The origins of the Underground Railroad movement

Origin of the term ‘Underground Railroad’

The actual origin of the term ‘Underground Railroad’ is not clear and may never be known. There are however four popular versions of how the term began to be used, and they are found in four different sources, as follows:

1)   Siebert, Wilbur Henry, ‘The Underground Railroad From Slavery to Freedom’, Published by The McMillan Company, New York, 1898.

Siebert refers to The Hon. Rush R. Sloane, of Sandusky, Ohio, who gives the account of a slave named Tice Davids who was fleeing his master from Kentucky in 1831. When Davids came to the Ohio River near Ripley, Ohio, he had to dive into the river and swim to the other side. His pursuers also crossed the river, but in a boat. Upon reaching the far shore, they could not find Davids. They searched everywhere, but were unsuccessful. This prompted the slave owner to state that “he must have gone on an underground road.” Eventually the phrase “underground road” became the Underground Railroad. Siebert goes on to say: “These anecdotes are hardly more than traditions, affording a fair general explanation of the way in which the Underground Railroad got its name; but they cannot be trusted in the details of time, place and occasion. Whatever the manner and date of its suggestion , the designation was generally accepted as an apt title for a mysterious means of transporting fugitive slaves to Canada.” – Siebert, p45-46.

2)  Smedley, Robert C., ‘History of The Underground Railroad in Chester and The Neighboring Counties of Pennsylvania’. Published by the office of The Journal in Lancaster, Pennsylvania, 1883. Reprinted by Stackpole Books, 2005.

While discussing the importance of the town of Columbia in Lancaster County, Pennsylvania, as a major depot on the Underground Railroad escape route, Smedley writes of some slave hunters who had followed the trail of several fugitive slaves from the Pennsylvania border to Columbia. Unable to find the runaways, they supposedly said: “there must be an Underground Railroad somewhere here.” – Smedley, p34-35

3)  Fairbank, Rev. Calvin, ‘Rev. Calvin Fairbank During Slavery Times: How He “Fought the Good Fight” to Prepare “The Way” ‘. Published by R.R. McCabe & Co., Chicago, 1890.

“Levi Coffin had become so noted as a friend of the slave, that whenever a fugitive could be traced into his vicinity, it was considered that his house was the retreat necessary to be searched. At one time, while they lived in Indiana, two little girls were brought to them and were pursued …… The master and his assistant finally came and asked permission to look through the house, which they did, finding nothing of the girls ….. After they had given up the hunt in despair, the master said: “I’d like to know where all the niggers go to, when they get to old Coffin’s. That old Quaker must have an underground railroad, for once a slave gets here, he is never seen again.” – extract from Chapter X ‘Among Old Friends’

4)  Blight, David W. (Editor), ‘Passages to Freedom: The Underground Railroad in History and Memory‘, Published by Smithsonian Books, 2004

“Yet another account places the origin of the name to an incident in Washington in 1839; after a fugitive slave was tortured he admitted that he was to have been sent North, where ‘the railroad ran underground all the way to Boston'”. – Blight, p3

There are no doubt several other references to the origins of the term ‘Underground Railroad’ but these are the most quoted.

Railroad Terminology

After the passing of the 1850 Fugitive Slave Act, the Underground Railroad became better organised, routes became more clearly defined. The means by which fugitives were aided became more systematic, and, because working together for the benefit of fugitives also required effective, although secret, means of communication within and between regions, a variety of code words, terms, phrases and signals evolved. The need for secrecy was paramount to confuse the slave catchers and slave owners as there were severe penalties for fugitive slaves and those who helped them. Examples of these terms and phrases are as follows:


Agents Persons who dispensed information, possibly co-ordinated the planning or plotted the course of an escape. Also sympathisers who helped fugitives connect with the Underground Railroad.
Canaan Canada
Conductors Persons who transported or guided fugitives from slave territory, through other hostile territory, or across major bodies of water, to link with other conductors or on to freedom.
Drinking Gourd The Big Dipper Constellation – a star in this constellation pointing to the North Star (the main navigation tool for fugitives)
Forwarding Taking fugitive slaves from station to station
Freedom Train
or Trail
Underground Railroad routes
French Leave Secret departure
Gospel Train Underground Railroad routes
Heaven or Promised Land or Terminal Freedom, generally Canada or possibly the northern free states
Load of Potatoes A wagon of fugitive slaves hidden under farm produce
Moses Harriet Tubman
Passengers or Cargo, Baggage, Freight, Package Fugitive escaped slaves.
Patrollers People who guarded roads against escaping slaves
Patter Roller Bounty hunter hired to capture slaves
Preachers Leaders of or speakers for the Underground Railroad (or both)
River Jordan The Mississippi River or The Ohio River
Shepherds Short distance escorts (conductors) for fugitives
Stations A ‘safe’ house, barn, church or any structure wherein fugitives could find temporary sanctuary (hiding place) and from which they would be led or transported (‘conducted’) to the next ‘station’ on the escape route.
Station Masters A free person of colour or a white anti-slavery activist who hid, fed and watered the fugitive in the ‘station’ until the fugitive was ready to move on to the next station.
Stockholder Financial benefactors of the Railroad; donors of food, clothing, money or other material to assist the fugitive slave.
Tracks Escape routes of the Underground Railroad


“The wind blows from the South today” A warning to Underground Railroad workers that fugitive slaves were in the area.
“When the sun comes back and the first quail calls” A particular time of year good for escaping (early spring).
“The dead trees will show you the way” A reminder that moss grows on the NORTH side of dead trees (in case the stars aren’t visible) so they could tell which way to go.
“The river bank makes a mighty good road” A reminder that the tracking dogs can’t follow the scent through the water.
“Left foot, peg foot” A visual clue for escapees of a footprint left by a wooden-legged Underground Railroad conductor as a guideline to the path to freedom.
“The river ends between two hills” Visual directions to the Ohio River.
“A friend with friends” A password used to signal arrival of fugitives with Underground Railroad conductor.
“The friend of a friend sent me” A password used by fugitives traveling alone to indicate they were sent by the Underground Railroad network.
“Steal away, steal away, steal away to Jesus” Words to a song used as a phrase to alert other slaves that an escape attempt was anticipated.


Hudson J. Blaine, ‘Encyclopedia of The Underground Railroad’. Published by McFarland & Company Inc, 2006.