During the seventeenth century, Africans were brought to the United States to work as slaves. By the mid-nineteenth century, slavery was a very common thing in the southern part of the United States.
Plantation owners used slaves to work their farms. Many of them picked cotton that was sold to clothing factories in Britain.
In the early 1800s, people known as abolitionists started an anti-slavery movement,
and they worked to set up the Underground Railroad.
The ‘Railroad” or secret network, began to operate in the 1780s but became known as the Underground Railroad during the 1840s. Between 1840 and 1860, enslaved Africans in the United States followed the Big Dipper at night to find freedom in Canada.
During the day, they would stay in safe houses. Often people who ran the safe houses would hang a lit lantern outside their homes letting the fugitives know their house was “safe.”
It is estimates that between 30,000 to 40,000 African-Americans risked their lives to escape to either Canada or Mexico.
Professional bounty hunters stalked them so that they could return the slaves back to the plantation owners. Many African-Americans died while trying to escape to freedom.
But why was it called the Underground Railroad if there was no train?
There really isn’t a railroad! To ensure absolute secrecy, the organization used railroad terminology as code words.
Here are some of the Underground Railroad secret code words!
Underground Railroad: secret network of routes and safe houses that helped people escape!
Conductors: were those who helped people move from place to place.
Passengers or cargo: This was the name given to the fleeing slaves.
Stations: These were safe places to stop or rest.
Freedom Train: The Underground Railroad
Gospel Train: The Underground Railroad
Heaven or Promised Land: Canada (usually found in “spirituals”)
“Left foot, peg foot”: A visual clue for escapees to follow. The trail was left by an Underground Railroad worker, a sailor named Peg Leg Joe, famous because of his wooden leg. Travelled through the South, used the song, Follow the Drinking Gourd, teach it to the slaves, who would later escape.
Load of Potatoes: In a wagon, escaping slaves hidden under farm produce
Moses: Harriet Tubman, a “conductor” who aided escaping slaves and was a former slave
Parcels: fugitives to be expected
Passengers/Freight/Cargo: escaping slaves. Males were referred to as “hardware” and females as “dry goods”
Preachers: leaders, speakers of the Underground Railroad
River Jordan: The Mississippi River or the Ohio River
Shepherds: people escorting slaves
Station Master: the keeper of the safe-house or “station”
Stations: the places of safety and temporary refuge where slaves hid along the escape route. Safe-houses. They could be churches, barns, or houses. Station names were referred to in code, such as:
- Pennsylvania – #10
- Ohio – #20
- Cleveland – Hope
- Sandusky – Sunrise
- Detroit – Midnight
The end of the journey also had a code word, such as “Dawn.”
Many of the fugitives went to the Dawn settlement (present day Dresden, Ontario), which had been started by a fugitive African-American named Josiah Henson.
It was also very dangerous for people to help the fleeing African-Americans, because if they were caught helping them, they could end up in jail or worse!
The fugitives arrived at points as far east as Nova Scotia and as far west as British Columbia. Many African-Americans who escaped, often by using the Underground Railroad, landed in Southwestern Ontario.