Tracks to Freedom: The Inspiring Story of the Underground Railroad

A newly found journal of interviews with fugitive slaves gives insight into the secret network.

The 2013 movie 12 Years a Slave brought the darkest era of America's history into the forefront of the national consciousness. Most slaves died in servitude. But a lucky—and courageous—few managed to escape via a network of safe houses and dedicated helpers that came to be known as the Underground Railroad. Long the stuff of mythology and local lore, the Underground Railroad has often been either overrated or undervalued.

In his new book, Gateway to Freedom: The Hidden History of the Underground Railroad, Eric Foner, Pulitzer Prize-winning historian and DeWitt Clinton Professor of History at Columbia University, sets the record straight.

From his office on New York's Upper West Side, Foner explains how a chance find in the Columbia University archives led him on a journey of discovery, how one of George Washington's concerns after the War of Independence was to get his slaves back, and why—at a time when the shooting of black teenager Michael Brown in Ferguson, Missouri, has inflamed race relations in the U.S.—the Underground Railroad is something to celebrate.

Tell us about your discovery of Gay's "Register of Fugitives" and how that inspired you to tell this story.

I actually owe the discovery to a student of mine, who is doing a senior thesis here at Columbia on the abolitionist editor Sydney Howard Gay. His papers are here, and she mentioned to me one day that there was this little document relating to fugitive slaves. It wasn't relevant to what she was doing, but she thought I might find it interesting. It was these two little notebooks called "Record of Fugitives."

Sydney Howard Gay was very connected to the Underground Railroad, and between 1855 and 1856 he kept a record of over 200 men, women, and children who passed through New York City. Being a journalist, he interviewed them, so the notebook is filled with fascinating information about who owned these slaves, where they came from, how they escaped, who helped them, how they got to New York, and where Gay sent them on their way to freedom in Canada.

Sydney Howard Gay is one of the main characters in the book. Give us a quick profile.

Sydney Howard Gay is little known today, but he was a fairly prominent abolitionist before the Civil War. He was born in Massachusetts and became an abolitionist around 1840-41, first as a speaker. Then he was appointed to edit a weekly newspaper, the National Anti-Slavery Standard, published in New York City, which represented William Lloyd Garrison and his group of abolitionists. New York was a hostile environment for abolitionists. It was a city very closely tied into the slave South economically. But Gay was a pretty courageous guy.

Later, during the Civil War, he became the managing editor of the New York Tribune, which was a very important journalistic position at that time. His newspaper office also became what you might call a station on the Underground Railroad, where slaves would come through from farther south. Gay would hide them in local homes and then send them on their way out of New York City.

In the past the Underground Railroad was regarded as little more than local lore. Has your research uncovered a wider national significance to it?

The Underground Railroad has been portrayed incorrectly in both directions. In some literature, it's this vast, organized system with regular routes, like a real railroad with stations and times and secret passwords. On the other hand, some scholars denigrate it altogether. They say, "There was no such network—it was just the fugitives themselves getting out on their own initiative with no help."

When I started I had a somewhat skeptical view myself, because there is so much mythology about the Underground Railroad. In some towns in New England or upstate New York, it seems every other house has a little marker on it saying "This was a station on the Underground Railroad." [Laughs]

But as I studied these documents, I came to conclude that, yes, there had been such a network. It was incomplete. It was not highly organized. It was basically local groups that communicated with each other. There weren't a vast number of people involved. In New York City at any one time there were never more than a dozen people actively working to help slaves. Many others were sympathetic but weren't that involved. So one shouldn't exaggerate it. But it did exist, and it helped a considerable number of fugitives to get out of slavery.

Many people, including myself, assumed the Underground Railroad was an actual railroad. How did it get its name?

Nobody quite knows how it got its name, or when the name was used for the first time. There were people helping fugitives long before the term came into existence. But certainly by the 1840s, it was a widely accepted metaphor for a secret set of networks assisting fugitives. But it was not an actual physical railroad. Slaves escaped by all sorts of modes. Some escaped on foot; some escaped in horse-drawn carriages, on boats, or on actual trains. There were trains running between the upper South [Virginia or Maryland] and the North, and if you could get "free papers" from someone, you could get on a train and get up to the North. But the term "Underground Railroad" stuck as a metaphor.

The movie 12 Years a Slave brought to life one aspect of this story. Tell us about the slave catchers and a term that has gained an ominous new relevance today: rendition.

One thing about that movie is that it's the story of a free man who was kidnapped and sold into slavery. That happened quite frequently. In New York City there were gangs that preyed upon black people, particularly children. They would just nab them, put them on a boat, and send them to the South to be sold into slavery.

The original organization that founded the Underground Railroad was the New York Vigilance Committee. It was basically a black organization founded in the 1830s to try and stop this kidnapping epidemic. Then they expanded to help fugitives coming from the South through the city.

Rendition just means "capturing and returning a fugitive slave," sometimes without any legal process at all. They just grabbed them and took them back. And the rendition of fugitive slaves became a very common thing, especially in the 1850s after the federal government passed the Fugitive Slave Acts, which greatly strengthened the legal mechanisms for doing this.

There are many heroes and heroines in your book. Perhaps the most famous is "Captain" Harriet Tubman. Tell us about her and her operations.

Harriet Tubman was a slave in Maryland who escaped around 1849. Unlike most people who escaped, she went back several times during the 1850s. It's estimated that she led about 70 or so slaves to freedom from Maryland. If you were caught helping a fugitive slave in the South, the punishments were draconian. People were sentenced to 30 or 40 years in jail. So anybody doing this in the South was taking a tremendous risk. But she managed to do it. She passes through New York City twice, in 1855 and 1856, and she appears in this document, the "Record of Fugitives."

Sydney Howard Gay calls her Captain Harriet Tubman. I found that an interesting title. It suggests that he knew her before this or knew who she was. "Captain" wasn't a term normally applied to women at that time—it's a military rank—but her reputation as someone of great courage had already preceded her. So he writes in his book "Captain Harriet Tubman appeared with 4 fugitive slaves."

My wife's ancestors were Wilmington Quakers who actually hid fugitive slaves. How important was Delaware on the Underground Railroad?

Delaware was very important. It's a very small place, as you well know. But it was on the way between the Eastern Shore of Maryland, where slavery was concentrated, and the free soil of Pennsylvania. Delaware itself had almost no slaves. By 1860 there were only 1,800 slaves in Delaware, so it's mostly people passing through from Maryland, Virginia, or the District of Columbia.

Wilmington was an odd place. It was in a slave state, yet it's only five or six miles from the Pennsylvania border, and it was one of the very few states where there was an active anti-slavery movement involving Quakers. One Quaker, a Wilmington businessman named Thomas Garrett, claimed to have assisted 3,000 fugitives slaves over the course of the 30 or so years before the Civil War. The Quakers were well known for their anti-slavery sentiment, and slaves knew this. One of the fugitives, who is mentioned in Gay's records, tells him, "When I got to Pennsylvania, I knocked on a door and said, 'Send me to a Quaker. I don't care who, just send me to a Quaker.'"

It's rather disconcerting to discover that one of George Washington's main concerns after the War of Independence was to get his slaves back. Tell us about the British dimension to this story.

In 1783, when the war was over, the British were evacuating Charleston, [South Carolina, and] Savannah [Georgia] and took a lot of slaves with them. Washington was up here in New York, negotiating with General Clinton, the British commander. Thousands of slaves had fled to New York City. The British were not abolitionist at that time. Slavery was thriving in the British Empire. But nonetheless Clinton said, "We must keep our word. We have promised these people freedom."

Washington said, "We want our slaves back. Indeed, I wish you would keep a lookout for a couple of my slaves who I think are here." It's a sign of the contradiction built into American history at the outset—that you have a war for liberty, yet it's being conducted by slave owners. That contradiction is there right from the start of our republic.

The question of fugitive slaves was one of the underlying irritants that led to the Civil War. Tell us about the Fugitive Slave Acts.

First of all, the right of the South to get their fugitives back is in the U.S. Constitution. Unfortunately, on this and many other points, the Constitution is rather vague. It doesn't say who's supposed to capture them or whose responsibility it is. In 1850, because previous laws had not succeeded in stopping the escapes of slaves, this fugitive slave law, which was very draconian, was passed. This made it a federal responsibility for the first time. The federal government would send marshalls into northern places looking for fugitives. It set up a new category of officials called federal commissioners, who would hear these cases. Even the Army could be used to take people back to slavery. It was also retroactive. You could have lived in the North for 30 years and still be grabbed under this new law.

This became a big irritant between the North and South. We tend to think of the South before the Civil War as a bastion of state's rights. But in fact the South wanted this law, which overrode all the rights of the northern states and was a very vigorous exercise of national power in defense of slavery. In the North, there were instances of armed resistance. In Pennsylvania, a slave owner was killed by a mob trying to protect fugitive slaves. In Boston, a mob, mostly of free blacks, entered a courthouse where a fugitive slave was being held, grabbed him, took him out, and sent him off to Canada. The same thing happened in Syracuse [New York].

And these kinds of things exacerbated the sectional conflicts. Southerners began to say, "How can we trust the North, if they willingly violate federal law and constitutional provisions when it comes to fugitive slaves?" Northerners said, "This just shows how slavery is undermining the liberty of all people, not just blacks."

How has writing this book changed your view of early American history?

I've taught this period for a long time. [Laughs] So I don't know if my view has changed completely. But it certainly changed my view of the Underground Railroad, which, as I said, I'd been pretty skeptical about. Nobody knows the exact numbers because this was in secret. But my estimate is that about a thousand slaves per year managed to escape, or 30,000 in the period from 1830 to the Civil War. There were four million slaves in 1860, so this is just a drop in the bucket. It didn't destroy the institution of slavery.

But I think it is a significant accomplishment. I find the story inspiring. We've had in this country lately a lot of racial tension because of incidences that have occurred with the police, like in Ferguson, Missouri. Here's an example of black and white people working together in an interracial movement in a just cause. And I think we should be proud of it.

Simon Worrall curates Book Talk. Follow him on Twitter or at

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