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The Underground Railroad: Cloaked Gateway to Freedom


Part 3: In the End

Reaction in the South to the growing number of slaves who escaped ranged from anger to political retribution. Large rewards were offered for runaways, and many people eager to make money or avoid offending powerful slave owners turned in runaway slaves.

The U.S. Government also got involved. As part of the Compromise of 1850, yet another attempt to stave off the North-South crisis, Congress passed the Fugitive Slave Law, which made it a crime to harbor runaway slaves, mandated strict punishments to those who did so, and approved of rough treatment of slaves who captured and returned to their masters. (This law was actually an update of a 1793 law. The new law approved harsher measures for both slaves and those who helped them.)

Estimates vary on how many runaways successfully escaped via the Underground Railroad. Some historians say that the number is in the thousands. Others emphasize that only a small percentage of all those enslaved eventually made it to freedom. Still others say that it was important to try, important to risk their lives for a better life ahead. The more slaves who ran away, the more awareness grew of the horrible conditions that they were faced with in their enslaved lives.

"Safe" and other houses are now commemorated as being part of the anti-slavery movement. Many of these places that are still standing are part of a national network of related buildings and are either museums of National Historic Places.

First page > Methods of Escape > Page 1, 2, 3 

Graphics courtesy of the Library of Congress


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