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History & Genealogy


Associate Professor of European History
in Ohio State University
With an Introduction by
Albert Bushnell Hart
Professor of History in Harvard University

New York
The McMillan Company
London: MacMillan & Co., Ltd.

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The Underground Road as a subject for research - Obscurity of the subject - Books dealing with the subject
Magazine articles on the Underground Railroad - Newspaper articles on the subject
Scarcity of contemporaneous documents - Reminiscences the chief source - The value of reminiscences illustrated

     HISTORIANS who deal with the rise and culmination of the anti-slavery movement in the United States have comparatively little to say of one phase of it that cannot be neglected if the movement is to be fully understood.  This is the so-called Underground Railroad, which, during fifty years or more, was secretly engaged in helping fugitive slaves to reach places of security in the free states and in Canada.  Henry Wilson speaks of the romantic interest attaching to the subject, and illustrates the cooperative efforts made by abolitionists in behalf of colored refugees in two short chapters of the second volume of his Rise and Fall of the Slave Power in America.1  Von Holst makes several references to the work of the Road in his well-known History of the United States, and predicts that "The time will yet come, even in the South, when due recognition will be given to the touching unselfishness, simple magnanimity and glowing love of freedom of these law breakers on principle, who were for the most part people without name, money, or higher education."2  Rhodes in his great work, the History of the United
1. Chapters VI and VII, pp. 61-86       2. Vol. III, p. 552, foot-note

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 States from Compromise of 1850, mentions the system, but considers it only as a manifestation of popular sentiment.3  Other writers give less space to an account of this enterprise, although it was one that extended throughout many Northern states, and in itself supplied the reason for the enactment of the Fugitive Slave Law of 1850, one of the most remarkable measures issuing form Congress during the whole anti-slavery struggle.
     The explanation of the failure to give to this "institution" the prominence which it deserves, is to be found in the secrecy in which it was enshrouded.  Continuous through a period of two generations, the Road spread to be a great system by being kept in an oblivion that its operators aptly designated by the figurative use of the word "underground."  Then, too, it was a movement in which but few of those persons were involved whose names have been most closely associated in history with the public agitation of the question of slavery, or with those political developments that resulted in the destruction of slavery.  In general the participants in underground operations were quiet persons, little known outside of the localities where they lived, and were therefore members of a class that historians find it exceedingly difficult to bring within their field of view.
     Before attempting to prepare a new account of the Underground Railroad, from new materials, something should be said of previous works upon it, and especially of the seven books which deal specifically with the subject:  The Underground Railroad, by the Rev. W. M. Mitchell; Underground Railroad Records, by William Still; The Underground Railroad in Chester and the Neighboring Counties of Pennsylvania, y R. C. Smedley; The Reminiscences of Levi Coffin; Sketches in the History of the Underground Railroad, by Eber M. Petit; From Dixie to Canada, by H. U. Johnson; and Heroes in Homespun, by Ascott R. Hope (a nom de plume for Robert Hope Moncrieff).
     While several of these volumes are sources of original material their value is chiefly that of collections of incidents, affording one an insight into the  workings of the Under-

1. History of the United States, Vol. II, pp. 74-77, 361, 362


ground Railroad in certain localities, and presenting types of character among the helpers and the helped.  In composition they are what one would expect of persons who lived simple, strenuous lives, who with sincerity record what they knew and experienced.  They have not only the characteristics of a deep-seated, moral movement, they have also an undeniable value for historical purposes.
     Mitchell's small volume of 172 pages was published in England in 1860.  Its author was a free negro, who served as a slave-driver in the South for several years, then became a preacher in Ohio, and for twelve years engaged in underground work; finally, about 1855, he w4ent to Toronto, Canada, to minister to colored refugees as a missionary in the service of the American Free Baptist Mission Society.1  It was while soliciting money in England for the purpose of building a chapel and schoolhouse for his people in Toronto that he was induced to write his book.  The range of experience of the author enabled him to relate at first hand many incidents illustrative of the various phases of underground procedure, and to give an account of the condition of the fugitive slaves in Canada.2
     Stills' Underground Railroad Records, a large volume of 780 pages appeared in 1872, and a second edition in 1883.  For some years before the War Mr. Still was a clerk in the office of the Pennsylvania Anti-Slavery Society in Philadelphia; and from 1852 to 1860 he served as chairman of the Acting Vigilance Committee of Philadelphia, a body whose special business it was to harbor fugitives and help them towards Canada.  About 1850 Mr. Still began to keep records of the stories he heard from runaways, and his book is mainly a compilation of these stories, together with some Underground Railroad correspondence.  At the end there are some biographical sketches of persons more or less prominent in the anti-slavery cause.  The book is a mine of material relating to the work of the Vigilance Committee of Philadelphia.

1. Mitchell, Underground Railroad, Preface, p. vi; p. 17
2. Mr. Mitchell divides his little book into two chapters, one on the "underground Railroad," occupying 124 pages, the other on the "condition of Fugitive Slaves in Canada," occupying 48 pages.

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     Operations carried on in an extended field of six or seven counties in southeastern Pennsylvania, over routes many of which led to the Quaker City, are recounted in Smedley's volume of 396 pages, published in 1883.  The abundant reminiscences and short biographies were patiently gathered by the author from many aged participants in underground enterprises.
     In his Reminiscences, a book of 732 pages, Levi Coffin, the reputed president of the Underground Railroad, relates his experiences from the time when he began, as a youth in North Carolina, to direct, slaves northward on the path to liberty, till the time when, after twenty years of service in eastern Indiana and fifteen in Cincinnati, Ohio, he and his coworkers were relieved by the admission of slaves within the lines of the Union forces in the South.  Mr. Coffin was a Quaker of the gentle but firm type depicted by Harriet Beecher Stowe in the character of Simeon Halliday of which he may have been the original.  In need scarcely be said, therefore, that his autobiography is characterized by simplicity and candor, and supplies a fund of information in regard to those branches of the Road with which its author was connected.
     Pettit's Sketches comprise a series of articles printed in the Fredonia (New York) Censor, during the fall of 1868, and collected in 1879 into a book of 174 pages.  The author was for many years a "conductor" in southwestern New York, and most of the adventures narrated occurred within his personal knowledge.
     Johnson's From Dixie to Canada is a little volume of 194 pages, in which are reprinted some of hte many stories first published by him in the Lake Shore Home Magazine during the years 1883 to 1889 under the heading, "Romances and Realities of the Underground Railroad."  The data that most of these tales embody were accumulated by research, and while the names of the operators, towns and so forth are authentic, the writer allows himself the license of the storyteller instead of restricting himself to the simple recording of the information secured.  His investigations have given him an acquaintance with the routes of northeastern Ohio and the adjacent portions of Pennsylvania and New York.


     Hope's volume, published in 1894, does not increase the number of our sources of information, inasmuch as its materials are derived from Still's Underground Railroad Records and Coffin's Reminiscences.  It was written by an Englishman apparently as a popular exposition of the hidden methods of the abolitionists.
     To these books should be added a pamphlet of thirty pages, entitled The Underground Railroad, by James H. Fairchild, D. D., ex-President of Oberlin College, published in 1895 by the Western Reserve Historical Society.1  The author had personal knowledge of many of the events he narrates and recounts several underground cases of notoriety; he thus affords a clear insight into the conditions under which secret aid came to be rendered to runaways.
     It is surprising that a subject, the mysterious and romantic character of which might be supposed to appeal to a wide circle of readers, has not been duly treated in any of the modern popular magazines.  During the last ten years a few articles about the Underground Railroad have appeared in The Magazine of Western History,2  The Firelands Pioneer,3  The Midland Monthly, 4  The Canadian Magazine of Politics, Science, Art and Literature5 and The American Historical Review.6  Three of these publications, the first two and the last, are of the special character; the other two, although they appeal to the general reader, cannot be said to have attempted more than the presentation of a few incidents out of the experience of certain underground helpers.  From time to time of New England Magazine has given its readers glimpses of the Underground Road by its articles dealing  with several well-known fugitive slave cases, and a bio

1. Tract No. 87, in Vol. IV, pp. 91-121, of the publications of the Society.
2. March, 1887, pp. 672-682
3. July, 1888, pp. 19-88.  This periodical is issued by the Firelands Historical Society of Ohio.  The bulk of the number mentioned is made up of contributions in regard to the Underground Road in northwestern Ohio.
4. February, 1895, pp. 173-180
5. May, 1895, pp. 9-16
6. April, 1896, pp. 455-463.  This article is a preliminary study prepared by the author


graphical sketch of the abductor Harriet Tubman.1  But it would be quite impossible for any one to gain an adequate idea of the movement from the meagre accounts that have appeared in any of these magazines.
     In contrast with the magazines, the newspapers have frequently published some of the stirring recollections of surviving abolitionists, but the result for the reader is usually that he learns only some anecdotes concerning a small section of the Road, without securing an insight into the real significance of the underground movement.  Without undertaking here to print a full list of articles on the subject, it is worth while to notice a few newspapers in which series of sketches have appeared of more or less value in extending our geographical knowledge of the system, or in illustrating some important phase of its working.  The New Lexington (Ohio) Tribune, from October, 1885, to February, 1886, contains a series of reminiscences, written by Mr. Thomas L. Gray, that supply interesting information about the work in southeastern Ohio.  The pontiac (Illinois) Sentinel, in1890 and 1891, published fifteen chapters of "A History of Anti-Slavery Days" contributed by Mr. W. B. Fyffe, recording some episodes in the development of this Road in northeastern Illinois.  The Sentinel, of Mt. Gilead, Ohio, in a series of articles, one of which appeared every week from July 13, to August 17, 1898, under the name of Aaron Benedict, affords a knowledge of the way in which the secret work was carried on in a typical Quaker community.  In The Republican Leader, of Salem, Indiana, at various dates from Nov. 17, 1893, to April, 1894, E. Hicks Trueblood printed the results of some investigations begun at the instance of the author, which disclose the principal routes of south central Indiana.  An account of the peculiar methods of the pedler Joseph Sider, an abductor of slaves, is also given by Mr. Trueblood.  The Rev.

1. Lillie B. C. Wyman: "Black and White," in New England Magazine, N. S., Vol. V, pp. 476-481; "Harriet Tubman," ibid., March, 1896, pp. 110-118.  Nina M. Tiffany: "The Escape of William and Ellen Craft," ibid., January, 1890, p. 524 et seq.: "Shadrach," ibid., May, 1890, pp. 280-283; "Sims," ibid., June, 1890, pp. 385-388; "Anthony Burns, ibid., July, 1890, pp. 569-576.  A. H. Grimke: "Anti-Slavery Boston, "ibid. December, 1890, pp. 441-459.


John Todd has preserved in the columns of the Tabor (Iowa) Beacon, in 1890 and 1891, some valuable reminiscences, running through more than twenty numbers of the paper, under the title, "The Early Settlement and Growth of Western Iowa"; several of these are devoted to fugitive slave cases.1
     It is not surprising, in view of the unlawful nature of Underground Railroad service, that extremely little in the way of contemporaneous documents has descended to us even across the short span of a generation or two, and that there are few written data for the history of a movement that gave liberty to thousands of slaves bent on flight to Canada were, of course, ever present in the minds of those that pitied the bondman, whether a well-informed lawyer, like Joshua R. Giddings, or illiterate negro, who, notwithstanding his fellow-feeling, was yet sufficiently sagacious to avoid the open violation of what others might call the law of the land,  Therefore, written evidence of complicity was for the most part carefully avoided; and little information concerning any part of the work of the Underground Railroad was allowed to get into print.  It is known that records and diaries were kept by certain helpers; and a few of the letters and messages that passed between station-keepers have been preserved.  These sources of information are as valuable as they are rare: they would doubtless be more plentiful if the Fugitive Slave Law of 1850 had not created such consternation as to lead to the destruction of most of the telltale documents.
     The great collection of contemporaneous material is that of William Still, relating mainly to the work of the vigilance Committee of Philadelphia.  The motives and the methods of Mr. Still in keeping his register are given in the following words:  "Thousands of escapes, harrowing separations, dreadful longings, dark gropings after lost parents, brothers, sisters and identities, seemed ever to be pressing on my mind.  While I knew the danger of keeping strict records, and while I did not then dream that in my day slavery would be blotted out,

1. Other newspapers in which materials have been found are mentioned in teh Appendix, pp. 395 -398.










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