For Africans and people of African descent enslaved in North America gaining freedom through self-emancipation came with a very high price: their lives. From the 17th through the 19th century, the specific challenges they faced escaping depended upon where in the country they were. By the late 18th century, with the ending of legal enslavement in Canada and many of the newly created northern states, more people stepped up to help. Black, White, and Native people were involved despite Federal laws making such help illegal. These networks became known as the Underground Railroad.
Research on the history of the Underground Railroad is on-going. The secret network was designed to remain hidden and it has taken rigorous investigation to correct the misinformation that surrounds it. Many of the early accounts and views were clouded by sentiment and inaccuracies.
The life stories of a few famous participants have eclipsed the work of many. Recent scholarship has broadened our knowledge of who participated, the location of hiding places, and some of the paths taken by those seeking freedom. Criteria for the accurate identification of persons has been created, leading to the removal of some alleged locations from the list of "stops" on the railroad. Research has corrected the erroneous belief that quilts were used to signal safe houses. A clearer and more accurate picture of how the system worked continues to develop view.
New York's boarders with other free states and Canada meant that many people came through on their journey. The large enslaved population prior to 1827 became the foundation for many Black settlements and congregations willing to provide sanctuary and help freedom seekers begin new lives. The waterways of New York were also vital, allowing people to sail to places where they could live free or to shorten their overland journeys. Today you can visit churches and safe houses throughout the state to see where people hid in plain sight or stopped to regroup before continuing north.
Here at NYS Historic Preservation we are working with public and private museums, individuals and institutions to bring the latest information forward. It is our hope to be a continuous conduit of scholarship for this important history of our state and nation.
The Fugitive Slave Acts were a pair of federal laws that allowed for the capture and return of runaway enslaved people within the territory of the United States.