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6 Strategies Harriet Tubman and Others Used to Escape Along the Underground Railroad

October 30, 2019 in History

By Jesse Greenspan

From elaborate disguises to communicating in code to fighting back, enslaved people found multiple paths to freedom.

Despite the horrors of slavery, it was no easy decision to flee. Escaping often involved leaving behind family and heading into the complete unknown, where harsh weather and lack of food might await.

Then there was the constant threat of capture. So-called slave catchers and their dogs roamed both sides of the Mason-Dixon line, nabbing runaways—and sometimes free blacks like Solomon Northup—and transporting them back to the plantation, where they would be whipped, beaten, branded or killed.

Yet those willing to brave the risks did have one main ally: the Underground Railroad, a vast, loosely organized network of constantly-changing routes that guided slaves to freedom.

All told, in the decades preceding the Civil War, up to 100,000 slaves escaped. Some went to Mexico or Spanish-controlled Florida or hid out in the wilderness. Most, though, traveled to the Northern free states or Canada.

Harriet Tubman, circa 1860s.

1: Getting Help

No matter how courageous or clever, few slaves threw off their shackles without at least some outside help. Assistance could be as slight as clandestine tips, passed by word of mouth, on how to get away and who to trust. The luckiest, however, followed so-called “conductors,” such as Harriet Tubman, who, after escaping slavery in 1849, devoted herself fully to the Underground Railroad.

In about 13 trips back to the Eastern Shore of Maryland, where she had been brutally mistreated as an enslaved child, Tubman rescued some 70 people, mostly family and friends. Like her fellow conductors, Tubman cultivated a network of collaborators, including so-called “stationmasters,” who stashed her charges in barns and other safe houses along the way.

Tubman knew the Maryland landscape inside and out, generally following the North Star or rivers that snaked north. She knew which authorities were susceptible to bribes. And she knew how to communicate—and gather intelligence—without being caught.

She would, for example, sing certain songs, or mimic an owl, to signify when it was time to escape or when it was too dangerous to come out of hiding. She also mailed coded letters and sent along messengers.

2: Timing

Over the years, Tubman developed certain extra strategies for keeping her pursuers at arm’s length. For one, she usually operated in winter, when longer nights allowed her to cover more ground. She also preferred …read more


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