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Canadian History for Kids: The Underground Railroad for Kids

This Canadian History for Kids exclusive looks at the Underground Railroad. This story is a apart of our continuing Black History Month series.

The Underground Railroad for Kids

Was the Underground Railroad for kids, or did everyone use it?
Most runaways were men between the ages of 16 and 35. Women and children escaped, too, but not in the numbers that men did. Many men made the escape and then returned for their family members or hoped that they would make it safely to join them in their new home.

Was it actually a train that went underground?
The Underground Railroad really isn’t a train route, although many escaped slaves did follow the train lines. It wasn’t necessarily underground, although many underground tunnels and hiding places were used to hide runaways from slave-chasers. It was, for a great many people, a way to escape slavery.
The term is known to have been in use by 1840, although it is certain that people had been escaping from slavery long before that. Historians often point to one instance as the first use of the term: Supposedly, the term was first used by the owner of Tice Davids, a slave who fled slavery in Kentucky by crossing the Ohio River. The owner tracked Davids to the river, where Davids disappeared without a trace. The man chasing him remarked that Davids had “gone off on some underground road.”

Was there one route that they took all the time?
The Railroad had no one route. That would be far too easy for slave-chasers to figure out. Those who operated and traveled on the Railroad were very clever and had unique ways of hiding from the slave-chasers.

Some examples:

  • Abandoned mine shafts and walkways
  • Tunnels built by pirates or smugglers
  • Covered wagons or carts with false bottoms
  • Hidden compartments of cupboards, floors, and closets.

Some amazing stories also happened, including these original escapes:

  • Frederick Douglass disguised himself as a free sailor and sweated out his escape from Maryland to New York;
  • Henry “Box” Brown had himself packed in a crate and shipped by train from Richmond, Virginia, to Philadelphia;
  • Ellen and William Craft of Georgia posed as master and slave to help both escape.

How did the slaves know where to go?
People who helped slaves escape by feeding them and giving them shelter for a night were said to have “safe houses.”

In dangerous times, runaways found it difficult to know whom to trust. Lanterns hung on lamp posts or in certain windows shone the way to help for runaways, identifying “safe houses.”

People who helped slaves escape to freedom were often called “conductors,” in keeping with the railroad jargon.

In addition to conductors, the Underground Railroad also had other names associated with it, among them:

  • Agent: someone who planned an escape route;
  • Baggage: runaway slave;
  • Brakeman: a person who helped contact runaways, telling them of what was ahead for them;
  • Bypass: an escape route that had been changed because the original route had been discovered;
  • Freedom line: the route of travel for a runaway;
  • Load of potatoes: a group of runaways hidden under hay bales, food, or other things carried in large quantities;
  • Sanctuary: a safe place;
  • Station master: someone in charge of a safe house or sanctuary.

Keep following Canadian History for Kids, as we continue to bring you articles for our Black History Month special.

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