What Was the Underground Railroad?

Quck answer

The Underground Railroad was a secret network of routes and safe houses used by enslaved African Americans to escape to free states and Canada. It operated from the late 18th century to the Civil War era. The network was organized by abolitionists and sympathetic individuals who provided shelter, food, and transportation to freedom seekers. The routes of the Underground Railroad were not fixed and varied depending on the circumstances. Conductors, who were often former slaves or free African Americans, guided escapees along the way. Despite the risks and challenges, the Underground Railroad played a crucial role in helping thousands of enslaved individuals achieve freedom.


When you hear the word “railroad,” what comes to mind? Trains? A line of freight cars? The conductor or the last car? Tracks stretching into the distance? How about an underground railroad? You might think of the subway.

Have you heard about the most famous and significant Underground Railroad in history? It wasn’t made up of trains, freight cars, or tracks. Instead, it was primarily composed of people.

For centuries, ships filled with African families were brought to the United States as enslaved individuals, not as free men and women. In the southern states, they were forced to work on plantations. As soon as they arrived, enslaved people sought freedom. However, escaping from slavery was no easy task.

Abolitionists and escaped slaves worked together to find a solution. They created a system of secret routes, meeting points, and safe houses. These resources helped people escape to states where slavery was illegal. Some even assisted them in moving further north to Canada. This network became known as the Underground Railroad.

But why was it called the Underground Railroad? After all, it didn’t consist of underground tunnels or railroad tracks. Instead, the term “underground” referred to the need for secrecy. Escaping individuals and their helpers had to remain hidden because they were breaking the law.

The “railroad” part of the name came from the terminology used during the journey. There were “stations” and “depots” where people could rest and eat. “Conductors” would hide individuals in their homes and teach them secret codes to help them find the next “station” along the route.

The Underground Railroad was a vast network of people. It wasn’t controlled by a single organization or person. In fact, most participants only knew about their specific role in the operation and were unaware of the overall picture of the different routes and depots.

The Underground Railroad helped many people find freedom each year. By 1850, approximately 100,000 individuals had escaped using this network. Its use continued beyond that and reached its peak between 1850 and 1860.

Escaping to freedom was a dangerous and challenging journey for all involved. Individuals had to first escape from their enslavers. Sometimes, a “conductor” would pretend to be an enslaved person, enter a plantation, and guide runaways northward. However, most of the time, enslaved individuals had to rely on themselves.

People who escaped would travel at night, covering 10 to 20 miles to reach the next “station.” During the day, they would hide and rest in various places. The journey was long and filled with stress. The distance to freedom varied but often spanned 500 to 600 miles.

Those who were strong and fortunate might reach freedom in as little as two months. However, for others, the journey could last over a year.

One of the most well-known conductors of the Underground Railroad was Harriet Tubman. Born into slavery in Maryland, she planned her own escape when she discovered that she would be separated from her family and sold. She managed to sneak away, concealed in a sack in the back of a wagon. With the assistance of others, she made her way to Philadelphia. She later described freedom as “heaven.”

While in Philadelphia, Tubman worked diligently to save money in order to rescue her family. Ultimately, she aided over 300 formerly enslaved individuals in reaching freedom.

Tubman earned the nickname “Moses.” Throughout her life, she made 19 trips back to the South to assist people in utilizing the Underground Railroad to attain freedom. She utilized music, Bible verses, and folklore to warn people of danger and provide them with directions to safe houses.

Escaping from slavery was extremely perilous. Those who were caught could be sent back to the South and face punishment. However, the prospect of freedom outweighed the risk for many individuals. Those who assisted them along the Underground Railroad also took a significant risk. They could be arrested and punished for breaking the law. Both the escapees and their helpers had to display bravery and overcome numerous obstacles to make the Underground Railroad successful.

Try It Out

Are you ready to delve deeper into the Underground Railroad? Make sure to explore the following activities with a friend or family member:

  • Examine this map of Underground Railroad routes. Click on the pins to learn more about how Harriet Tubman aided individuals in escaping slavery. Which routes on the map do you think would be the most challenging to travel? What points on the map would present difficulties, and why? How did Tubman and those she helped overcome some of these challenges?
  • You have already read about Harriet Tubman, one of the most well-known heroes of the Underground Railroad. There were also many other brave individuals involved. Read about John Parker and Rev. John and Jean Rankin. How were their stories similar to or different from Harriet Tubman’s? Explain what you learned to a friend or family member.
  • Fancy a challenge? Imagine how a modern Underground Railroad might operate with today’s advanced technology. How might people communicate and travel from one location to another? Use your imagination and then write a story or draw a picture that explains how you believe modern technology could be utilized if the Underground Railroad existed today.

Wonder Sources

  • http://americancivilwar.com/kids_zone/underground_railroad.html (accessed 27 Jan. 2020)
  • http://www.pbs.org/wgbh/aia/part4/4p2944.html (accessed 27 Jan. 2020)
  • http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Underground_Railroad (accessed 27 Jan. 2020)

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