Train to Freedom

Sherrill Fulghum By Sherrill Fulghum, 22nd Jun 2015 | Follow this author | RSS Feed | Short URL
Posted in Wikinut>Writing>History

A historical account of the Underground Railroad with a focus on routes in western New York to Canada.

An Introduction

Settlers came to the New World looking for a new way of life. For some it was a new start; a chance to be free to worship in the manner they chose and not a way that was dictated by others. For others it was simply a new start; a means to start over.

But along with the new ideas these people also brought their old ways. Owning land for many also meant owning people to work that land.

In the early days ownership came in the form of bonded servants – people who also wanted a chance for a new start but could not afford the voyage. A deal would be made where passage was arranged in exchange for work – usually for a seven year period. Occasionally the owner would find a way to keep his “free” labour around longer by creating extra charges that would need to be paid off by more “bonded service”, but in most cases once the seven years had elapsed freedom was given but the owner would need to find a new source of labour.

For landowners who did not have bonded servants or whose bonded servants had won their freedom another source of free labour was needed. Paying someone for doing the work was never considered an option. The first source of slave (forced) labour were members of the numerous Native tribes who inhabited the land – land the new settlers wanted and saw as theirs for the taking. Some of the landowners viewed using the Natives as “civilizing the savages” since using them as a source of labour also meant teaching them the ways of the white man which included converting them to Christianity. People who sought a new life; a chance to practice their own religious freedom saw conversion to Christianity as their duty to convert everyone to their way of thinking when it came to religion.

Set in their own ways the various tribal members were not a viable source for labour. And there was the added problem of health matters. Along with their strange ways the European brought their diseases to the new land; diseases the local population had no immunity for. This caused much sickness and death among the tribes further depleting the local source for labour not to mention an increase in the dislike the Natives had toward their new neighbours. Another solution was needed.

It was the Spanish and the Portuguese who brought the answer. An entire continent of people – people with very dark skin – who in the eyes of the “cultured” Europeans lived like primitive savages were just waiting to be “civilized, saved” and exploited – or so the Europeans thought. These captured people were treated “fairly reasonable” only in that the slave traders only paid for the people who arrived to the new world in good health and were able to work. Even so the captured Africans were stuffed into the cargo holds and just about anywhere else the ship captains could find, because after all they were only cargo as far as the ship’s owners and captains were concerned. In later years those same ships which had transported slaves from Africa were used to transport prisoners from the British Isles to the penal colony of Botany Bay also known today as Australia. These “passengers” were treated no where near as well as the Africans were because the ship captains got paid for their “cargo” no matter what their condition when they arrived in Australia.

The idea of slavery was not a foreign concept to the African tribes since it was used when rival tribes would capture members of an enemy tribe; but the slave traders with the help of some other unscrupulous and greedy Africans tribal villages along the west and northwest coasts of Africa were ravaged for what was seen as “free” labour for landowners in the new country. The Spanish began bringing African slaves into the new world in 1619.

The Spanish slave traders did not refer to these people by their tribal names or even as Africans but by the colour of their skin – Negro which is Spanish for black – thus the origin of the name negro.

The plantation owners in the South viewed this labour source not as people but as pieces of property to be bought, sold, and traded like food or furniture. Some of these slave owners treated their slave population in a respectful manner giving them decent clothing and housing along with some education; even giving them freedom when the owner died. But there were others who were not so “genteel” as they would like for people to believe. These owners treated their slave population with absolutely no respect or decency. These owners beat the slaves mercilessly, took advantage of the women whenever the notion struck them, and barely gave them enough food to survive. For these people the hope of escape was their only refuge.

The Beginning

As the New World became the Colonies and eventually the United States a clear division of attitude and beliefs arose. The southern half of the county gave way to massive plantations with numerous slaves; while the northern half of the country saw slavery as an abomination; a wrong that needed to be righted. As people began to move west and cross the Mississippi this issue of slavery became an increasingly heated discussion that led to states being admitted to the Union in pairs – one free state and one slave state.

While not everyone who inhabited the south actually owned slaves; most of them who did not gave their passive accent to the institution known as slaver. The slave population of the southern United States far outnumbered their free white owner; yet they were powerless to take any action. There were a few southerners who did not agree with slavery and chose to move on that thought when the opportunity arose.

As the first salves fled their owners in search of freedom they discovered help along the way from sources who wished to be kept anonymous. And as these slaves eventually found freedom, they too helped others to flee and reach a safe haven. The most famous of these escaped slaves was Harriet Tubman who became known as the “Moses of her people”. By the time all the slaves were set free Harriet Tubman was personally responsible for the freedom of thousands of her fellow slaves; 300 of which she personally guided across the Niagara gorge into Canada.

The Routes

Depending on which state a slave lived in different routs to freedom were made. Slaves in the deep south states of Florida, Georgia, Alabama, and Mississippi would travel west to the Mississippi River then turn north for Ohio or head further west to land yet occupied by the French, Spanish, Native tribes, and a few other white settlers. Some of these escapes would travel into Florida where they would board boats for the Bahamas or Cuba. Some once reaching the western edge of the known United States would turn south and enter Mexico. Slaves in Missouri, Tennessee, Kentucky, North and South Carolina headed for Ohio and further north to Canada across the western Great Lakes. And slaves in Virginia, West Virginia, Maryland, Delaware, and eastern Tennessee and Kentucky would head north to Pennsylvania and New York and then on to Canada via Lake Erie and the Niagara River. It is here that Harriet Tubman spent her time helping the fleeing slaves to find freedom.

The Underground Railroad

The people and places that were a part of what became known as the Underground Railroad are not well known. The individual wished to remain anonymous. Many are suspected of helping as are the locations they used, but for obvious reasons no records were ever kept and as a result; there are numerous holes and blank spaces in that era of history. Besides anonymity another reason for secrecy was the laws forbid aiding slaves. Those caught helping in any way faced severe fines and jail time. The slaves who were caught trying to escape were usually beaten. It was not uncommon for families to be broken up to discourage escape.

It is believed that the first white settlers to aid the refugee slaves were the Quakers; a peace loving people who did not believe in war, violence or slavery. In fact, as early as 1786 George WashingtonGeorge Washington was heard to say that one of his slaves had escaped with help from a member of the society of Quakers. Members of the Tuscarora tribe were also among the early helpers for escaped slaves. The first newspaper account of slaves reaching freedom appeared in 1838. A runaway slave would be aided along his way to freedom never knowing who the saviour was. The AME churches in the northern states also played an important role as places of refuge for escaped slaves. Once the first slaves reached freedom, in the early decades of the eighteen hundreds, some worked their way back to help other to flee. The slaves themselves helped to pass the word for escape routes through codes in song. It is believed that the early form of the Negro Spirituals were such codes, letting others know the way to find freedom. As the issue of slavery became more heated and more people saw it as a wrong, the list of helpers increased. Some offered places of refuge while other provided other materials needed like clothing, food, and money needed to help the slaves escape and begin a new life. As long as there have been slaves, there has been slaves trying to escape; and while slaves made it to freedom. The flow of runaway slaves reached its peak in 1830; however, it is believed that the name Underground Railroad began in 1831. The first newspaper reports of an escape route and system of refuge appeared in 1838,

The escape itself was a hard and arduous task; often the slave was responsible for the initial escape traveling anywhere from 10 to 20 miles the first night to find a place of refuge. Except in rare cases, travel could only be done at night. Their only guide was what they called the drinking gourd, their name for the North Star which pointed the way to freedom. The refugees would have to find places to hide during the day such as in swamps and woods until they reached a place of refuge.

Since no maps could be written showing the way along with the coded songs, a piece of a quilt might have a clue or the refugee would be told to follow a certain path until he reached a particular landmark or location hoping that he was not being led into the hands of a slave hunter or worse.

The path to freedom was called the Underground Railroad because although there were no tracks railroad terms were used to describe the people and locations. For example, each place of refuge was called a station, the owner or helper of that place was called the station master, and the conductor was the person responsible for providing transportation and ferrying the refugee from one station to the next. When passing messages of an expected arrival the refugees were referred to as packages. And by the end of slavery thousands of slaves had been freed in a steady stream along the various paths to freedom.

While there are only a few written records of exactly how any of these escaped slaves found freedom; there are numerous stories that have been passed down through families of how an escape was made. If a slave was light skinned in colour they could be passed off as a white person when properly attired and escape out in the open. On occasion a helper would travel via a public conveyance having the refugee slave pose as the helper’s slave and then leave them when a place of freedom was reached. But most often slaves were hidden under piles of hay, in a compartment under the driver’s seat in a wagon, or simply smuggled out in the night.

Just reaching a place of freedom within the United States was not enough for many slaves, and free blacks alike. Slave hunters and slave traders frequently did not care whether a person with dark skin was an escaped slave, a freed slave, or a free born black man. These hunters and traders took anyone with dark skin looking only for the reward they would receive for the capture. As a result, many of the slaves who made it to the north went across the border to Canada where they would be safe. As early as 1826 Canada refused to return any slave who made it across the border. The Canadians outlawed slavery in 1833 and in 1834 the British Empire abolished slavery altogether. Before the Empire banished slavery Governor Jon Graves Simcoe of Upper Canada passed a law in 1793 – the same year of the original Fugitive Slave Law – forbidding importation of slaves and the children of current slaves would be free at the age of 25.

Once the refugees crossed into New York state they would travel along the Hudson Valley and then across to Syracuse which was an open abolitionist city; from there the refugee would travel along the southern edge of Lake Ontario through Rochester on the way to the western edge of the state and freedom.

New York became one of the first states to oppose slavery in 1799. In 1827 slavery was outlawed altogether in New York. As a result, at one time there were 274 anti slavery societies in the state of New York. None of this mattered to the slave hunters who would travel anywhere even across the border to retrieve what they believed were runaway slaves. To the slave hunters any person with dark coloured skin was an escaped slave; even if the person had been freed or born a free person.

But for some just reaching Canada was not enough. Escaped slaves who reached freedom via New York at Niagara Falls and Lewiston via the Suspension Bridge and the Niagara River would move further inland into what is today St. Catherine’s St. David’s, Niagara on the Lake, and For Erie in order to be safe from the hunters who patrolled the borders and even dragging people with dark skin back across the border even though they may not be an escaped slave at all and the law said that they were free. By the time an escaped slave reached freedom in western New York or Canada they could have traveled as many as 2,400 miles. The Niagara region communities of Ramsonville, Wilson, Lockport, Lewiston, and Niagara Falls all participated in the rescue of salves when some of its residents provided help in the form of supplies or places of refuge. Some slaves also reached freedom via Buffalo and the Lake Erie.

New York Governor Washington Hunt, who was opposed to slavery, felt that if the Fugitive Slave Law of 1850 was not repealed there would be a war among the states. As a part of the Fugitive Slave Law an owner or slave hunter could demand of any marshal a warrant be issued to arrest the “fugitive” and take him back. Any marshal who refused to issue the warrant was fined $1,000; however, if the marshal issued the warrant he received $10 for his trouble.

Harriet Tubman

She was born Araminta in 1820. It was later that Harriet Tubman took her mother’s name of Harriet.

Harriet Tubman escaped to freedom from her home in Maryland via Pennsylvania and New York. The trek to freedom was a 650 mile journey. She left Maryland in 1849 hiding under a load of vegetables, aided by a Quaker woman. To let her family know that she was about to leave she sang, “When that chariot comes I’m gonna leave you. I’m bound for the promised land.” Spirituals sung by the slaves often doubled for messages like indicating when they would make an escape.

Once she reached freedom in Canada she made a home and then returned to the United States risking everything to aid her fellow slaves find freedom. Tubman made numerous trips across the old double decked Suspension Bridge that was a pedestrian bridge on top with the railroad bridge underneath. The old Suspension Bridge was located very near the current Whirlpool Rapids Bridge. In those days the town was also named Suspension Bridge; later it was annexed into the city of Niagara Falls. Tubman made this torturous trek 19 times before she settled in her Canadian home. It is estimated that Tubman is responsible for some 300 slaves finding freedom. Harriet carried a six shooter with her for protection but she never used the gun. For her efforts the authorities placed a bounty of $40,000 on her head, but she was never touched.

Other Escapes

Other escapes routes along the Niagara River and the River gorge were made in small boats. When the bridges were being guarded by slave hunters then helpers would ferry an escaped slave a half a mile across the deep river gorge to freedom in Canada. Occasionally a refugee would seek to make the crossing himself and find that he would get caught in a current and need the help of a boatman to reach safety. Along the river gorge in Lewiston (located just north of Niagara Falls) sits a house that was built but no one ever used. Known as Tryon’s Folley the Tryon house was built by Amos Tryon, it holds an oddity that has never been fully explained. Built into the house is a series of seven cellars that reach down to the bottom of the river gorge. Although no records exist, it was an open secret that the house and its cellars was used by Amos’ brother the Reverend Josiah to help refugee slaves reach freedom on the other side of the river. Located north of the Whirlpool Rapids the calm waters of the Niagara River made it possible for a boat to cross the river ferrying passengers to safety.

Runaway slaves and their helpers had to be on constant alert. With the passing of the Fugitive Slave Law in 1850 slave hunters could travel anywhere to capture escaped slave. US Marshals and their deputies were given the right to make such arrests and were given $10 for each arrest made; needless to say business at the border was rather brisk. As a result, helpers had to find out of the way spots to launch boats in order to get the former slave across the border to freedom. The favoured places in Canada to settle were Niagara on the Lake, St. David’s, and St. Catherines’s since they were sufficiently far enough from the border to ensure safety from the slave hunters who regularly stalked the border for “runaways”.

The Reverend Jermain Loguen went as far as to take out ads in the local newspaper saying that he was a stationmaster and that his home was a place of sanctuary. Today his home is a Rite Aid pharmacy.

The novel “Uncle Tom’s Cabin” was penned by Harriet Beecher StoweHarriet Beecher Stowe after Stowe met the Reverend Josiah Henson, who was responsible for several slaves finding freedom in Canada, while in western New York. Henson lived in Dresden where he established the first Canadian vocational school – the British American Institute where many former slaves settled and learned a trade.

Since the end of the Civil War many tales of the Underground Railroad have been told and the thousands of slaves (estimates run between 50 and 100 thousand) that were freed using the escape routes laid out over the years, but seldom is read or heard about the role played by the tiny western New York border towns of Niagara Falls and Lewiston where it is estimated that 30,000 slaves found freedom.


“Fleeing For Freedom Stories of the Underground Railroad as told by Levi Coffin and William Sael; edited by Georgeand Willine Hendrich, Ivan R Dee 2004

Video Classica: America – A Fireball in the Night 6, The John D and Catherine T. MacArthur Foundation Library Video Classics Project, 1973 British Broadcasting Company Time Life Video

“All About Niagara Falls – Fascinating Facts, Dramatic Discoveries”, by Linda Granfield, Mirrou Junior Books, New York 1988

“Bound for the Promised Land Harriet Tubman Portrait of an American Hero”, by Kate Clifford, Larson Ballentine Books, New York 2004

“Lewiston Crown Jewel of the Niagara” by Margaret S. Laurie, The Book Corner Niagara Falls 2001

“Outposts of Empires A Short History of Niagara County” by John Aiken, John Wilhelms, Eric Brunger, Richard Aiker; Frank E. Richards 1961

The Niagara Gezette

“Bound for the Promised Land” US News, Maria Malloy, Motherland Connections Education Guide (online)


Harriet Tubman, Pilgrims, Railroad Routes, Slave Ships, Slavery, Spansih Explorers, Underground Railroad

Meet the author

author avatar Sherrill Fulghum
Sherrill is an award winning journalist with a speciality in music and entertainment. She is also a photographer.

Sherril is a writer for thedailyvoice

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author avatar brendamarie
22nd Jun 2015 (#)

Great article my dear Sherrill
it is worthy of Textbooks

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author avatar Sherrill Fulghum
23rd Jun 2015 (#)

Thank you!
At some point, I would like to expand on this.

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author avatar Mark Gordon Brown
22nd Jun 2015 (#)

It must be noted that the slaves brought from Africa were not simply caught by whites, most of them were owned as slaves by other Africans while in Africa, and sold to the white slave traders by other Africans. Most of the slave traders were Egyptian if my memory is correct, but people have to stop thinking that whites were abducting blacks to import them as slaves. That is not true. Slaves were prizes, the spoils of war, and such, and were sold to the slave traders by other blacks.

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author avatar Sherrill Fulghum
23rd Jun 2015 (#)

Slavery has been around since mankind, and has long been seen as the spoils of war.

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author avatar Annie69
23rd Sep 2015 (#)

Fabulous research. I've written my history column since 2008 and the first four years were devoted exclusively to the Civil War. You don't have so much as a comma out of place. Great piece.

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author avatar Sherrill Fulghum
23rd Sep 2015 (#)

Thank you very much. I really want to expand on this when I find some time.

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