A 280-Year North American Moral Legacy
Many regard the Underground Railroad as the noblest endeavor in United States history, both in colonial times and after nationhood. The Underground Railroad existed for 280 years - more than a quarter of a millennium - from 1585 when the first enslaved people from Africa arrived in the New World at the Spanish settlement of Saint Augustine, Florida, to the end of the Civil War in 1865. The inception of the Underground Railroad, though it would not have a name for another 250 years, would have been when an enslaved person first escaped the Saint Augustine colony and was aided by any other person, most likely a Native American.
Some historians count as the first written reference to what became known as the Underground Railroad the letter of George Washington of April 12, 1786, to William Morris of Philadelphia recounting Quaker assistance to a freedom seeker escaped from Washington's friend, Mr. Dalby, of Alexandria, Virginia. "In another letter, written to William Drayton on November 20, 1786, Washington complains that he had apprehended a runaway slave belonging to Drayton, but when he sent the slave under guard to Baltimore to be reunited with Drayton, the slave escaped and was aided in this by some sort of escape network." As a sign of the times and harbinger of the Civil War, the man later called the father of his country, torn himself by the conundrum of slavery, was not only an enslaver himself but a slave catcher.
Beginning in 1754 with the Quakers and continuing through the late 1700s, Protestant denominations one after another condemned slavery. Northern states rapidly began abolishing slavery between 1780 and 1786. The remainder of the eighteenth century and the beginning of the nineteenth saw wholesale formation of northern anti-slavery societies and vigilance committees which began actively aiding fugitives from slavery.
The combination of these various forms of opposition to slavery - the abolitionist movement - lent hope to enslaved people with the predictable result that more of the most daring of them attempted flight to freedom to the northern states and Canada, creating a growing wave of Underground Railroad freedom seekers beginning about 1800.
The long-lived, ubiquitous, illegal, clandestine operation which came to be known as the Underground Railroad did not even have a name for a quarter millennium when participants in what then came to be known as the Underground Railroad began using the terminology of the new transforming technology, the railroad. Freedom seekers began to be referred to as passengers or cargo, their guides along the back ways and trails to freedom as conductors, and those who gave them shelter along the way as agents, station operators or station masters. By 1842, the entire operation, taking on the name of the new technology, became known as the Underground Railroad. The first known written reference using the term was in an article in a St. Louis newspaper that year.
Though actual railroads, especially the Baltimore & Ohio, were occasionally a means of transporting people to freedom, and the nature of the flight to freedom was "underground" by being clandestine, the Underground Railroad was not literally either a railroad or underground, a distinction actually lost on some adults today.
A signal event of the Underground Railroad was the abolition of slavery by Canada in 1833 and by most of the rest of the British Commonwealth nations in 1834, resulting in Canada and the British Caribbean islands becoming magnets for freedom seekers from the United States. After the 1850 passage of the second Fugitive Slave Act, which required that United States citizens anywhere assist in the apprehension of runaways, Canada became the main safe haven for freedom seekers through the end of the Civil War.
No reliable method has been developed for estimating of the number of enslaved people who attempted to flee for their freedom, with the estimates running from the low five figures to seven figures and the true number probably in the low six figures. Also unknown is what proportion of those who broke for freedom attained it.
The reason for existence of the Underground Railroad vanished at the end of the Civil War with the abolition of slavery, though many of the former Underground Railroad routes and safe-houses must have continued to be used by people migrating north. It is likely, too, that these migrants continued to be assisted after 1865 by some of those who had served as Underground Railroad conductors and safe-house operators.
For 280 years, every American - Black, White, Native American and others - was aware of the institution of slavery, that every enslaved person wanted to be free, that some would risk all to flee for freedom, and that some free people would risk all to aid freedom seekers in their quest. All Americans and Canadians were vividly aware of these things which therefore formed a deeply rooted part of the very consciousness of the two nations and an integrally woven part of the fabric of daily life. Thus, the long contest between freedom and slavery, between good and evil in North America, was, as author Fergus Bordewich has put it, the war for the soul of America. Indeed it was. It took 280 years - a very, very long time - to win this war, but won it was. The moral certitude, perseverance and courage of Underground Railroad safe-house operators and conductors but most especially of freedom seekers themselves delivered the continent from darkness.
Research conducted by Underground Railroad Free Press and Professor Judith Wellman of the State University of New York shows that only about four percent of claimed Underground Railroad sites today can show conclusive documentation that they were indeed Underground Railroad sites. The overwhelming majority of what transpired on the Underground Railroad was too dangerous to record, which makes the record of the Underground Railroad especially dependent on the oral traditions handed down though families, property owners and others. Because most involved in the Underground Railroad were illiterate, because the entire operation was illegal, because those who had assisted freedom seekers were too often persecuted after the Civil War, and because many white families were divided over the issue of slavery, much of the history of the Underground Railroad was forever lost, carried untold to the grave by the brave souls who had been the Underground Railroad.
What remains today through the oral traditions of handed-down accounts, and in many fewer cases actual documentation, almost entirely from northern states, is precious but dwindling as oral traditions continue to die out with the passing of the descendants of freedom seekers, safe-house operators and conductors. So, it is vital to record and preserve intact Underground Railroad stories while they remain with us and to assure that they are not pushed off onto dusty back shelves to be forgotten because of too much emphasis on the small fractions of Underground Railroad history and sites which are fortunate enough to be documented.
The following timeline lists important events and milestones of the historical Underground Railroad, abolitionism, and the contemporary Underground Railroad community up to the present.