At the turn of the 19th century there were four million slaves in the American South, descendants of the Africans who had been brought to the country beginning in the early 17th century. Starting roughly around 1810, perhaps 100,000 of these slaves escaped to the North using the network of supporters that became known as the Underground Railroad.

Secret Transportation

Slaves escaped before that time, of course, and there was an organized system in place among free northern blacks and Quakers to aid them. George Washington complained in 1786 that one of his slaves had run away and was abetted in his escape by “a society of Quakers, formed for such purposes.” The term “underground railroad” came into common usage in the 1830s, after the first extensive steam railroads began to appear in America. It was not, of course, that the runaway slaves were actually riding the trains, but that the term symbolized transportation and organization.

Stations and Conductors

The loosely organized system existed more or less openly in the North and underground in the South. Railroading terms were used by those helping slaves head north: homes where slaves could rest along the way were called “stations,” while the men and woman who helped guide the slaves were “conductors.” Those who donated money to support the system were “stockholders.” Most slaves in the South, after they had made their decision to escape, had to begin their journeys on their own, although sometimes “conductors,” posing as slaves, would come to plantations and help guide them out.

Freedom Across the River

Given food and clothing and aided by their guides, the escaped slaves would head north, usually traveling at night. By the third decade in the 19th century, all northern states had abolished slavery within their borders. The goal of the runaway slaves using the Underground Railroad was generally to reach the Ohio River, which roughly divided slave states from free states. Slaves staring at the skies and determining which way was north referred to the Big Dipper as “the drinking gourd.” In the terminology of the Underground Railroad, the Ohio was called the “River Jordan.”

Defying the Law

While slavery had been abolished in the North, the people helping the slaves – an amalgam of free blacks, Quakers, and non-religious abolitionists – were in fact breaking the law. The Fugitive Slave Law, passed in 1850, made assisting fugitive slaves a federal offense. The people who helped the escaped slaves defied this law and continued, often quite openly, to run the Underground Railroad. The Rev. John Rankin, a minister in Ripley, Ohio, on the banks of the Ohio River, helped save as many as 2,000 slaves, aided by his wife and 13 children. So too did Harriet Tubman, the escaped slave who made numerous trips to the South to guide other slaves to freedom.