I know you’re wondering, what railroad? Well the simple fact is that everybody has heard of the Underground Railroad, but not everyone knows just what it was. Firstly, it wasn’t underground, and it wasn’t even a railroad. The term “Underground Railroad” actually comes from a runaway slave, who while being chased swam across a creek and was out of the owner’s sight. The owner said “…must have gone off on an underground railroad.” That man was Tice Davids, a Kentucky slave who decided to live in freedom in 1831. The primary importance of the Underground Railroad was the on going fight to abolish slavery, the start of the civil war, and it was being one of our nation’s first major anti-slavery movements.
The history of the railroad is quite varied according to whom you are talking. Slavery in America thrived and continued to grow because there was a scarcity of labor. Cultivation of crops on plantations could be supervised while slaves used simple routines to harvest them, the low price at which slaves could be bought, and earning profits as a bonus for not having to pay hired work.
Slaves turned to freedom for more than one reason. Some were obsessed with being free and living a life where they were not told how to live. Others ran due to fear of being separted or sold from friends and family. Then there were some who were treated so cruely, that it forced them to run just to stay alive. Since coming to America as slaves even back as far back as when the first colonies began, slaves wanted to escape. They wanted to get away from the situation they were forced into. Those who were free were the “whites” who were somewhat separated in values. The North, was a more industrialized area where jobs were filled by newly imported immigrants, making them less dependent on slave labor. The South, however had rich fertile land mostly used for farming. Huge plantations were cleared and needed to be worked. The people of the area tended to be more genteal, and seemed not quite adjusted to hard work, but more of giving orders. The idea of telling people how to do their work just seemed to fit all too well into this scenario.
The railroad didn’t have a certain location. Slaves had been running since the 1500’s on their own. When the idea caught on amoung brave slaves, was when it started. Slave owners in the South certainly weren’t happy about the loss of “property”. It seemed like too much money was being lost.This caused the South to pass the Fugitive Slave Act of 1793. This titled slaves as property of their owners and gave permission to the owners to retrieve runaways any where in the states, even those states that were free. The North was angry about the treatment of the slaves and was not happy about owners being allowed to come into their states to take the slaves back. Finally, the North decided to do something about it. To return the fire thrown at them by the South, they would take away something that the North thought was morally wrong,and the South’s riches. They would help the slaves escape to freedom. The slaves were now angry, scared, and confused. Hearing of this Underground Railroad, they slowly began to run, more and more.
By 1807 a law was passed to make it illegal to import anymore slaves. Agricultural improvements came along, and with the limited number of slaves left in the states, the value of the slaves went up very quickly. Abolition Societies began to form, and along with religious groups became active in helpin gslaves to freedom.
The “Railroad” beggan to take shape. A shape that is to this day very hard to describe. Traks were laid to aide the slaves to freedom. People talked in secrecy to make safe paths for the slaves to run on. These were the tracks. Letters were sent that had terminology or code for the balcks. A lot of the terms come from things found along railroads. This is because real railroads at this time were the newest thing and happened to be the topic of choice for conversation. This made it all the easier for the helpers of the railroad to communicate going unoticed.Along the tracks, there were depots, safe houses to stay. These were houses of free whites or blacks where they could hide when they weren’t running. The people who owned the houses were often called conductors. The conductors often left a number of signs for the slaves to follow so they didn’t go to houses that belonged to allies of the slave owners. A quilt on the clothes line depicting a house with smoke coming out of the chimney was a sign of a safe station. A white ring of bricks around the the top of a house’s chimney was another sign of a good hiding spot. Shoppes that were safe often had a silohette of a fleeing man or woman on in sign. Other siggns were used to guide the slaves. There were knocks that slaves used when approaching a house,animal calls, and lights hung in windows. When a slave was moving to the next house along the railroad, this was called “catching the next train.” There were also songgs that ave directions to slaves that were taught to everyone so that they might memorize the way. One such, was “Follow the Drinking Gourd” The drinking gourd was the slaves’ terminology for the big dipper. The Big Dipper’s “handle” points to the north star, which they could use to find their way north. The song gave landmarks along the way to follow and a verse from it says ” the dead trees will show you the way.” This was put in the song for a reason. The writer of this song, refered to as Peg-leg Joe, drew a picture of a peg legg on the dead trees along the track with charcoal. The following verse is “Left foot, peg foot traveling on,” accordingly. The tracks for the railroad weren’t exactly laid. A slave had many possible directions to run in, but the main idea here was safty over quickness. The slaves often zigzaged in their paths to avoid being caught. There were different forms of fleeing as well as different paths. Slaves could travel by water on boats. Often in one of the many clever disguises fabricated by the people of the North willing to lend a hand. Men were dressed as women, women were dressed as men, slave’s clothes were exchanged for those of a rich free person of color’s to confuse the true identity of the slave when seen by curious eyes. There were also some slaves that traveled the road, by foot, in a caridge, or in a wagon often containing a fake bottom making a tiny space where slaves could safely journey to freedom.Some traveled on “surface linesthe actual railroads of this time. Lightly colored slaves were dressed as whites, and others were put in with the luggage and frieght. And yet dareing others traveled as baggage. Such a person was Henry “Box” Brown who recieved his nickname by making the long trip in a box marked “this side up,” and “fragile.” There are, however, reports from Henry, after he “reached the end of the line”, where he testified being turned upside down and was thrown about, which makes us all wonder what goes on with our mail service.
In the end, slaves had to find a way to blend with the people of the North so that they might live their lives free. Some of the escaped fugitves met up with previuosly escaped friends and family and formed communities. Others found a haven in the Native Americans with whom they intermarried and reproduced. The civil war began and others found shelter with the Union Army. The slaves soon found out that freedom did not mean freedom from work, but they were happier because they now made their own decisions. Some died from exposure, after not finding shelter from the North’s frozen winter. Most slaves were not allowed to learn to read and remained illiterate. Their not being able to read or understand the fact that they had money of their own often lead cruel salesmen and employers to take advantage of the blacks. Those who learned to do specific jobs in the South often took up similar jobs in the North. The need for the railroad slowly began to decrease as the fight for abolishment grew stronger. It was no longer nesscary for the raliroad to be, since almost all the slaves who were going to run already had. The final motion that brought the railraod to it’s final stop was the signing of the Emancipation Proclamation by Lincoln, ending all slavery in our now free country, forever.