An Anti-Slavery Crusade; a Chronicle of the Gathering Storm

Author: Jesse Macy

Chapter VIII. The Underground Railroad

Wherever there are slaves there are fugitives if there is an available place of refuge. The wilds of Florida were such a refuge during the early part of last century. When the Northern States became free, fugitive slaves began to escape thither, and Canada, when it could be reached, was, of course, the goal of perfect security and liberty for all.

A professed object of the early anti-slavery societies was to prevent the enslavement of free negroes and in other ways to protect their rights. During the process of emancipation in Northern States large numbers of colored persons were spirited off to the South and sold into slavery. At various places along the border there were those who made it their duty to guard the rights of negroes and to prevent kidnapping. These guardians of the border furnished a nucleus for the development of what was later known as the Underground Railroad.

In 1796 President Washington wrote a letter to a friend in New Hampshire with reference to obtaining the return of a negro servant. He was careful to state that the servant should remain unmolested rather than "excite a mob or riot or even uneasy sensations in the minds of well disposed citizens." The result was that the servant remained free. President Washington here assumed that "well disposed citizens" would oppose her return to slavery. Three years earlier the President had himself signed a bill to facilitate by legal process the return of fugitives escaping into other States. He was certainly aware that such an act was on the statute books when he wrote his request to his friend in New Hampshire, yet he expected that, if an attempt were made to remove the refugee by force, riot and resistance by a mob would be the result.

Not until after the foreign slave-trade had been prohibited and the domestic trade had been developed, and not until there was a pro-slavery reaction in the South which banished from the slave States all anti-slavery propaganda, did the systematic assistance rendered to fugitive slaves assume any large proportions or arouse bitter resentment. It began in the late twenties and early thirties of the nineteenth century, extended with the spread of anti-slavery organization, and was greatly encouraged and stimulated by the enactment of the law of 1850.

The Underground Railroad was never coextensive with the abolition movement. There were always abolitionists who disapproved the practice of assisting fugitives, and others who took no part in it. Of those who were active participants, the larger proportion confined their activities to assisting those who had escaped and would take no part in seeking to induce slaves to leave their masters. Efforts of that kind were limited to a few individuals only.

Incidents drawn from the reminiscences of Levi Coffin, the reputed president of the Underground Railroad, may serve to illustrate the origin and growth of the system. He was seven years old when he first saw near his home in North Carolina a coffle of slaves being driven to the Southern market by a man on horseback with a long whip. "The driver was some distance behind with the wagon. My father addressed the slaves pleasantly and then asked, ’Well, boys, why do they chain you?’ One of the men whose countenance betrayed unusual intelligence and whose expression denoted the deepest sadness replied: ’They have taken us from our wives and children and they chain us lest we should make our escape and go back to them."’ When Coffin was fifteen, he rendered assistance to a man in bondage. Having an opportunity to talk with the members of a gang in the hands of a trader bound for the Southern market, he learned that one of the company, named Stephen, was a freeman who had been kidnapped and sold. Letters were written to Northern friends of Stephen who confirmed his assertion. Money was raised in the Quaker meeting and men were sent to recover the negro. Stephen was found in Georgia and after six months was liberated.

During the year 1821 other incidents occurred in the Quaker community at New Garden, near Greensboro, North Carolina, which illustrate different phases of the subject. Jack Barnes was the slave of a bachelor who became so greatly attached to his servant that he bequeathed to him not only his freedom but also a large share of his property. Relatives instituted measures to break the will, and Jack in alarm took refuge among the Quakers at New Garden. The suit went against the negro, and the newspapers contained advertisements offering a hundred dollars for information which should result in his recovery. To prevent his return to bondage, it was decided that Jack should join a family of Coffins who were moving to Indiana.

At the same time a negro by the name of Sam had for several months been abiding in the Quaker neighborhood. He belonged to a Mr. Osborne, a prototype of Simon Legree, who was so notoriously cruel that other slave-owners assisted in protecting his victims. After the Coffins, with Jack, had been on the road for a few days, Osborne learned that a negro was with them and, feeling sure that it was his Sam, he started in hot haste after them. This becoming known to the Friends, young Levi Coffin was sent after Osborne to forestall disaster. The descriptions given of Jack and Sam were practically identical and it was surmised that when Osborne should overtake the party and discover his mistake, he would seize Jack for the sake of the offered reward. Coffin soon came up with Osborne and decided to ride with him for a time to learn his plans. In the course of their conversation, it was finally agreed that Coffin should assist in the recovery of Sam. Osborne was also generous and insisted that if it proved to be the other "nigger" who was with the company, Coffin should have half the reward. How the young Quaker outwitted the tyrant, gained his point, sent Jack on his way to liberty, and at the same time retained the confidence of Osborne so that upon their return home he was definitely engaged to assist Osborne in finding Sam, is a fascinating story. The abolitionist won from the slaveholder the doubtful compliment that "there was not a man in that neighborhood worth a d—n to help him hunt his negro except young Levi Coffin."

Sam was perfectly safe so long as Levi Coffin was guide for the hunting-party, but matters were becoming desperate. For the fugitive something had to be done. Another family was planning to move to Indiana, and in their wagon Sam was to be concealed and thus conveyed to a free State. The business had now become serious. The laws of the State affixed the death penalty for stealing a slave. At night when young Coffin and his father, with Sam, were on their way to complete arrangements for the departure, horsemen appeared in the road near by. They had only time to throw themselves flat on the ground behind a log. From the conversation overheard, they were assured that they had narrowly escaped the night-riders on the lookout for stray negroes. The next year, 1822, Coffin himself joined a party going to Indiana by the southern route through Tennessee and Kentucky. In the latter State they were at one time overtaken by men who professed to be looking for a pet dog, but whose real purpose was to recover runaway slaves. They insisted upon examining the contents of the wagons, for in this way only a short time previous a fugitive had been captured.

These incidents show the origin of the system. The first case of assistance rendered a negro was not in itself illegal, but was intended merely to prevent the crime of kidnapping. The second was illegal in form, but the aid was given to one who, having been set free by will, was being reenslaved, it was believed, by an unjust decision of a court. The third was a case of outrageous abuse on the part of the owner. The negro Sam had himself gone to a trader begging that he would buy him and preferring to take his chances on a Mississippi plantation rather than return to his master. The trader offered the customary price and was met with the reply that he could have the rascal if he would wait until after the enraged owner had taken his revenge, otherwise the price would be twice the amount offered. A large proportion of the fugitives belonged to this maltreated class. Others were goaded to escape by the prospect of deportation to the Gulf States. The fugitives generally followed the beaten line of travel to the North and West.

In 1826 Levi Coffin became a merchant in Newport, Indiana, a town near the Ohio line not far from Richmond. In the town and in its neighborhood lived a large number of free negroes who were the descendants of former slaves whom North Carolina Quakers had set free and had colonized in the new country. Coffin found that these blacks were accustomed to assist fugitives on their way to Canada. When he also learnt that some had been captured and returned to bondage merely through lack of skill on the part of the negroes, he assumed active operations as a conductor on the Underground Railroad.

Coffin used the Underground Railroad as a means of making converts to the cause. One who berated him for negro-stealing was adroitly induced to meet a newly arrived passenger and listen to his pathetic story. At the psychological moment the objector was skillfully led to hand the fugitive a dollar to assist him in reaching a place of safety. Coffin then explained to this benevolent non-abolitionist the nature of his act, assuring him that he was liable to heavy damages therefor. The reply was in this case more forcible than elegant: "Damn it! You’ve got me!" This conversion he publicly proclaimed for the sake of its influence upon others. Many were the instances in which those of supposed pro-slavery convictions were brought face to face with an actual case of the threatened reenslavement of a human being escaping from bondage and were, to their own surprise, overcome by the natural, humane sentiment which asserted itself. For example, a Cincinnati merchant, who at the time was supposed to be assisting one of his Southern customers to recover an escaped fugitive, was confronted at his own home by the poor half-starved victim. Yielding to the impulse of compassion, he gave the slave food and personal assistance and directed the destitute creature to a place of refuge.

The division in the Quaker meeting in Indiana with which Levi Coffin was intimately associated may serve to exemplify a corresponding attitude in other churches on the question of slavery. The Quakers availed themselves of the first great antislavery movement to rid themselves completely of the burden. Their Society itself became an anti-slavery organization. Yet even so the Friends had differences of opinion as to fit methods of action. Not only did many of them disapprove of rendering aid to fugitives but they also objected to the use of the meetinghouses for anti-slavery lectures. The formation of the Liberty party served to accentuate the division. The great body of the Friends were anti-slavery Whigs.

A crisis in the affairs of the Society of Friends in the State of Indiana was reached in 1843 when the radicals seceded and organized an independent "Anti-Slavery Friends Society." Immediately there appeared in numerous localities duplicate Friends’ meeting-houses. In and around one of these, distinguished as "Liberty Hall," were gathered those whose supreme religious interest was directed against the sin of slavery. Never was there a church division which involved less bad blood or sense of injury or injustice. Members of the same family attended separate churches without the least difference in their cordial relations. No important principle was involved; there were apparently good reasons for both lines of policy, and each party understood and respected the other’s position. After the adoption of the Fugitive Slave Law of 1850 and the passing of the Whig party, these differences disappeared, the separate organization was disbanded, and all Friends’ meetinghouses became "liberty halls."

The disposition to aid the fugitive was by no means confined to the North nor to Quakers in the South. Richard Dillingham, a young Quaker who had yielded to the solicitations of escaped fugitives in Cincinnati and had undertaken a mission to Nashville, Tennessee, to rescue their relatives from a "hard master," was arrested with three stolen slaves on his hands. He made confession in open court and frankly explained his motives. The Nashville Daily Gazette of April 13, 1849, has words of commendation for the prisoner and his family and states that "he was not without the sympathy of those who attended the trial." Though Dillingham committed a crime to which the death penalty was attached in some of the States, the jury affixed the minimum penalty of three years’ imprisonment for the offense. As Nashville was far removed from Quaker influence or any sort of anti-slavery propaganda, Dillingham was himself astonished and was profoundly grateful for the leniency shown him by Court, jury, and prosecutors. This incident occurred in the year before the adoption of the Fugitive Slave Law of 1850. It is well known that in all times and places which were free from partizan bitterness there was a general natural sympathy for those who imperiled their life and liberty to free the slave. Throughout the South men of both races were ready to give aid to slaves seeking to escape from dangers or burdens which they regarded as intolerable. While such a man as Frederick Douglass, when still a slave, was an agent of the Underground Railroad, Southern antislavery people themselves were to a large extent the original projectors of the movement. Even members of the families of slaveholders have been known to assist fugitives in their escape to the North.

The fugitives traveled in various ways which were determined partly by geographical conditions and partly by the character of the inhabitants of a region. On the Atlantic coast, from Florida to Delaware, slaves were concealed in ships and were thus conveyed to free States. Thence some made their way towards Canada by steamboat or railroad, though most made the journey on foot or, less frequently, in private conveyances. Stalwart slaves sometimes walked from the Gulf States to the free States, traveling chiefly by night and guided by the North Star. Having reached a free State, they found friends among those of their own race, or were taken in hand by officers of the Underground Railroad and were thus helped across the Canadian border.

>From the seacoast the valley of the Connecticut River furnished a convenient route for completing the journey northward, though the way of the fugitives was often deflected to the Lake Champlain region. In later years, when New England became generally sympathetic, numerous lines of escape traversed that entire section. Other courses extended northward from the vicinity of Philadelphia, Delaware, and Maryland. Here, through the center of American Quakerdom, all conditions favored the escape of fugitives, for slavery and freedom were at close quarters. The activities of the Quakers, who were at first engaged merely in preventing the reenslavement of those who had a legal right to freedom, naturally expanded until aid was given without reservation to any fugitive. From Philadelphia as a distributing point the route went by way of New York and the Hudson River or up the river valleys of eastern Pennsylvania through western New York.

In addition to the routes to freedom which the seacoast and river valleys afforded, the Appalachian chain of mountains formed an attractive highway of escape from slavery, though these mountain paths lead us to another branch of our subject not immediately connected with the Underground Railroad—the escape from bondage by the initiative of the slaves themselves or by the aid of their own people. Mountains have always been a refuge and a defense for the outlaw, and the few dwellers in this almost unknown wilderness were not infrequently either indifferent or friendly to the fugitives. The escaped slaves might, if they chose, adopt for an indefinite time the free life of the hills; but in most cases they naturally drifted northward for greater security until they found themselves in a free State. Through the mountainous regions of Virginia many thus escaped, and they were induced to remain there by the example and advice of residents of their own color. The negroes themselves excelled all others in furnishing places of refuge to fugitives from slavery and in concealing their status. For this reason John Brown and his associates were influenced to select this region for their great venture in 1859.

But there were other than geographical conditions which helped to determine the direction of the lines of the Underground Railroad. West of the Alleghanies are the broad plains of the Mississippi Valley, and in this great region human elements rather than physical characteristics proved influential. Northern Ohio was occupied by settlers from the East, many of whom were antislavery. Southern Ohio was populated largely by Quakers and other people from the slave States who abhorred slavery. On the east and south the State bordered on slave territory, and every part of the region was traversed by lines of travel for the slave. In eastern and northern Indiana a favorable attitude prevailed. Southwestern Indiana, however, and southern Illinois were occupied by those less friendly to the slave, so that in these sections there is little evidence of systematic aid to fugitives. But with St. Louis, Missouri, as a starting-point, northern Illinois became honeycombed with refuges for patrons of the Underground Railroad. The negro also found friends in all the settled portions of Iowa, and at the outbreak of the Civil War a lively traffic was being developed, extending from Lawrence, Kansas, to Keokuk, Iowa.

There is respectable authority for a variety of opinions as to the requirements of the rendition clause in the Constitution and of the Act of Congress of 1793 to facilitate the return of fugitives from service or labor; but there is no respectable authority in support of the view that neither the spirit nor the letter of the law was violated by the supporters of the Underground Railroad. This was a source of real weakness to anti-slavery leaders in politics. It was always true that only a small minority of their numbers were actual violators of the law, yet such was their relation to the organized anti-slavery movement that responsibility attached to all. The platform of the Liberty party for 1844 declared that the provisions of the Constitution for reclaiming fugitive slaves were dangerous to liberty and ought to be abrogated. It further declared that the members of the party would treat these provisions as void, because they involved an order to commit an immoral act. The platform thus explicitly committed the party to the support of the policy of rendering aid to fugitive slaves. Four years later the platform of the Free-soil party contained no reference whatever to fugitive slaves, but that of 1852 denounced the Fugitive Slave Act of 1850 as repugnant to the Constitution and the spirit of Christianity and denied its binding force on the American people. The Republican platform of 1856 made no reference to the subject.

The Underground Railroad filled an insignificant place in the general plan for emancipation, even in the minds of the directors. It was a lesser task preparatory to the great work. As to the numbers of slaves who gained their freedom by means of it, there is a wide range of opinion. Statements in Congress by Southern members that a hundred thousand had escaped must be regarded as gross exaggerations. In any event the loss was confined chiefly to the border States. Besides, it has been stated with some show of reason that the danger of servile insurrection was diminished by the escape of potential leaders.

>From the standpoint of the great body of anti-slavery men who expected to settle the slavery question by peaceable means, it was a calamity of the first magnitude that, just at the time when conditions were most favorable for transferring the active crusade from the general Government to the separate States, public attention should be directed to the one point at which the conflict was most acute and irrepressible.

Previous to 1850 there had been no general acrimonious debate in Congress on the rendition of fugitive slaves. About half of those who had previously escaped from bondage had not taken the trouble to go as far as Canada, but were living at peace in the Northern States. Few people at the North knew or cared anything about the details of a law that had been on the statute books since 1793. Members of Congress were duly warned of the dangers involved in any attempt to enforce a more stringent law than the previous act which had proved a dead letter. To those who understood the conditions, the new law also was doomed to failure. So said Senator Butler of South Carolina. An attempt to enforce it would be met by violence.

This prediction came true. The twenty thousand potential victims residing in Northern States were thrown into panic. Some rushed off to Canada; others organized means for protection. A father and son from Baltimore came to a town in Pennsylvania to recover a fugitive. An alarm was sounded; men, mostly colored, rushed to the protection of the one whose liberty was threatened. Two Quakers appeared on the scene and warned the slavehunters to desist and upon their refusal one slave-hunter was instantly killed and the other wounded. The fugitive was conveyed to a place of safety, and to the murderers no punishment was meted out, though the general Government made strenuous efforts to discover and punish them. In New York, though Gerrit Smith and a local clergyman with a few assistants rescued a fugitive from the officers of the law and sent him to Canada, openly proclaiming and justifying the act, no attempt was made to punish the offenders.

After a dozen years of intense and ever-increasing excitement, when other causes of friction between North and South had apparently been removed and good citizens in the two sections were rejoicing at the prospect of an era of peace and harmony, public attention was concentrated upon the one problem of conduct which would not admit of peaceable legal adjustment. Abolitionists had always been stigmatized as lawbreakers whose aim was the destruction of slavery in utter disregard of the rights of the States. This charge was absolutely false; their settled program involved full recognition of state and municipal control over slavery. Yet after public attention had become fixed upon conduct on the part of the abolitionists which was illegal, it was difficult to escape the implication that their whole course was illegal. This was the tragic significance of the Fugitive Slave Act of 1850.


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Chicago: Jesse Macy, "Chapter VIII. The Underground Railroad," An Anti-Slavery Crusade; a Chronicle of the Gathering Storm, ed. Jameson, J. Franklin (John Franklin), 1859-1937 in An Anti-Slavery Crusade; a Chronicle of the Gathering Storm Original Sources, accessed December 1, 2022,

MLA: Macy, Jesse. "Chapter VIII. The Underground Railroad." An Anti-Slavery Crusade; a Chronicle of the Gathering Storm, edited by Jameson, J. Franklin (John Franklin), 1859-1937, in An Anti-Slavery Crusade; a Chronicle of the Gathering Storm, Original Sources. 1 Dec. 2022.

Harvard: Macy, J, 'Chapter VIII. The Underground Railroad' in An Anti-Slavery Crusade; a Chronicle of the Gathering Storm, ed. . cited in , An Anti-Slavery Crusade; a Chronicle of the Gathering Storm. Original Sources, retrieved 1 December 2022, from