The Underground Railroad was the name given to the system by which escaped slaves from the South were helped in their flight to the North. It is believed that the system started in 1787 when Isaac T. Hopper, a Quaker, began to organize a system for hiding and aiding fugitive slaves. Opponents of slavery allowed their homes, called stations, to be used as places where escaped slaves were provided with food, shelter and money. The various routes went through 14 Northern states and Canada. It is estimated that by 1850 around 3,000 people worked on the underground railroad. Some of the most best known of the people who provided help on the route included William Still, Gerrit Smith, Salmon Chase, David Ruggle, Thomas Garrett, William Purvis, Jane Grey Swisshelm, William Wells Brown, Frederick Douglass, Henry David Thoreau, Lucretia Mott, Charles Langston, Levi Coffin and Susan B. Anthony.
The underground railroad also had people known as conductors who went to the south and helped guide slaves to safety. One of the most important of these was the former slave, Harriet Tubman. She made 19 secret trips to the South, during which she led more than 300 slaves to freedom. Tubman was considered such a threat to the slave system that plantation owners offered a $40,000 reward for her capture.
Slavery in the United States (£1.29)
Stations were usually about twenty miles apart. Conductors used covered wagons or carts with false bottoms to carry slaves from one station to another. Runaway slaves usually hid during the day and travelled at night. Some of those involved notified runaways of their stations by brightly lit candles in a window or by lanterns positioned in the frontyard. By the middle of the 19th century it was estimated that over 50,000 slaves had escaped from the South using the underground railroad.
Plantation owners became concerned at the large number of slaves escaping to the North and in 1850 managed to persuade Congress to pass the Fugitive Slave Act. In future, any federal marshal who did not arrest an alleged runaway slave could be fined $1,000. Any person aiding a runaway slave by providing shelter, food or any other form of assistance was liable to six months' imprisonment and a $1,000 fine.
The Fugitive Slave Act failed to stop the underground railroad. Thomas Garrett, the Deleware station-master, paid more than $8,000 in fines and Calvin Fairbank served over seventeen years in prison for his anti-slavery activities. Whereas John Fairfield, one of the best known of the white conductors, was killed working for the underground railroad.