10 Facts, Events, and People of the Underground Railroad

10 Facts, Events, and People of the Underground Railroad

Larry Holzwarth - May 31, 2018

It was neither a railroad nor did it run under ground, but it did have stations, conductors, and carried what was called cargo or freight. Its members operated a series of secret routes to freedom used by escaping slaves that ran to the north, though in the beginning there were routes to Spanish Florida and from Texas to Mexico. It was illegal, the Fugitive Slave Act required citizens to aid slave owners who were trying to recover their property, and in 1850 slave catchers were allowed to operate in the free states, with local officials providing them assistance if requested.

Abolitionists assisted the escaped slaves in a variety of ways, hiding them, moving them from point to point on the railroad, providing food, and in some cases identity papers. The system was supported by many free blacks – some manumitted former slaves – without whom the system would have had little chance of success in helping slaves escape. After the 1850 Fugitive Slave Law was enacted, several of them were kidnapped by slave hunters and taken into slavery. Some black conductors on the railroad willingly entered plantations of the South to recruit escapes and lead them to points on the railroad.

10 Facts, Events, and People of the Underground Railroad
The Underground Railroad preferred operating in the winter months, taking advantage of the longer nights. Cincinnati Art Museum

Here are ten events, places, and people of the Underground Railroad.

10 Facts, Events, and People of the Underground Railroad
The North Star and the Big Dipper – which was called the drinkin’ gourd in code – guided the conductors to the north. Library of Congress

How the Underground Railroad worked

For the most part slaves escaping from southern plantations via the Underground Railroad moved in small groups, over relatively short distances each night. Thus fewer slaves in the deep southern states were able to escape than those from the states closer to the Ohio River, which was called the River Jordan by escapees. There were escapes from the deep southern states, but slave and bounty hunters caught the vast majority of them. After the Pearl incident, in which 77 slaves attempted to escape from Washington DC in the sloop Pearl, the recaptured slaves were sold to plantation owners of the Deep South as punishment.

Because of the prevalence of slave hunters the escape routes of the Underground Railroad were deliberately circuitous, with the intent of confusing pursuit. An escaping slave moved from station to station, traveling at night, often accompanied by a conductor but sometimes moving alone. Stops on the route were called stations, run by abolitionist sympathizers known as stationmasters. The railroad was not a safe journey for small children, and many escaping slaves left their families behind, hoping to gain their own freedom and earn enough to possibly buy the freedom of their family. Since the courts could force slaves to be returned to their owners this could only be accomplished from Canada or Mexico.

The slaves were not only pursued by the professional bounty hunters known as slave catchers. By law, Federal Marshals were also required to capture escaped slaves, taking them into custody for the matter to be adjudicated by the courts. After 1850 escaped slaves were denied the protection of the courts. The need for secrecy, especially regarding the location of the stations, required that information was never passed in writing or maps, instead being passed along via word of mouth. Slaves caught on the railroad were rigorously grilled over the manner of their escape and who had assisted them, especially on the southern routes of the railroad. In the northern routes the Marshals were often more sympathetic to the escapers and protected them from the slave catchers.

Not all areas of the North were sympathetic to the plight of escaping slaves however, and in many areas laws prohibited the presence of free blacks as well as escaping slaves. The state of Indiana amended its constitution to bar free blacks. Many sections along the Ohio River were populated by former southerners who assisted the slave catchers by patrolling roads at night. The high demand for slaves during the 1840s through 1861 made the capture and return of slaves highly lucrative, given the size of the rewards offered by southern slave owners. The operation of the Underground Railroad cost money too.

Sympathetic abolitionists and churches were the primary financial backers of the Underground Railroad. They and most of the participants in the Railroad were typically aware of just their own small section, in order to preserve secrecy and security. Since aiding an escaped slave was illegal, local groups were deliberately kept small. Fewer participants decreased the risk of the activity being compromised. Stationmasters alerted each other of cargo on the railroad using coded messages of when to expect an arrival, and how many were on the way. The ultimate goal of the escaped slaves was the United States – Canadian border.

10 Facts, Events, and People of the Underground Railroad
The high demand for slaves in the south led to a reverse underground railroad delivery kidnapped free blacks into slavery. Wikimedia

The Reverse Underground Railroad

The high demand for slaves, especially in the rice, cotton, and sugar plantations of the Deep South, led to the creation of the Reverse Underground Railroad, which operated until the end of the American Civil War. Demand increases value, and resulted in the kidnapping of free blacks and their transportation to the slave states of the Deep South for sale as slaves. Often slaves of the Border States were kidnapped as well and sent to other plantations further south. In New York and other eastern cities, kidnapping gangs known as blackbirders operated by either luring blacks or seizing them violently. Alcohol was a favorite means of placing an otherwise wary black man in a position to kidnap him.

It wasn’t only black men who were targeted, though they were the most valuable. In Philadelphia children were tempted to board vessels in the Delaware River with fruit and candy. They were then locked in the hold as the vessel got underway for a southern port. Before protective vigilance committees were formed to prevent the practice, hundreds of black children of Philadelphia were kidnapped in that manner. Philadelphia authorities began searching for kidnapping victims in the Deep South as early as the 1820s, with some successes and many more failures. New York authorities were less diligent searching for the victims of blackbirders.

Along the Ohio River kidnappers established a chain of stations similar to those moving escaped slaves to the North. In southern Illinois on the Saline River, an Ohio tributary, John Hart Crenshaw was twice indicted for kidnapping both escaped slaves and free blacks. In the first case the charges were dropped and in the second, in 1842, he was acquitted by a jury. The Crenshaw house was set up with a “slave jail” on the third floor, where he held them until moving them to points south and selling them as slaves. Crenshaw sold slaves in Tennessee, Arkansas, and Mississippi, and in the case for which he was acquitted, a woman and her children in Texas.

The Reverse Underground Railroad operated in the slave states as well as the North, kidnapping slaves who were traveling with a pass and moving them to stations furtively. If the kidnappers were at a high enough risk of being caught they had two options, convincing their pursuers that the slave in question had been trying to escape, or simply killing the slave. One such kidnapper (which southern laws called thieves since slaves were property) was John Murrell of Tennessee, who was convicted of slave-stealing in 1834. He was sentenced to ten years of prison.

In Eastern cities and the towns along the Ohio, including Cincinnati in free Ohio and Louisville in slave Kentucky, newspapers frequently ran advertisements seeking information on the whereabouts of missing slaves and free blacks, including children. Even during the years of the Civil War, when free blacks served in the Union Army, the Reverse Underground Railroad continued to send free blacks and former slaves into the Confederate states and slavery. It took the end of the Civil War and the ratification of the Thirteenth Amendment to bring the Reverse Underground Railroad to an end in 1865.

10 Facts, Events, and People of the Underground Railroad
Abolitionist William Still helped hundreds of escaping slaves, including Harriet Tubman. Wikimedia

William Still

William Still was the New Jersey born son of a former slave who had bought his own freedom from his master in Maryland, Levin Still. Levin Still relocated to New Jersey where his wife and William’s mother joined him after she escaped from slavery. Recaptured, she escaped again, and eventually she and her husband had eighteen children, with two remaining in slavery in Maryland. According to federal law, and despite being born in free New Jersey, all of the children were considered slaves, since they were born of an escaped slave. In the mid-1840s William Still settled in Philadelphia, where he went to work for the Pennsylvania Society for the Abolition of Slavery.

Still has been called the “Father of the Underground Railroad” though it had been in operation before he became involved with the movement of slaves out of the South. Operating from Philadelphia, Still is credited with sheltering and moving up to 800 slaves along the railroad towards freedom in Canada. He maintained contacts with stationmasters in Virginia, Wilmington, North Carolina, and Savannah, as well as to the North in New York and New Jersey. Still maintained contacts throughout Pennsylvania as well, enabling him to select alternative routes north in response to the activity of slave catchers and federal marshals.

Unlike most of the stationmasters and conductors along the routes, Still kept meticulous records of his activities, including the names of those he assisted and the plantations from which they escaped, in order to assist in the locations of family members later. It was the goal of many escaping male slaves to purchase their own and their family’s freedom after finding work in the north of the United States or in Canada. Some of Still’s records were published in the 1872 work The Underground Railroad: Authentic Narratives and First-Hand Accounts. Still’s work provides much of what is known of the codes used by stationmasters and conductors along the railroad.

Harriet Tubman was one conductor who moved escaping slaves through Still’s station, which was in his home in Philadelphia. Still was wont to use the actual railroads to move some of the slaves he assisted, though he avoided the rail stations in Philadelphia and used suburban depots instead. Escaping slaves were sometimes ticketed passengers carrying false papers claiming they were free, but more often rode in freight cars while bribed railroad workers looked the other way. Still was assisted in his efforts by several Philadelphia abolitionists and congregations of the Quakers and other denominations in the city and throughout Pennsylvania.

Still worked as both a stationmaster and a conductor on the Underground Railroad, preferring to move the escaping slaves as quickly as possible rather than hiding them for an extended period. Through the use of the multiple routes of which he was aware he at times moved as many as sixty per month. Although he was confronted by slave catchers on more than one occasion he was never caught, and neither were most of the slaves he helped to escape, at least according to his own records. After the war Still became a successful businessman and philanthropist, and a leading real estate investor in Philadelphia.

10 Facts, Events, and People of the Underground Railroad
Thomas Garrett was a station master on the Underground Railroad for more than a decade. Wikimedia

Thomas Garrett and John Hunn

Thomas Garrett was a stationmaster on the Underground Railroad in Delaware. Garrett was a businessman with interests in iron works and gasworks in Wilmington, where he lived on Shipley Street. Garrett’s station was the last of the Underground Railroad in the small state of Delaware, and he made no effort to keep his activities secret. Local authorities were well aware of Garrett’s sheltering and assisting escaped slaves on their trip north and made no attempt to arrest him or impede his activities. Garrett’s was another station often resorted to by conductor Harriet Tubman, whom he supported financially as well.

From Wilmington, the routes north included crossing New Jersey or Pennsylvania, or both. Garrett provided the “cargo” he received with clothes, food, shoes, and cash before sending them along their way. The materials and money came from his own funds and those of fellow Quakers in Wilmington, as well as the support of friends. Despite Delaware being a slave state at the time, abolitionist sentiment was strong there and the influence of the churches and abolitionist societies helped to keep at bay the slave catchers and federal marshals pursuing escaped slaves across the state. This led to another form of legal action.

John Hunn, a fellow Quaker, was a Delaware farmer who coordinated all of the Underground Railroad stations in the state, including Garrett’s. Hunn aided a slave named Samuel Hawkins escape with his family from Maryland, routing him to Garrett’s station. Garrett moved him further along the route to the north in 1845. In 1848 Hunn and Garrett were sued by the escaped slave’s owner in federal court in New Castle for violating the Fugitive Slave Law. The case was presented by future US Senator James A. Bayard and the judge was Supreme Court Chief Justice Roger B. Taney, who heard the case as a sitting circuit judge.

Bayard succeeded in obtaining a judgment against the two, and Taney, who was a strong supporter of slavery, fined both men heavily. Garrett’s house was placed under a lien imposed by the court until the judgement and fines were paid, as was Hunn’s. Hunn was then fined again by the state of Delaware, and unable to pay the fines his farm was seized and sold at a sheriff’s sale. Garrett’s fines were paid through the intercession of friends and abolition societies. Both men continued their efforts to operate the Underground Railroad through Delaware after the lawsuit, though under the threat of additional civil action.

Although estimates vary and some are wildly exaggerated, Garrett claimed that he “helped 2,700” escaped slaves from his station in Wilmington to destinations in the free states. Throughout his operation of his station Garrett believed that slavery would never be eliminated but through Civil War, and though a Quaker, that physical violence should be met with physical violence. During the Civil War his house was protected from slave owners by armed free blacks. He died in 1871. Hunn returned to Delaware after working for the Freedmen’s Bureau during the Civil War, and died in Camden in 1894.

10 Facts, Events, and People of the Underground Railroad
Ohio was the home of many abolitionists, including Harriet Beecher Stowe, author of Uncle Tom’s Cabin. Wikimedia

The Underground Railroad through Ohio

The Ohio River was a demarcation line between slave states and free, and many of the towns on both sides of the river held conductors and stationmasters. In the small river town of Ripley, across the river from Mason County Kentucky, a Presbyterian minister and abolitionist named John Rankin found his home visited at all hours by slave owners or slave catchers demanding information about fugitive slaves. Rankin moved his family to a new home on a hill near the town’s outskirts, which afforded him views of the town below and across the river to the Kentucky riverbank. He also planted fruit trees and vegetables to sell in town.

From Rankin’s house a light would be shown, from a lantern raised on a pole (local folklore claims it was from a window of the house) to notify slaves on the other side when it was safe to cross the river. Rankin built a stairway in the side of the hill facing the river, for slaves to use to ascend to the house. After being fed (from his gardens) and properly clothed the fugitives began to travel north through Ohio on lightly used roads and woods paths. Some elected to remain in Ohio, finding employment on farms and in factories, which led to resentment among many whites, and opposition to the abolitionists and those helping escaped slaves increased.

The various routes led to the towns along Lake Erie, and the routes through Ohio consisted of more than 3,000 miles of trails and roads. As in other states, conductors used circuitous routes to throw off pursuit, and very few moved directly north. As a result the trip was usually much longer in duration than it needed to have been. Larger towns were for the most part avoided on the way to Canada. After the enactment of the federal Fugitive Slave Law in 1850 made the act of assisting escaping slaves a federal crime, those in opposition to the Underground Railroad became an even bigger threat to the system.

Before the Fugitive Slave Law of 1850, escaped slaves hid in the larger cities and towns of Ohio in the segregated black communities. After the law allowed them to be pursued by slave catchers this became riskier, and sometimes led to racial confrontations and riots. This further led to increased opposition to the abolitionists and the Underground Railroad. Despite the risks, through the 1850s the movement of escaping slaves through Ohio increased. Kentucky slave owners opposed the building of a suspension bridge across the Ohio River, which began in 1856, because of the ease with which slaves would be able to cross to Ohio and melt into the black population of Cincinnati.

Similar Underground Railroad networks existed in Indiana on Ohio’s western border and often conductors crisscrossed between the states. Most of Ohio’s eastern border was at that time with Virginia, now West Virginia. There were Underground Railroad stations and conductors at Marietta, Portsmouth, and other towns across the Ohio River from Virginia, which fed fugitives from Virginia slave catchers into Ohio’s Underground Railroad network. Many of the slaves which escaped to Canada through Ohio returned to the United States after slavery was abolished, some to jobs in the growing cities.

10 Facts, Events, and People of the Underground Railroad
A notice for the reward for escaped slaves including “Minty”, which was how Harriet Tubman was known to her owner. Wikimedia

Harriet Tubman

The exact year of Harriet Tubman’s birth is unknown due to conflicting documents, it was most likely between 1820 and 1822. Her parents gave her the name Araminta Ross and called her Minty. Born a slave in Maryland, Tubman was hired out by her owner as a young girl, and according to her later accounts was the target of numerous beatings. Tubman’s education was limited to the hearing of Bible stories as told by her mother, but she also claimed that her mother had little time for her as a child, as her work in the plantation mansion kept her from her own family. As a teenager Tubman began experiencing what she called visions, in the form of dreams.

A head injury she sustained when one of her masters struck her on the head with a thrown object led to lifelong seizures which may have been epileptic in nature. She married a free black named John Tubman sometime around 1844. She also began calling herself Harriet in the 1840s. When her frequent illnesses lowered her value as a worker, her owner attempted to sell her, but died before a sale was consummated. The death of her owner made the likelihood of several slaves being sold, common when estates were settled at the time, and rather than waiting to be sold Harriet and two of her brothers decided to escape slavery.

After her brothers had second thoughts they forced Harriet to return with them. Harriet subsequently escaped again, this time alone, and made her way north to Philadelphia using the Underground Railroad along Maryland’s Eastern Shore and through Delaware. Tubman began operating as a conductor on the system, her first-hand knowledge of the swamps and bogs along the Eastern Shore provided numerous hiding places for escaping slaves during daylight hours, and allowed her to serve as a reliable guide while moving on foot at night. Tubman became a regular conductor on the Underground Railroad for the next eleven years.

Tubman made about a dozen trips to the Eastern Shore over the remaining years before the outbreak of the Civil War, escorting about 70 escaping slaves over the system. She also made trips along the northern portion of the Underground Railroad, guiding escaped slaves to the Canadian border. Most of her trips were made during the winter months, to take advantage of the longer period of darkness each night. Despite her success, the myth that Southern slave owners offered a $40,000 reward for her capture is just that – a myth. The existence of a reward of that amount has never been found in any periodical of the day, and the amount was greater than that offered for John Wilkes Booth after he killed the President.

Much of the Harriet Tubman story is similarly exaggerated. Often overlooked is her work with abolitionist John Brown to help him recruit men for his raid on the arsenal at Harper’s Ferry in 1859. There is much more to her story, including her activities during the Civil War, but her last trip as a conductor on the Underground Railroad was undertaken beginning in November 1860. By then Tubman had a home in Auburn, New York, and most of her extended family lived in the same community, having returned from Canada. Her career as a conductor came to an end when the party she was guiding reached Auburn near the end of December, 1860.

10 Facts, Events, and People of the Underground Railroad
Charles Torrey freed more than 400 slaves with his partner, Thomas Smallwood. Wikimedia

The Washington to Albany Route and Charles Torrey

Born in Massachusetts and educated at Exeter Academy and Yale, Charles Torrey was a Congregational minister who joined the abolitionist movement in the 1830s. After disagreements with the leader of abolitionism in New England, William Lloyd Garrison, Torrey and others set up what they called the New Movement, which later became the Liberty Party in the spring of 1840. In 1841, believing that the movement needed to be more active than just publishing anti-slavery tracts and speeches, Torrey moved to Washington DC to work as a reporter for abolitionist newspapers. His work as a reporter was a cover for his anti-slavery activities.

Torrey worked with Thomas Smallwood, a free black, to establish an elaborate and undercover route from Washington DC to Albany, New York, over which escaped slaves could be moved at night, staying hidden during the day, sheltered by sympathizers. It was the first fully organized Underground Railroad. Torrey and Smallwood recruited slaves to escape, with Torrey concentrating on the slaves owned by Southern members of the House and Senate and government officials in Washington. Slaves were hidden in Washington safe houses and transported out of the city in wagons rented by Torrey for the purpose.

Torrey’s operations were funded by abolitionists in New England and New York State. By the fall of 1842 Torrey’s frequent trips out of the city had drawn the attention of the Washington police and he fled to Albany, remaining in contact with Smallwood, who stayed in Washington until the spring of 1843, when he too fled to avoid arrest. By then they had freed over 400 slaves in Washington and from a branch of their operation they set up in Baltimore. Torrey was wanted by the authorities of both cities, but in the fall of 1843 both men returned to Washington and were forced to flee again when the authorities moved to arrest them.

Smallwood moved to Canada, but Torrey went to Baltimore, where he returned to his work helping slaves escape from their owners. In 1844 Torrey was arrested in Baltimore, caught while attempting to leave the city with three slaves. He was charged with theft, convicted, and sentenced to a term of six years in Maryland’s state prison. Prison conditions exacerbated the tuberculosis he had initially contracted in his youth, his health deteriorated rapidly, and efforts by friends and the churches supporting the abolitionists to obtain a release on humanitarian grounds were futile. He died in the spring of 1846.

Torrey’s network, which he established with Thomas Smallwood, freed more than 400 slaves and escorted them to safe haven in Canada and some northern communities in a little more than two years. By contrast the far more well-known Harriet Tubman led about 70 slaves to the north over eleven years. Torrey was all but forgotten after the war, largely because the history of the abolitionist movement was written after the war by those with whom Torrey had disagreed. He was the first of the more aggressive abolitionists who demanded action against slavery rather than just debating the matter over moral and political issues.

10 Facts, Events, and People of the Underground Railroad
Indiana abolitionist leader Dennis Pennington. Indiana was more aggressive than other states in attempting to suppress the Underground Railroad. Wikimedia

The Underground Railroad in Indiana

Most of the escaping slaves which entered Indiana did so by crossing the Ohio River from Kentucky, though a few entered from the system in Ohio. They were transported through the state in the usual manner of moving by night, and sheltered during the day in safe houses. Often their stay in the stations were extended due to the presence of slave catchers. Indiana had numerous violent confrontations between slave catchers and abolitionists, which led to actions by the legislature and several succeeding governors to crack down on Underground Railroad activities for the safety of its citizens. They did not succeed in shutting down the system.

The escaping slaves who reached the river across from Madison, Indiana, found a ferry waiting for them to carry them across the Ohio. Madison was one of four principal gateways to the network in Indiana, the others being Evansville, Rockport, and New Albany. Indiana was the home of Levi Coffin, a prominent abolitionist who sheltered escaping slaves in his homes until it was safe to transfer them to the Underground Railroad. As the escaper’s were guided north from the gateways, they were provided with food and clothing. The ultimate goal of the Indiana abolitionists was to carry the cargo to either Detroit or Toledo.

From Detroit the escaped slaves could cross to Windsor, in Canada. From Toledo slaves were picked up by ferries and carried to the Canadian shore. There the slaves, used to the milder winters of the American south, encountered for the first time the harshness of the Canadian winter. They also encountered what they weren’t expecting. Many of the Canadians resented their presence, and several Canadian communities banned them. Work was difficult to obtain, and many were only capable of unskilled labor when they arrived in Canada, which nonetheless allowed them to enter and remain under certain conditions.

The conditions in Canada caused many of the former slaves to attempt to return to the United States, usually via New York. Several states including Indiana passed laws which restricted the movements and other rights of free blacks. In 1851 Indiana passed a law which banned free blacks from entering the state, as part of a campaign to prevent so many slave catchers from roaming through the state, in particular in the region near the Ohio River. Indiana as a state pursued the policy of appeasing its southern neighbor, rather than passing laws which would encourage more blacks from attempting to escape to Canada through its borders.

Kentucky officials and state marshals raided Indiana and abducted abolitionists they suspected of being involved in helping slaves escape, returning them to Kentucky for trial, with conviction and incarceration forgone conclusions. These raids led to reprisals by abolitionists against Kentucky officials, and a small border war evolved. Indiana abolitionists maintained undercover agents south of the river to help escaping slaves get across, and shelter them until it was safe to do so. Reprisals against these agents was harsh and swift, often involving a rope and a convenient tree. The recovered slaves however, were usually returned to their owners for punishment.

10 Facts, Events, and People of the Underground Railroad
Slave catchers and dogs run down escaped slave Henry Bibb and his wife after eight days of travel on the Underground Railroad. Wikimedia

The Underground Railroad to Mexico

In 1829 the Mexican government banned slavery, triggering a chain of events which led to the Texas Revolution in 1836. The Republic of Texas endorsed the institution of slavery and when Texas entered the Union it was as a slave state. Following the enactment of the Fugitive Slave Law in 1850, American diplomats lobbied the Mexican government to enact laws which would allow American slave owners to cross the Mexican border to recover fugitive slaves. The Mexicans refused, and also refused to require Mexican citizens to detain American slaves who had fled from their owners. In the view of the Mexican government, they were free.

Nonetheless slave catchers and bounty hunters crossed the Mexican border in pursuit of slaves which escaped to Mexico via an Underground Railroad which developed in Texas while it was still a republic. Mexico never officially recognized the Republic of Texas and thus no treaty regarding the escaped slaves was attainable. Mexican authorities who encountered the Texans crossing the border arrested them, allowing the slaves to go free. That situation continued after Texas became a state, as Mexico’s official position was that the slave catchers and bounty hunters had entered Mexico illegally. Mexico actively assisted the escape of many slaves.

The southbound Underground Railroad operated in the same manner as its more famous northern cousins, with safe houses known as stations, guides called conductors, and ran through Texas, Arkansas, and Louisiana. The long border across the Rio Grande was patrolled, but its sheer length ensured opportunities to cross, which were monitored by Texan and Mexican opponents to slavery. Blacks arriving in Mexico were all but forced by circumstances to settle in segregated communities, separated by culture and language, but gradually assimilated into Mexican culture. The Roman Catholic Church provided sanctuaries, as did Mexican citizens.

Until the election of 1860, when secession loomed dependent on the results, the southern dominated Congress debated actions against the Mexican government for allowing escaped slaves safe haven within the borders of Mexico. The exact number of slaves which escaped to Mexico is unknown, but the amount of protests by both the federal government and the state of Texas to the Mexican government indicates it was high enough to be a major financial issue. At the same time that escaping slaves were being helped to Mexico, slave smugglers were bringing black slaves from the Caribbean to Texas by smuggling them through Mexico.

The Underground Railroad which ran to the south was neither as well organized nor as well-known as those of the northern states, and is mostly forgotten today. It was not the first southbound route to escape slavery, in the early 1800s slaves in Georgia and Alabama and even as far away as the Carolinas fled to the south to reach freedom in what was then Spanish Florida. Most of the slaves who fled to Mexico never returned to the United States. Following the American Civil War many Mexicans fled to the United States, escaping the French intervention in Mexico, and creating issues regarding Mexican immigration which are still debated.

10 Facts, Events, and People of the Underground Railroad
Abolitionist Robert Purvis was the founder of the Philadelphia Vigilance Committee in 1840.

The Vigilance Committees

In the larger northern cities and in the cities of the west, vigilance committees were established to assist the efforts of the Underground Railroad by raising funds for operation, and to help the escaped slaves to settle once safely in the free states. After the passing of the Fugitive Slave Law of 1850, the focus of many of the committees shifted to efforts to thwart the slave catchers demanding cooperation from the authorities of the North. The vigilance committees also served to create public awareness of the kidnapping of free blacks and their shipment to slavery in the south. Under the Fugitive Slave Law, a recaptured slave was not entitled to a legal hearing before being returned to his owner, and kidnapped free blacks had little opportunity to plea their case in court.

In Boston, the vigilance committee was founded in 1841 by Charles Torrey, in part to raise funds for his planned activities in Washington DC later that year. Even before the Fugitive Slave Law federal law was that local authorities and all citizens should help those who were seeking to recovery property. The Boston committee announced its intention to assist in the escape of slaves seeking freedom in the North, thus its own charter made it in violation of the existing law. In 1850, in response to the Fugitive Slave Law, it was reorganized and a new charter was created which made it more difficult for federal authorities to arrest its members, were they so inclined.

Unlike most vigilance committees, which operated more or less in secret and avoided documenting their activities, Boston’s kept detailed records of its financial receipts and disbursements. From these records it is possible to build a record of the activities of several station managers and conductors of the Underground Railroad. Citizens of Boston and its surrounding communities that sheltered escaping slaves were reimbursed for their expenses. So were those citizens who kept their eyes on known slave catchers and federal marshals as they moved about Boston’s streets. The financial records of illegal activities were kept hidden by the treasurers over the years.

In 1850 two slave catchers went to Boston to execute warrants on escaped slaves who were living there openly. After the vigilance committee spirited the former slaves to safe locations outside of the city they organized a campaign to harass the slave catchers. Vigilance committee members had posters describing the slave catchers’ physical appearance and their many undesirable activities posted throughout the city. Warrants were sworn out against the men and they were arrested on a variety of charges only to post bond and promptly be arrested again on another charge.

The work of the vigilance committee did not escape the notice of federal authorities and more than one member was arrested over the years, in Boston and in other cities. The vigilance committees were clearly breaking federal law when acting to free recaptured slaves while in custody awaiting return to their owners and when inciting mob violence against both civilian slave catchers and federal marshals and other officers. After 1850 the laws were clearly on the side of the slave owners, upheld by the Supreme Court. The abolitionists and their supporters entered the final and most dangerous decade of the Underground Railroad, which ended with America at war with itself.


Where do we find this stuff? Here are our sources:

“The Underground Railroad”, by the National Geographic Society, online

“The Untold History Beneath 12 Years”, by Sinha Minisha, New York Daily News, March 2, 2013

“The Underground Railroad: Authentic Narratives and First-Hand Accounts”, by William Still, 2007

“Station Master of the Underground Railroad, the Life and Letters of Thomas Garrett”, by James A. McCowan, 2005

“Beyond the River: The Untold Story of the Heroes of the Underground Railroad”, by Ann Hagedorn, 2002

“On the road to Harriet Tubman”, by Catherine Clinton, American Heritage Magazine, June/July 2004

“Charles Torrey – The Most Successful, Least Celebrated Abolitionist” by the New England Historical Society, online

“Fugitive Slaves and the Underground Railroad in the Kentucky Borderland”, by J. Blaine Hudson, 2002

“South to Freedom”, by Martin Kohn, Humanities Magazine, March/April 2013