An artistic interpretation of enslaved people using the Underground Railroad to head to their freedom.

The History of the Underground Railroad and Harriet Tubman

The Underground Railroad and Harriet Tubman inspired present-day people and organizations to help those escape a cruel fate.

March 10, 2022, marked 109 years since the world lost abolitionist and former-enslaved woman, Harriet Tubman. She, along with members of the Underground Railroad, led hundreds of enslaved people to their freedom.

The Underground Railroad

An artistic interpretation of enslaved people using the Underground Railroad to head to their freedom.
image source:

Contrary to the name, the Underground Railroad wasn’t an actual railroad. It was a network of secret routes and safe houses in the United States (US).

People, African-American and white, offered shelter and aid to the escaped enslaved people in the South.

The exact date of when the Underground Railroad began is unknown. It operated from the late 18th century till the end of the Civil War.

At the start of the Civil War, efforts continued to free enslaved people and undermine the Confederacy in a less-secretive manner.

Quaker Abolitionists

Many consider the Quakers to be the first organized group to actively help escape enslaved people. Their campaign to end slavery traces to the late 1600s.

In 1776, the US Congress prohibited the Quakers from owning enslaved people. Then, 14 years later, they petitioned the US Congress for the abolition of slavery.

Their reasoning for abolishing slavery lies in the Quakers’ belief. They believe all human beings are equal and worthy of respect. Additionally, their views on respecting women started earlier than most societies in the 1700s.

Soon, many joined in their fight across the country, and they became hard to ignore.

In 1786, George Washington complained that Quakers attempted to free one of his enslaved workers.

In the early 1800s, Isaac T. Hopper, a Quaker, set up a network in Philadelphia that helped enslaved people on the run.

From there, Quakers established abolitionist groups in North Carolina that laid the groundwork for routes and shelters for escaped enslaved people.

Origin of ‘Underground Railroad’

The earliest mention of an ‘underground railroad’ was in 1831.

An enslaved man, Tice Davids, escaped from Kentucky to Ohio. His owner blamed an ‘underground railroad’ for helping Davids to freedom.

Then, in 1839, a Washington newspaper reported that an enslaved man admitted, after being tortured, that he planned to go north to follow an “underground railroad to Boston”.

There were imminent dangers in escaping plantations, hence the creation of Vigilance Committees. They protected escaped enslaved people from bounty hunters in New York and Philadelphia.

Thereafter, with the expansion of their activities, they guided enslaved people on the run.

Thus came the Underground Railroad.

Underground Railroad Terminology

While the network itself was a metaphoric railroad, the assigned teams were named with railroad terms.

Conductors guided the fugitive enslaved people to stations, safehouses or depots. These were private homes and churches that served as hiding places.

Stationmasters operated the hiding places and were responsible for the escaped enslaved person’s safety.

The stockholder gave the money for bribes and other expenses.

Passengers were the escaped enslaved people travelling on the routes.

Cargo was the enslaved people that arrived at the safehouses.

The Fugitive Slave Act of 1793

The deferral government gave local authorities in all states the power to issue warrants to “remove” any enslaved people they thought escaped.

It also made helping an escaped enslaved person a federal crime.

A slave hunter saw any enslaved person as an escaped one. This terrorized the enslaved people and angered many white people.

What angered and horrified the Northerners were rumours about slave hunters. One states that they lured free children, from three to five years old, onto boats and shipped them into the Deep South.

How the Underground Railroad Worked

Each journey was different but equally dangerous because of the Fugitive Slave Act of 1793.

Freed enslaved people would sometimes send a field agent. Usually, this was a travelling minister or doctor. They posed as salespeople or census-takers.

Once on the plantations, they made contact with an enslaved person who wanted to escape.

Building a rapport took time. The agent needed to gain the potential escapee’s trust.

With trust gained, they arranged for the enslaved person’s initial escape from the plantation.

In the initial escape, escaped enslaved people found very few hiding places. Until they reached certain points further north, they were on their own.

Once they found a conductor, their journey to freedom began.

The conductor guided the fugitive to the first station, a house along the route. Stations were usually a day’s journey apart and often had secret passages and compartments for hiding multiple escapees.

At the station, the escapee was fed, sheltered and possibly given a disguise.

For example, in one situation, stationmasters disguised an escapee as an upper-class white woman. They even lent her a white baby as part of the disguise.

Stockholders funded all activities.

Where Did the Underground Railroad Lead?

The network of routes ran north to free states. However, most escapees headed to Canada where they were free from The Fugitive Slave Act.

In Canada, they had the freedom to live where they wanted, sit on juries and more. Moreover, there were failed attempts to extradite the escaped enslaved people to the US.

Some Underground Railroad operators based themselves in Canada and worked with arriving escapees to settle in.

The extreme northern areas of the US were known for protecting enslaved people.

In the Deep South, the journey north was more treacherous. From there, their safest settlement options were Spanish-owned Mexico and Florida.

They would only reach a safe settlement after days, weeks or even months of travel.

These settlements typically were of freed enslaved people, friendly American Indians or a religious group. Many stayed in the first safe settlement.

Others waited for a secure passage on a northbound boat or train. This is when the bribes took place.

The escapees would then head for Canada.

Whatever their decision on a destination, Vigilance Committees assisted in establishing their new lives.

Underground Workers

Certain estimates say there were 3200 underground workers, half of which were in Ohio.

Since secrecy was important, there was no formal or written organization. Individual performance and general reputation determined leadership status.

Most of the people involved remain lost in history.

Similarly, it’s difficult to determine the total number of escaped enslaved people.

Today, there is still a social stigma against white Southerners whose ancestors helped escapees.

Harriet Tubman

A photograph of a young Harriet Tubman after she used the Underground Railroad to live a free life.
image source:

Araminta ‘Minty’ Ross was born between 1820 and 1822 in Dorchester County, Maryland. Her parents were Ben Ross and Harriet ‘Rit’ Green.

Minty had eight siblings. Despite her mother’s efforts, slavery forced the siblings apart.

At five years old, her owners lent her to another family to care for their baby. Her duties included rocking the cradle as it slept. The family punished Minty if the baby woke up and cried.

When she was seven years old, Minty worked for a planter. She checked muskrat traps in nearby marshes, even when she caught measles.

Nevertheless, Minty said she preferred physical plantations work instead of indoor domestic chores.

She made her first stand for justice when she was 12 years old.

An overseer was ready to throw a heavy weight at an enslaved person who attempted to escape. Minty stepped forward and the weight struck her head instead.

She was taken and placed on the seat of a loom, bleeding and unconscious. She remained there for two days without medical care. The injury left her with headaches and narcolepsy for the rest of her life.

After the incident, she had vivid dreams and hallucinations that she claimed were religious, which made her less desirable to sell.

In 1840, at 45, Ben Ross’s owner set him free.

Several years later, Minty contacted a white attorney to investigate her mother’s status.

The attorney discovered that Rit’s former owner left instructions for her to be set free at 45 years old. A similar provision applied to Rit’s children and any children she had after 45.

The new owners ignored it when they inherited the land.

Legally, it was impossible to challenge.

Her First Marriage and Escape

In 1844, Minty married a free man, John Tubman. Their marriage was complicated because, while John was free, Minty was still an enslaved person. Her status meant that any child of hers and John’s would be an enslaved person.

Soon after the marriage, she changed her name to “Harriet Tubman“, although this remains speculated.

In 1849, Harriet fell ill, which diminished her value as an enslaved person. When her owner died, his owner began selling their enslaved people.

Harriet found out that her two brothers were going to be sold. She couldn’t sit and watch her family be further broken apart.

On September 17, 1849, she escaped with her brothers. Her husband chose to stay.

The widowed owner was unaware of their disappearance until she passed a runway notice two weeks later. It described Harriet and her brothers and a handsome reward for their capture.

A few weeks after they left, the two brothers felt unsure about their escape. They went back and forced Harriet to go back with them.

Soon after, Harriet escaped again, but without her brothers.

The exact route she took is unknown, but she made use of the Underground Railroad and was assisted by friendly white women.

Weeks later, she found freedom in Philadelphia.

“The Moses of her People”

Harriet worked as a housekeeper. Although free, she wasn’t satisfied living free on her own. She wanted freedom for her family and friends.

Years after her escape, she heard the news about her niece and her niece’s children being sold. She returned to Maryland and helped them along the Underground Railroad.

The following year, she returned to guide other family members.

During one of her operations, she found that her husband had married a free woman in 1851. He chose to stay in Maryland. Angered and betrayed, she moved on to help those who wanted to leave.

She returned several times to the South and helped dozens of enslaved people escape.

With the 1850 Fugitive Slave Act, fugitive and freed workers in the north could be captured and enslaved. It made Harriet’s role as a conductor harder and forced her to lead her passengers further north at night.

The gun she carried was for her own protection and to “encourage” passengers with second thoughts.

Some say her experience with her husband hardened her. She didn’t tolerate scared or upset runaways, even threatening them if their frightened cries alerted slave hunters.

As for the babies and younger children, she drugged them to prevent slave hunters from hearing their cries.

Her lack of sentimentality allowed her to keep moving, surviving and helping enslaved people.

In her time as a conductor, she befriended fellow abolitionists, including Frederick Douglas, a former enslaved person.

Harriet established her own Underground Railroad network, learning about town and transportation routes that made up the South.

She personally led 70 people to freedom and instructed others on how to escape on their own.

Harriet was never caught, nor did she lose a passenger.

Harriet Tubman and the Civil War

An artistic interpretation of Harriet TUbman during the Civil War, when she used her knowledge of the Underground Railroad to the Union Army's advantage.
image source:

The Civil War broke out in 1861 and Harriet found new ways to fight against slavery.

The Union Army recruited her to assist fugitive enslaved people at Fort Monroe. She worked as a nurse, cook and laundress.

With her knowledge of herbal medicine, she treated sick soldiers and fugitive enslaved people.

In 1863, she became head of an espionage and scout network for the Union Army. From her own Underground Railroad network, she provided crucial information about the Confederate Army supply routes and troops.

Additionally, she formed Black Union regiments with the 700 enslaved people she liberated.

Although she proved to be a fierce adversary, it took over three decades for the government to recognize her military contributions and award her financially.

Harriet Tubman’s Later Years

A photo of an elderly Harriet Tubman, sitting in her wheelchair with her cane next to her.
image source:

After the Civil War, Harriet settled with her family and friends on the land she owned in Auburn, New York. She married former enslaved man and Civil War veteran Nelson Davis in 1864.

Her first husband died after an altercation with a white man on the road in Maryland in the 1860s.

A few years later, Harriet and Davis adopted a girl, Gertie.

She also has an open-door policy for anyone in need and supported her philanthropy efforts by:

  • Selling her home-grown produce.
  • Raising pigs.
  • Accepting donations and loans from friends.

Even though she remained illiterate, she toured the northeast and spoke on behalf of the women’s suffrage movement and worked with Susan B. Anthony, a suffrage leader. In 1869, she bought land next to her home and opened the “Harriet Tubman Home for Aged and Indigent Colored People”.

She continued to suffer from her head injury, even after countless surgeries. By 1911, her health deteriorated and eventually, it forced her to mov into her rest home.

Harriet Tubman died on March 10, 913, from pneumonia.

Today’s Underground Railroad

A poster image from the Poloaris Project, stating the human trafficking has been evident in all 50 U.S. states.
image source:

Present-day slavery is known as human trafficking.

The United Nations estimates that 12 million people are enslaved by forced labour and the sex industry.

There are organizations, like the Polaris Project (named after the North Star that the enslaved people followed to Freedom), the Emancipation Network and the International Justice Mission, that are modern Underground Railroads.

Together, these organisations help refugees escape human trafficking. Their methods include community intervention, victim care and prosecution of groups that enslave people throughout the world.

In the US, escape routes for battered women and illegal “aliens” are also referred to as Underground Railroads.


A poster by the Polaris Project, stating that there are 21 million victims of human trafficking worldwide.
image source:

Over 400 years after the Underground Railroad formed, slavery continues to this day.

Following in the footsteps of their predecessors, the modern Underground Railroads help men, women and children escape forced labour and the sex industry to give them freedom and sustainable lives.

“I have heard their groans and sighs, and seen their tears, and I would give every drop of blood in my veins to free them.”

-Harriet Tubman, abolitionist, political activist and former enslaved person.

Leave a Reply