Tips for Researching the Underground Railroad

Freedom Center Voices

Tips for Researching the Underground Railroad

Many of us have been inspired by stories of freedom seekers and conductors who resisted the injustice of slavery in the United States via the Underground Railroad. We encounter their stories through books, films, local lore and family tales. Their heroism has captured our collective imaginations for generations and many of us genuinely wish to know more—How did the Underground Railroad actually work? Which stories are 100% true and which ones are not? Was my relative a conductor? Was my home a safe house?

This curiosity draws many of us deep into the research rabbit hole. Yet once we dive in ourselves, we often discover that uncovering this history can be both exhilarating and incredibly frustrating at the same time.

Maintaining perspective

The one point researchers must remember is that the Underground Railroad was a SECRET network of individuals and safe houses. Freedom seekers and conductors rarely talked openly about their experiences prior to the Civil War and only a handful kept secret notes about their experiences.  Involvement in the Underground Railroad was very dangerous. Some conductors were jailed, fined, sold into slavery and even murdered.  Freedom seekers that were captured were sent back into slavery and severely punished—some were even sold away from their families. These reasons and more made secrecy about this activity absolutely essential. It’s because of this secrecy that we know very little about most freedom seekers and conductors. Most of the details and first-hand accounts that have been documented about the Underground Railroad were written after the Civil War.

That being said, don’t let this discourage you from your research. These stories must be told; the legacy of these heroes must endure. Remember, it was the undeniable courage, cooperation and perseverance of these individuals that helped free over 4 million enslaved people and brought an end to over 200 years of legal slavery in the United States. These individuals changed the course of American history like no others. So on behalf of the National Underground Railroad Freedom Center, we’d like to offer you some tips on researching the Underground Railroad, freedom seekers and conductors. We wish you the best on your researching journey.

Primary sources from freedom seekers and conductors

The best way to understand the Underground Railroad and the experiences of freedom seekers and conductors is through primary sources. New York conductor Sydney Howard Gay kept secret notes on over 200 freedom seekers. Philadelphia conductor William Still wrote the first book on the Underground Railroad, published in 1872, about his experiences helping freedom seekers. Slave narratives can provide some great information as well—over 6,000 have been written.

Secondary sources from abolitionists, abolitionist organizations and abolitionist newspapers

You can find information on freedom seekers, conductors and safe houses by examining personal letters, diaries, organizational documents and newspaper articles from these three sources:


Numerous books have been written about the Underground Railroad, freedom seekers and conductors. Visit a library or bookstore and see what they have. A quick search online might be helpful for your research. Just make sure that any books you reference were written by a reputable source like John Hope Franklin, Henry Louis Gates, Jr., Eric Foner and David Blight.

Local and state historical societies

A great way to find out if there was Underground Railroad activity in your area is to contact your local or state historical society. These individuals specialize in all aspects of your local or state history, and are a great resource.

National and state park services

Some Underground Railroad or abolitionist landmarks may fall under the jurisdiction of the National Park Service or a state park service. For example, Frederick Douglass’ house at Cedar Hill is a national historic site, and is managed by rangers of the National Park Service. You can find out more at nps.gov.

Colleges and universities

If you’re not sure where to start on your research, local history professors may be able to point you in the right direction.  Some of them may also be experts on Underground Railroad history, or specific conductors and freedom seekers. Some colleges and universities create online databases that focus on specific historical topics. Here are a few examples:

Public libraries

Libraries, and more specifically librarians, are a great resource for historical research.  Librarians are experts at finding the right primary and secondary resources for your project. Books, journals,  newspapers and databases are just a few of the resources that are often available at libraries.

Library of Congress and National Archives

Two reliable and respectable databases to search are the Library of Congress and National Archives.  Unlike Google and other public search engines, documents on these websites go through a verification and authentication process. The Library of Congress will pull up over 40,000 “results” when you search “Underground Railroad.”

Museums and historic sites

Experiential learning is a great way to educate yourself and your family about the Underground Railroad. Plan a visit to the sites in your area.


If you’re looking for a general introduction to the Underground Railroad, I recommend watching a reputable documentary. Underground Railroad: The William Still Story will give you an educational and inspirational look at the Underground Railroad and William Still, a true American hero.

Photograph of William Still. Source: Friends Historical Library of Swarthmore College

African American Churches

African American churches were often the epicenter of their communities and some were actually used as safe houses. Leaders of these churches were know to hide, feed and clothe freedom seekers, as well as help them find jobs and housing. The African Methodist Episcopal Church (AME), founded by Richard Allen, has been around since 1794. Some of these old African American congregations may be able to help you with your research.

James Harrington, Manager of Interpretive Services
National Underground Railroad Freedom Center

Photograph of Harriet Tubman, full-length portrait, standing with hands on back of a chair. Source: Library of Congress
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