In an effort to help runaway slaves escape from slave states to the North and to Canada, white and African American abolitionists established a series of hiding places throughout the country where fugitives could hide during the day and travel under the cover of night. Although runaways tended to travel on foot and trains were rarely employed, all involved referred to the secret network as the “Underground Railroad,” a term which first appeared in literature when Harriet Beecher Stowe referred to a secret “underground” line in her 1852 book, Uncle Tom’s Cabin. The total number of runaways who used the Underground Railroad to escape to freedom is not known, but some estimates exceed 100,000 freed slaves during the antebellum period.
Those involved in the Underground Railroad used code words to maintain anonymity. Fugitive slaves were “passengers” or “cargo,” while the hiding places were referred to as “stations” or “depots.” Anyone who guided runaways or provided aid to them along the journey held the title of “stationmaster,” “conductor,” or “engineer.” Both runaways and conductors suffered uncomfortable circumstances, frigid weather, and severe hunger on Underground Railroad rides. Many risked their lives, especially after the 1850 Fugitive Slave Act outlawed the provision of aid to runaway slaves, even in free states. This federal law also made it increasingly difficult for free African Americans to maintain their independence, because they might have been mistaken for runaways. An abolitionist at the time concluded that “free colored people shared equal fate with the breathless and [footsore] Slave.”
Listen to a recording of filmmaker Gary Jenkins discussing the Underground Railroad in the West at the Kansas City Public Library.
Defying federal law, conductors in Kansas felt especially compelled to help slaves from nearby Missouri, Arkansas, and Indian Territory (present-day Oklahoma). They often used Underground Railroad routes that ran into Kansas and branched into Northern states such as Iowa and Nebraska or all the way into Canada. Abolitionists in Kansas especially wanted to help passengers along the “Most Miserable” routes that they nicknamed “M & M” for lines coming out of Mississippi and nearby Missouri. One conductor from Wakarusa, Kansas, stated in 1859, “I feel rather proud & very thankfull [sic] that I have been able to do so much good for the oppressed, & so much harm to the oppressors.”
There were notorious people involved with the Underground Railroad, including Harriet Tubman, who escaped from slavery and then returned to the South 19 times to escort over 300 slaves to freedom. Tubman reportedly carried a pistol to ensure that she would never lose a passenger. Levi Coffin, a Quaker, assisted more than 3,000 slaves, many of whom stayed at his homes in Indiana and Ohio, which became well-traveled stations. Individuals in Kansas also played important roles, including Enoch and Luther Platt, who operated stations in the 1850s out of their own home in Wabaunsee County of the Kansas Territory.
Other Kansans supported fugitive aid societies with their money or volunteer efforts. “Share holders” could make donations to such societies to provide supplies or establish new lines. For example, when the “Lane Trail” and the “John Brown Road” had become known to proslavery factions, an anti-slavery aid society made new plans to move fugitives through Kansas to the North with side branches that split in towns throughout Iowa. Members of aid societies not only created new routes, but they also tested the routes to be sure that men, women, and children could travel safely. During an escape, engineers led passengers and signaled the rest of the train to reroute if danger threatened.
Decoding the Underground Railroad:
- Freedom or Gospel Train: the Underground Railroad
- Cargo, Passengers, or Baggage: runaway slaves
- Station or Depot: hiding places for runaway slaves
- Conductor, Engineer, Agent, or Shepherd: a person who guided runaway slaves between stations
- Stationmaster: a person who managed a station and helped guide runaways along their route
- Shareholder or Stockholder: an abolitionist who made financial contributions to the Underground Railroad
Conductors from Kansas could easily cross from Kansas into Missouri to make contact with potential runaways. During the war, slaves living in Missouri, so close to the free state of Kansas, felt especially tempted to use the Underground Railroad to cross the border. One African American man reflected that he did not know details about specific routes into Kansas, but he had heard that if he could just get “to the Yankees” in Lawrence, a town approximately 40 miles from the state line, he could find freedom.
Conductors often gave fugitives clothes and food for their journeys and sometimes at their own expense. One conductor reported that his horse died from serious fatigue after a 63-mile trip into Kansas that took less than 10 hours. Some conductors preferred not to know explicit details about the fugitives they aided for fear of questions from pursuers.
Abolitionists sometimes learned of former slaves marrying after their escape or joining the Union Army. A few passengers returned to Kansas after making their escape to other free states, including William Dominick Matthews, a first lieutenant in the Independent Battery of the U. S. Colored Light Artillery in Fort Leavenworth. Matthews helped to recruit other African American soldiers to the First Colored Kansas Volunteer Infantry. With the help of Daniel R. Anthony, brother of woman suffragist Susan B. Anthony, Matthews ran a boarding house that became an Underground Railroad depot in Leavenworth. Otherwise, as should be expected, very little is known about the specific individuals and families who assisted or received aid from the Underground Railroad.
Blight, David W, ed. Passages to Freedom: The Underground Railroad in History and Memory. Washington, DC: Smithsonian Press, 2004.
Humez, Jean M. Harriet Tubman: The Life and the Life Stories. Madison: University of Wisconsin Press, 2003.