For as long as slavery existed in Virginia, enslaved men, women, and children had sought to escape it by running away. In 1643, the General Assembly established stiff penalties for “divers loitering runaways,” who at the time included some enslaved laborers but probably many indentured servants. Laborers continued to flee their masters and enslavers, however, and the assembly admitted in 1669 that its laws had “proved ineffectuall” at stopping them. In 1705, legislators updated and strengthened those laws, punishing enslaved African Americans much more harshly than white servants. If caught running away, for instance, white servants were protected from “immoderate correction.” By contrast, the law declared that if enslaved Blacks were killed during their punishment, “it shall not be accounted felony”; in fact, the law would treat it “as if such incident had never happened.”
With these risks in mind, enslaved African Americans continued to run away. Some fled abusive enslavers or backbreaking work, while many others left in search of family members from whom they had been separated. Virginia runaways in the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries tended not to go far. According to the historians Gerald Mullin and Philip J. Schwarz, most stayed within fifty miles of their homes, either because they wanted to remain near family members or because, with slavery still legal in northern colonies, there was nowhere else to go. A few runaways managed to find their way to towns and cities, where they passed as free.
Several things happened after the American Revolution to encourage more enslaved people to run and to run farther. The invention of the cotton gin in the 1790s revolutionized cotton production in the Deep South and created a significant new market for enslaved labor. At the same time, the international slave trade diminished in the United States and was outlawed altogether in 1808. Taking its place was a domestic slave trade that sent huge numbers of enslaved African Americans from Upper South states such as Virginia to the cotton-growing states, where their life promised to be harsher and shorter. Many families were broken up in the process, often leaving people feeling desperate and eager to run. And because the trade was so lucrative, Virginia enslavers were less likely than ever to free their enslaved people.
Meanwhile, escaping north was made easier by the fact that slavery had been outlawed in most northern states by 1804. During this same period, various movements began to form that called for either the gradual or immediate end of slavery. The Society of Friends, known as the Quakers, took a leadership role in the abolitionist movement, first outlawing the ownership of enslaved people among its members in New England, Pennsylvania, and New York in the 1770s, and then helping to found the Pennsylvania Abolition Society in 1784. Inspired by the Second Great Awakening, many Methodists also came to see freedom as a universal value, and the church banned slaveholding among its members in 1837.
In this way, the North became a more hospitable place for runaways and a more threatening place to their enslavers. Northern antislavery groups published newspapers that, among other things, encouraged enslaved people to run away and free men and women to help them. Congress responded to the complaints of enslavers by adopting the Fugitive Slave Act of 1793, which empowered enslavers to seize those runaways, even in free states. The law’s constitutionality was upheld by the U.S. Supreme Court in Prigg v. Pennsylvania (1842), although the court ruled that state officials were not required to assist in the process of apprehending enslaved fugitives. Passage of the Fugitive Slave Act of 1850 closed that loophole and made it easier than ever for enslavers to cross state lines in pursuit of escaped enslaved people. It also emboldened kidnappers to grab free African Americans, claim they were fugitives, and sell them into slavery.
In response, so-called vigilance committees sprang up in cities such as Philadelphia, New York, and Boston with the goal of protecting or rescuing imperiled African Americans and, when possible, spiriting them north to Canada. By 1861, approximately one-third of an estimated 100,000 southern Black fugitives had escaped to Canada. Eighty percent of those—mostly African Americans from Virginia, Maryland, and Kentucky—settled in present-day Ontario. The various individuals, groups, and methods that helped get them there eventually came to be known collectively as the Underground Railroad.
Origins and Development
The origins of the term “underground railroad” are unclear. The most popular story involves Tice Davids, an enslaved man from Kentucky who crossed the Ohio River in 1831. According to folklore, when Davids disappeared along the river’s edge, his enslaver declared that he must have “gone off on an underground road.” By 1842, the term had appeared in the New York Spectator, whose disapproving editors reprinted an abolitionist boast that twenty-six enslaved people had all escaped by “the underground railroad.” The following year, the Boston Emancipator and Free American reported that in Chicago an enslaved fugitive “Fell through into the under-ground railroad, and was carried along the subterranean passage on one of the steam cars, at the rate of fifteen miles an hour.” A few days later, the paper noted that in Albany, New York, the “‘underground railroad’ remains undiscovered.” The New York Times first used the term in 1852 and 1853.
The term itself suggests an organized system with “conductors,” “passengers,” “stations,” and “station masters,” all moving fugitives along established lines. The historian Wilbur H. Siebert, who published The Underground Railroad from Slavery to Freedom in 1898, even included detailed maps of such lines. This conception of the Underground Railroad likely was an exaggeration, however, promoted by abolitionists and enslavers alike to fuel either support or fear and opposition. According to the historian Eric Foner, the Underground Railroad is best understood not as a single entity but as “an interlocking series of local networks, each of whose fortunes rose and fell over time, but which together helped a substantial number of fugitives reach safety in the free states and Canada.”
As such, the Underground Railroad existed long before the terms and metaphors used to describe it. As early as 1786, Philip Dalby, a shopkeeper in Alexandria, published a long letter in the Virginia Journal and Alexandria Advertiser complaining that when he took an enslaved manservant on a business trip to Philadelphia, the city’s Quakers sued for his freedom. In a letter to a friend about the matter, George Washington worried that there was “no avoiding the snares of individuals, or of private societies” intent on interfering with slavery. Nine years later, in amending one of its many slave laws, the General Assembly also warned of “great and alarming mischiefs” caused “by voluntary associations of individuals, who under the cover of effecting justice towards persons unwarrantably held in slavery” had instead deprived enslavers of their enslaved labor and burdened them with unfounded lawsuits.
In 1801, the Philadelphia Abolition Society assigned Isaac T. Hopper, a Quaker and teacher, to investigate and pursue claims exactly like the ones Virginia’s General Assembly had worried about. He created a network throughout the city and surrounding countryside of both whites and African Americans who could keep him informed and help fugitive or kidnapped African Americans when necessary. He also developed a taste for the law and how to manipulate it to win cases. His biographer and close friend, Lydia Maria Child, tells of how Hopper legally tricked one magistrate into granting bail to a Virginia woman who had been arrested in 1808 after escaping to Philadelphia thirteen years earlier. With the help of Hopper’s network, she fled during the night.
A little bit later, Quakers in New Garden, North Carolina, near Greensboro, established their own system of aiding African Americans. Led by cousins Vestal and Levi Coffin, and with the help of an enslaved man known as Hamilton’s Sol, they smuggled fugitives along routes used by whites to immigrate to Ohio and Indiana. Coffin himself moved to Indiana and later to Ohio, where he continued to help African Americans. In 1813, Thomas Garrett, of Wilmington, Delaware, helped rescue one of his family’s African American servants who had been kidnapped by slave traders. The Quaker went on to help thousands of fugitives over the next four decades. In 1848, Garrett was prosecuted for violating the Fugitive Slave Act of 1793 and fined so heavily that he lost all of his property.
The Underground Rail Road by William Still
Back in Philadelphia, meanwhile, a free Black named William Still worked as a clerk for the Pennsylvania Anti-Slavery Society beginning in 1847 and later for the city’s Vigilance Committee. At great personal risk, he kept careful records of the many African Americans he and others in Philadelphia helped along the Underground Railroad. His records, which included the stories of many enslaved people fleeing from Virginia, were first published in 1872.
From Virginia to Canada
Several factors made Virginia a place where the Underground Railroad flourished. Even with the domestic slave trade forcing thousands of men, women, and children into the Deep South, it had the largest enslaved population of any state and a large free Black population. It also bordered the free states of Pennsylvania and Ohio. And from the state’s northernmost point in present-day West Virginia, on the other side of the Ohio River from Wellsville, Ohio, it was only ninety miles to Lake Erie, across which lay Canada. Fugitives in Virginia, in other words, were tantalizingly close to freedom.
Virginia also boasted a number of sizable port cities, which provided avenues of escape for African Americans. In cities such as Portsmouth, Norfolk, Newport News, and Hampton, many enslaved people worked for hire in the maritime industry and were not supervised by their enslavers. In addition, there were Black churches and free Black neighborhoods where escapes could be planned and fugitives hidden. Some fugitives followed the James, Elizabeth, York, Susquehanna, Rappahannock, or Potomac rivers to the Chesapeake Bay, where they could board small vessels or steamships to New York or Massachusetts. Others found ships in Richmond and Alexandria. Most were able to board with aid from captains or crewmembers; in fact, certain ships’ captains became known to the underground community as sympathetic to fugitives or at least agreeable to transporting them for a price. William Still identified the City of Richmond, the Jamestown, the Pennsylvania, and the Augusta steamships, and the Kesiah and the Francis French schooners, as the primary vessels that aided Virginia runaways.
Fugitives who journeyed by land traveled high into the Appalachian Mountains and then down the Ohio River or into Pennsylvania. Those who escaped through Loudoun and Fauquier counties used routes that traversed the Catoctin and Bull Run mountains, Short Hill Mountain, and the Blue Ridge Mountains. Others traveling from Culpeper County were assisted by free Black communities that dotted that region. Culpeper’s Chinquapin Neck, the isthmus that separates the Rapidan and Rappahannock rivers, was another path used by escapees.
Shipbound fugitives often disembarked in Boston or New Bedford, Massachusetts, a port near Cape Cod where merchants frequently traded in Virginia. Weston Howland and John Parker, owners of the sloop Regulator, likely transported enslaved Virginians, as did Samuel Chadwick, owner of the sloop Mercury. As early as 1819, Quakers there were aiding fugitives in New Bedford. Local vigilance committees helped protect enslaved fugitives and assisted them in changing their names and finding jobs. Many of these African Americans stayed in New Bedford where, by 1850, 6.3 percent of the population was Black (compared with 1.5 percent in Boston), with nearly a third of those being born in Virginia and other parts of the South. If these formerly enslaved individuals wanted to continue on to Canada, they were provided tickets on the New York, Hartford, or New Haven railroads.
The number of escapes prompted the editors of the Norfolk Southern Argus to complain, on April 22, 1854, that “the stock of our patience is below the quantity necessary for standing the outrageous thefts that are daily being committed upon us, in the running off of our slaves.” The paper assumed “that secret agencies are at work in our midst, for the purpose of offering inducements to our slaves to make their escape to the North,” and estimated that in the last year, enslavers there had lost $75,000 in the form of runaways. “A man may be wealthy today,” the editors wrote, “but tomorrow his property may have vanished into empty space.” Most fugitives were men between their late teens and mid-thirties, who were most valuable to enslavers. In 1856, the General Assembly sought to prevent such losses by providing for more rigorous inspection of ships.
Enslaved Virginians fled to areas as far away as Hamilton, Canada West (later Ontario). While runaways tended to be young, healthy, and male, on rare occasions whole families fled, usually aboard ships or with the aid of collaborators. According to the abolitionist Benjamin Drew, as early as 1824 Virginians were arriving in what later became Ontario, often without help. Only by the 1840s was a more structured system in place to aid and guide fugitives. Saint Catharines, Canada West, became a favorite destination. Located between lakes Erie and Ontario, the site was first settled in the 1780s by Richard “Captain Dick” Pierpoint, an enslaved African who had won his freedom by fighting for the British during the American Revolution. Saint Catharines is where Harriet Tubman brought her family in the 1850s and where two Virginians—a Norfolk escapee named Richard Bohm and a formerly enslaved named William Johnson—helped to establish new arrivals.
Henry Box Brown’s Escape to Freedom
Reasons for fleeing varied. George Johnson, who arrived in Saint Catharines in 1855, had been born in Harpers Ferry. Johnson claimed to have had “no difficulty” with his enslaver “but was influenced merely by a love of liberty.” He also feared being sold south. As a result, he fled to Canada, traveling by night. Isaac Williams was sold by his enslaver in Fredericksburg in the autumn of 1853. He managed to escape the slave-pen there and elude bounty hunters, making it to Canada the morning after Christmas. Christopher Nichols attempted escape but was caught. As punishment his enslaver “took a cobbing-board full of auger holes” and a boy’s armful of cut switches and “began to whip me, and he whipped, and he whipped, and he whipped, and he whipped,” until Nichols’s shirt looked “as if it had been dipped in a barrel of blood.” When he ran away a second time, Nichols left behind a wife, three children, and three grandchildren.
In Philadelphia, William Still recorded the relatively rare arrival, in 1858, of three enslaved female fugitives from Virginia. Mary Frances, about twenty-three years old and from Norfolk, had no complaint against her widowed enslaver, whom she described as kind. Twenty-eight-year-old Eliza Henderson, however, had been beaten and subsequently escaped from Richmond. Nancy Grantham, who escaped “secreted on a boat,” was nineteen and fled “her master’s evil designs,” which were violent and sexual.
State and federal legislators tried in vain to derail the Underground Railroad. They increased rewards for slave-catchers and penalties for runaways, instituted more thorough ship inspections, and sometimes granted the state power to seize vessels. Enslavers, meanwhile, formed committees, like the one established in December 1833 by citizens in Richmond and Henrico County, to detect and punish anyone who would aid and abet runaways. While these measures may have slowed the flow of fugitives, they did not stop them. Senator James Mason, of Virginia, who introduced the Fugitive Slave Bill on January 4, 1850, claimed that runaways cost his state an average of $100,000 per year.
The Underground Railroad’s work ended only with the abolition of slavery in 1865. Thirty years later Wilbur Siebert published the first comprehensive history of the railroad, documenting safe houses, land routes, and vessel names, and cataloging the names of those who had aided fugitives. Siebert, however, seemed to exaggerate the Underground Railroad’s organization and cohesiveness. In The Liberty Line: The Legend of the Underground Railroad, published in 1961, Larry Gara argued that what was known about the Underground Railroad was as much legend as fact. He further asserted that the real heroes of the drama were not white men like Levi Coffin or Thomas Garrett—although their efforts were sincere and important—but the enslaved African Americans who risked their lives to run and the free Blacks who risked just as much to help them. Later scholarship from the historians Fergus M. Bordewich and Eric Foner has tempered some of Gara’s revisionism while holding on to his larger conclusions.
Memory of the Underground Railroad has often focused on the exploits of the enslaved guide Harriet Tubman. On March 25, 2013, the National Park Service (NPS) established the Harriet Tubman Underground Railroad National Monument, near Cambridge, Maryland, which operates in concert with a state park that opened in 2017. In the meantime, the NPS has identified four Underground Railroad–related sites in Virginia: Bruin’s Slave Jail, in Alexandria; Fort Monroe, in Hampton Roads; Theodore Roosevelt Island, in Rosslyn; and the Moncure Conway House, in Falmouth, home of the abolitionist Moncure Conway. None of them is directly related to the work of the Underground Railroad, however, which is not surprising. That work occurred in secret and across great distances. Its memory is less likely to be found in a particular place than in the stories of those who risked flight and eventually found freedom.