Harriet Tubman and the Underground Railroad

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On a very cold night in the heart of Kentucky, an overworked slave planned his escape. He had heard from stories passed through former slaves about a pathway called the Underground Railroad. From what he was told, it was a pathway that runaway slaves could use, full of food and resources, that made escaping a very high possibility. This certain slave knew that this information was too good to be true, and if it had been true then why are slaves still getting caught? Years before tonight he had never thought of escaping and leaving his family and loved ones, but what choice does he have? His owner is a monster, one who works him so hard that he can barely walk, all while selling his family members to other slave owners, separating them with a possibility of never seeing them again. If he didn’t runaway, he was certain that he would be dead within the next 5 years. With that being said, this slave decided he would risk escaping and getting caught, as long as there was a possibility that the Underground Railroad stories were true, little does he know his wishes are about to be granted.

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The Underground Railroad is not what it’s name makes it out to be. First of all, it’s not located underground, nor is it a real railroad, it’s actually a series of secret routes and safe houses for runaway slaves to travel on when making their way to freedom in the late 18th century. The Underground Railroad was the safest ticket to freedom for runaway slaves during it’s time. Along these routes were people called conductors, who would guide the fugitive slaves through the “railroad.” There were also people called stationmasters who would offer shelter and aid to runaway slaves through “safe houses”, such as a home, church or school. Aid included hiding places, food, transportation and even protection from bounty hunters. If such an incredible idea like this never came together, hundreds of slaves wouldn’t have gotten to experience the freedom they were given once they decided to escape on the Underground Railroad.

The whole idea of the Underground Railroad revolved around a well known figure named Harriet Tubman. She was born a slave with the name Araminta Ross around 1821 and later changed her name to Harriet, that way she wouldn’t risk getting noticed when she ran away from her plantation in the year 1845. She eventually made it to Pennsylvania, but returned to the plantation several times to rescue family and friends. Many can assume that this was where she found her life’s calling, which was helping Southern slaves escape to the North in order to lead a better life. Harriet later went on to become an American abolitionist and conductor of the Underground Railroad to pursue her life’s goal in helping slaves escape much safer and easier than if they were to go alone. Being a slave herself gave her a huge advantage in the Underground Railroad because she knew what it was like to be in the position of a runaway slave. This lead her to become an even more determined and brave individual, which is how she became the idolized figure she is in today’s society. It is estimated that Harriet Tubman helped to free a total of 300 slaves by making 19 trips into the south over a 10-year span. Tubman mostly took groups of escaping slaves to Canada to make sure they would be treated well and were not at risk for the United States to distrust them. If they stayed in the United States, there was a possibility that they could be put back into slavery for good. Since they were already a runaway slave, their new owners would make it almost impossible for them to be successful in running away again in the future. (History).

The Underground Railroad was directed north since that’s where free states were located. Some secret routes stopped in free states such as Pennsylvania, New Jersey and Ohio in its early years, but were later on directed more toward Canada in the 1850s. Since Canada was out of the United States, slaves were guaranteed freedom from the southern states and were able to create better lives for themselves. The majority of people associated with the Underground Railroad were a mix, ranging from whites, African Americans, and even some who used to be slaves. These people were also free, that way they wouldn’t attract bounty hunters and other people who supported slavery and may want to catch escaping slaves. The less attention the people of the Underground Railroad drew, the less of a chance they had of getting noticed and more of a chance they had toward freeing slaves. Due to the work of the Underground Railroad, it is estimated that more than 100,000 enslaved people were brought to freedom and were able to start a new life as a result. The most popular and successful routes used in the Underground Railroad were going toward the North, although some that went into Mexico and the Caribbean were also successful. When going towards the North, many slaves were taken to Canada so that they were completely out of the United States and free from the slave hunters.

The runaway slaves that did manage to escape and gain their freedom lived to tell their stories of survival and to describe what the Underground Railroad was actually like. Henry Bibb was one of these runaway slaves who used the Underground Railroad to be able to escape successfully. Bibb was born into slavery in Kentucky during the year of 1815 and had made many attempts to escape slavery over several years. His final attempt at escaping was on December twenty fifth, 1837, running from the fear of dying as a slave. In his story, he describes the way that the conductors and other people involved in the Underground Railroad treated him and how they saw him as a friend. “These kind friends gave me something to eat, and started me on my way to Canada, with a recommendation of a friend on my way” (Eastern Illinois). Bibb explains that the people involved were very trustworthy for the most part and he knew that they would make his escape much easier and safer. Once he had gotten father into his journey, he stated that he had been directed to call an abolitionist when he reached his next stop. Since he feared hunting dogs and slave hunters from the South would be close to hunting him down, he decided not to stop and to continue on. “Not knowing what moment I might be captured while traveling among strangers, through cold and fear” (Eastern Illinois). Although he felt that the people involved in the Underground Railroad were trustworthy, he didn’t completely let his guard down knowing that there was a high possibility that a slave hunter was right on his tail. Although there were some risks when using the Underground Railroad, it was still the safer option for runaway slaves. If they had tried to run away on their own, they would face many more dangers and higher risks, meaning that their chance of success would be very slim.

Many people contributed to the success of the Underground Railroad, including some that you may not think would help out slaves. For example, the majority of conductors and station masters were African American, but there were also many whites, which was more common farther North. When you think of the Underground Railroad and the people who operate it, most people assume that all contributors are African American. This is probably due to the fact that whites were considered to be of a higher social class, so many might want slaves themselves instead of helping to free them. These whites were mostly ordinary people, such as farmers, rich business owners and ministers. For example, a millionaire named Gerrit Smith purchased an entire family of slaves from Kentucky and set them free (History). This just goes to show the impact that many of the whites had on the success of the Underground Railroad. All of these people who worked with the Underground Railroad were also free people. This included the whites, who were always free, and the African Americans, many who were once slaves themselves. Having previous slaves work with the Underground Railroad was a huge advantage because they knew what it was like to be escaping from slavery, since many of them were escapees. They understood how one minor setback could lead to a slave hunter finding the escapee and causing them to get caught. They also understand how to escape successfully, like running at night so you don’t get caught and the idea that you have to keep from drawing attention to yourself, to try to fit in as much as possible. These minor details can determine if a slave escapes successfully or gets caught, meaning that having previous slaves was a huge reason as to why the Underground Railroad was so successful and safe.

The Underground Railroad was built for one reason: to free slaves. In order to achieve this goal, abolitionists knew that they had to make this pathway to freedom as safe and reliable as they could. One solution was the roles of the Conductors and Stationmasters. The Conductors job was to guide the runaway slaves to different safe houses leading up toward the North. Then there were also the Station masters, who were the people who operated the safehouses (PBS). This included jobs such as providing food, clothing and shelter for runaway slaves, while also trying to keep attention away from the safehouse so that no one would notice they were taking care of fugitives. These “safe houses” would be buildings such as churches, homes or schools because these are places that they would be less likely spotted. All of these houses would be set up along the Underground Railroad paths and they would usually have a single lantern hanging outside of the door. Along with the lantern, some houses would also put special quilts outside on the balcony so that runaway slaves could distinguish a safe house from a regular house. This was so important because if they happened to step into the wrong house, that could be the end of their escape and they wouldn’t be able to make it to the North to be free (“Safe Houses”).

The process from the North to the South on the Underground Railroad was very long and difficult. Many people, even still to this day, don’t know of all the safe houses that were used or where they are located. The only way that escaped slaves knew how to get to the next safe house was because of the conductor, who would lead the way, so this makes the route really hard to map out in the modern day. All people really know about the location of these safehouses is that they all made their way towards the South, mostly through New York and Pennsylvania, and that they weren’t very far away from each other. The way that this process was made so safe was that the slaves would run from safehouse to safehouse during the night, usually traveling between 10 or 20 miles each night. When traveling, slaves would usually walk by foot or ride in a wagon but they could even sometimes catch a train or a boat ride if they were lucky enough (Wahmbrenda). Although the Underground Railroad made this journey a lot safer than if it was traveled alone, there were still the risks of the bounty/slave hunters. The bounty hunters would start hunting down the runaway slaves as soon as they found out they were gone and would even sometimes travel in large groups if this runaway was of high importance. This caused the runaways to play it safe and be alert at all times because they would never know when they could get caught.

Slaves and Conductors would normally meet at the safe houses when the runaway first escaped. After that, the Conductor would travel with the slaves to the next station, that way they wouldn’t get lost and would be as safe as they could at all times. The Conductor would then hand the runaway(s) to the Conductor stationed at the next safe house, repeating this cycle over and over until they reached their destination, which was most likely in Canada. How long this journey took when traveling from South to North would vary depending on where the runaway slave escaped from and how bad the weather conditions were. If the slaves had traveled in the summer, the conditions would be much easier to travel in, but if they escaped during the winter then the snow and large storms could be a big factor. This was one thing that was so hard about trying to escape because normally escaping in the summer would mean better weather conditions, but it also meant less nighttime, so they wouldn’t have as much time to travel. On the other hand, if they traveled during the winter then they would have worse weather conditions but more nighttime, so they would have much more time to travel (Wahmbrenda).

They went through to West Elkton safely that night, and the next night reached Newport, Indiana. With little delay they were forwarded on from station to station through Indiana and Michigan to Detroit, having fresh teams and conductors each night, and resting during the day. I had letters from different stations, as they progressed, giving accounts of the arrival and departure of the train, and I also heard of their safe arrival on the Canada shore (The National Center).

Although conditions may have been harsh at times, the Underground Railroad kept slaves from as much danger as possible and focused all of its energy on getting slaves to freedom quickly and safely. Afterall, if this secret pathway didn’t lead the escapees to the North quickly and safely, then what was the purpose of having it?

The Underground Railroad was such a big part of American history. When people think of the Underground Railroad, they think of runaway slaves who get a chance at being free and getting to lead a more normal life. If runaway slaves hadn’t been given an opportunity like the Underground Railroad, they would have had to escape and travel North on their own, which would be much more difficult. By traveling on their own, they wouldn’t have had the support, resources and shelter they would be given if they escaped using the Underground Railroad. That being said, The Underground Railroad was the safest ticket to freedom for runaway slaves during it’s time. Due to its name, many people who had heard of the Underground Railroad had thought that it was actually located underground, but it was just a “code” for “secret passage,” which made it the perfect set up for transporting fugitive slaves. With people thinking that this passage was underground, it kept slave hunters from the actual Underground Railroad, making it that much safer and easier to travel. Without this “railway to freedom,” so many slaves wouldn’t have been given the chance to live out their dreams as free citizens in America and would have had to live the rest of their lives as rundown slaves leading a terrible life.  

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Harriet Tubman and the Underground Railroad. (2021, Mar 28). Retrieved September 28, 2022 , from

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