Welcome to
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 developed in a section of country rid of slavery, and situated between two regions, from one of which slaves were continually escaping with the prospect of becoming indisputably free on crossing the borders of the other.  Not a few persons living within the intervening territory were deeply opposed to slavery, and although they were bound by law to discountenance slaves seeking freedom, they felt themselves to be more strongly bound by conscience to give them help.  Thus it happened that in the course of the sixty years before the outbreak of the War of the Rebellion the Northern states became traversed by numerous secret pathways leading from Southern bondage to Canadian liberty.
     Slavery was put in process of extinction at an early period in Pennsylvania, New Jersey, New York and the New England states.  From the five and a fraction states created out of the Northwestern Territory slavery was excluded by the Ordinance of 1787.  It is interesting to note how rapid was the progress of emancipation in the Northeastern states, where the conditions of climate, and industry and public opinion were unfavorable to the continuance of slavery.  In 1777 emancipation was begun by the action of Vermont, which upon its separation from New York adopted a constitution in which slavery was prohibited.  Pennsylvania and Massachusetts was less direct, but not less effective, in securing the extinction of slavery; happily it had inserted in the declaration of

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rights prefixed to its constitution: "All men are born free and equal, and have certain natural, essential and inalienable rights."1  This clause received at a later time strict interpretation at the bar of the state supreme court, and slavery was held to have ceased with the year 1780.
     There is little to be said about the remaining group of states with which we are here concerned.  Their territorial organizations were effected under the provision of the Ordinance of 1787.  One of the most important of these provisions is as follows:  "There shall be neither slavery nor involuntary servitude in the said Territory, otherwise than in the punishment of crimes whereof the party shall have been duly convicted."2  It was this feature, introduced into the great Ordinance by New England men, that rendered futile the many attempts subsequently made by Indiana Territory to have slavery admitted within its own boundaries by congressional enactment.  "It is probable," says Rhodes, "that had it not been for the prohibitory clause, slavery would have gained such a foothold in Indiana and Illinois that the two would have been organized as slaveholding states"3   The five states, Ohio, Indiana, Illinois, Michigan and Wisconsin were therefore admitted to the Union as free states.  West of the Mississippi River there is one state, at least, that must be added to the group just indicated, namely, Iowa.  Slaveholding was prevented within its domain by the Act of Congress of 1820, prohibiting slavery in the territory acquired under the Louisiana purchase north of latitude 36 30', and several years before this law was abrogated Iowa had entered statehood with the constitution that fixed her place among the free commonwealth.  The enfranchisement of this extended region was thus accomplished by state and national action.  The ominous result was the establishment of a sweeping line of frontier between the slaveholding South and the non-slaveholding North, and thereby the propounding to the nation of a new question,
1 Constitution of Massachusetts, Part I, Art. 1; quoted by Du Bois, Suppression of the Slave Trade, p. 225
2 See Appendix A, p 359
3 History of the United States, Vol. I, p. 16.

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that of the status of fugitives in free regions.  The elements were in the proper condition for the crystallization of this question.
     The colonies generally had found it necessary to provide regulations in regard to fugitives and the restoration of them to their masters.  Such provisions, it is probable, were reasonably well observed as long as runaways did not escape beyond the borders of the colonies to which their owners belonged; but escapes from the territory of one colony into that of another were at first left to be settled as the state of feeling existing between the two peoples concerned should dictate.  In 1643 the New England Confederation of Plymouth, Massachusetts, Connecticut and New Haven, unwilling to leave the subject of the delivery of fugitives longer to intercolonial comity, incorporated a clause in their Articles of Confederation providing:  "If any servant runn  away from his master into any other of these confederated Jurisdiccons, That in such case vpon the Certyficate of one Majistrate in the Jurisdiccon out of which the said servant fled, or upon other due proofs, the said servant shall be deliuered either to his Master or any other that pursues and brings such Certificate or proofe."  About the same time an agreement was entered into between the Dutch at New Netherlands and the English at New Haven for the mutual surrender of fugitives, a step that was preceded by a complaint from the commissioners of the United Colonies to Governor Stuyvesant of New Netherlands, to the effect that the Dutch agent at Hartford was harboring one of their Indian slaves, and by the refusal to return some of Stuyvesant's runaway servants from New Haven until the redress of the grievance.  It was only when some of the fugitives had been restored to New Netherlands, and a proclamation, issued in a spirit of retaliation by the Lords of the West Indian Company, forbidding the rendition of fugitive slaves to New Haven, had been annulled, that the agreement for the mutual surrender of runaways was made by the two parties..  Negotiations in regard to fugitives early took place between Maryland and New Netherlands; at one time on account of the flight of some slaves from the Southern colony into the Northern colony, and later on account of the reversal of the

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conditions.  The temper of the Dutch when calling for their servants in 1859 was not conciliatory, for they threatened, if their demand should be refused, "to publish free liberty, access and recess to all planters, servants, negroes, fugitives, and runaways which may go into New Netherland."  The escape of fugitives from the Eastern colonies northward to Canada and also a constant source of trouble between the French and the Dutch, and between the French and English.1
     When, therefore, emancipation acts were passed by Vermont and four other states the new question came into existence.  It presented itself also in the Western territories.  The framers of the Northwest Ordinance found themselves confronted by the question, and they dealt with it in the spirit of compromise.  They enacted a stipulation for the territory, "that any person escaping into the same, from whom labor or service is lawfully claimed in any one of the original states, such fugitive may be lawfully reclaimed and conveyed to the person claiming his or her labor or service aforesaid."2
     Meanwhile the Federal Convention in Philadelphia had the same question to consider.  The result of its deliberations on the point was not different from that of Congress expressed in the Ordinance.  Among the concessions to slavery that the Federal Convention felt constrained to make, this provision found place in the Constitution: "No person held to service or labor in one state under the laws thereof, escaping into another, shall, in consequence of any law or regulation therein, be discharged from such service or labor, but shall be delivered up on claim of the party to whom such service or labor may be due."3  Neither of these clauses appears to have been subjected to much debate, and they were adopted by votes that testify to their acceptableness; the former received the support of all members present but one, the latter passed unanimously.
     In the sentiment of the time there seems to have been no
1. M. G. McDougall, Fugitive Slaves, pp. 2-11
2. Journals of Congress, XII, 84, 92
3. Constitution of the United States, Art. IV, 2.  See Revised Statutes of the United States, I, 18.  See also Appendix A, p. 359.

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to the land of his birth, and to his kindred, when these were not torn from him, must be allowed to have hindered flight in many instances; when, however, the appearance of dreaded slave-dealer, or the brutality of the overseer or the master, spread dismay among the hands of a plantation, flights were likely to follow.  This was sometimes the case, too, when by the death of a planter the division of his property among his heirs was made necessary.  William Johnson, of Windsor, Ontario, ran away from his Kentucky master because he was threatened with being sent South to the cotton and rice fields.1  Horace Washington of Windsor, after working nearly two years for a man that had a claim on him for one hundred and twenty-five dollars, reminded his employer that the original agreement required but one year's labor, and asked for release.  Getting no satisfaction, and fearing sale, he fled to Canada.2  Lewis Richardson, one of the slaves of Henry Clay, sought relief in flight after receiving a hundred and fifty stripes from Mr. Clay's overseer.3  William Edwards, of Amherstburg, Ontario, left his master on account of a severe flogging.4  One of the station-keepers of an underground line in Morgan County, Ohio, recalls an instance of a family of seven fugitives giving as the cause of their flight the death of their master, and teh expected scattering of their number when the division of the estate should occur.5
     It has already been remarked that slaves began to find their way to Canada before the opening of hte present century, but information in regard to that country as a place of refuge can scarcely be said to have come into circulation before the War of 1812.  The hostile relations existing between the two nations at that time caused negroes of sagacious minds to seek their liberty among the enemies of the United States.6  Then, too, soldiers returning from the War to their homes in Kentucky
1 Conversation with Williaml Johnson, Windsor, Ontario, July, 1895
2 Conversation with Horace Washington, Windsor, Ontario, Aug. 2, 1805.
3 The Liberator, April 10, 1846
4 Conversation with William Edwards, Amherstburg, Ontario, Aug. 3, 1895.

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and Virginia brought the news of the disposition of the Canadian government to defend the rightgs of the self-emancipated slaves under its jurisdiction. Rumors of this sort gave hope and courage to the blacks that heard it, and, doubtless, the welcome reports were spread by these among trusted companions and friends.  By 1815 fugitives were crossing the Western Reserve in Ohio, and regular stations of the Underground Railroad were lending them assistance in that and other portions of the state.1
     After the discovery of Canada by colored refugees from the Southern states, it was, presumably, not long before some of the, returning for their families and friends, gave circulation in a limited way to reports more substantial than the vague rumors hitherto afloat.  Among the escaped slaves that carried the promise of Canadian liberty across Mason and Dixon's line were such successful abductors as Josiah Henson and Harriet Tubman.  In 1860 it was estimated that the number of negroes that journeyed annually from Canada to the slave states to rescue their fellows was about five hundred.  It was said that these persons "carried the Underground Railroad and the Underground Telegraph into nearly every Southern state.; 2  The work done by these fugitives was supplemented by the cautious dissemination of news by white persons that went into the South to abduct slaves or encourage them to escape, or while engaged there in legitimate occupations used their opportunities to pass the helpful word or to afford more substantial aid.  The Rev. Calvin Fairbank, the Rev. Charles T. Torrey and Dr. Alexander M. Rose may be cited as notable examples of this class.  The latter, a citizen of Canada, made extensive tours through various slave states for the express purpose of spreading information about Canada and the routes by which that country could be reached.  He made trips into Maryland, Kentucky, Virginia and Tennessee, and did not think it too great a risk to make excursions into the more southern states.  He went to New Orleans, and from that point set out on a journey, in the course of which he visited
1. Wilson, History of the Rise and Fall of the Slave Power, Vol. II, p. 63
2. Redpath, The Public Life of Captain John Brown, p. 229

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