslaved people to their destinations and helped connect them with safe houses

There was not a singular route that freedom-seekers took. Depending on their starting point and destination, they would travel by land or water. Water was the safest and easiest choice, but it was not always an option in landlocked areas. Groups traveling by land were often small and only traveled at night to avoid capture.

The Underground Railroad Map

The Underground Railroad ran across the entire country, with many starting points and final destinations. To prevent authorities from discovering entire networks, conductors and owners of “way stations” often did not know more than their own part. A written map could put the entire operation in jeopardy.

way stations

safe houses that freedom-seekers could stay at along the Underground Railroad

For these reasons, it would be impossible to create a comprehensive and all-encompassing map of the Underground Railroad. Below is a map created by Wilbur Henry Siebert in 1898 that shows just routes going into Canada. As you can see, it already looks complex.

Underground Railroad Map of Routes to Canada StudySmarterMap of Underground Railroad routes going into Canada,

The Underground Railroad: The Fugitive Slave Acts

Since the beginning of slavery in the United States, enslaved people had been attempting to escape. Those who were successful in the earlier years often joined maroon communities hidden away from white communities. With time, the destination changed to territories, states, and countries that were anti-slavery.

maroon communities

communities started in remote and rugged areas by those who had escaped slavery

Another big change was that enslaved people no longer had to plan and execute their escapes by themselves. People of all backgrounds began to assist in escapes, eventually forming networks across the country.

Secrecy regarding the details of the Underground Railroad did not lend itself to secrecy regarding the operation as a whole. The South was well aware of the Underground Railroad. Some abolitionists spoke of it proudly but a quote by Frederick Douglass shows that not all abolitionists were on the same page:

I have never approved of the very public manner in which some of our western friends have conducted what they call the underground railroad, but which, I think, by their open declarations, has been made most emphatically the upperground railroad.” - Frederick Douglass, Narrative of the Life of Frederick Douglass, an American Slave, 1849

Slaveholders in the South were upset that the Northern states allowed escaped slaves to seek refuge within their borders. The first Fugitive Slave Act, passed in 1793 as a result of Southern pressure, enabled slaveholders and the men they hired to go into Northern States to capture slaves that had escaped.

Congress passed the second Fugitive Slave Act as part of the Compromise of 1850. It was much stricter than the Fugitive Slave Act of 1793. It required all citizens to aid in the return of runaway slaves or risk a penalty of $1,000 and six months in jail. It made being a conductor of the Underground Railroad even more dangerous than before.

The Compromise of 1850

an agreement between free states and slave states regarding the status of slavery in newly acquired territories that included the passage of the Fugitive Slave Act of 1850

The Underground Railroad Conductors

As we discussed earlier, conductors of the Underground Railroad came from a variety of backgrounds. Conductors included free Black people, white people of various religions, and even Native Americans. We also know that being a conductor could be dangerous, especially after the passage of the Fugitive Slave Act of 1850.

The Underground Railroad Conductors: The North vs. The South

There was a stark difference though between the consequences for a conductor operating in the North versus the South. Although the Fugitive Slave Act of 1850 complicated things for those in the North, those in the South could face much more than a jail sentence. If a conductor was caught in the South, punishments could include torture, and even lynching.

The Underground Railroad Conductors: Notable Conductors

Harriet Tubman

Underground Railroad Conductor Harriet Tubman StudySmarterPortrait of Harriet Tubman, commons.

Today, it would be impossible to discuss the Underground Railroad without mentioning Harriet Tubman, famous for her role in helping around 70 people escape slavery in over 10 different expeditions without losing a single “passenger.”


an enslaved person traveling the Underground Railroad

Harriet Tubman preferred to travel during the winter when nights were long, and people were more likely to be at home bundled up. A former slave herself, she continued to risk her life and return to the South to save her friends and family. She was a master of disguise and kept a gun to protect herself and her passengers.

William Still

Underground Railroad Conductor William Still StudySmarterPortrait of William Still,

William Still was born a free man to parents who were once enslaved. He became one of the most successful Black businessmen in Philadelphia, where he helped freedom-seekers that were stopping through on their journeys. He wrote and published The Underground Railroad (1872), which offers first-hand accounts of people that escaped slavery via the Underground Railroad.

Below is just one example of the many narratives he included in the book. It is the story of Clarissa Davis.

“One day, word was conveyed to her that the steamship, City of Richmond, had arrived from Philadelphia, and that the stewards on board (with whom she was acquainted), had consented to secrete her this trip, if she could manage to reach the ship safely…Dressed in male attire, Clarissa left the miserable coop where she had been almost without light or air for two and a half months, and unmolested, reached the boat safely, and was secreted in a box” - William Still, The Underground Railroad, 1872

Frederick Douglass

Underground Railroad Conductor Frederick Douglass StudySmarterPortrait of Frederick Douglass,

Frederick Douglass is one of the most well-known abolitionists of his time. He was born into slavery but managed to escape via the Underground Railroad in 1836. From his home in Rochester, New York, he worked as a conductor and helped others who decided to travel the Underground Railroad. He started his newspaper, The North Star, in 1847 and it quickly became the most prominent Black abolitionist publication.


people who were anti-slavery

The Underground Railroad: Quilts and Songs

As we discussed earlier, it was not safe for conductors or freedom-seekers to write down any details of the Underground Railroad because authorities could use it to stop them. Many people believe that conductors and their passengers used quilts and songs to communicate important information.

Below are lyrics from “Swing Low Sweet Chariot” which some believe conductors sang to warn freedom-seekers that it was time to prepare.

Swing low, sweet chariot,

Coming for to carry me home,

Swing low, sweet chariot,

Coming for to carry me home.

I looked over Jordan and what did I see

Coming for to carry me home,

A band of angels coming after me,

Coming for to carry me home.”

The Underground Railroad: Quilts and Songs Historiography

Not all historians are on the same page when it comes to the true role of quilts and songs in the Underground Railroad. Some historians claim that there is no real evidence backing up the widespread use of quilts and songs to communicate information. On the opposite end of the spectrum, some historians try to “decode” quilts and songs of the time.

The Underground Railroad - Key Takeaways

  • The Underground Railroad was a network of routes and safe houses that enslaved people used to escape to anti-slavery territories, states, and countries.
  • The terms drew inspiration from railroad terminology. Conductors were guides, way stations were safe houses, and passengers were enslaved people traveling to freedom.
  • The Fugitive Slave Acts made being a conductor or way station owner dangerous, especially in the South, but individuals of all backgrounds were part of the operation.
  • There is debate among historians as to whether songs and quilts were actually used to convey information.

Frequently Asked Questions about Underground Railroad

The Underground Railroad was a network of routes and safe houses that enslaved people used to escape to freedom. 

The Underground Railroad ran across the United States with destinations in anti-slavery territories, states, and countries. 

The Underground Railroad was not actually underground.

The Underground Railroad began in the late 1700s. 

Individuals called conductors guided escaped slaves along the Underground Railroad to freedom and put them in connection with safe houses along the way. 

Final Underground Railroad Quiz


What was the Underground Railroad?

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a network of routes and safehouses that enslaved people used to escape to freedom

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Which individual was not a conductor of the Underground Railroad?

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William Lloyd Garrison

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Which was not a destination of the Underground Railroad?

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South Africa

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What was typical of groups traveling land routes of the Underground Railroad?

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led by a conductor

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What law made being a conductor of the Underground Railroad especially dangerous?

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The Fugitive Slave Act of 1850

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Did captured conductors of the Underground Railroad face harsher sentences in the North or South?

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the North

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Which individual published a book that had first-hand accounts from those who escaped slavery via the Underground Railroad?

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William Still

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Why did Frederic Douglass call the Underground Railroad the "upperground railroad"?

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Abolitionists spoke about it publicly and the South was well aware

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How do some historians believe conductors and passengers of the Underground Railroad communicated?

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What did conductors do in the context of the Underground Railroad?

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They guided enslaved people to freedom.

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