Between 1840 and 1860, before the American Civil War, enslaved Africans followed the North Star on the Underground Railroad to find freedom in Canada. It was not an actual railroad but a secret network of routes and safe houses that helped people escape slavery and reach free states or Canada. Sometimes there were guides available to help people find their way to the next stop along the way. Travelling on the Underground Railroad was dangerous and required luck as much as a guide.
The "railroad" actually began operating in the 1780s, but became known as the Underground Railroad in the 1830s. The organization used railroad terms as code words. Those who helped people move from place to place were known as "conductors" and the fleeing refugees were called "passengers" or "cargo." Safe places to stop to rest were called "stations." Conductors were also abolitionists—people who wanted slavery abolished. They were Blacks and Whites, men and women. Many of them were Quakers or Methodists.
Places had code names to help keep the routes secret. Detroit, from which most left the United States, was known as "Midnight." The Detroit River was called "Jordan," a biblical reference to the river that led to the promised land. The end of the journey also had a code name, such as "Dawn." People could communicate without being specific: "Take the railroad from Midnight to Dawn." The refugees arrived all across Canada, from Nova Scotia to British Columbia, but most came to what is now southwestern Ontario, to places such as Windsor, Fort Erie, Chatham and Owen Sound.
The Underground Railroad has been the subject of a certain amount of myth-making. Because of the secrecy required for its success, there hasn't been much documentation to describe its role in our history. It is impossible to know for certain how many slaves found freedom by way of the railroad, but it may have been as many as 30 000. The railroad's traffic reached its peak between 1840 and 1860, especially after the US passed its Fugitive Slave Act in 1850. The new law allowed slave hunters to pursue and capture enslaved persons in places where they would legally be free. It resulted in several attempts to kidnap escapees in Canada and return them to former owners in the Southern States.
Some of the conductors and others associated with the railroad became famous for their efforts; Harriet Tubman, Mary Ann Shadd and Josiah Henson are but a few.
The Historica Minute Underground Railroad presents a dramatization of the type of imaginative methods that may have been used to move people from place to place. Apply what you understand about the operation of the Underground Railroad as you view the vignette.
Tracks to Freedom
Travel down the interactive Tracks to Freedom website to learn about the people and events associated with the legendary Underground Railroad. Also, check out the Can you escape feature. From the Ottawa Citizen newspaper.
On the Road North
A Virtual Museum multimedia exhibit that examines the history of the Underground Railroad.
Underground Railroad: Next Stop, Toronto!
Read excerpts from this book at Google.com.
Watch a video about the role of Harriet Tubman and others in the Underground Railroad. From YouTube.
Ripley, Ohio's Role in the Underground Railroad
Listen to a feature story about the hazards faced by travelers bound for Canada along the Underground Railroad. From the website for National Public Radio in the US.
The Underground Railroad: Next Stop, Toronto!
A synopsis of a richly illustrated book that illuminates the "clandestine system of secret routes, safe houses and conductors" that formed the lengendary Underground Railroad. From Dundurn Press.
Quilts as Code
Listen to an interview with Dr. Raymond Dobard about the use of coded messages in quilts that pointed to safe houses along the Underground Railroad. From the website for National Public Radio in the US.
The National Park Service's Innovative Approach to the Underground Railroad
An article about plans to broaden the concept of the "Underground Railroad" to include all means and attempts to escape enslavement in the US. From the History News Network website.
Bringing life to the 'Niagara Nine'
An article about a Canadian filmmaker's plan to tell the story of African Americans abandoning a life of freedom in Canada to fight in the US Civil War. From the History News Network website in the US.
What to the Slave is the Fourth of July?
An article about Frederick Douglass's Fourth of July address about abolition of enslavement. Includes a reference to enslaved Africans fleeing to Canada. From Time magazine.
I've Got A Home In Glory Land
An interactive website for I've Got A Home In Glory Land, a book that chronicles Thornton and Lucie Blackburn's harrowing escape from enslavement in the US, landmark legal triumphs in Canada, and their successful business ventures in the Town of York (Toronto).
A virtual exhibit featuring the life and career of local teacher Walter Rolling. Also chronicles the Rolling family’s journey from the US to King Township. From the website for the King Township Public Library.
Click on “Read this Book” and scroll down to page 15 for an overview of the origins, history, and geography of the Underground Railroad in the US. Also, scroll down to page 135 for an overview of Taking The Train to Freedom, a history of the Underground Railroad. Produced by the National Park Service in the US. From Google Books.
About Griffin House, a historic dwelling that stands as a testament to the bravery and determination of black men and women who journeyed to freedom in Southern Ontario via the Underground Railroad. A City of Hamilton website.
Griffin House: A National Historic Site
Information page about the Griffin House in Ancaster, Ontario, a farming property that was home to many generations of Canadian Black families. From the Ancaster Township Historical Society.
From Midnight to Dawn: The Last Tracks of the Underground Railroad
An interesting online information source about Abraham and Mary Ann Shadd's involvement in abolitionist activities and the Underground Railroad. See Page 62. From Google Books.
Our Stories - Remembering Niagara's Proud Black History
An extensive online exhibit featuring photographs, documents, and audio clips of pioneers' reminiscences about the history of the Black community in the Niagara region. From the Norval Johnson Heritage Centre and the Virtual Museum of Canada.
North to freedom
Daniel Hill discusses the Underground Railway in this 1979 CBC Radio clip.
An illustrated account of Harriet Tubman's heroic leadership in the Underground Railway movement. From the Women in History website.
Information page about Fort Erie's Freedom Park, a site along the Niagara River that is regarded as a major terminus of slave crossing into Canada as part of the Underground Railroad. From the website for the Town of Fort Erie.
Bell pealed freedom for slaves
A news story about a display of a replica of the Buxton bell at the Ontario Legislature (Toronto) in honour of Black History Month and in memory of the Underground Railroad and the 200th anniversary of the abolition of the transatlantic slave trade. From thestar.com.
We Are Rooted Here and They Can't Pull Us Up: Essays in African Canadian Women's History
Scroll down to page 41 to read "The Lord seemed to say 'Go': Women and the Underground Railroad Movement" by Adrienne Shadd. From the Our Roots website.
Black History Month begins
A 1999 CBC News story about plans to restore the African Methodist Episcopal Nazery Church in Amherstburg, Ontario. The 150-year-old church was a terminal in the Underground Railroad.
Lighting Freedom's Road
This website describes how African Americans escaped enslavement in the US by travelling to Montréal via the Champlain Line of the legendary Underground Railroad. Check out the rest of this site for more information and features. From the North Country Underground Railroad Historical Association.
A brief article about the Underground Railroad and the people who helped formerly enslaved fugitives escape to Canada. From The Canadian Encyclopedia.
Up From Slavery
Author Bryan Walls provides a vivid account of his ancestors’ harrowing escape from enslavement along the Underground Railroad. A University of Toronto website.
Deborah Brown Narrative
This narrative from Deborah Brown describes her perilous escape from enslavement through the Underground Railroad to Canada. From Parks Canada.
A heritage tour of the most northerly terminus of the Underground Railroad at Sydenham (now Owen Sound) in Ontario. Also features the "Follow the Drinking Gourd" song. From the website for the City of Owen Sound.
About Oakville’s historic connection to the Underground Railroad. From the Oakville Heritage Trails website.
Canada, the Promised Land
A great image collection featuring people and places associated with the Underground Railroad. From the Schomburg Center for Research in Black Culture in the US.