The Underground Railroad is a term for the covert network of people and places that assisted fugitive slaves as they escaped from slavery in the South. Most widespread during the three decades prior to the Civil War, this activity primarily took place in the regions bordering slave states, with the Ohio River being the center of much of the activity. Of course, Underground Railroad activity did not literally take place underground or via a railroad, nor was it an official organization with defined structure. It was simply a loose network of people who attempted to move enslaved individuals escaping from slavery to and from safe places in a quick and largely secretive manner.
At the heart of the Underground Railroad were the beliefs of the abolitionist movement. The 18th Century Quakers, members of the Religious Society of Friends, were the first organized abolitionists, believing that slavery violated Christian principles. By the first decades of the 1800s, every state in the North had legally abolished slavery. Abolitionist ideas then spread West into the territories that would soon become Indiana and Ohio. Abolitionists firmly believed that slavery was against their Christian faith. Others considered the contradictory aspects of independence for a country that held enslaved individuals, which led many to become active on the Underground Railroad.
People involved with the Underground Railroad developed their own terminology to describe participants, safe places and other codes that needed to be kept secret. People who guided slaves from place to place were called "conductors." Locations where slaves could safely find protection, food or a place to sleep were called "safe houses" or "stations." Those who hid fugitive slaves in their homes, barns or churches were called "station masters." Slaves who were in the safekeeping of a conductor or station master were "cargo." Code words were also used to enable fugitive slaves to find their way North. The Big Dipper, whose handle pointed towards the North Star, was referred to as the "drinking gourd." The Ohio River was frequently referred to by a biblical reference, the River Jordan. Canada, one of the final safe havens for many fugitive slaves, was called the "Promised Land" (Although Canada was the destination that many runaway enslaved individuals strived to reach, it was not the only destination for those escaping. Many enslaved people escaped to cities in the North or went to Mexico, the Caribbean Islands, South America or even to remote areas of the South and West). These terms allowed people to communicate about the Underground Railroad without being obvious about their true intentions.
It is important to realize that while conductors and fugitive slaves were participating on the Underground Railroad, all of their actions were illegal. The federal government had passed Fugitive Slave Acts as early as 1793 that allowed slave catchers to come north and force runaways back into slavery. By the 1830s and 1840s, these laws were expanded in reaction to increased Underground Railroad activity. With the passage of the Fugitive Slave Act of 1850, assisting or helping hide fugitive slaves became a federal offense, making all Underground Railroad activity subject to six months in prison and a $1,000 fine. Escaping from slavery or helping someone to escape from slavery was a very difficult and dangerous task.
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