What did Escaping Slaves Endure/Risk?
Those attempting to escape on the Underground Railroad faced a long journey filled with uncertainty, fear, and the very real possibility of never reaching their goal. Prevailing wisdom gave winter as the best time of year to escape, since the long nights provided for a frozen Ohio River. Enslaved individuals would often be given free time around Christmas, which made opportunities to escape more frequent. Regardless, traveling into the colder weather of the North could be difficult. There was also the question of finding safe places and people to trust; fugitive slaves might go several weeks between stations and, even when they did arrive at one, they risked being found by slave catchers. By the time of the Fugitive Slave Act of 1850, more and more slave catchers were traveling north with guns, horses, and bloodhounds, eager to take fugitive slaves back by any means. The journey north was also hundreds of miles long in, especially for slaves who wanted to go to Canada. Having little knowledge of the land, little or no money or personal property, avoiding slave catchers, finding safe stations, and trusting the instructions given by others about how to get to freedom all made escaping risky and difficult.
Many enslaved individuals were not lucky enough to make it to freedom. Current estimates place the number of enslaved individuals who successfully escaped at 100,000, but there are countless more who made the attempt but did not succeed. Being discovered by slave catchers, facing illness, and abandoning the attempt were all too common reasons for not making it to freedom. Enslaved individuals caught by slave catchers were often harshly punished upon their return, by beatings, imprisonment, or punishments even harsher still. But even if enslaved individuals did not gain their freedom, their attempts were not in vain; the knowledge of the paths to take, where the safe places were, and who could be trusted were all passed on to others who might make the same attempt.