Home » Feature Stories » Studying the Underground Railroad

Studying the Underground Railroad

by admin on 14th-July-2017

Laura L. Klure

Harriet Tubman

It can be interesting to study the history of the Underground Railroad (UGRR), to read about the lives admirable folks, such as Harriet Tubman, mentioned in that Walter Robinson song. Born in about 1822, Tubman began helping people escape slavery in 1850. She later worked with the Union forces, leading expeditions and tending to liberated slaves. Her long life ended in 1913 (check out Wikipedia for a good, fairly detailed biography). 

We may think of the UGRR happening around the time of the American Civil War, but some sanctuaries were given to slaves much earlier, including in the late 1600s through the 1700s in Florida. According to the National Park Service (NPS), in 1817, 200 years ago, “U.S. Federal troops waged a war against Seminole Indians and freedom seekers in Florida.” 

When the Civil War was ending in 1865, the 13th Amendment abolished slavery. Later the 14th and 15th Amendments improved the rights and protections of former slaves. We’re still working to preserve some of those rights. 

But other than the famous folks, such as Harriet Tubman, Frederick Douglas, John Brown, and others – who else participated in the UGRR? Who escaped slavery through the UGRR? Who were the White and Black people who helped the escapees, and in what ways? There are no easy answers. 

The UGRR was not a railroad or a single pathway, and it was not an underground tunnel. The concept refers to multiple paths to freedom, different routes followed in various ways by those escaping slavery, helped along by good people. The paths north were through many houses where travelers could be hidden, rest, and get help to continue the journey. The NPS website has maps with six main escape routes and many more sub-routes (see www.nps.gov/nr/travel/ underground/detailedroutes). 

The travelers on the UGRR wanted to keep their names and escape routes secret, to avoid capture and return to slavery. Those who helped also needed to remain anonymous to protect the escapees. Even in the Northern U.S., some people did not believe the UGRR should exist, and some tried to catch slaves, to earn money by returning them. 

Most public libraries have many books about the Civil War in general, but far fewer books about the UGRR specifically. These books generally cover only the main subjects and events, mentioning only well-known people. It is difficult to find any documents with a more complete list of UGRR workers, let alone names of those who escaped by traveling the UGRR. 

There are some internet resources; search the web using your family surname, plus “Underground Railroad” or “UGRR.” Depending on how common the surname was, this may result in some interesting information. A problem for the descendants of slaves can be that their surnames were uncertain or were changed when they escaped slavery. 

If you know the state where your ancestors resided (before or after escaping), or if you know a county where they lived, you can add that name to the search. Some local governments have more detailed information on their websites. According to the National UGRR Freedom Center, “Most public records are not yet on the internet – but some are. These include the records of the U.S. Census Bureau…” The Freedom Center site lists 8 people who were Heroes, Enabling Freedom (see www.freedomcenter.org, located in Cincinnati, OH).

An example of a rather thorough website is the one covering the UGRR in Southern Ohio. This site lists over 80 operators of UGRR “stations.” (see www. angelfire.com/oh/chillicothe/ugrr). Short stories are given about 11 African- Americans in Southern Ohio (click on People). 

The NPS website lists a few of the UGRR sites in 23 states; clicking on the locations can provide more details. This list is by no means complete, but it includes some photos (see www.nps.gov/ugrr). NPS lists 7 “Conductors” along the UGRR, just a few of the many. Under the heading “People, Places and Stories,” the NPS site gives links to over 140 bits of text. This information is often fairly short, but it sometimes gives details that may assist in locating your ancestors. Note that the names given are often only first names. 

If you think that California was too far from the “South” to have any slaves, think again. An article on Wikipedia, about the “History of slavery in California,” outlines the enslavement of Native Americans and people of African ancestry. The California Gold Rush intensified the desire for cheap or enslaved workers. 

Doing family genealogy may be helpful to those wanting to learn about connections to the UGRR, but access to sites with the most family data can be fairly expensive. Even with a full subscription, such as to ancestry.com, it can be difficult and time consuming to find detailed information about the mid-1800s, unless some other family member posted or linked to documents. The Freedom Center in Ohio offers some free help with genealogy, for those able to visit in person. 

When searching for a very common surname, such as Brown, there can be a lot of genealogical data online. For example, ancestry.com lists many thousands of family trees for folks surnamed Brown, and even searching with a first name hardly only narrows the search to more than 100 family tree listings. And, it can be difficult to discover the race of the folks mentioned in a family tree. 

DNA testing has become an important tool for finding relatives and learning about ethnic ancestries. The rules governing DNA testing have been changing recently, so it is important to learn what information is available from a particular DNA test site before signing up. Health information, for example, can be minimal, and subscriptions may be needed to learn much about one’s ancestry (see ancestry.com and 23andme.com, for example). 

It can be surprising to discover genes associated with races that one did not know were present in his or her background. A person generally considered to be “White,” such as this writer’s husband, might learn that he has a small percentage of Sub- Saharan African ancestry. Those who consider themselves to be “Black” can learn about countries in Africa where ancestors originated, and they might also learn about having ancestors who were slave owners. 

Both Black and White people worked on the UGRR. Did any of them respectfully fall in love with the African-Americans they were helping? Sounds like a potentially pleasant aspect of the UGRR.

Category: Feature Stories.
Leave a Reply

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *