Between 1840 and 1860, before the American Civil War, enslaved Africans followed the North Star on the Underground Railroad to find freedom in Canada. It was not an actual railroad but a secret network of routes and safe houses that helped people escape slavery and reach free states or Canada. Sometimes there were guides available to help people find their way to the next stop along the way. Traveling on the Underground Railroad was dangerous and required luck as much as a guide.
The “railroad” actually began operating in the 1780s but became known as the Underground Railroad in the 1830s. The organization used railroad terms as code words. Those who helped people move from place to place were known as “conductors” and the fleeing refugees were called “passengers” or “cargo.” Safe places to stop to rest were called “stations.” Conductors were also abolitionists—people who wanted slavery abolished. They were Blacks and Whites, men and women. Many of them were Quakers or Methodists.
Places had code names to help keep the routes secret. Detroit, from which most left the United States, was known as “Midnight.” The Detroit River was called “Jordan,” a biblical reference to the river that led to the promised land. The end of the journey also had a code name, such as “Dawn.” People could communicate without being specific: “Take the railroad from Midnight to Dawn.” The refugees arrived all across Canada, from Nova Scotia to British Columbia, but most came to what is now southwestern Ontario, to places such as Windsor, Fort Erie, Chatham, and Owen Sound.
The Underground Railroad has been the subject of a certain amount of myth-making. Because of the secrecy required for its success, there hasn’t been much documentation to describe its role in our history. It is impossible to know for certain how many slaves found freedom by way of the railroad, but it may have been as many as 30 000. The railroad’s traffic reached its peak between 1840 and 1860, especially after the US passed its Fugitive Slave Act in 1850. The new law allowed slave hunters to pursue and capture enslaved persons in places where they would legally be free. It resulted in several attempts to kidnap escapees in Canada and return them to former owners in the Southern States.
Some of the conductors and others associated with the railroad became famous for their efforts; Harriet Tubman, Mary Ann Shadd, and Josiah Henson are but a few.
The Historica Minute Underground Railroad presents a dramatization of the type of imaginative methods that may have been used to move people from place to place. Apply what you understand about the operation of the Underground Railroad as you view the vignette.