harriet tubman Essay

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The Underground Railroad Gets Its Name

Owen Brown, father of the radical abolitionist John Brown, was active with the Underground Railroad in New York state. A story claims "Mammy Sally" marked the house Abraham Lincoln’s future wife, Mary Todd Lincoln, lived in while growing up was a safe house where fugitives could get meals, but the story is suspect.

Underground Railroad Routes
Underground Railroad Routes

The term Underground Railroad began to be used in the early 1830s. In keeping with that name for the system, homes and businesses that harbored runaways were known as "stations" or "depots" and were run by "stationmasters." "Conductors" moved the fugitives from one station to the next. The Underground Railroad’s "stockholders" contributed money or goods. The latter sometimes included clothing so that fugitives traveling by boat or on actual trains wouldn’t give themselves away by wearing their worn work clothes. Once the fugitives reached safe havens—or at least relatively safe ones—in the far northern areas of the United States, they would be given assistance finding lodging and work. Many went on to Canada, where they could not legally be retrieved by their owners.

A trip on the Underground Railroad was fraught with danger. The slave or slaves had to make a getaway from their owners, usually by night. "Keep your eye on the North Star" was the watchword; by keeping that star ever in front of them, the runaways knew they were headed north.

Conductors On The Railroad

Sometimes a "conductor" pretending to be a slave would go to a plantation to guide the fugitives on their way. Among the best known "conductors" is Harriet Tubman, a former slave who returned to slave states 19 times and brought more than 300 slaves to freedom—using her shotgun to threaten death to any who lost heart and wanted to turn back.

Operators of the Underground Railroad faced their own dangers. If someone living in the North was convicted of helping fugitives to escape he or she could be fined hundreds or even thousands of dollars, a tremendous amount for the time; however, in areas where abolitionism was strong, the "secret" railroad operated quite openly. Stephen Myers of Upstate New York, a former slave, wrote in his own newspaper, Northern Star and Freemen’s Advocate, about his work helping other slaves escape. Myers became the most important leader of the Underground Railroad in the Albany area. "Vigilance committees" that formed within communities for the purpose of aiding runaways sometimes openly advertised their meetings. (In other eras of American history, the term "vigilance committee" often refers to citizens groups who took the law into their own hands, trying and lynching people accused of crimes, if no local authority existed or if they believed that authority was corrupt or insufficient.)

Being caught in a slave state while aiding runaways was much more dangerous than in the North; punishments included prison, whipping, or even hanging—assuming that the accused made it to court alive instead of perishing at the hands of an outraged mob. White men caught helping slaves to escape received harsher punishments than white women, but both could expect jail time at the very least. The harshest punishments—dozens of lashes with a whip, burning or hanging—were reserved for any blacks caught in the act of aiding fugitives.

The Civil War…