Strategies Harriet Tubman and other slaves used to escape through the ‘Underground Railroad’

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Underground Railroad

The trans-Atlantic slave trade which witnessed the transporting of almost 12.8 million Africans to the New World, is regarded today as the most horrendous barbarity in human history. For centuries blacks imported from Africa experienced. 

Despite this, enslaved people sought for and obtained freedom at all costs. From communicating in codes to elaborate disguises, to fighting back, they found various paths to freedom.

The so-called “slave catchers” and their dog’s patrolled both sides of the Mason-Dixon line, arresting runners and sometimes free blacks like Solomon Northup, transferring them back to the plantation, where they would be severely whipped, branded or ultimately killed.

In spite of this, those willing to bear the risks did have one main ally: “The Underground Railroad”. A vast network of the secret passage and safe houses established in the United States during the early to the mid-19th century. The safe passage is most times used to guide enslaved African-Americans to freedom.

In the decades preceding the American Civil War of 1861, about, if not, more than 100,000 slaves had escaped. While some went to Mexico or Spanish-controlled Florida, others hid out in the wilderness, while most, traveled to the Northern free states or to Canada.

Abolitionists and political activists such as Harriet Tubman, using the Underground Railroad, helped in freeing hundreds of slaves who fled before American Civil War of 1861. However, this task did not come without proper planning before execution, hence, the enslaved and their collaborators employed a series of tactics in their quest for escape.

Below are some of the tactics employed by Harriet Tubman and others used for escape along the Underground Railroad.

Getting Help

No matter how brave or smart the black slaves are only a few found her freedom from slavery without at least some outside help. Help could be as slight as clandestine tips, passed by word of mouth, on how to escape and who to trust. However, the fortunate among them, followed alleged “conductors,” such as Harriet Tubman. 

Tubman for instance would sing certain songs, or mimic birds (especially the owl), in order to pass a message, when it was time to escape or when it was dangerous to come out of hiding.


Through intelligence, Tubman, for decades developed certain extra tactics for keeping her pursuers at arm’s length. For one, she took operating more in winter, when longer nights allowed her to cover more ground. Also, she preferred leaving on weekends (Saturdays), with the knowledge that since there was no newspaper on Sunday, no runaway slave would appear in the newspaper until Monday. Tubman kept a pistol, which provided her with protection and allowed her to intimidate those in her care who considered changing their mind. Furthermore, she carried drugs with her, using them when a baby’s cries threatened to expose her group’s position. “I never ran my train off the track and I never lost a passenger.”

Use of Codes and Secret Pathways

A station master might receive a letter, for instance, they refer incoming fugitives as “bundles of wood” or a “parcel.” The words “French leave” stood to signify a sudden departure, whereas the parlance “patter roller” implies a slave hunter. On certain events , runaways might use a secret chamber or secret pathway, which would come to epitomize the Underground Railroad in the popular imagination.

Disguises and Hiding

To successfully return repeatedly to Maryland, Tubman often bank on disguises, most times dressing as a man, an elderly woman, or a middle-class free black, though that depends on the situation. Similarly, conductors made use of costumes. They might, for instance, enter a plantation posing as a slave in order to round up a group of escapees. Also, conductors needed disguises (or at least nicer clothes), for the charges in their care: it was vicid that they couldn’t very well flee in tattered slave rags without attracting unwanted attention.

Buying Freedom

For much of its length, through existence, the Underground Railroad, despite the passage of the 1850 Fugitive Slave Act, which gave harsh punishments to those found to have assisted runaways, operated openly and brazenly. Certain stationmasters were acknowledged to have claimed to have hosted several thousands of fugitive slaves and very much made public their actions. The former slave-turned-stationmaster in New York, popularly referred to himself in writing as the city’s “keeper of the Underground Railroad depot.”


When everything else goes wrong, Underground Railroad participants occasionally formed large groups to forcibly free runaway slaves from captivity, as well as intimidate slave-catchers into returning home empty-handed.

Perhaps not surprisingly, John Brown was among those who led the use of armed insurrection to dethrone the institution of slavery in the United States. Prior to his failed slave revolt in Harpers Ferry, West Virginia, in October the 16th, 1859, Brown  spearheaded a group of armed abolitionists into Kanas, Missouri, in what came to be known as the “Bleeding Kansa Crisis” in 1856, where they saved 11 slaves and killed a slave owner.

Brown with the fugitives made a journey of 1,500-mile through several states, before finally landing safely in Canada.

Africh Royale

Africh Royale

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