The Underground Railroad provided an escape route to nearly 100,000 slaves during its height between 1810 and 1850. It was not made up of one individual or organization, but of several people who were committed to bring freedom to the oppressed slaves in the southeast United States.
No one really knows when the Underground Railroad was started. As early as 1786 there were reports of people helping slaves escape to the north. It was not until 1831 that the Underground Railroad received its name. Even the jargon of the system was railroad in name. The safe havens where the escaped slaves could rest were called “depots” or “stations.” The brave individuals who provided these places were called “stationmasters,” and the escapees were brought to these places by the “conductors.” It was not cheap to provide food and other necessities for the ones making their way to freedom, so “stockholders” would often provide money and other goods needed. The “stockholders” were often anonymous.
Those who used the Underground Railroad the most were men under the age of 40. The trip was considered to dangerous for women and children. Usually a “conductor” would disguise himself as a slave on a plantation and then help others escape in the middle of the night. These small parties would travel up to 20 miles during the night by foot or railroad and then take refuge at one of the “stations” during the day. Once the men made it to freedom, they would work to earn money to buy the freedom of the family members that they were forced to leave behind.
Obviously, the owners of the escaped slaves were not too happy to wake up and find their workers missing. Many hired professional bounty hunters who would track the escapees all the way to Canada. Others would offer large rewards to anyone who could catch an escaped slave. For this reason, most on the Underground Railroad traveled at night and the “stationmasters” usually only knew of the connecting “stations” in order to preserve secrecy and ensure the safety of the travelers.
There are many people who were made famous by their attachment to the Underground Railroad. William Still, a freeborn African American, helped hundreds of slaves escape by hiding them in his home in Philadelphia home. He would interview those he was hiding, and he published their stories in a book called The Underground Rail Road Records. Still is sometimes called “The Father of the Underground Railroad.” Harriet Tubman made 13 trips on the Underground Railroad as a conductor to rescue friends and family. Levi Coffin hid slaves for 20 years, and today visitors to his home can still see the hiding room that he build into a wall of his house. John Wesley Posey hid at least 1000 slaves in his Indiana coal mine. John P. Parker helped to rescue hundreds of slaves despite a bounty that was placed on his head. There are countless more, many who remain lost to history, who helped bring freedom to thousands during those sorrowful days.