Today’s Wonder of the Day was inspired by Ethan from GA. Ethan Wonders, “What was the underground railroad” Thanks for WONDERing with us, Ethan!

What do you think about when you hear the word “railroad”? Engines? A line of boxcars? The conductor or the cabooseTracks stretching off into the distance? What about an underground railroad? You may think of the subway.

Have you heard about the most famous and important Underground Railroad of all time? It was not made up of engines, boxcars, or tracks. Instead, it was made mostly of people.

For centuries, boats full of African families were brought to the United States not as free men and women, but as enslaved people. Across the southern states, they were forced to work the land. As soon as enslaved people arrived, they sought freedom. But escaping from the bonds of slavery would not be easy.

People who opposed slavery (called “abolitionists”) came up with a way to help people escape from slavery. They made a system of secret routes, meeting points, and safe houses. These helped people flee to states where slavery was illegal. Some helped them move even farther north to Canada. This network became known as the Underground Railroad.

Where did this name come from? After all, it wasn’t made of underground tunnels. It also wasn’t made of tracks like a railroad. Instead, the movement was “underground” in that escaping people and those who helped them had to stay out of sight. They hid their actions because they were breaking the law.

The “railroad” part of the name came from the words and labels used to describe the journey. There were “stations” and “depots” where people could rest and eat. “Conductors” would hide people in their homes and teach them secret codes to help them find the next “station” along the route.

The Underground Railroad consisted of a large network of people. It was not run by any single organization or person. In fact, most of those involved only knew about their part of the operation. They didn’t have the overall picture of all the different routes and depots.

The Underground Railroad moved many people to freedom each year. About 100,000 people had escaped using the network by 1850. Its use continued after that and peaked between 1850 and 1860. 

For all those involved, running away to freedom was a dangerous and difficult ordeal. People had to first escape from  slaveholders. Sometimes a “conductor” would pose as an enslaved person, enter a plantation, and then guide runaways northward. Most of the time, though, enslaved people had only themselves to rely on.

People who escaped would move at night, traveling 10 to 20 miles to the next “station.” During the day, they would rest and eat, hiding out in all sorts of places. The journey was long and stressful. The length of the route to freedom varied but was often 500 to 600 miles.

Those who were strong—and lucky—might make it to freedom in as little as two months. For others, the journey could last more than a year.

Harriet Tubman was one of the most famous conductors along the Underground Railroad. Born into slavery in Maryland, she planned her own escape when she learned she would be separated from her family and sold. She snuck away, covered with a sack in the back of a wagon. With the help of others, she made her way to Philadelphia. She later described freedom as “heaven.”

In Philadelphia, Tubman worked hard to save money to rescue her family. She eventually helped more than 300 formerly enslaved people reach freedom.

Tubman became known as “Moses.” Over the course of her life, she returned 19 times to the South to help people use the Underground Railroad to gain freedom. She became known for using music, Bible verses, and folklore to alert people to danger and give them directions to safe houses.

Escaping from slavery was very dangerous. People who were caught could be returned to the South and punished. Still, the possibility of freedom was worth the risk for many. Those who helped them move along the Underground Railroad also took a big risk. They could be arrested and punished for breaking the law. Both those who escaped and those who helped them had to be brave and overcome many obstacles to make the Underground Railroad successful.

Standards: C3.D2.Civ.6, C3.D2.Civ.14, C3.D2.Geo.2, C3.D2.Geo.3, C3.D2.Geo.8, C3.D2.His.2, CCRA.L.3, CCRA.L.6, CCRA.R.1, CCRA.R.2, CCRA.R.4, CCRA.R.10, CCRA.SL.1, CCRA.SL.2, CCRA.W.3, CCRA.L.1, CCRA.L.2

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