The secret network of routes and safe houses that were established in the early 1800s to help African-American slaves escape was known as the Underground Railroad. These routes would go to the free states as well as Canada, and were aided by abolitionists, people who wanted to end slavery in the United States. There were other routes, however, leading towards Mexico and overseas. By 1850, it is estimated that 100,000 slaves were freed via the Underground Railroad, which was not a real railroad.
British North America (now Canada) was one of the most popular destinations for slaves escaping from the Underground Railroad. One of the reasons for this was the long boarder that gave it many places to enter. The main reason was that slavery was prohibited, and thus any person in Canada would be considered a free person.
It is thought that 30,000 people or more escaped to British North America during a 20-year period, although U.S Census has only reported 6,000. When escaped-slaves were at its peak, almost 1,000 managed to get to freedom per year using the Underground Railroad. There were only 5,000 documented court cases however, which was far below the number of slaves coming in from boats, so the numbers never really were offset.
The Fugitive Slave Act of 1793 stated that when a slave would escape to the free states, officials from those states were required to assist in the capture and return of escaped slaves. However, there were many times when free blacks who were never slaves would be captured and sold as slaves because of how little documentation was needed. Many of the free states would ignore this rule and not attempt to pursue them, causing a rise in bounty hunters (people paid for bringing in fugitives).
An abductor was someone who went into slave states to find slaves to bring to freedom. One of the most famous people to do this was a woman, Harriet Tubman, who was an escaped slaved herself. She freed 300 slaves herself, making 19 trips to the South and escorting them out, never losing a single person she was bringing to safety.
The paths that abductors take were kept under tight wraps, only spreading through word of mouth and run by 'Conductors', which were people who would pretend to be a slave to gain access to a plantation. Once inside, they would direct the slaves to the next station in the railroad, and they would start traveling north at night. A station was a resting spot where the slaves could eat and stock up on supplies as well as money, and destinations were often referred to by biblical names like Canada being 'The Promised Land' and the Ohio River being 'River Jordan'.
Slaves would sometimes travel on train or boat, but they were usually on foot or in a wagon. They were usually in groups of one to three people, though there were times when the groups were much larger than that. While the routes they would take would not always be the most direct, they would successfully confuse anyone pursuing them. It was considered a difficult and hard task for children and women, as it was hard to keep the children quiet, and women weren't ever allowed to leave the plantation.
The Underground Railroad had a lasting impact on the United States and its culture. It also showed that America had not changed much since the Revolutionary War, constantly finding ways to fight oppressive systems and figuring out ways around them. The Underground Railroad was cemented in U.S History in 1997 when Bill Clinton would authorize the preservation of stations and other relevant sites to be preserved by the United Stations National Park Service.
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