The premise of the "Quilt Code" is that various geometric patterns commonly found in American patchwork quilts were used to convey messages in connection with the Underground Railroad. But even among Code proponents, the patterns’ meanings, how the quilts were used, and who used them is a matter of debate: as of mid-2005 at least 15 contradictory versions of the Code were circulating. Some proponents claim the Code as part of their family oral history, but none can point to an ancestor who used it to escape to the North or even participated in the Underground Railroad.
One trail from the South followed the same path as Interstate 95 does today, said Charlottesville historian Jay Worrall, who spent 20 years chronicling the Underground Railroad in a history of Virginia Quakers he will publish later this year.
“The Underground Railroad is significant in history for a number of reasons,” said Vincent deForest, a D.C. historian. “From an African American point of view, it showed that slaves were not passive and that they tried to escape. Harriet Tubman and other African Americans were (prominent figures) on the railroad.”
There were many towns and cities in the North with connections to Underground Railroad activity and, not surprisingly, many of these cities and towns were located in an region called the Borderland, the geographic area located along the borders between free and slave states.
Dred Scott first went to trial to sue for his freedom in 1847. Ten years later, after a decade of appeals and court reversals, his case was finally brought before the United States Supreme Court. In what is perhaps the most infamous case in its history, the court decided that all people of African ancestry -- slaves as well as those who were free -- could never become citizens of the United States and therefore could not sue in federal court. The court also ruled that the federal government did not have the power to prohibit slavery in its territories. Scott, needless to say, remained a slave.
The Underground Railroad is often addressed separately from the Civil War, but there's a lot of evidence that its activities did much to precipitate the war. The Northwest Territory -- Ohio, Michigan, Illinois, Indiana, Wisconsin and part of Minnesota -- had never allowed slavery, so after the Dred Scott decision its residents often joined up with Northeastern abolitionists (as we learned earlier, nearly half of Underground Railroad workers were from Ohio). These anti-slavery groups formed political parties like the Free Soil party and the Republican Party, which would introduce Abraham Lincoln to the country. And the rest, as they say, is history.
On March 7, 1849, Edward Brodess died on his farm at Bucktown at the age of 47, leaving Tubman and her family at risk of being sold to settle Brodess's debts. In the late fall of 1849 Tubman took her own liberty. She tapped into an Underground Railroad that was already functioning well on the Eastern Shore: traveling by night, using the North Star and instructions from white and black helpers, she found her way to Philadelphia. She sought work as a domestic, saving her money to help the rest of her family escape. From 1850 to 1860, Tubman conducted between eleven and thirteen escape missions, bringing away approximately seventy individuals, including her brothers, parents, and other family and friends, while also giving instructions to approximately fifty more who found their way to freedom independently.
The Underground Railroad followed two basic routes: a series of trails from Louisiana and Alabama through the Midwest into Canada, and a Georgia-Carolinas line through Virginia and Maryland and farther north. The trail also stretched into Mexico. Stations were about 20 miles apart.
In the Fugitive Slave Act of 1793, the federal government gave local authorities in both slave and free states the power to issue warrants to "remove" any black they thought to be an escaped slave. It also made it a federal crime to help a runaway slave. The act was rarely enforced in non-slave states, but in 1850 it was strengthened with higher fines and harsher punishments. On top of that, slave hunters could legally claim that any black person they saw was an escaped slave, which not only terrorized free blacks but outraged many white people. Northerners were horrified by rumors of slave hunters luring preschool-age free black children onto boats and shipping them to the Deep South.
Free blacks would sometimes send a field agent -- often a traveling minister or doctor posing as salesperson or census-taker -- to make contact with a slave who wanted to escape. This took some time because the agent had to gain the potential runaway's trust. The agent arranged for the slave's initial escape from the plantation and would then hand him off to a conductor for the first leg of the journey.
if there was an escape system before then, it probably wasn't called the Underground Railroad. In the early 1800s, runaways mostly relied on spontaneous help from strangers. By the 1820s, anti-slavery groups were beginning to form, and by the 1840s, there was an organized network that aided fugitive slaves.
Many enslaved individuals were not lucky enough to make it to freedom. Current estimates place the number of enslaved individuals who successfully escaped at 100,000, but there are countless more who made the attempt but did not succeed. Being discovered by slave catchers, facing illness, and abandoning the attempt were all too common reasons for not making it to freedom.
During the 1800s, estimates suggest that more than 100,000 enslaved people sought freedom through the Underground Railroad. The Underground Railroad is the symbolic term given to the routes enslaved Black Americans took to gain their freedom as they traveled, often as far as Canada and Mexico. Free Blacks, Whites, Native Americans and other slaves acted as conductors by aiding fugitive slaves to their freedom. This 19th century freedom movement challenged the way Americans viewed slavery and freedom.