' Skip To Content
Abraham and Mary Lincoln: A House Divided | Article

The Underground Railroad


African Americans fled slavery in the South for a variety of reasons. Brutal physical punishment, psychological abuse and endless hours of hard labor without compensation drove many slaves to risk their lives to escape plantation life. The death of a master usually meant that slaves would be sold as part of the estate, and family relationships would be broken. While some slaves headed north with relatives of friends, most traveled alone, supported by the kindness of other African Americans or abolitionist whites they might meet on the way. Only a small number of slaves traveled by the organized network of routes, "conductors" and "stations" that came to be known as the Underground Railroad.

African American men and women of all ages left the plantation and headed North for freedom. But most runaway slaves were young men who could withstand the hardships of fugitive life. To escape the deep South and make it North to New York, Massachusetts or Canada meant a journey of hundreds of miles -- usually on foot. Escaped slaves faced a life of hardship, with little food, infrequent access to shelter or medical care, and the constant threat of local sheriffs, slave catchers or civilian lynch mobs.

Plantation owners whose slaves ran away frequently placed runway slave advertisements in local newspapers. Such ads often included a person's physical description, likely location or destination, and information about temperament -- at least as perceived by the plantation owner. While rewards varied, they could run as high as $1,000 -- a not unreasonable price considering the lifetimes of free labor a Southern planter could hope to extract from a slave and his or her children.

Not all runaway slaves fled to the North. Many fugitives sought refuge in cities such as Atlanta, Charleston or Richmond, where they could blend easily into existing African American populations -- often with the help of other fugitives or free blacks. Some runaways established freedmen's encampments in rugged rural areas where they could remain hidden from slave catchers or local legal authorities. Such groups often supported themselves by stealing food and supplies from nearby plantations.

For slaves who lived in border states such as Maryland, Kentucky and Virginia, the journey to freedom could be short and less terrorizing. The long, unguarded border of Pennsylvania, for example, represented an ideal opportunity for slaves in cities such as Baltimore. Slaves who lived with access to fresh and saltwater ports often stowed away or hired on as hands on Northbound vessels. Once they reached a free port, the fugitives jumped ship to freedom.

The passage of the second Fugitive Slave Act in 1850 made escape from bondage harder than ever. Under the provisions of the act, slaves who escaped to free states or federal territories could be forcibly returned to their masters. Anyone who aided a fugitive slave -- and federal marshals who failed to enforce the law -- faced severe punishment. Slaves taken to court for breaking the fugitive slave law could not testify on their own behalf, and were not allowed the right to a jury trial.

In the North, Hicksite Quakers and other abolitionists provided some of the most organized support for the Underground Railroad. Particularly in the wake of the Fugitive Slave Act, a night's lodging, a place to hide from slave catchers, a meal, and covert transportation by wagon, boat or horseback proved welcome to slaves fleeing the South.

Of the thousands of slaves who fled the plantations each year, most never made it to freedom. Many returned to the plantation after a few days or weeks away, tired, hungry and unable to survive as wanted fugitives. Others were carried back in chains after their capture by lawmen or professional slave catchers. 

The punishments these slaves faced upon their return varied from verbal abuse to beatings, sale to another master, and even death.

A law to gradually phase out slavery in Upper Canada, which is now Ontario, was passed in 1791. The British Empire, of which Canada was a part, abolished slavery throughout its territories in 1833. Underground Railroad activity flourished in cities such as Rochester and Buffalo which were near the borders of Upper Canada. For those who endured the long journey and all its hardships, Canada was the Promised Land.

Support Provided by: Learn More