Before the Emancipation Proclamation was adopted by all of the states and effectively ended slavery in the United States, slaves that were looking for a better life were forced to use the Underground Railroad to escape to the north where they could enjoy a life of freedom. The Underground Railroad was a secret network of places that a slave could stay as they traveled across the southern states. These places were maintained by abolitionists who were sympathetic to the plight of the slaves and willing to help them achieve their freedom. Because the punishment for running away could be very harsh, including death in some cases, the journey was quite dangerous and these stops along the Underground Railroad were essential in providing safe passage to the slaves.
The routes used to find freedom led to not only the northern states, but also to Mexico and on ships that sailed to other foreign countries. Although a true number is unable to be calculated, most historians believe that over 100,000 slaves were able to use the network successfully to escape the poor living conditions in the southern states. Contrary to what the name implies, the Underground Railroad was not a railroad at all. The reason it was given this title is because the code used to communicate information frequently used railroad terms, with safe locations being called stations and those giving shelter known as conductors on the railroad. In addition to individual efforts, many churches were also involved in the struggle, helping slaves move north without being captured.
One of the reasons that the Underground Railroad was very effective is that there was no central governing party and the conductors had only a limited knowledge of the route and the methods of transport. In this manner, the railroad could not be compromised by a single person who would have full knowledge of all of the operations. Instead, a person that was sympathetic to the cause would only be aware of the next station and how to transport the slave there. Also, all of the information was transmitted by word of mouth so that no paper trail was left to document the routes that were used.
For most of the slaves that escaped, the traveling conditions could be difficult. Because of the risk of capture, the most effective time to travel was at night, with limited light and a slower pace. The most common mode of transportation was with a wagon or on foot, but boats and trains were also used in some cases. Instead of having a direct route to the north, it was safer in the majority of situations to take an indirect line to the destination. In this manner, it would be difficult for slave owners to track down the exact movements of the escaped slave and led to many more successful escapes.
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