The business of the Underground Railroad was shrouded in secrecy. The law was on the side of slavery, so anyone assisting enslaved people to freedom was putting themselves in the position to suffer legal and financial consequences. Threats of violence against anyone acting upon or even announcing abolitionist views were common. People living in slave holding territory had to be especially aware of secrecy, as the stakes were somewhat higher for those whose activities impacted nearby neighbors.
As a result of the high risk, many publications and historical news reports intentionally omit the names of those involved in the Underground Railroad, even long after the end of slavery. Included are some research techniques designed to help in the process of ferreting out hard-to-find Underground Railroad information.
Historical News Accounts- Stories of slave escapes were published in newspapers with great frequency, and can be a great primary source. Searching for escapes by keyword search is a good place to begin. Limiting the search to a relevant time-frame is helpful, as is searching within papers in the region of the escape; these search options may be found in an “advanced search” field. Example: “Boone County” AND runaway as a keyword search. All search engines are not the same, so some creativity may be necessary. Fact-checking is essential, as many errors are found and repeated in historical news accounts.
Finding Supporting Information- Once an escape has been found in the newspaper, supporting documents will help clarify information. Start with any names that may be in the article and verify through official records. Example: search for slaveholder census information to verify the initial location of the escape. This helps to weed out mistakes in the newspaper (sometimes places may be confused, “Bourbon County” vs “Boone County”.) If an agent of the UGRR is named in the news report, look for residence information for that party.
Local Records for Verification- If the determination has been made that the enslaved person came from the area that is being researched, the next step is to look for a loss in slave numbers for the slaveholder involved in the story. This can be found in local tax records. Example: to verify an escape reported in 1851, look at the tax records of the slaveholder for 1850, 1851 and 1852. This helps to support the news account through a reduction in the amount of slaves listed. It should be noted that the timing of the escape relative to the date the tax record was recorded effects where this change will be found- the records search may need to be expanded a year to allow for this.
Failed Escapes- Escape attempts that are not successful may be helpful to research. Because propaganda was used by slaveholders and abolitionists to help further their positions, news stories of captured runaways are easily found in news archives. If an abolitionist was involved in the attempt, it is likely that a name would have been published, either for the purposes of slander or to garner support. These instances often have more details, as the courts may become involved. Time, place, names, routes and mode of attempted escape are some of the details that could have been included in news stories and court documents of failed attempts.
Litigation and Legislation- Many cases of slave escapes ended up in the courts. When the Fugitive Slave Act of 1850 was enacted, the slaveholders often used the law to recoup their financial loss (the “value” of the slaves who escaped.) Because this act was a Federal law, record of the cases can be found in law journals. This is helpful in determining who the named parties are to identify abolitionists previously not found in news accounts. The battle over slavery was waged by law-makers long before the Civil War. Legislation records help to identify public officials' positions on the slavery question and give insight into the feelings of the constituents they represented.
County History Books- In the late 19th and early 20th century, local history books were written in many localities throughout the country. Typically, the focus of these books is a general background of the county's development, supplemented by biographical information on founding or prominent families and citizens. In areas well-known for anti-slavery activity, some local abolitionists are identified in these publications.
Escape routes and Crossing Points- The path of escape is an important component of UGRR research. The closest and easiest path may be obvious, but may not be the true route taken. Hints in the wording of a news account may help with this; Example: “The group crossed near the mouth of the Little Miami River.” or “The group crossed 12 miles below Cincinnati.” A quick map reference will help to identify the general area. If none of this information is included, starting with the location of the slaveholder's land (through census or deed records) is the best approach.
Help Along the Way - If the origin and crossing point of the route have been determined, then it's best to investigate what possible help may have been available along this route, if applicable. If local assistance is suspected, this helps to map a possible “known route” that would be used safely. Example: A route through an area of land owners with anti-slavery sentiments would be safest. In some cases, no agent was used, and local enslaved people may have acted independently, but may have personal knowledge of the safest route to travel.
Timing, Climate and Geography- In order to research a slave escape effectively, many historical factors must be considered. It is important to pay attention to the date that the escape occurred. Example: what season and day of the week was it? Researching weather conditions can also be helpful. Example: Was the river frozen? Was it a mild spring? Another consideration that contributes to the feasibility of an escape is the local geography. This can be researched by visiting an area or using online sources to familiarize yourself with the area of the escape. Example: Are there areas that provide natural hiding places, like ravines and creek beds? Are there areas that offer a view of the route, like hills and ridge lines? Take into account the historical context as well, geographical factors may have changed with growth, development and natural events, such as floods.
Patterns in UGRR Activity- Research may reveal patterns in escapes and escape attempts. This information may be helpful in identifying escape paths/crossing points, abolitionist activity and family connections. Example- Many freedom seekers planned escapes on Saturday evening, because early discovery was not likely on Sunday morning, typically a day of rest. Some things to consider: what slave holding families are connected, through church and family? The enslaved people may also be connected, and may attempt to escape together. Do you often find escapes happen around “meeting days” like church services, celebrations and holidays? Did these meetings include any outside guests?
The Wilbur H. Siebert Collection- This collection is the result of over 50 years of research by Wilbur H. Siebert, a professor at the Ohio State University from 1895-1935. The material consists of letters, maps, newspaper accounts, memoirs, pictures, diaries, biographies, census records, legislation and court records. Some of this material can be found in Siebert's books on the Underground Railroad, or by accessing the collection (subscription service) at the Ohio Historical Society.
Church Records and Society Meetings- Some churches in slave holding localities had membership for enslaved people. Many of these churches kept records of changes in membership and would notate when a member had “left” or “run off.” Records for churches who objected to slavery can be helpful in identifying membership and possible abolitionists members in the area. Information from society meetings is helpful in identifying both abolitionists (anti-slavery, emancipation and women's aid societies) and slaveholders and slave hunters (many slaveholders organized to prevent escapes and retrieve fugitives.) Announcements of regional meetings and office holders' names may be found in newspapers.
Slave Narratives- Interviews with former slaves can be a great resource. One early example of slave narratives is A North Side View of Slavery by Benjamin Drew, which was published in 1856, and contains interviews with fugitive slaves in Canada. The Federal Writer's Project collected thousands of narratives of former slaves during the years 1936-1938, as part of the Works Progress Administration. Though some of these are rich in detail, it is always best to find supporting documentation.
Family Records and Personal Papers- These sources can help in a number of ways. If a slaveholding family has been identified by name and locality, there may be family information that can be accessed in a local repository. Family Bibles, personal diaries and letters may hold very specific information on enslaved people, escapes, abolitionist activities, complete with names and dates.
Online Resources- There are numerous websites, message boards and community research pages that may hold helpful information. It is important to remember to verify any information by checking citations (if given) or finding supporting records.