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Slavery, abolitionists and the Underground Railroad

February 2, 2012
By George J. Bryjak

Any celebration of Black History Month would be incomplete without acknowledging the scope and importance of the Underground Railroad (UGRR). To understand the origin and workings of the UGRR, slavery and the abolitionist movement must be examined.

The transatlantic slave trade brought an estimated 10 to 11 million Africans to the new world, with approximately 85 percent of these individuals relocated to the Caribbean islands, Brazil and Spanish colonies in South America. Approximately 6 percent came to the American colonies and, later, the United States. By 1790 there were just under 700,000 slaves in this newly formed country, about 17 percent of the total population of almost 4 million. Slaves were found throughout the nation, with New York having about 15,000 Africans in forced servitude in 1776, only slightly fewer than the number of slaves in Georgia in 1790. In some rural areas of New York state, slaves accounted for 20 percent of the population. Slavery was abolished in most states north of the Ohio River or the Mason-Dixon line by 1800.

On the eve of the Civil War in 1861, slavery was firmly entrenched in the South and was extolled as an uplifting experience for blacks, who were exposed to the white man's superior culture as well as the one, true, Christian god. Slavery was legitimated by countless preachers, who argued that since Christ never categorically stated that human bondage was wrong and/or sinful, He must have approved of human bondage.


The abolitionists

In "Bound for Canaan: The Underground Railroad and the War for the American Soul," Fergus M. Bordewich states that while northern Methodists and Baptists stressed the equality of all men before God "and would produce many of the staunchest foot soldiers of the abolitionist underground," it was the Quakers who dominated the first phase of the anti-slavery movement and would be the key players in that movement well into the 19th century. The first specific protest against slavery in the colonies can be traced to the Quakers of Germantown, Pa., in 1688.

In the 1750s, Quaker John Woolman preached that the emancipation of slaves was crucial to personal salvation. One of the many individuals influenced by Woolman was Isaac Hopper (1771-1852), a member of the Pennsylvania Abolition Society. Around 1830, Hopper decided to put abolitionist ideals into practice by way of passing fugitive slaves from hand to hand via family and friends as they made their way to freedom. Some historians refer to Hopper as the father of the UGRR.

The American Anti-Slavery Society (1833-70), a national organization founded by William Lloyd Garrison with more than 1,350 chapters in 1838, had its headquarters in New York City. By 1837 there were 274 abolitionists societies in New York, with 45 anti-slavery groups in the northern regions of the state. Abolitionists were to be found in locales throughout the North Country including Elizabethtown, Peru, Essex, Keeseville, Saranac Lake and Malone.


The Underground Railroad

The most successful mechanism of escape for primarily border state slaves was the UGRR, which was neither underground nor a railroad. Rather, it was underground in the sense of an "underground" economy outside the legal, formally regulated structure of society. The word railroad was incorporated because the UGRR adopted railroad terminology. Someone who put a slave in touch with a member of the UGRR was an agent. An arrangement to move north was a ticket. A place of refuge on the journey was a station. An individual who hid slaves in a home, barn, church or other structure was a station master. Guides who took one or more slaves from station to station were conductors. Individuals who provided money for food, clothing, and other necessities for passengers or cargo (slaves) were stockholders. Historians refer to major UGRR centers as terminals, while trunks or lines were escape routes.

Conductors were free blacks, former slaves, whites and some Native Americans. Stations were typically a day's journey - 10 to 20 miles - apart. Fugitive slaves usually journeyed by foot or wagon, occasionally by boat (up the Hudson River, for example) or by train. The vast majority of UGRR passengers were males in their teens and 20s traveling alone or with another male companion. The journey north was considered too difficult for women traveling with young children, who needed food and rest on a regular basis. A crying child could betray one's location and result in capture.

To minimize being caught by slave catchers, fugitives and their conductors traveled at night and rested during the day. When passengers arrived at a station, a message was sent (often in code) to the next station along the route to inform the station master that a fugitive slave(s) was on his way. Professional slave catchers were always a threat with most working for a flat fee. Rewards for capturing a runaway slave were contingent on where the fugitive was apprehended. Compensation ranged from $20 or less in the South, up to $50 for capture in a border state and as much as $125 (plus travel expenses) for fugitive slaves caught in New York or New England. ($125 in 1850 had the purchasing power of approximately $3,200 in 2010)

There were three main UGRR routes in New York state. The first ran from New York City to Albany, up the Hudson River and into Canada by way of the North Country or along the eastern shores of Lake Champlain in Vermont. A second route was through the western part of the state via Rochester and Niagara Falls into Canada. The final route led to Ontario through central New York state: Auburn, Syracuse and Oswego.

As the UGRR was an informal organization devoid of centralized record keeping it is impossible to know how many slaves escaped bondage via that movement. Scholars estimate that between 1830 and 1860, approximately 70,000 to 100,000 fugitives were assisted by the UGRR, with as many as a third arriving in Canada. Likewise, there is no accurate count of the number of people who participated in the UGRR. In his 1898 book, "The Underground Railroad from Slavery to Freedom," Wilbur Siebert, the first historian of this movement, listed 3,211 people by name who were involved with the UGRR. Bordewich notes that since almost all of these individuals were white, Siebert failed to consider the significant number of African-Americans who helped slaves escape. Taking the latter into account, Bordewich estimates that up to 13,000 individuals (predominantly black) "worked intimately" with the UGRR.

In his authoritative work, "The Underground Railroad in the Adirondack Region," Tom Calarco states that the UGRR was much more than the stations and routes used by fugitive slaves: "It is a story of the heroic struggle of blacks and whites working together for freedom and dignity, and the American quest for human rights and respect for the individual."

Calarco reports that three former slaves settled in Bloomingdale, and when one of them, John Thomas, was located by his former owner, slave catchers were dispatched to apprehend him. However, they turned back upon learning that Bloomingdale residents were prepared to "fight to the death" to protect Thomas.


George J. Bryjak lives in Bloomingdale, retired after 24 years of teaching sociology as a professor at the University of San Diego.



Blight, D.W. (2001) "Passages to Freedom: The Underground Railroad in History and Memory," Smithsonian Books: Washington, D.C.

Bordewich, F. (2005) "Bound for Canaan: The Underground Railroad and the War for the Soul of America," Harper Collins Publishers: New York

Clinton, C. (2004) "Harriet Tubman: The Road to Freedom," Little, Brown, and Company: New York

Calarco, T. (2004) "The Underground Railroad in the Adirondack Region," McFarland & Company: Jefferson, N.C.

"John Brown the Abolitionist - A Biographer's Blog" (Feb. 5, 2007) "John Brown the Abolitionist,"

"The Inflation Calculator" (2012)



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