On the Susquehanna River twenty miles north of the Maryland boundary is the borough of Columbia, Pennsylvania. In the early nineteenth century Columbia attracted a considerable settlement of former African American slaves who had legally procured their freedom from their Virginia owners. In the succeeding decades, before the Civil War, these fugitives made their settlement a refuge for those of their race fleeing the bonds of slavery from the South. Tradition says that slaveholders lost their runaways so often around Columbia that they concluded "there must be an underground railroad out of here."
This illegal and informal "conspiracy," which hastened and shielded the escape of runaway slaves, became known as the Underground Railroad. The conspirators, naturally enough, began to talk the language of railroading: "Conductors" guided the slaves from "station" to "station."
"Stockholders" financed the venture and discussed the movement of "valuable pieces of ebony" or "prime articles" — anything but African American slaves! Because secrecy was crucial, few records of the railroad's activities survive. Most information comes to us from recollections put on record many years later. Most participants probably knew nothing about the activities of the Underground Railroad beyond their immediate neighborhoods. They simply fed and hid the fugitives and passed them along to the next station. They asked few questions, and when the slave hunters knocked, there was, in reality, little they could tell them.
Federal law had long asserted the responsibility of residents of free states and territories to return escaped slave property to its owners. The Constitution of the United States had a fugitive slave clause that Congress implemented with the first Fugitive Slave Law in 1793, placing a fine on anyone rescuing, harboring, or hindering the arrest of a fugitive. This law was rendered ineffective by a decision of the United States Supreme Court in Prigg vs. Pennsylvania in 1842. Congress, however, enacted a stronger Fugitive Slave Law as part of the Compromise of 1850 between the slave — and non-slave — holding states. Under this compromise, in part, the South agreed to the admission of California as a free or non-slave state, and was compensated by a law requiring federal authorities to hunt runaway slaves and return them to their masters.
The pursuit and return of fugitive slaves was certain to meet resistance in Pennsylvania, and did, though many condemned this kind of civil disobedience and urged compliance with the law. It is noteworthy that the General Assembly, dominated by a Whig party majority, acted in 1847 to forbid the use of jails for the detention of fugitive slaves. This law, however, was repealed in the 1850s under Democratic party leadership.
Because of its dependence on individual action and the need for secrecy, the Underground Railroad was not a highly organized system with well-defined routes. In areas where fugitive slaves often traveled, stories or legends of the railroad's routes and stations still persist. These routes wove a crisscrossing network of lines, with the stations in some areas so close that fleeing slaves could seek refuge wherever expedient. Ohio was a natural escape route because of its long border with the slave states and its nearness to Canada. New Jersey, Pennsylvania, Indiana, Illinois, and Iowa all got fugitive traffic from adjacent slave states. Most of the traffic through Pennsylvania entered in the southeastern part of the State, where public opinion was the most sympathetic.
Slavery had never been profitable in Pennsylvania, and had not been widespread. Opposition to it had been given a variety of expressions. John Woolman and Anthony Benezet, members of the Society of Friends (Quakers), had fought against slavery in colonial times. As anti-slavery sentiment spread among the Friends, opposition began to be heard among Pennsylvania Germans, Methodists, and Reformed Presbyterians. The first abolitionist society in the colonies met in Philadelphia in 1775, and there, in 1833, the American Anti-Slavery Society was founded. The Revolution inspired a movement to end slavery in Pennsylvania, and in 1780 the legislature provided for gradual abolition. In Pennsylvania, then, African Americans found relative freedom and widespread sympathy, but less than full equality. Even though the new state constitution of 1838 disenfranchised Blacks, Pennsylvania continued to attract many fugitives because of the help they received in their flight and the sanctuary offered them.
Citizens of southeastern Pennsylvania gained very early a reputation for helping fugitives. George Washington, in 1786, expressed doubt about the chances of recovering slaves who had fled to Pennsylvania. He noted that a Virginian's slave had escaped to Philadelphia and was among "society of Quakers, formed for the purpose, who have attempted to liberate [him]." Later the general wrote that one of his own slaves was in southeastern Pennsylvania, "where it is not easy to apprehend them because there are a great number [of people there] who would rather facilitate the escape…than apprehend the runaway." Maryland slaveowners were unhappy about the behavior of some Pennsylvanians, for in 1818 the U.S. House of Representatives received a resolution from the Maryland legislature asking for protection against Pennsylvania citizens who harbored and protected slaves.
The people who helped the slaves most included not only a large number of Friends but also many freed African Americans. In fact northern Blacks frequently took the initiative in organizing assistance to the fugitives. A secondary concern of these organizations was the protection of free African Americans in the North from kidnapping or incorrect identification as a fugitive. One of the first such organizations appeared in New York in 1835; two years later Robert Purvis, a Philadelphia African American and merchant persuaded a group of people to form a similar association in his city. Purvis was active in aiding fugitives; his house at Ninth and Lombard Streets had a secret room, entered only by a trap door, for hiding runaway slaves. In August, 1837, the Vigilant Association of Philadelphia was formed "to create a fund to aid colored persons in distress."
An elected committee of fifteen carried on the work of the association. The first president — who was Purvis — the first secretary, and the first treasurer of the committee were all Negroes. Purvis continued as president when the committee underwent reorganization in 1839, and hired a full-time fund-raiser. The committee used most of its funds to reimburse those who fed, clothed, and housed fugitives and to supply small amounts of cash to the frequently penniless slaves. Runaways heard about and appealed to the committee for help, for in the six months following the reorganization, June to mid-December 1839, the committee handled more than fifty cases, sending forty-six to freedom. By the end of 1841 the committee averaged three-and-a-half cases a week. Then in 1842 an anti-Black riot took place in Philadelphia. Robert Purvis was forced to guard his own door against the rioters, while nearby an African American "Beneficial Hall" and church burned. He became disillusioned and withdrew to the Philadelphia suburb of Byberry. The activities of the Vigilant Committee gradually declined. (Nevertheless, the Philadelphia office had some excitement in 1849 when an express company delivered a crate from Richmond, Virginia, containing Henry "Box" Brown, who survived his escape quite well.) Purvis destroyed the records of the organization because he feared that its members might be proscecuted or those that it had helped recaptured.
In December, 1852, a group of Philadelphians revived the association as the Vigilant Committee, with William Still, an African American as the chairman. It supported the underground railroad by paying for fugitives' room and board in the homes of free Philadelphia Blacks and for clothes, medicine, and railroad fares to Canada. The Philadelphia committee assisted about one hundred escapees a year during the 1850s. William Still kept extensive records, despite the necessity of hiding them occasionally. The committee carefully questioned each of its applicants to weed out imposters seeking a free meal and some cash.
The majority of fugitives came from Virginia and Maryland and were young men, though women and children fled too. The fugitives usually got as far as Pennsylvania on their own by pretending to be white or free, by traveling on foot at night, or by hiding on ships which had sailed from the South. Most underground conductors opposed the active recruitment of runaways; but there were exceptions, such as Harriet Tubman, a former slave who made many trips south to bring men, women, and children to freedom. For the most part, however, the slaves took the initiative themselves and with courage and daring fled to freedom in new and unfamiliar country.
The slaves who escaped to southeastern Pennsylvania were not all sent out of Philadelphia by the same route. Frequently they were passed on to the New York Vigilant Committee, with whom the Philadelphia committee had close ties. At other times they were sent northwestward, the final goal being entry into Canada between Lakes Erie and Ontario. The fugitive traveled on foot or in a wagon driven by a conductor, though sometimes he traveled by rail as a regular passenger or as a baggage car stowaway. The Philadelphia and Reading Railroad carried fugitives to Phoenixville and Reading. From Harrisburg they sometimes rode the Northern Central Railroad toward Elmira, New York, and between Philadelphia and New York City, the Pennsylvania Railroad.
The routes of the Underground Railroad in southeastern Pennsylvania are identifiable, but in northern, central, and western Pennsylvania they are obscure. Approaching Philadelphia were three much-used routes, one crossing the Susquehanna above Havre de Grace and running northeast to Phoenixville, a second running through Baltimore, West Chester, and Phoenixville, and the most eastern running through Delaware to Philadelphia. Lancaster, Chester, and Delaware Counties had more lines to the square mile than any other part of the railroad. Southcentral and southwestern Pennsylvania also received fugitives from Maryland and Virginia. Some underground lines functioned there, but the routes are hard to trace. Its unplanned and unscheduled nature, the secrecy, and the lack of records make detailed mapping of the railroad impossible.
The passage of time has also obscured the destinations of the fugitives. Tradition says that all slaves thought Canada was the "Promised Land" — it had no fugitive slave laws. How many runaways actually reached Canada was unclear even at the time of the greatest activity of the railroad. Contemporaries estimated that 20,000 to 50,000 escaped slaves remained in the free states. They settled in the cities and in rural colonies, often among free men of their own race. The passage of the new Fugitive Slave Law in 1850 frightened more than a few into tearing up their roots once again and moving on to Canada. Others dared to remain — for them the danger of discovery and recapture was real.
The countryside around Christiana in Lancaster County supported several families of African American farmers who had escaped from slavery and settled on the southern edge of the free states. In September, 1851, a Maryland slaveowner set out with his son and several others to reclaim four escaped slaves who he had heard were in the Christiana vicinity. Accompanying the party was a deputy United States marshal. By the time the slave hunters arrived at the house where the escapees were staying, the men inside had already been warned by the Philadelphia Vigilant Committee. The African Americans refused to come down from their stronghold on the second floor, and instead summoned help from the neighborhood by sounding a horn. A crowd gathered, tension mounted, violence erupted on both sides, the old slaveowner was shot to death, and his son was seriously wounded. The Christiana riot caused alarm in both North and South. The fugitive slaves in the area realized the danger and fled to Canada in the days that followed. Many suspects were arrested, including some Friends who refused to aid the U.S. Marshal in capturing the slaves. None of those arrested were punished, however.
The failure to convict the defendants or capture the fugitives perhaps reflected the deepening opposition to slavery in the North. Slaves had escaped their bondage at first through the help of a courageous few, while the majority of northerners either disapproved or felt no serious concern. Eventually, where traffic was heaviest, small groups, such as the Philadelphia Vigilant Committee, formed to join in the work. As the struggle to maintain a North-South compromise grew more critical, anti-slavery propagandists spread the conviction that slavery was evil. During the final decade of the Underground Railroad, the need for secrecy lessened, and the small but steady stream of fugitive slaves more readily found help in crossing the Mason and Dixon line.