In the decades preceding the Civil War, up to 100,000 slaves escaped to the Northern free states or the “promised land” of Canada. Most received help along the way from abolitionists, who ran a vast, loosely organized and constantly changing set of routes that came to be known as the Underground Railroad. From “conductors” (who guided slaves) to “stationmasters” (who owned safe houses) to “stockholders” (who donated money and goods), here are some of the Underground Railroad’s most notable participants.

Isaac Hopper

Isaac Hopper engraving. (Credit: Public Domain)
Isaac Hopper engraving. (Credit: Public Domain)

Quakers played a huge role in the formation of the Underground Railroad, with George Washington complaining as early as 1786 that a “society of Quakers, formed for such purposes, have attempted to liberate” a neighbor’s slave. Anti-slavery sentiment was particularly prominent in Philadelphia, where Isaac Hopper, a convert to Quakerism, established what one author called “the first operating cell of the abolitionist underground.” In addition to hiding runaways in his own home, Hopper organized a network of safe havens and cultivated a web of informants so as to learn the plans of fugitive slave hunters. Though a tailor by trade, he also excelled at exploiting legal loopholes to win slaves’ freedom in court. A friend of Joseph Bonaparte, the exiled brother of the former French emperor, Hopper moved to New York City in 1829. There, he continued helping escaped slaves, at one point fending off an anti-abolitionist mob that had gathered outside his Quaker bookstore.

John Brown

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A militant abolitionist, John Brown (1800-1859) stormed the federal armory at Harper’s Ferry, West Virginia in 1859. Unsuccessful, he was captured and hanged, though not before garnering national attention. (Credit: CORBIS)

Like his father before him, John Brown actively partook in the Underground Railroad, harboring runaways at his home and warehouse and establishing an anti-slave catcher militia following the 1850 passage of the Fugitive Slave Act. With several of his sons, he then participated in the so-called “Bleeding Kansas” conflict, leading one 1856 raid that resulted in the murder of five pro-slavery settlers. Another raid in December 1858 freed 11 slaves from three Missouri plantations, after which Brown took his hotly pursued charges on a nearly 1,500-mile journey to Canada. Becoming ever more radicalized, Brown’s final action took place in October 1859, when he and 21 followers seized the federal armory in Harpers Ferry, Virginia (now West Virginia), in an attempt to foment a large-scale slave rebellion. Caught and quickly convicted, Brown was hanged to death that December.

Harriet Tubman

list women civil war spies tubman
Born a slave on Maryland’s Eastern Shore, Harriet Tubman endured constant brutal beatings, one of which involved a two-pound lead weight and left her suffering from seizures and headaches for the rest of her life. Worried that she would be sold and separated from her family, Tubman fled bondage in 1849, following the North Star on a 100-mile trek into Pennsylvania. Nicknamed “Moses,” she would go on to become the Underground Railroad’s most famous “conductor,” embarking on about 13 rescue operations back into Maryland and pulling out at least 70 slaves, including several siblings. A master of ingenious tricks, such as leaving on Saturdays, two days before slave owners could post runaway notices in the newspapers, she boasted of having never lost a single passenger. Tubman continued her anti-slavery activities during the Civil War, serving as a scout, spy and nurse for the Union Army and even reportedly becoming the first U.S. woman to lead troops into battle.

Thomas Garrett

Thomas Garrett. (Credit: Public Domain)
Thomas Garrett. (Credit: Public Domain)

On the way north, Tubman often stopped at the Wilmington, Delaware, home of her friend Thomas Garrett, a Quaker “stationmaster” who claimed to have aided some 2,750 fugitive slaves prior to the outbreak of the Civil War. Along with a place to stay, Garrett provided his visitors with money, clothing and food and sometimes personally escorted them arm-in-arm to a safer location. Occupational hazards included threats from pro-slavery advocates and a hefty fine imposed on him in 1848 for violating fugitive slave laws. Yet he determinedly carried on. “I should have done violence to my convictions of duty, had I not made use of all the lawful means in my power to liberate those people,” he said in court, adding that “if any of you know of any poor slave who needs assistance, send him to me, as I now publicly pledge myself to double my diligence and never neglect an opportunity to assist a slave to obtain freedom.”

William Still

William Still. (Credit: Public Domain)
William Still. (Credit: Public Domain)

From Wilmington, the last Underground Railroad station in the slave state of Delaware, many runaways made their way to the office of William Still in nearby Philadelphia. A free-born African American, Still chaired the Vigilance Committee of the Pennsylvania Abolition Society, which gave out food and clothing, coordinated escapes, raised funds and otherwise served as a one-stop social services shop for hundreds of fugitive slaves each year. Recording the personal histories of his visitors, Still eventually published a book that provided great insight into how the Underground Railroad operated. One arrival to his office turned out to be his long-lost brother, who had spent decades in bondage in the Deep South. Another time, he assisted Osborne Anderson, the only African-American member of John Brown’s force to survive the Harpers Ferry raid. A businessman as well as an abolitionist, Still supplied coal to the Union Army during the Civil War.

Levi Coffin

Levi Coffin. (Credit: Public Domain)
Levi Coffin. (Credit: Public Domain)

Known as the “president of the Underground Railroad,” Levi Coffin purportedly became an abolitionist at age 7 when he witnessed a column of chained slaves being driven to auction. Getting his start bringing food to fugitives hiding out on his family’s North Carolina farm, he would grow to be a prosperous merchant and prolific “stationmaster,” first in Newport (now Fountain City), Indiana, and then in Cincinnati. All told, he claimed to have assisted about 3,300 slaves, saying he and his wife, Catherine, rarely passed a week without hearing a telltale nighttime knock on their side door. Operating openly, Coffin even hosted anti-slavery lectures and abolitionist sewing society meetings, and, like his fellow Quaker Thomas Garrett, remained defiant when dragged into court. “The dictates of humanity came in opposition to the law of the land,” he wrote, “and we ignored the law.”

Elijah Anderson

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The Ohio River, which marked the border between slave and free states, was known in abolitionist circles as the River Jordan. For slaves on the lam, Madison, Indiana, served as one particularly attractive crossing point, thanks to an Underground Railroad cell set up there by blacksmith Elijah Anderson and several other members of the town’s black middle class. Light skinned enough to pass for a white slave owner, Anderson took numerous trips into Kentucky, where he purportedly rounded up 20 to 30 slaves at a time and whisked them to freedom, sometimes escorting them as far as the Coffins’ home in Newport. The work was exceedingly dangerous. A mob of pro-slavery whites ransacked Madison in 1846 and nearly drowned an Underground Railroad operative, after which Anderson fled upriver to Lawrenceburg, Indiana. Continuing his activities, he assisted roughly 800 additional fugitives prior to being jailed in Kentucky for “enticing slaves to run away.” On what some sources report to be the very day of his release in 1861, Anderson was suspiciously found dead in his cell.

Thaddeus Stevens

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Johnson was also accused of hurling libelous “inflammatory and scandalous harangues” against Congressional members. (Credit: Bettmann/CORBIS)

Pennsylvania congressman Thaddeus Stevens made no secret of his anti-slavery views. A champion of the 14th and 15th amendments, which promised blacks equal protection under the law and the right to vote, respectively, he also favored radical reconstruction of the South, including redistribution of land from white plantation owners to former slaves. Stevens even paid a spy to infiltrate a group of fugitive slave hunters in his district. It wasn’t until 2002, however, when archeologists discovered a secret hiding place in the courtyard of his Lancaster home, that his Underground Railroad efforts came to light. (Documentary evidence has since been found proving that Stevens harbored runaways.) Other prominent political figures likewise served as Underground Railroad “stationmasters,” including author and orator Frederick Douglass and Secretary of State William H. Seward.

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