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10 Inspiring Stories From The Underground Railroad

The Underground Railroad was neither underground nor a railroad - it was a network of people dedicated to freeing enslaved men and women from bondage.

The Underground Railroad developed during the early to mid-19th century in the United States, with routes that traversed America and reached far into Canada. The language of the Underground Railroad came to resemble that of railroads themselves, with guides called "conductors," helpers called "agents," and "passengers" comprised of enslaved individuals fleeing to safety. "Stations" were homes and other safe places along "tracks" and "Freedom Trails," locations that ultimately led to what was known as "heaven" or the "Promised Land." 

To have a role in the operation of the Underground Railroad was dangerous, especially in the American South. Helping a fugitive slave could result in a myriad of punishments, while the enslaved people risked their lives to try to get to freedom. Famous Underground Railroad figures like Harriet Tubman and Frederick Douglass attest to the success of the network, while simultaneously demonstrating how many of the individuals who used the Underground Railroad became conductors and agents once on the other side.

Tubman and Douglass are well-known, but the stories of countless others remain untold. Many of their tales are inspiring and heartwarming - testaments to the strength of the human spirit and cooperation alike. Here are 10 of those triumphant tales from the Underground Railroad. 

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  • James Harris Made A Touching Reconnection With His Wife

    After James Harris left Delaware, the Underground Railroad helped him escape to Canada. While en route, Harris was reunited with his wife. The event of their meeting was described by Prof. L.D. Mansfield in 1856:

    Last Thursday evening, while at my weekly prayer meeting, our exercises were interrupted by the appearance of Bro. Loguen, of Syracuse, who had come on with Mrs. Harris in search of her husband, whom he had sent to my care three weeks before. I told Bro. L. that no such man had been at my house, and I knew nothing of him... [I] went with him immediately to the African Church, where the colored brethren were holding a meeting.

    Once Mansfield and Loguen got to the church, the latter "looked through the door, and the first person whom he saw was Harris. He was called out, when Loguen said, in a rather reproving and excited tone, 'What are you doing here; didn't I tell you to be off to Canada? Don't you know they are after you? Come get your hat, and come with us, we'll take care of you.'"

    Harris, led to believe he was being chased as a fugitive slave, was taken by Mansfield and Loguen "nearly a mile, to the hotel where his wife was waiting for him, leaving him still under the impression that he was pursued and that we were conducting him to a place of safety, or were going to box him up to send him to Canada."

    Mansfield recalled how events unfolded once they got to the hotel:

    [Loguen] [o]pened the door of the parlor, and introduced [Harris]; but he was so frightened that he did not know his wife at first, until she called him James, when they had a very joyful meeting. She is now a servant in my family, and he has work, and doing well, and boards with her. 

  • 'Ham And Eggs' Was Enthusiastic To Transport 'Hams'
    Photo: Unknown / Wikimedia Commons / Public domain

    'Ham And Eggs' Was Enthusiastic To Transport 'Hams'

    One of the agents who worked with the Underground Railroad in 1860 called himself "Ham and Eggs." He was located in Petersburg, VA, and in his correspondence with conductor William Till, he incorporated his moniker into his words of support and enthusiasm:

    I want you to know, that I feel as much determined to work in this glorious cause, as ever I did in all of my life, and I have some very good hams on hand that I would like very much for you to have.

    "Ham and Eggs" continued that he had little left to write at that time and closed his letter with this direction: "Also, if you wish to write to me, Mr. J. Brown will inform you how to direct a letter to me."

  • The Escape Of Tice Davids Led His Master To Coin The Phrase 'Underground Railroad'
    Photo: A. Ruger / Ruger & Stoner / Wikimedia Commons / Public domain

    The Escape Of Tice Davids Led His Master To Coin The Phrase 'Underground Railroad'

    According to an account included in Wilber H. Siebert's late-18th-century history of the Underground Railroad, the route got its name in 1831. When an enslaved man named Tice Davids fled Kentucky in an attempt to get to Ohio, "his master... was in close pursuit." Siebert described what happened when Davids arrived at the Ohio River:

    He had no alternative but to jump in and swim across. It took his master some time to secure a skiff, in which he and his aid followed the swimming fugitive, keeping him in sight until he had landed.

    Once on shore, however, the master could not find him. No one had seen him; and after a long... search the disappointed slave-master went into [the town of] Ripley, and when inquired of as to what had become of his slave, said... he thought "the n*gger must have gone off on an underground road." 

    In the words of Rush Sloane of Sandusky, OH, "The story was repeated with a good deal of amusement, and this incident gave the name to the line. First the 'Underground Road,' afterwards 'Underground Railroad.'"

  • Samuel W. Johnson Pledged Undying Love To His Wife After He Escaped
    Photo: Unknown / Wikimedia Commons / Public domain

    Samuel W. Johnson Pledged Undying Love To His Wife After He Escaped

    When formerly enslaved man Samuel Washington Johnson safely arrived in Canada in 1855, he wrote to William Still, who'd helped arrange his path to freedom. Johnson told Still:

    I am so full that I cannot express my mind at all I am only got $1.50 and I feel as if I bad [sp.] an independent fortune but I dont want you to think that I am going to be idle because I am on free ground and I shall always work...

    Later, Still was made aware of a letter Johnson had sent to his wife, Frances, who was still in servitude:

    My Dear Wife I now embrace this golden opportunity of writing a few Lines to inform you that I am well at present engoying [sp.] good health and hope that these few lines may find you well also. My dearest wife I have Left you and now I am in a foreign land about fourteen hundred miles from you but though my wife my thoughts are upon you all the time.

    My dearest Frances I hope you will remember me now gust [sp.] as same as you did when I were there with you because my mind are with you night and day the Love that I bear for you in my breast is greater than I thought it was if I had thought I had so much Love for you I dont think I ever could Left being I have escape I and has fled into a land of freedom.

    I can but stop and look over my past Life and say what a fool I was for staying in bondage as Long. My dear wife I dont want you to get married before you send me some letters because I never shall get married until I see you again.

    Still did not know if Johnson's letters ever made it to his wife.

  • Underground Railroad Workers Opened A Free School For Former Slaves In Canada
    Photo: Timothy O'Sullivan / Wikimedia Commons / Public domain

    Underground Railroad Workers Opened A Free School For Former Slaves In Canada

    The Agricultural, Mechanical, and Educational Association of Canada, West was an "association, composed of the colored people of Canada West," in the area of Sandwich, Ontario, Canada, in 1859.

    On March 28, 1859, it was announced in The New York Times (via the Detroit Advertiser): 

    [T]he Agricultural, Mechanical, and Educational Association of Canada, West, is composed principally of those who, for several years, have been conductors and depot agents on the Underground Railroad. They have procured at Sandwich thirty acres of ground, on which they desire to build houses for the use of those just arrived from slavery, until they can procure employment. They have also opened a free school for their benefit.

    Another goal of the group was to "procure suitable lands for all kinds of practical manual labor, from chopping wood, taking out all kinds of lumber for transportation, up to many different kinds of workshops that may be established." Building farming and gardening skills was also part of the plan.

  • Henry The 'Giant' Saved His Fellow Passengers From Capture
    Photo: Unknown / Wikimedia Commons / Public domain

    Henry The 'Giant' Saved His Fellow Passengers From Capture

    Henry - who was, according to Williiam Still, "physically... a giant" - escaped slavery in Maryland in 1857. Henry received help from the Underground Railroad but, when a $3,000 reward went out for his capture, "the man who had been intrusted with the care" of Henry and several other slaves betrayed them all. Still described what happened:

    One night, through the treachery of their pretended conductor, they were all taken into Dover Jail, where the Sheriff and several others, who had been notified beforehand by the betrayer, were in readiness to receive them. Up stairs they were taken, the betrayer remarking as they were going up, that they were "cold, but would soon have a good warming." On a light being lit they discovered the iron bars and the fact that they had been betrayed.

    Henry and the other slaves "made their way down one flight of stairs, and in the moment of excitement, as good luck would have it, plunged into the sheriff's private apartment, where his wife and children were sleeping."

    Still continued:

    A shovel full of fire, to the great danger of burning the premises, was scattered over the room; out of the window jumped two of the female fugitives. Our hero Henry, seizing a heavy andiron, smashed out the window entire, through which the others leaped a distance of twelve feet.

    At this stage of the proceedings, Henry found himself without the walls, and also lost sight of his comrades at the same time. The last enemy he spied was the sheriff in his stockings without his shoes. He snapped his pistol at him, but it did not go off. Six of the others, however, marvellously got off safely together; where the eighth went, or how he got off, was not known.