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The Underground Railroad Previous Next
Digital History ID 4580


The images of the Underground Railroad are deeply etched in our imagination: fugitive slaves traveling furtively under cover of darkness, pursued by heavily armed slave catchers and vicious bloodhounds, assisted by benevolent abolitionists who hid them in haystacks and secret rooms and lead them to freedom.

This image of the Underground Railroad is profoundly misleading. Most fugitives could not depend on an organized system of underground railroad stations to ferry them to freedom. While some abolitionists like Levi Coffin, William Still, and Harriet Tubman actively assisted runaways, most fugitives had to rely on their own wits. They had to borrow or forge passes, devise disguises, locate hiding places, or stow away on boats or trains. As one Illinois abolitionist later pointed out: "I do not know of any fugitive ever being transported by anyone, they always had to pilot their own canoe, with the little help that they received."

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