Underground Railroad

Word Count: 1489I know you’re wondering, what railroad? Well the simple fact is that
everybody has heard of the , but not everyone knows
just what it was. Firstly, it wasn’t underground, and it wasn’t even a
railroad. The term “Underground Railroad” actually comes from a runaway
slave, who while being chased swam across a creek and was out of the
owner’s sight. The owner said “…must have gone off on an underground
railroad.” That man was Tice Davids, a Kentucky slave who decided to
live in freedom in 1831. The primary importance of the Underground
Railroad was the on going fight to abolish slavery, the start of the
civil war, and it was being one of our nation’s first major anti-slavery

The history of the railroad is quite varied according to whom
you are talking. Slavery in America thrived and continued to grow
because there was a scarcity of labor. Cultivation of crops on
plantations could be supervised while slaves used simple routines to
harvest them, the low price at which slaves could be bought, and earning
profits as a bonus for not having to pay hired work.
Slaves turned to freedom for more than one reason. Some were
obsessed with being free and living a life where they were not told how
to live. Others ran due to fear of being separted or sold from friends
and family. Then there were some who were treated so cruely, that it
forced them to run just to stay alive. Since coming to America as slaves
even back as far back as when the first colonies began, slaves wanted to
escape. They wanted to get away from the situation they were forced
into. Those who were free were the “whites” who were somewhat separated
in values. The North, was a more industrialized area where jobs were
filled by newly imported immigrants, making them less dependent on slave
labor. The South, however had rich fertile land mostly used for farming.
Huge plantations were cleared and needed to be worked. The people of the
area tended to be more genteal, and seemed not quite adjusted to hard
work, but more of giving orders. The idea of telling people how to do
their work just seemed to fit all too well into this scenario.

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The railroad didn’t have a certain location. Slaves had been
running since the 1500’s on their own. When the idea caught on amoung
brave slaves, was when it started. Slave owners in the South certainly
weren’t happy about the loss of “property”. It seemed like too much
money was being lost.This caused the South to pass the Fugitive Slave
Act of 1793. This titled slaves as property of their owners and gave
permission to the owners to retrieve runaways any where in the states,
even those states that were free. The North was angry about the
treatment of the slaves and was not happy about owners being allowed to
come into their states to take the slaves back. Finally, the North
decided to do something about it. To return the fire thrown at them by
the South, they would take away something that the North thought was
morally wrong,and the South’s riches. They would help the slaves escape
to freedom. The slaves were now angry, scared, and confused. Hearing of
this Underground Railroad, they slowly began to run, more and more.

By 1807 a law was passed to make it illegal to import anymore
slaves. Agricultural improvements came along, and with the limited
number of slaves left in the states, the value of the slaves went up
very quickly. Abolition Societies began to form, and along with
religious groups became active in helpin gslaves to freedom.

The “Railroad” beggan to take shape. A shape that is to this day
very hard to describe. Traks were laid to aide the slaves to freedom.
People talked in secrecy to make safe paths for the slaves to run on.
These were the tracks. Letters were sent that had terminology or code
for the balcks. A lot of the terms come from things found along
railroads. This is because real railroads at this time were the newest
thing and happened to be the topic of choice for conversation. This made
it all the easier for the helpers of the railroad to communicate going
unoticed.Along the tracks, there were depots, safe houses to stay. These
were houses of free whites or blacks where they could hide when they
weren’t running. The people who owned the houses were often called
conductors. The conductors often left a number of signs for the slaves
to follow so they didn’t go to houses that belonged to allies of the
slave owners. A quilt on the clothes line depicting a house with smoke
coming out of the chimney was a sign of a safe station. A white ring of
bricks around the the top of a house’s chimney was another sign of a
good hiding spot. Shoppes that were safe often had a silohette of a
fleeing man or woman on in sign. Other siggns were used to guide the
slaves. There were knocks that slaves used when approaching a
house,animal calls, and lights hung in windows. When a slave was moving
to the next house along the railroad, this was called “catching the next
train.” There were also songgs that ave directions to slaves that were
taught to everyone so that they might memorize the way. One such, was
“Follow the Drinking Gourd” The drinking gourd was the slaves’
terminology for the big dipper. The Big Dipper’s “handle” points to the
north star, which they could use to find their way north. The song gave
landmarks along the way to follow and a verse from it says ” the dead
trees will show you the way.” This was put in the song for a reason. The
writer of this song, refered to as Peg-leg Joe, drew a picture of a peg
legg on the dead trees along the track with charcoal. The following
verse is “Left foot, peg foot traveling on,” accordingly. The tracks
for the railroad weren’t exactly laid. A slave had many possible
directions to run in, but the main idea here was safty over quickness.
The slaves often zigzaged in their paths to avoid being caught. There
were different forms of fleeing as well as different paths. Slaves could
travel by water on boats. Often in one of the many clever disguises
fabricated by the people of the North willing to lend a hand. Men were
dressed as women, women were dressed as men, slave’s clothes were
exchanged for those of a rich free person of color’s to confuse the true
identity of the slave when seen by curious eyes. There were also some
slaves that traveled the road, by foot, in a caridge, or in a wagon
often containing a fake bottom making a tiny space where slaves could
safely journey to freedom.Some traveled on “surface linesthe actual
railroads of this time. Lightly colored slaves were dressed as whites,
and others were put in with the luggage and frieght. And yet dareing
others traveled as baggage. Such a person was Henry “Box” Brown who
recieved his nickname by making the long trip in a box marked “this side
up,” and “fragile.” There are, however, reports from Henry, after he
“reached the end of the line”, where he testified being turned upside
down and was thrown about, which makes us all wonder what goes on with
our mail service.

In the end, slaves had to find a way to blend with the people of
the North so that they might live their lives free. Some of the escaped
fugitves met up with previuosly escaped friends and family and formed
communities. Others found a haven in the Native Americans with whom they
intermarried and reproduced. The civil war began and others found
shelter with the Union Army. The slaves soon found out that freedom did
not mean freedom from work, but they were happier because they now made
their own decisions. Some died from exposure, after not finding shelter
from the North’s frozen winter. Most slaves were not allowed to learn to
read and remained illiterate. Their not being able to read or understand
the fact that they had money of their own often lead cruel salesmen and
employers to take advantage of the blacks. Those who learned to do
specific jobs in the South often took up similar jobs in the North. The
need for the railroad slowly began to decrease as the fight for
abolishment grew stronger. It was no longer nesscary for the raliroad to
be, since almost all the slaves who were going to run already had. The
final motion that brought the railraod to it’s final stop was the
signing of the Emancipation Proclamation by Lincoln, ending all slavery
in our now free country, forever.


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