How the Underground Railroad Worked

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Candace Gibson: Hello, and welcome to the podcast. I'm editor, Candace Gibson, joined by staff writer Jane McGrath.

Jane McGrath: Hey there.

Candace Gibson: Jane has a very cocky smile on her face. I wonder why.

Jane McGrath: Well, I was just thinking. Candace, have you ever seen the Saturday Night Live skit with Michael Myers where he plays Linda Richman in Coffee Talk?

Candace Gibson: Yes.

Jane McGrath: It's one of my favorites.

Candace Gibson: I love it. It's so apropos for a topic that we're going to discuss today, the Underground Railroad - neither underground nor a railroad.

Jane McGrath: Nor a railroad.

Candace Gibson: Discuss, discuss.

Jane McGrath: That's right. And he would be right if he said that. The Underground Railroad is a secret network that existed in the 19th century in America to help African American slaves escape from slavery.

Candace Gibson: And so much about the Underground Railroad remains a secret because the origins are very murky and there are no written records about it at the time to protect the secrecy of the network. So things that we know come from accounts of people who made it through the Underground Railroad or people who served it. And I actually learned some pretty interesting things about the Underground Railroad when I was doing some research on it. And I guess the first one is that it was very expensive. And it makes sense, but I'd never thought about it before. But we're talking about fugitive slaves who would have to be clothed, fed, hidden, and provided with transportation - sometimes for days, sometimes for weeks on end.

Jane McGrath: That's right. And because it was so dangerous, all these precautions were very necessary.

Candace Gibson: And again, because of the danger, a lot of people - abolitionists, philanthropists - they were called stockholders. They would raise money to contribute to the people who ran the Underground Railroad so that they could pay bribes to people who might squeal. And the reason that squealing was such a big deal was because of something called The Fugitive Slaves Acts.

Jane McGrath: That's right. And to give you some context, if you go back to the Constitution, as we all know much of the Constitution was a compromise when it came to slavery because the north and the south disagreed about it. But in order to make a union they had to compromise. So they had this clause where they said fugitives of labor who escaped into a different state had to be returned. And although the Constitution didn't say how to enforce this, it did say it needed to happen. So a few years later, they had the Fugitive Slave Act of 1793, which basically made it a Federal crime to assist escaped slaves. It was still relatively murky even after this act, because it left it up to the local courts to decide how to enforce it. And so there were loopholes that both abolitionists and pro-slavery authorities took advantage of.

Candace Gibson: And so in 1850 it was reinforced, all these revisions set into place - high fines for people who aided and abetted fugitive slaves. And also, these people could receive prison time. They could even be executed. And any black person living in the north could actually be sought after and said to be a slave, even if that were untrue, and made to go back to the south.

Jane McGrath: Yeah, it made it very easy for slave hunters - basically, bounty hunters - to lure free black children and to bring them into slavery. And it's a horrific situation that happened. It was actually - the Fugitive Slave Act of 1850 was part of another comprise - the Compromise of 1850. And in return for this conceding to the south, they let California in as a free state. But what's interesting about this law, I think, is it basically legislated a bribe where magistrates were given fees of $5.00 if they stopped a slave hunter from bringing back a slave. But the fee got raised to $10.00 if they allowed the slave hunter to take the slave away.

Candace Gibson: And so ultimately the north responded to the Fugitive Slave Act and the revisions by saying that slavery was being pushed upon them, even though it was something they did not condone in the north. It was an institution that the majority of the north frowned upon. But because people who wanted to speak out against slavery had essentially been muzzled, they felt like it was time to do something.

Jane McGrath: That's right. So even though it was much more dangerous after the act of 1850, it also provoked the anti-slavery movement.

Candace Gibson: Exactly. And if you look at the time before 1850, for example the early 1800s, we see that there are a network of kind strangers who would help fugitive slaves get to the north - there were about 14 states in the north that were safe for fugitive slaves - or to Canada, which was an even more popular choice because they couldn't be touched by the Fugitive Slave Acts there. Then by the 1820s, there was a little bit more organization with anti-slavery groups helping to shuttle along the fugitive slaves. And by 1840, there was almost a full-on underground network there to help, and that was the Underground Railroad.

Jane McGrath: That's right. And it was largely unprecedented. It was completely unprecedented. Obviously, the slaves have existed throughout history. And even in ancient Rome, they had problems with runaway slaves. But never before had there been such a sophisticated network for helping them escape! And that's what make the Underground Railroad so special.

Candace Gibson: And what's wild is that it spread by word of mouth. We said before that it had to be secretive by its sole existence. That's the only way it could survive. And we should go over the terminology for the Underground Railroad, and I think that will help you understand why - even though it was neither underground nor railroad - it was called the Underground Railroad. So the routes of escape that the fugitive slaves would follow were called lines, like a railroad line. And the different pit stops or safe places or hideouts they would visit were called stations. The people who volunteered and helped the slaves along were called conductors. And the fugitives themselves were called packages or freight. And historical records are unclear about how many slaves actually made it through the Underground Railroad. There are some very low estimates that put that number at around 2,000. Some are more generous, saying about 40,000. Others say a couple hundred thousand. But no matter what, we know for sure that Ohio was one of the most active states, and that the most success stories come from the Border States like Maryland, Kentucky, and Virginia. And if you were in the Deep South you neither had a chance at all of getting up to the north, or if you did, you were incredibly lucky. Or you escaped to Spanish controlled territories like Florida or Mexico.

Jane McGrath: And if you were lucky and you made it to one of the northern states, often they would have vigilance committees there that would help you start a new life. They would get you shelter, work, and protect you from slave hunters.

Candace Gibson: So there was hope, and it was obviously a risk worth undertaking, especially when the Underground Railroad was more established. At the beginning, you primarily saw single men going through on their own. And then as more confidence was instilled in the Underground Railroad, more passengers would come through - and even sometimes families. And that was what was so tricky about the Underground Railroad, was that someone would be commissioned by either a newly freed slave or an abolitionist. And this commissioned field agent would go down to different plantations to make contact with the slave. And he might pose as a doctor or a census taker, and it would take awhile to get the slave's trust.

Jane McGrath: That's right. It was difficult, because obviously slaves were skeptical of people helping them. Maybe they were just luring them away to get a bounty on them. So they often would only trust other African Americans, or they eventually started trusting Quakers as well, because they were more recognizable and they were known for being antislavery.

Candace Gibson: Right. So once the field agent had gained the slave's trust, he would help convey him to a conductor. And the conductor would help the slave on the first leg of the journey to the very first station, the safe house. And there a stationmaster would feed and clothe the slave and prepare the slave for the next leg of his journey. And oftentimes the stationmasters would equip slaves with disguises. It was not uncommon at all for a male slave to be disguised as a female. I think you even see an instance of this in Harriet Beecher Stowe's Uncle Tom's Cabin. It's been awhile since I've read it, but I'm pretty sure there is an instance of that occurring. And there's one famous case of a black slave woman being disguised as a white woman and even being given a white baby to use as a very convincing prop.

Jane McGrath: That's right. And there are places you can go to today, to where these stations were and find hidden passageways and hiding places for these slaves to stay. Even in Pennsylvania - as we mentioned, Pennsylvania was one state, much of it wanted to help slaves escape. So there was one station near Gettysburg, Pennsylvania which you can go and visit. It's now a restaurant. You can go see a hiding place where the bookshelf moves.

Candace Gibson: It's wild, the lengths that the abolitionists and these philanthropists when to help fugitive slaves. And even though there were that many people helping, it was still a very dangerous journey. They would travel at night under the cover of darkness following the north star. And during the daytime, the slaves would hide in caves and underbrush and thickets and hope and pray that no one stumbled upon them.

Jane McGrath: And this was often difficult because - I don't know if you mentioned this Candace, but the lines were often very zigzagged in order to throw off slave hunters. And these often worked against the slaves, if they were not able to get a guide. So they would often get lost and it would take them years to get out of this railroad.

Candace Gibson: And so we see that it was not impossible, but very dangerous to do the trip on your own. And if they were lucky enough to have a guide, like Jane mentioned, success was much more guaranteed. And one of the most famous guides was Harriet Tubman.

Jane McGrath: And she herself had been a slave in Maryland, and she had escaped to Pennsylvania. She had earlier married a free black, and when she returned she found out that her free husband had married again and wasn't willing to go with her. And Tubman took members of her family back to Pennsylvania. And one historian, Fergus M. Bordewich; suggests that it was this experience where her husband remarried and didn't want to come with her that really hardened her. It made her a tough lady to say the least.

Candace Gibson: She was tough like Jane said. And I think there's that age-old scenario where people ask, "If you were hiding and there were enemies approaching and there was a baby in your group and it cried out, would you suffocate it?" And it's a morality debate - and the answer is hard to say, but a lot of people would argue yes to spare to lives of the group you'd let one person go. And I think Tubman really lived by this notion, too. And she would often threaten to kill slaves if one of them was getting scared or making too much noise. It was for the good of the group and it worked, because she made about 13 trips on the Underground Railroad, taking about 70 slaves to New York and Canada.

Jane McGrath: It must've taken some really hard nerves to do what she did, so it's good for her. Also, you mentioned Harriet Beecher Stowe earlier, the author of Uncle Tom's Cabin. She is often criticized as never having been in the south and experiencing slavery, but she got her knowledge about slavery through her word of mouth contact with Underground Railroad and the members of it.

Candace Gibson: And so whether or not Stowe witnessed firsthand the perils of the Underground Railroad or saw firsthand the atrocities of slavery, I think is a moot point. The novel really moved people, and it's a very emotional read. It's a very long novel, but it will make you cry - especially the character of Uncle Tom. I was in tears when I finished.

Jane McGrath: And it made a huge impact at the time. So it was the ripples the Underground Railroad had that were very vast.

Candace Gibson: It made a huge emotional appeal. And I think one of the saddest stories to come out of the Underground Railroad is one that involves Levi Coffin. I believe he was a Quaker and he wrote a treatise about his experience with the Underground Railroad. And he mentioned that there was one party of 28 that came through from Kentucky. And there was a baby in the group. They got to a certain place and they had to stop and they were hiding in the thicket. And Levi Coffin arranged for abolitionists in the community to bring them clothes and shoes, because it was incredibly cold - hot coffee and food. And everyone was wondering, "How are we going to convey this huge group of people through to the next station." And Coffin came up with the idea that they should all act like they're in a funeral procession and just walk very solemnly and slowly along the road, and no one would question them. And it worked. But when they arrived at the next safe house, they realized it wasn't just a pretend funeral procession, the baby had actually died from malnutrition and the cold. So it was an actual real funeral procession.

Jane McGrath: I've never heard that story. It's very interesting.

Candace Gibson: It's very sad.

Jane McGrath: It is very sad.

Candace Gibson: And I think there are so many countless more like that, and so many legends about the Underground Railroad that we may never are true. We hear stories about quilt patterns being secret codes to slaves whether or not a house was safe or that there was a bounty hunter on the lookout. There are so many stories like this about the Underground Railroad, so we would urge you guys to check out the article on the Underground Railroad as well as information on historical figures like Harriet Tubman on

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