What Was the Underground Railroad?

M. Dee Dubroff

The Underground Railroad, which began its clandestine operations about 1810, was not a railroad at all. This secret network may even have started earlier towards the end of the 18th century, as George Washington, himself a slave owner, claimed that one of his slaves ran away with the help of a society run by Quakers. Headed by many citizens whose sole purpose was to abet fugitive slaves in their escape to freedom in the North and in Canada, the moniker, “Underground Railroad” came into existence around 1831 coinciding with the emergence of steam railroads.

in the 1800s, escaped slaves sought freedom through the Underground Railroad.
in the 1800s, escaped slaves sought freedom through the Underground Railroad.

The operating jargon of the Underground Railroad was that which was usually reserved for railroads. A home or business that would provide food and a resting place for slaves, for example, was called a “depot” or a “station,” which was run by a “stationmaster.” Those who contributed money or goods to the Underground Railroad were called “stockholders” and the “conductor” was the person responsible for transporting slaves between stations.

President George Washington was a slave owner.
President George Washington was a slave owner.

Many of the participants in the Underground Railroad were white abolitionists and caring citizens, but many more were African-Americans determined to see their brethren live free or die trying. All members of the Underground Railroad were involved with only the local aspects of escape routes, and none knew of the whole sub rosa operation, which protected its anonymity. The Underground Railroad was highly successful, and it is estimated that the south lost 100,000 slaves who escaped to freedom between the years 1810 and 1850.

Running away was a dangerous business as escapes had to take place at night and required careful planning. Various vigilante groups that sprang up in New York, Philadelphia and Boston provided transportation, food, lodging, money and clothing. The Underground Railroad spawned many silent heroes, but among the counted should be John Fairfield, the son of a slaveholding family from Virginia, Levi Coffin, a Quaker who personally aided more than 3,000 slaves; and last but not least, the simple, little woman known as “the Moses of her people,” Harriet Tubman.

Born into slavery, her childhood was very harsh. When she was in her twenties, a white neighbor gave her a piece of paper with two names on it and told her how to find the first house on her way to freedom. Under cover of darkness with only the North Star to guide her, she made her way to Philadelphia where she met stationmaster, William Still and other members of the Anti Slavery Society. She single-handedly over the course of ten years and nineteen trips led more than 300 slaves to freedom via the Underground Railroad.

Testimony to America’s shameful past, the Underground Railroad symbolizes the power of mankind to right a terrible wrong and the indomitable right to dream a dream of freedom for every man, woman and child ever born.

Frederick Douglass spoke out against slavery and helped other slaves become free.
Frederick Douglass spoke out against slavery and helped other slaves become free.

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Discussion Comments


I'm interested in sources on Fairfield. Can anyone supply some primary or secondary sources for this guy? Thanks.


The introduction of John Fairfield's involvement with the Underground Railroad was when he stole away with one of his uncle's slaves. Fairfield was one of the more violent of the conductors on the UGRR, he often demanded the runaways in his care take active, sometimes violent, participation in their escape.

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