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Essay/Term paper: Underground railroad

Essay, term paper, research paper:  History

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I know you're wondering, what railroad? Well the simple fact is that

everybody has heard of the Underground Railroad, but not everyone knows

just what it was. Firstly, it wasn't underground, and it wasn't even a

railroad. The term "Underground Railroad" actually comes from a runaway

slave, who while being chased swam across a creek and was out of the

owner's sight. The owner said "...must have gone off on an underground

railroad." That man was Tice Davids, a Kentucky slave who decided to

live in freedom in 1831. The primary importance of the Underground

Railroad was the on going fight to abolish slavery, the start of the

civil war, and it was being one of our nation's first major anti-slavery


The history of the railroad is quite varied according to whom

you are talking. Slavery in America thrived and continued to grow

because there was a scarcity of labor. Cultivation of crops on

plantations could be supervised while slaves used simple routines to

harvest them, the low price at which slaves could be bought, and earning

profits as a bonus for not having to pay hired work.

Slaves turned to freedom for more than one reason. Some were

obsessed with being free and living a life where they were not told how

to live. Others ran due to fear of being separted or sold from friends

and family. Then there were some who were treated so cruely, that it

forced them to run just to stay alive. Since coming to America as slaves

even back as far back as when the first colonies began, slaves wanted to

escape. They wanted to get away from the situation they were forced

into. Those who were free were the "whites" who were somewhat separated

in values. The North, was a more industrialized area where jobs were

filled by newly imported immigrants, making them less dependent on slave

labor. The South, however had rich fertile land mostly used for farming.

Huge plantations were cleared and needed to be worked. The people of the

area tended to be more genteal, and seemed not quite adjusted to hard

work, but more of giving orders. The idea of telling people how to do

their work just seemed to fit all too well into this scenario.

The railroad didn't have a certain location. Slaves had been

running since the 1500's on their own. When the idea caught on amoung

brave slaves, was when it started. Slave owners in the South certainly

weren't happy about the loss of "property". It seemed like too much

money was being lost.This caused the South to pass the Fugitive Slave

Act of 1793. This titled slaves as property of their owners and gave

permission to the owners to retrieve runaways any where in the states,

even those states that were free. The North was angry about the

treatment of the slaves and was not happy about owners being allowed to

come into their states to take the slaves back. Finally, the North

decided to do something about it. To return the fire thrown at them by

the South, they would take away something that the North thought was

morally wrong,and the South's riches. They would help the slaves escape

to freedom. The slaves were now angry, scared, and confused. Hearing of

this Underground Railroad, they slowly began to run, more and more.

By 1807 a law was passed to make it illegal to import anymore

slaves. Agricultural improvements came along, and with the limited

number of slaves left in the states, the value of the slaves went up

very quickly. Abolition Societies began to form, and along with

religious groups became active in helpin gslaves to freedom.

The "Railroad" beggan to take shape. A shape that is to this day

very hard to describe. Traks were laid to aide the slaves to freedom.

People talked in secrecy to make safe paths for the slaves to run on.

These were the tracks. Letters were sent that had terminology or code

for the balcks. A lot of the terms come from things found along

railroads. This is because real railroads at this time were the newest

thing and happened to be the topic of choice for conversation. This made

it all the easier for the helpers of the railroad to communicate going

unoticed.Along the tracks, there were depots, safe houses to stay. These

were houses of free whites or blacks where they could hide when they

weren't running. The people who owned the houses were often called

conductors. The conductors often left a number of signs for the slaves

to follow so they didn't go to houses that belonged to allies of the

slave owners. A quilt on the clothes line depicting a house with smoke

coming out of the chimney was a sign of a safe station. A white ring of

bricks around the the top of a house's chimney was another sign of a

good hiding spot. Shoppes that were safe often had a silohette of a

fleeing man or woman on in sign. Other siggns were used to guide the

slaves. There were knocks that slaves used when approaching a

house,animal calls, and lights hung in windows. When a slave was moving

to the next house along the railroad, this was called "catching the next

train." There were also songgs that ave directions to slaves that were

taught to everyone so that they might memorize the way. One such, was

"Follow the Drinking Gourd" The drinking gourd was the slaves'

terminology for the big dipper. The Big Dipper's "handle" points to the

north star, which they could use to find their way north. The song gave

landmarks along the way to follow and a verse from it says " the dead

trees will show you the way." This was put in the song for a reason. The

writer of this song, refered to as Peg-leg Joe, drew a picture of a peg

legg on the dead trees along the track with charcoal. The following

verse is "Left foot, peg foot traveling on," accordingly. The tracks

for the railroad weren't exactly laid. A slave had many possible

directions to run in, but the main idea here was safty over quickness.

The slaves often zigzaged in their paths to avoid being caught. There

were different forms of fleeing as well as different paths. Slaves could

travel by water on boats. Often in one of the many clever disguises

fabricated by the people of the North willing to lend a hand. Men were

dressed as women, women were dressed as men, slave's clothes were

exchanged for those of a rich free person of color's to confuse the true

identity of the slave when seen by curious eyes. There were also some

slaves that traveled the road, by foot, in a caridge, or in a wagon

often containing a fake bottom making a tiny space where slaves could

safely journey to freedom.Some traveled on "surface linesthe actual

railroads of this time. Lightly colored slaves were dressed as whites,

and others were put in with the luggage and frieght. And yet dareing

others traveled as baggage. Such a person was Henry "Box" Brown who

recieved his nickname by making the long trip in a box marked "this side

up," and "fragile." There are, however, reports from Henry, after he

"reached the end of the line", where he testified being turned upside

down and was thrown about, which makes us all wonder what goes on with

our mail service.

In the end, slaves had to find a way to blend with the people of

the North so that they might live their lives free. Some of the escaped

fugitves met up with previuosly escaped friends and family and formed

communities. Others found a haven in the Native Americans with whom they

intermarried and reproduced. The civil war began and others found

shelter with the Union Army. The slaves soon found out that freedom did

not mean freedom from work, but they were happier because they now made

their own decisions. Some died from exposure, after not finding shelter

from the North's frozen winter. Most slaves were not allowed to learn to

read and remained illiterate. Their not being able to read or understand

the fact that they had money of their own often lead cruel salesmen and

employers to take advantage of the blacks. Those who learned to do

specific jobs in the South often took up similar jobs in the North. The

need for the railroad slowly began to decrease as the fight for

abolishment grew stronger. It was no longer nesscary for the raliroad to

be, since almost all the slaves who were going to run already had. The

final motion that brought the railraod to it's final stop was the

signing of the Emancipation Proclamation by Lincoln, ending all slavery

in our now free country, forever.


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