The origins of the Underground Railroad date back to the 18th century, and historians say the actual years were c.1780 - 1862. It begins with the story of a slave named Tice Davids. Tice was attempting to escape from his owner. To do it, he ran to the Ohio river and began to swim across. Meanwhile his owner pursued him in a small rowboat. However, the owner lost sight of Tice in the current and so he went searching for him in the town of Ripley on the opposite side of the river. After many hours of searching the owner gave up on trying to find his slave. He was so surprised that he could not locate the slave, he concluded Tice Davids ‘must have gone on an underground road.’¹ And thus the legendary Underground Railroad was born.
The Underground Railroad was a vast network of people who helped fugitive slaves escape to the North and to Canada. It was not run by one person or group, but by hundreds of individuals, many whites and free blacks. Most only knew of local efforts in their area to aid fugitives and not of the overall network. Around 1831 it was officially given the title “The Underground Railroad," named after the emerging steam railroads that carried passengers from place to place. The Underground Railroad even used terms used in railroading. The homes and businesses where slaves would rest and eat were called "stations" and "depots". These places were run by "stationmasters.” People who contributed money or goods were "stockholders," and the "conductors" were responsible for moving fugitive slaves from one station to the next.² The railroad effectively moved hundreds of slaves northward each year, and according to one estimate, the South lost 100,000 slaves between 1810 and 1850.³ The escaped slaves traveled from place to place on the railroad any way they could; by foot, small boats, or covered wagons. Some were even shipped in boxes by rail or sea. Stations were hiding places in people's homes and businesses, such as barns, cellars, attics, and secret rooms. The routes used most by fugitive slaves on the railroad ran through Indiana, Ohio, and western Pennsylvania.⁴
In 1850, the United States government passed the Fugitive Act. This act gave slave owners increased rights regarding the capture and return of their slaves. Passing this act also negatively affected free blacks living in the northern states. It put their freedom in danger and would allow them to be taken back to the south by their owners. The Mason-Dixon Line which ran along the bottom border of Pennsylvania, Delaware, and Maryland, was the cultural divide of the northern and southern United States. South of this line, professional slave catchers could legally capture and hold anyone of African descent as a runaway slave. This was terrifying to fugitive slaves who were escaping alone, so the flow of traffic increased along the Underground Railroad, as more slaves made the choice to not travel by themselves and to be assisted by friends who supported their journey.
In order for a slave to get to freedom, they first had to escape from their plantation and slaveholder. Slaves used different symbols, songs, and things in nature to communicate a path to the north or to a station. While these songs the...