Slaves Escaped the South on Northern Vessels
The Maritime Underground Railroad was a network of people who helped slaves travel by vessel from the southern United States to freedom in the North and Canada. Slaves escaped aboard the thousands of Southern ships that did business in the North and sailed regularly up and down the Atlantic coast. A clandestine society of slaves directed fugitives to the ships and black crewmen secreted them on board.
Image: Underground Railroad Routes on Land and Sea
Credit: National Geographic
Quakers Ran the Underground Railroad
In the seventeenth century, to the Englishmen who first settled Long Island, slavery was an accepted way of providing the labor force needed for agriculture and a comfortable life. After the arrival of the Quakers in the eighteenth century, attitudes were changed and the Underground Railroad began guiding slaves to freedom.
Image: Map of Long Island towns on the Underground Railroad
Stretching east-northeast from New York Harbor into the Atlantic Ocean, Long Island comprises four counties: Kings County (Brooklyn) and Queens County (Queens) in the west, then Nassau County and Suffolk County to the east. The Island is 118 miles long from east to west and about 20 miles at its widest point, the largest island in the continental United States. It is separated from the mainland on the north by Long Island Sound and bounded by the Atlantic Ocean on the south and east.
Pennsylvania Conductors Led Slaves to Freedom
Abolition of slavery was the great moral issue of the nineteenth century, especially after the passage of the Fugitive Slave Law of 1850, which allowed owners to capture their slaves in free northern states and return them to the South. The Underground Railroad (UGRR) was a loose grouping of people who risked home and safety to help runaways escape bondage. The penalties for their actions were severe. If caught, a stationmaster on the UGRR could be jailed and fined $20,000, a huge sum at that time.
The Constitution of the United States had a fugitive slave clause that Congress implemented with the first Fugitive Slave Law in 1793, placing a fine on anyone rescuing, harboring, or hindering the arrest of a fugitive. This law was rendered ineffective by a decision of the United States Supreme Court in 1842 but Congress passed a stronger Fugitive Slave Law as part of the Compromise of 1850, in which federal authorities were required to hunt runaway slaves and return them to their masters.
Abolitionist and Educator from Ohio
Betsey Mix Cowles was an educator, and an early leader in the abolitionist and women’s rights movement in the pre-Civil War era, advocating women’s access to education, equal rights, and independence. She dedicated her life to fighting slavery and improving the status of women. Her circle of friends included like-minded individuals like Frederick Douglass, William Lloyd Garrison and Abby Kelley.
Betsy Mix Cowles was born February 9, 1810 in Bristol, Connecticut, the eighth child of Giles Hooker Cowles and Sally White Cowles. In 1811, the Cowles family settled in the town of Austinburg in Ashtabula, the most northeastern county in Ohio, where her father was a minister and where Betsy began her teaching career.
UGRR Routes and Stations in New York State
Cyrus Gates Farmstead
The Cyrus Gates Farmstead stands in the town of Maine in Broome County, New York. Construction of the house began in 1848; the Greek Revival style was considered extravagant for a farmhouse.
Image: Cyrus Gates House
Maine, New York
Important stop along the UGRR
Also at the farmstead are two barns, a tenant farmer’s house, several outbuildings, a blacksmith’s shop, a four seat outhouse. Cyrus Gates was a cartographer and mapmaker for the State of New York.
Cyrus and Arabella Gates were outspoken abolitionists. From 1848 until slavery officially ended in 1865, the Gates Farmstead was a station on the UGRR. While it was illegal to serve as stationmaster or conductor on the UGRR, many people did not consider it unethical. After arguing with Cyrus over “breaking the law,” Cyrus’ brother William Gates, an ardent Copperhead, moved out of the family home.
Ohio was the Promised Land
According to Ohio State University history professor Wilbur Siebert, Ohio had the most estensive Underground Railroad network of any other state, with an estimated 3000 miles of routes used by runaways. There were more that twenty points of entry on the Ohio River, and as many as ten exit points along Lake Erie.
Image: Underground Railroad Monument
Created by Cameron Armstrong at Oberlin College
The Underground Railroad did not run on tracks, nor was it under ground. The word underground was used because helping escaped slaves was illegal and must be kept secret. The word railroad spawned other terms to describe people and places associated with the practice of assisting runaway slaves:
• Slaves are cargo or passengers.
• Hiding places or safe houses are stations.
• Guides leading the fugitives to the next stop are conductors.
• People helping the escaping slaves, but not guiding them, are agents.
• People providing financial resources for these activities are stockholders.
Educator, Writer and Freethinker
Lucy Colman was an educator, writer and prolific social reformer who was actively involved in the abolitionist, women’s suffrage and Freethought movements. She also worked for racial justice and for the education of African Americans, accompanied Sojourner Truth on a visit to President Abraham Lincoln.
Lucy Newhall Danforth was born July 26, 1817 in Sturbridge, Massachusetts, a descendant of John and Priscilla Alden [link] on her mother’s side. In her autobiography, she reported that from an early age, about six, she was horrified to learn of the existence of slavery, and bothered her mother with many questions about it. In 1824, Lucy’s mother died, and her mother’s sister Lois took over mothering tasks. Lois married Lucy’s father in 1833.
Delaware: A Short Path to Freedom
Delaware, the northernmost slave state, may be small but it played a big part in the lives of men and women fleeing from slavery. The city of Wilmington was the last station on the Underground Railroad (UGRR). With the slave state of Maryland on one side and the free states of Pennsylvania and New Jersey on the other, Delaware offered a direct route to freedom.
Image: Map of the United States showing routes traveled by fugitive slaves
Running the Underground Railroad
The system of aiding fugitives was established in the early 1800s, but the term Underground Railroad was not used to describe the network of secret routes and safe houses used by slaves to escape to the North until the early 1830s. Aiding them in their flight were a string of abolitionists who helped them along their way, even though such actions violated state and federal laws.
Mission to Rescue Slaves in Washington, DC
Pearl was the name of a sixty-five foot Chesapeake Bay Schooner that was chartered by free African Americans for $100 to rescue 77 people from slavery in Washington, DC in 1848. The Pearl Incident was the largest recorded nonviolent escape attempt by slaves in United States history.
Image: Map of the Voyage
Like the nearby states of Maryland and Virginia, Washington, DC had a slave market and was part of the slave trade; because it was connected to the Chesapeake Bay by the Potomac River, slaves were shipped or marched overland through this city. Slaves worked as domestic servants and artisans for their owners, or were hired out to work for others. Free blacks and whites were active in the city, trying to abolish slavery and the slave trade. In 1848 free blacks outnumbered slaves in the District of Columbia by three to one.
Conductor on the Underground Railroad
Delia Webster was a teacher and abolitionist in Kentucky, where she was a conductor on the Underground Railroad. Tried and convicted for helping runaway slaves in their escape to freedom, she was the first woman imprisoned for assisting fugitive slaves. Webster was also an artist, writer, and an independent woman, unusual for her time.
Image: Delia (front left) with her sisters, clockwise Martha, Mary Jane, and Betsey
Delia Ann Webster was born December 17, 1817, one of four daughters born to Benejah and Esther Bostwick Webster in Vergennes, Vermont. She attended the Vergennes Classical School, and began teaching school at 12 years of age. She then attended Oberlin College in Ohio, the first college in the United States to accept women and African American students. The town of Oberlin was called a “hotbed of abolitionism.”