Underground Railroad

Map of various Underground Railroad escape routes in the Northern United States and Canada

The Underground Railroad was a network of secret routes and safe houses established in the United States during the early to mid-19 century, and used by enslaved African-Americans to escape into free states and Canada.[1] The scheme was assisted by abolitionists and others sympathetic to the cause of the escapees.[2] Not literally a railroad but rather a secretly organized means of movement, the workers both black and white, free and enslaved, who aided the fugitives can also be referred to as the "Underground Railroad".[3] Various other routes led to Mexico,[4] where slavery had been abolished, or overseas.[5] An earlier escape route running south toward Florida, then a Spanish possession (except 1763–83), existed from the late 17th century until Florida became a United States territory in 1821. One of the main reasons Florida was purchased by the United States was to end its function as a safe haven for escaped slaves.[6][7] However, the network now generally known as the Underground Railroad was formed in the late 1700s. It ran north and grew steadily until the Civil War began.[8] One estimate suggests that by 1850, 100,000 slaves had escaped via the "Railroad".[8]

British North America (present-day Canada) was a desirable destination, as its long border gave many points of access, it was further from slave catchers, and beyond the reach of the United States' Fugitive Slave Acts. Most former slaves, reaching Canada by boat across Lake Erie and Lake Ontario, settled in Ontario. More than 30,000 people were said to have escaped there via the network during its 20-year peak period,[9] although U.S. Census figures account for only 6,000.[10] Numerous fugitives' stories are documented in the 1872 book The Underground Railroad Records by William Still, an abolitionist who then headed the Philadelphia Vigilance Committee.[11]

Political background

At its peak, nearly 1,000 slaves per year escaped from slave-holding states using the Underground Railroad – more than 5,000 court cases for escaped slaves were recorded – many fewer than the natural increase of the enslaved population. The resulting economic impact was minuscule, but the psychological influence on slave holders was immense. Under the original Fugitive Slave Act of 1793, officials from free states were required to assist slaveholders or their agents who recaptured runaway slaves. But, citizens and governments of many free states ignored the law, and the Underground Railroad thrived.

With heavy lobbying by southern politicians, the Compromise of 1850 was passed by Congress after the Mexican–American War. It stipulated a more stringent Fugitive Slave Law; ostensibly, the compromise addressed regional problems by compelling officials of free states to assist slave catchers, granting them immunity to operate in free states.[12] Because the law required sparse documentation to claim a person was a fugitive, slave catchers also kidnapped free blacks, especially children, and sold them into slavery.[13] Southern politicians often exaggerated the number of escaped slaves and often blamed these escapes on Northerners interfering with Southern property rights.[14] The law deprived suspected slaves of the right to defend themselves in court, making it difficult to prove free status. In a de facto bribe,[15] judges were paid a higher fee ($10) for a decision that confirmed a suspect as a slave than for one ruling that the suspect was free ($5). Many Northerners who might have ignored slave issues in the South were confronted by local challenges that bound them to support slavery. This was a primary grievance cited by the Union during the American Civil War,[16] and the perception that Northern States ignored the fugitive slave law was a major justification for secession.[17]

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