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Exploring the History of the Underground Railroad

written by: wahmbrenda • edited by: Noreen Gunnell • updated: 3/2/2012

The underground railroad was a means of escape from slavery and it played an important role in history. Learn what it was all about, as well as what it was like to travel on it.

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    The Underground Railroad was actually a network of secret passageways and safe houses that were used in the nineteenth century by African American slaves in the United States who were escaping from slavery. By 1850, at least 100,000 slaves had used the Underground Railroad as their route to freedom. There are many records that document this.

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    How the Underground Railroad Was Set Up

    The Underground Railroad was a form of underground resistance to slavery. It consisted of various meeting points, secret passageways, assistance from abolitionists, transportation and safe houses. While some people did know about the connections along the route, few knew of their precise location. Escaped slaves moved along this route as they made their way north with the help of “conductors" who included freeborn African Americans, white abolitionists, African Americans who used to be slaves, Native Americans and churches. These people usually only knew about their part of the operation and nothing more.

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    The Route That the Underground Railroad Took

    There were “stations" or “depots" where the runaway slaves were able to sleep and eat along the way. These were hosted by “stationmasters" and paid for by “stockholders." “Conductors" were also present. They helped to move the travelers from one station to the next.

    These slaves would oftentimes learn about the Underground Railroad because conductors would enter a plantation as a slave. Once integrated therein they would help people move north at night, usually only traveling between 10 to 20 miles each night. They would then sleep at a station or depot the next day while a message was sent to the next stationmaster that they were on their way. Sometimes boats and trains were used for transportation. However, they mainly used wagons and their own feet to get from one point to the next.

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    What the Traveling Conditions Were Like

    Most routes were indirect so as to throw off anyone who may be in pursuit of them. Those who traveled the Underground Railroad would usually do so by themselves or in a small group. However, there were some mass escapes. Few women or children would make the journey because it was seen as too treacherous for them.

    Since there was a risk that the Underground Railroad would be discovered, the routes and safe havens were only passed along by word of mouth. There were a lot of solicitations for this information in Southern newspapers of the day. Big rewards were offered for this information, as well as the capture and return of escaped slaves. This led federal marshals and professional bounty hunters, who were known as slave catchers, to pursue them.

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    The Underground Railroad's Importance

    The Underground Railroad played an important role in American history. It operated during a very controversial time in which our nation was greatly divided. By understanding what it was all about and the sentiments surrounding it, you will get a better understanding of the events leading up to the Civil War.

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