10 Facts, Events, and People of the Underground Railroad
10 Facts, Events, and People of the Underground Railroad

10 Facts, Events, and People of the Underground Railroad

Larry Holzwarth - May 31, 2018

10 Facts, Events, and People of the Underground Railroad
Ohio was the home of many abolitionists, including Harriet Beecher Stowe, author of Uncle Tom’s Cabin. Wikimedia

The Underground Railroad through Ohio

The Ohio River was a demarcation line between slave states and free, and many of the towns on both sides of the river held conductors and stationmasters. In the small river town of Ripley, across the river from Mason County Kentucky, a Presbyterian minister and abolitionist named John Rankin found his home visited at all hours by slave owners or slave catchers demanding information about fugitive slaves. Rankin moved his family to a new home on a hill near the town’s outskirts, which afforded him views of the town below and across the river to the Kentucky riverbank. He also planted fruit trees and vegetables to sell in town.

From Rankin’s house a light would be shown, from a lantern raised on a pole (local folklore claims it was from a window of the house) to notify slaves on the other side when it was safe to cross the river. Rankin built a stairway in the side of the hill facing the river, for slaves to use to ascend to the house. After being fed (from his gardens) and properly clothed the fugitives began to travel north through Ohio on lightly used roads and woods paths. Some elected to remain in Ohio, finding employment on farms and in factories, which led to resentment among many whites, and opposition to the abolitionists and those helping escaped slaves increased.

The various routes led to the towns along Lake Erie, and the routes through Ohio consisted of more than 3,000 miles of trails and roads. As in other states, conductors used circuitous routes to throw off pursuit, and very few moved directly north. As a result the trip was usually much longer in duration than it needed to have been. Larger towns were for the most part avoided on the way to Canada. After the enactment of the federal Fugitive Slave Law in 1850 made the act of assisting escaping slaves a federal crime, those in opposition to the Underground Railroad became an even bigger threat to the system.

Before the Fugitive Slave Law of 1850, escaped slaves hid in the larger cities and towns of Ohio in the segregated black communities. After the law allowed them to be pursued by slave catchers this became riskier, and sometimes led to racial confrontations and riots. This further led to increased opposition to the abolitionists and the Underground Railroad. Despite the risks, through the 1850s the movement of escaping slaves through Ohio increased. Kentucky slave owners opposed the building of a suspension bridge across the Ohio River, which began in 1856, because of the ease with which slaves would be able to cross to Ohio and melt into the black population of Cincinnati.

Similar Underground Railroad networks existed in Indiana on Ohio’s western border and often conductors crisscrossed between the states. Most of Ohio’s eastern border was at that time with Virginia, now West Virginia. There were Underground Railroad stations and conductors at Marietta, Portsmouth, and other towns across the Ohio River from Virginia, which fed fugitives from Virginia slave catchers into Ohio’s Underground Railroad network. Many of the slaves which escaped to Canada through Ohio returned to the United States after slavery was abolished, some to jobs in the growing cities.

10 Facts, Events, and People of the Underground Railroad
A notice for the reward for escaped slaves including “Minty”, which was how Harriet Tubman was known to her owner. Wikimedia

Harriet Tubman

The exact year of Harriet Tubman’s birth is unknown due to conflicting documents, it was most likely between 1820 and 1822. Her parents gave her the name Araminta Ross and called her Minty. Born a slave in Maryland, Tubman was hired out by her owner as a young girl, and according to her later accounts was the target of numerous beatings. Tubman’s education was limited to the hearing of Bible stories as told by her mother, but she also claimed that her mother had little time for her as a child, as her work in the plantation mansion kept her from her own family. As a teenager Tubman began experiencing what she called visions, in the form of dreams.

A head injury she sustained when one of her masters struck her on the head with a thrown object led to lifelong seizures which may have been epileptic in nature. She married a free black named John Tubman sometime around 1844. She also began calling herself Harriet in the 1840s. When her frequent illnesses lowered her value as a worker, her owner attempted to sell her, but died before a sale was consummated. The death of her owner made the likelihood of several slaves being sold, common when estates were settled at the time, and rather than waiting to be sold Harriet and two of her brothers decided to escape slavery.

After her brothers had second thoughts they forced Harriet to return with them. Harriet subsequently escaped again, this time alone, and made her way north to Philadelphia using the Underground Railroad along Maryland’s Eastern Shore and through Delaware. Tubman began operating as a conductor on the system, her first-hand knowledge of the swamps and bogs along the Eastern Shore provided numerous hiding places for escaping slaves during daylight hours, and allowed her to serve as a reliable guide while moving on foot at night. Tubman became a regular conductor on the Underground Railroad for the next eleven years.

Tubman made about a dozen trips to the Eastern Shore over the remaining years before the outbreak of the Civil War, escorting about 70 escaping slaves over the system. She also made trips along the northern portion of the Underground Railroad, guiding escaped slaves to the Canadian border. Most of her trips were made during the winter months, to take advantage of the longer period of darkness each night. Despite her success, the myth that Southern slave owners offered a $40,000 reward for her capture is just that – a myth. The existence of a reward of that amount has never been found in any periodical of the day, and the amount was greater than that offered for John Wilkes Booth after he killed the President.

Much of the Harriet Tubman story is similarly exaggerated. Often overlooked is her work with abolitionist John Brown to help him recruit men for his raid on the arsenal at Harper’s Ferry in 1859. There is much more to her story, including her activities during the Civil War, but her last trip as a conductor on the Underground Railroad was undertaken beginning in November 1860. By then Tubman had a home in Auburn, New York, and most of her extended family lived in the same community, having returned from Canada. Her career as a conductor came to an end when the party she was guiding reached Auburn near the end of December, 1860.

10 Facts, Events, and People of the Underground Railroad
Charles Torrey freed more than 400 slaves with his partner, Thomas Smallwood. Wikimedia

The Washington to Albany Route and Charles Torrey

Born in Massachusetts and educated at Exeter Academy and Yale, Charles Torrey was a Congregational minister who joined the abolitionist movement in the 1830s. After disagreements with the leader of abolitionism in New England, William Lloyd Garrison, Torrey and others set up what they called the New Movement, which later became the Liberty Party in the spring of 1840. In 1841, believing that the movement needed to be more active than just publishing anti-slavery tracts and speeches, Torrey moved to Washington DC to work as a reporter for abolitionist newspapers. His work as a reporter was a cover for his anti-slavery activities.

Torrey worked with Thomas Smallwood, a free black, to establish an elaborate and undercover route from Washington DC to Albany, New York, over which escaped slaves could be moved at night, staying hidden during the day, sheltered by sympathizers. It was the first fully organized Underground Railroad. Torrey and Smallwood recruited slaves to escape, with Torrey concentrating on the slaves owned by Southern members of the House and Senate and government officials in Washington. Slaves were hidden in Washington safe houses and transported out of the city in wagons rented by Torrey for the purpose.

Torrey’s operations were funded by abolitionists in New England and New York State. By the fall of 1842 Torrey’s frequent trips out of the city had drawn the attention of the Washington police and he fled to Albany, remaining in contact with Smallwood, who stayed in Washington until the spring of 1843, when he too fled to avoid arrest. By then they had freed over 400 slaves in Washington and from a branch of their operation they set up in Baltimore. Torrey was wanted by the authorities of both cities, but in the fall of 1843 both men returned to Washington and were forced to flee again when the authorities moved to arrest them.

Smallwood moved to Canada, but Torrey went to Baltimore, where he returned to his work helping slaves escape from their owners. In 1844 Torrey was arrested in Baltimore, caught while attempting to leave the city with three slaves. He was charged with theft, convicted, and sentenced to a term of six years in Maryland’s state prison. Prison conditions exacerbated the tuberculosis he had initially contracted in his youth, his health deteriorated rapidly, and efforts by friends and the churches supporting the abolitionists to obtain a release on humanitarian grounds were futile. He died in the spring of 1846.

Torrey’s network, which he established with Thomas Smallwood, freed more than 400 slaves and escorted them to safe haven in Canada and some northern communities in a little more than two years. By contrast the far more well-known Harriet Tubman led about 70 slaves to the north over eleven years. Torrey was all but forgotten after the war, largely because the history of the abolitionist movement was written after the war by those with whom Torrey had disagreed. He was the first of the more aggressive abolitionists who demanded action against slavery rather than just debating the matter over moral and political issues.

10 Facts, Events, and People of the Underground Railroad
Indiana abolitionist leader Dennis Pennington. Indiana was more aggressive than other states in attempting to suppress the Underground Railroad. Wikimedia

The Underground Railroad in Indiana

Most of the escaping slaves which entered Indiana did so by crossing the Ohio River from Kentucky, though a few entered from the system in Ohio. They were transported through the state in the usual manner of moving by night, and sheltered during the day in safe houses. Often their stay in the stations were extended due to the presence of slave catchers. Indiana had numerous violent confrontations between slave catchers and abolitionists, which led to actions by the legislature and several succeeding governors to crack down on Underground Railroad activities for the safety of its citizens. They did not succeed in shutting down the system.

The escaping slaves who reached the river across from Madison, Indiana, found a ferry waiting for them to carry them across the Ohio. Madison was one of four principal gateways to the network in Indiana, the others being Evansville, Rockport, and New Albany. Indiana was the home of Levi Coffin, a prominent abolitionist who sheltered escaping slaves in his homes until it was safe to transfer them to the Underground Railroad. As the escaper’s were guided north from the gateways, they were provided with food and clothing. The ultimate goal of the Indiana abolitionists was to carry the cargo to either Detroit or Toledo.

From Detroit the escaped slaves could cross to Windsor, in Canada. From Toledo slaves were picked up by ferries and carried to the Canadian shore. There the slaves, used to the milder winters of the American south, encountered for the first time the harshness of the Canadian winter. They also encountered what they weren’t expecting. Many of the Canadians resented their presence, and several Canadian communities banned them. Work was difficult to obtain, and many were only capable of unskilled labor when they arrived in Canada, which nonetheless allowed them to enter and remain under certain conditions.

The conditions in Canada caused many of the former slaves to attempt to return to the United States, usually via New York. Several states including Indiana passed laws which restricted the movements and other rights of free blacks. In 1851 Indiana passed a law which banned free blacks from entering the state, as part of a campaign to prevent so many slave catchers from roaming through the state, in particular in the region near the Ohio River. Indiana as a state pursued the policy of appeasing its southern neighbor, rather than passing laws which would encourage more blacks from attempting to escape to Canada through its borders.

Kentucky officials and state marshals raided Indiana and abducted abolitionists they suspected of being involved in helping slaves escape, returning them to Kentucky for trial, with conviction and incarceration forgone conclusions. These raids led to reprisals by abolitionists against Kentucky officials, and a small border war evolved. Indiana abolitionists maintained undercover agents south of the river to help escaping slaves get across, and shelter them until it was safe to do so. Reprisals against these agents was harsh and swift, often involving a rope and a convenient tree. The recovered slaves however, were usually returned to their owners for punishment.

10 Facts, Events, and People of the Underground Railroad
Slave catchers and dogs run down escaped slave Henry Bibb and his wife after eight days of travel on the Underground Railroad. Wikimedia

The Underground Railroad to Mexico

In 1829 the Mexican government banned slavery, triggering a chain of events which led to the Texas Revolution in 1836. The Republic of Texas endorsed the institution of slavery and when Texas entered the Union it was as a slave state. Following the enactment of the Fugitive Slave Law in 1850, American diplomats lobbied the Mexican government to enact laws which would allow American slave owners to cross the Mexican border to recover fugitive slaves. The Mexicans refused, and also refused to require Mexican citizens to detain American slaves who had fled from their owners. In the view of the Mexican government, they were free.

Nonetheless slave catchers and bounty hunters crossed the Mexican border in pursuit of slaves which escaped to Mexico via an Underground Railroad which developed in Texas while it was still a republic. Mexico never officially recognized the Republic of Texas and thus no treaty regarding the escaped slaves was attainable. Mexican authorities who encountered the Texans crossing the border arrested them, allowing the slaves to go free. That situation continued after Texas became a state, as Mexico’s official position was that the slave catchers and bounty hunters had entered Mexico illegally. Mexico actively assisted the escape of many slaves.

The southbound Underground Railroad operated in the same manner as its more famous northern cousins, with safe houses known as stations, guides called conductors, and ran through Texas, Arkansas, and Louisiana. The long border across the Rio Grande was patrolled, but its sheer length ensured opportunities to cross, which were monitored by Texan and Mexican opponents to slavery. Blacks arriving in Mexico were all but forced by circumstances to settle in segregated communities, separated by culture and language, but gradually assimilated into Mexican culture. The Roman Catholic Church provided sanctuaries, as did Mexican citizens.

Until the election of 1860, when secession loomed dependent on the results, the southern dominated Congress debated actions against the Mexican government for allowing escaped slaves safe haven within the borders of Mexico. The exact number of slaves which escaped to Mexico is unknown, but the amount of protests by both the federal government and the state of Texas to the Mexican government indicates it was high enough to be a major financial issue. At the same time that escaping slaves were being helped to Mexico, slave smugglers were bringing black slaves from the Caribbean to Texas by smuggling them through Mexico.

The Underground Railroad which ran to the south was neither as well organized nor as well-known as those of the northern states, and is mostly forgotten today. It was not the first southbound route to escape slavery, in the early 1800s slaves in Georgia and Alabama and even as far away as the Carolinas fled to the south to reach freedom in what was then Spanish Florida. Most of the slaves who fled to Mexico never returned to the United States. Following the American Civil War many Mexicans fled to the United States, escaping the French intervention in Mexico, and creating issues regarding Mexican immigration which are still debated.

10 Facts, Events, and People of the Underground Railroad
Abolitionist Robert Purvis was the founder of the Philadelphia Vigilance Committee in 1840.

The Vigilance Committees

In the larger northern cities and in the cities of the west, vigilance committees were established to assist the efforts of the Underground Railroad by raising funds for operation, and to help the escaped slaves to settle once safely in the free states. After the passing of the Fugitive Slave Law of 1850, the focus of many of the committees shifted to efforts to thwart the slave catchers demanding cooperation from the authorities of the North. The vigilance committees also served to create public awareness of the kidnapping of free blacks and their shipment to slavery in the south. Under the Fugitive Slave Law, a recaptured slave was not entitled to a legal hearing before being returned to his owner, and kidnapped free blacks had little opportunity to plea their case in court.

In Boston, the vigilance committee was founded in 1841 by Charles Torrey, in part to raise funds for his planned activities in Washington DC later that year. Even before the Fugitive Slave Law federal law was that local authorities and all citizens should help those who were seeking to recovery property. The Boston committee announced its intention to assist in the escape of slaves seeking freedom in the North, thus its own charter made it in violation of the existing law. In 1850, in response to the Fugitive Slave Law, it was reorganized and a new charter was created which made it more difficult for federal authorities to arrest its members, were they so inclined.

Unlike most vigilance committees, which operated more or less in secret and avoided documenting their activities, Boston’s kept detailed records of its financial receipts and disbursements. From these records it is possible to build a record of the activities of several station managers and conductors of the Underground Railroad. Citizens of Boston and its surrounding communities that sheltered escaping slaves were reimbursed for their expenses. So were those citizens who kept their eyes on known slave catchers and federal marshals as they moved about Boston’s streets. The financial records of illegal activities were kept hidden by the treasurers over the years.

In 1850 two slave catchers went to Boston to execute warrants on escaped slaves who were living there openly. After the vigilance committee spirited the former slaves to safe locations outside of the city they organized a campaign to harass the slave catchers. Vigilance committee members had posters describing the slave catchers’ physical appearance and their many undesirable activities posted throughout the city. Warrants were sworn out against the men and they were arrested on a variety of charges only to post bond and promptly be arrested again on another charge.

The work of the vigilance committee did not escape the notice of federal authorities and more than one member was arrested over the years, in Boston and in other cities. The vigilance committees were clearly breaking federal law when acting to free recaptured slaves while in custody awaiting return to their owners and when inciting mob violence against both civilian slave catchers and federal marshals and other officers. After 1850 the laws were clearly on the side of the slave owners, upheld by the Supreme Court. The abolitionists and their supporters entered the final and most dangerous decade of the Underground Railroad, which ended with America at war with itself.


Where do we find this stuff? Here are our sources:

“The Underground Railroad”, by the National Geographic Society, online

“The Untold History Beneath 12 Years”, by Sinha Minisha, New York Daily News, March 2, 2013

“The Underground Railroad: Authentic Narratives and First-Hand Accounts”, by William Still, 2007

“Station Master of the Underground Railroad, the Life and Letters of Thomas Garrett”, by James A. McCowan, 2005

“Beyond the River: The Untold Story of the Heroes of the Underground Railroad”, by Ann Hagedorn, 2002

“On the road to Harriet Tubman”, by Catherine Clinton, American Heritage Magazine, June/July 2004

“Charles Torrey – The Most Successful, Least Celebrated Abolitionist” by the New England Historical Society, online

“Fugitive Slaves and the Underground Railroad in the Kentucky Borderland”, by J. Blaine Hudson, 2002

“South to Freedom”, by Martin Kohn, Humanities Magazine, March/April 2013