Wherever there were enslaved African Americans, there were people eager to escape. There was slavery in all original thirteen colonies, in Spanish California, Louisiana, and Florida; Central and South America; and on all the Caribbean islands until the Haitian Revolution (1791-1804) and British abolition of slavery (1834).
Free African American communities were already well established throughout the North by the 1830s. Wealthy families and free Black sewing groups, school children, and benevolent societies donated large and small amounts. In many villages and towns, barbers served as ministers and as representatives of African American communities in Black and white abolitionist networks.
The Underground Railroad started at the place of enslavement. The routes followed natural and man-made modes of transportation. Network routes were formed from the South through Ithaca, Cayuga Lake, Auburn, and Oswego. Some routes followed water routes up the Hudson River valley to Albany and Syracuse and through Watertown to Canada. From cities in Ohio and Pennsylvania, routes focused on Buffalo or Rochester, New York. In the ports of Oswego and Rochester, boats to Canada were arranged. Locations close to ports, free territories and international boundaries prompted many escapes.
The Railroad was a network of people, African American as well as white, offering shelter and aid to escaped slaves. It developed, c.1831, as a convergence of several different clandestine efforts, but was operating as an informal entity in the late 1700s. Although it operated “above” ground, it acted like a real railroad and used the same terminology. [Underground railroads did not exist until 1863.] The routes that slaves used to go from safe-house to safe-house were called “lines” and the places where they stopped for food, rest and new clothes, were known as “stations.” The men and women that aided the slaves--abolitionists and other sympathizers, such as manumitted or escaped slaves and religious societies--were known as “conductors,” and for their safety, slaves were referred to as “packages or freight.” Information was communicated by “word-of-mouth.”
1705: Virginia lawmakers allow owners to bequeath their slaves, who were considered real estate. The same law allows masters to “kill and destroy” runaways.
1770: Anthony Benezet, a Quaker, founds the Negro School for Black Children in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania.
1775: Benezet founds the Society for the Relief of Free Negroes Unlawfully Held in Bondage, the first American abolition society. Benjamin Franklin becomes its president in 1787. He also sets up his own school, the first public girls' school on the American continent.
1787: The first national act against slavery was included in the Northwest Ordinance, adopted July 13. Slavery was prohibited in territory north of the Ohio River.
1807: On March 25, the Abolition of the Slave Trade Act received its royal assent, abolishing the slave trade in the British colonies and making it illegal to carry enslaved people in British ships. Slavery, itself, was not ended until 1834.
1821: Progressive Quaker Richard Pell Hunt moves to Waterloo, New York. He is a consistent supporter of antislavery, connected with the radical wing associated with William Lloyd Garrison and Quakers rather than with political abolitionists.
1831: The Liberator, which begins on January 1, is a weekly abolitionist newspaper, printed and published in Boston by William Lloyd Garrison (who stopped in 1935) and Isaac Knapp who continues it until 1839. Religious rather than political, it appeals to the moral conscience of its readers, urging them to demand immediate freeing of the slaves.
1831: Garrison and Knapp organized the New England Antislavery Society.
1834: Britain passes the Slavery Abolition Act in August, which ends slavery in its colonies--including Jamaica, Barbados, and other West Indian territories. This means that Canada is the closes place for slaves to escape.
1836: Sarah and Angelina Grimke, prominent activists for abolition and women’s rights, begin their speaking tour.
1836: Abolitionists Mary Ann M’Clintok and her husband, Thomas, move to Waterloo, New York. She is one of five women who planned the Seneca Falls Convention of 1848.
1837: First Antislavery Convention of American Women held, May 9-12, in New York City, New York. 175 women from 10 states and representing 20 female antislavery groups attend to discuss their role in the abolition movement.
1837: Elijah Parish Lovejoy is an American Presbyterian minister, journalist, newspaper editor, and abolitionist. He is shot and killed by a pro-slavery mob in Alton, Illinois, while defending his right to print antislavery material.
1837: Businessman William Whipper, an African American abolitionist, plays a key role in the antislavery movement as a reformer. He advocates nonviolence, and co-founds the American Moral Reform Society.
1838: The Meeting Hall, built in Philadelphia by the Pennsylvania Antislavery Society as a meeting place for abolitionists, is burned to the ground by anti-Black rioters three days after it is first opened.
1838: Abolitionist and conductor, David Ruggles, creates and publishes the first African American magazine, Mirror of Freedom, on August 30 in New York City, New York.
1838: Levi Coffin, often referred to as the “President of the Underground Railroad,” builds a two-story, Federal-style brick home as his family's residence in Newport (now Fountain City), Indiana. Because so many fugitives passing through it, the house becomes known as the "Grand Central Station" of the Underground Railroad. In 1847, he moves to the Cincinnati, Ohio, area and continues his work with the Railroad. In 1854, he helps found an African American orphanage, and when the War breaks out, he leads a group to begin preparing for the wounded. Levi claims that he and his wife assisted about 3,300 slaves seeking freedom
1839: Abolitionist and journalist Charles Bennett Ray, born a free man in Falmouth, Massachusetts, becomes editor and sole owner of the Colored American, the fourth weekly periodical published by an African American.
1839: The book, American Slavery as It Is: Testimony of a Thousand Witnesses is written by Theodore Dwight Weld, his wife Angelina Grimké, and her sister Sarah Grimké. Weld is a leader of the more moderate wing of the abolitionist movement.
1840: The World Antislavery Convention meets for the first time at Exeter Hall in London, June 12-23. It is organized by the British and Foreign Anti-Slavery Society, largely on the initiative of the English Quaker Joseph Sturge. The male-only Convention initially refuses to seat women but relents and allows them access to the spectator's gallery--but they cannot not participate. Lucretia Mott and Elizabeth Cady Stanton, who eight years later organize the Seneca Falls Convention, meet at this Convention.