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The Geography of the Underground Railroad

Updated on November 5, 2014

Unit studies that inspire learning

The story of the Underground Railroad is one that many have heard. The American Civil War, which began in 1861, ultimately became a war to

determine the outcome of slavery in the United States. It was a war between the

southern slave states and the free northern states. It was a time when slaves would runaway, to seek their freedom in the non-slave states and in Canada. Slowly a network grew of people and places that would help these slaves find freedom. This network was labeled the Underground Railroad.

This unit study focuses on the geographical aspects of the story. It combines geography lessons with the Underground Railroad history along with a bit of English, Art, Science and Math.

What is slavery

There have been slaves throughout most of human history. There have also always been people who want to get rid of slavery (abolitionists). It was the help of these people that slaves from the southern United States were able to find freedom in Canada, by following the Underground Railroad.

Before 1850, runaway slaves could be free if they could escape to a free state. But in 1850 the Fugitive slave laws allowed capture of runaway slaves even in free states, so Canada became the only safe haven for runaways.

Did You Know?

In order to develop colonies in the New World, Europeans imported tens of thousands of slaves from Africa.

The Route to Freedom

A difficult and dangerous trip north to Canada became the dream of many slaves seeking freedom. Eventually a rescue route called the Underground Railroad was developed to help these runaways find freedom. But even with this route there were dangers around every corner.

This unit study follows the trek of some of these slaves as they fight their way to freedom.

On foot and by boat

With no maps and no clear directions the fugitive slaves would travel on foot through forests, sometimes they would hide in wagons to travel by day and through towns and then there was the waterways where they would wade, swim, raft and ferry across!

The Great Lakes divided Upper and Lower Canada (now Ontario and Quebec) with the United States. There were only a few places where the lakes could be crossed. Slave hunters knew this and so they kept an eye on these towns.

Follow the North Star

With the North star as their guide, fugitive slaves headed north, with hopes to find Canada and freedom. Since runaway slaves traveled at night so as to avoid capture, the North star was the easiest guide to follow. But what about cloudy nights when the stars were hidden? Sometimes they had a compass to help them find their way but other times they had to rely on other means of determining which way is north!

Across the Mason-Dixon Line

The Underground Railroad did not really function in the Deep South because there were not enough supporters there. But, if the runaway slaves could get to the Northern slave states they had a good chance of finding help to get them across the Mason-Dixon line (boundary between the north and south). This was not a real line but an imaginary line that divided the United States into the North and the South.

download the full unit study to learn about imaginary lines on the globe!

Secrets and Codes of the Underground Railroad

In order to be successful, everything involving the Underground Railroad had to be done as secretly as possible. This involved disguises, hiding places, code words, code names and secret signals. Many ‘railroad’ words were used when discussing the slaves and their trip.

You can find out about some creative ways the slaves and those helping them communicated in secret! Slaves would often sing songs when they worked together, or sat together at night. Many times these songs contained coded messages about the Underground Railroad. There are so many secrets to the Underground Railroad that even today we don’t know where all the stops were, who all the helpers were or how many slaves passed through it!

Try it Yourself

Download the entire unit study for all the information and activities. You can use it on its own, or to supplement other lessons!

For the complete unit study message us through hedremp at yahoo dot ca

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    • OhMe profile image

      Nancy Tate Hellams 5 years ago from Pendleton, SC

      I enjoyed reading and learning more about the Underground Railroad. Very interesting.

    • profile image

      anonymous 5 years ago

      This made an interesting read, so much is there in the origin of the underground rail-road.

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      Joan4 5 years ago

      Fascinating information about the Underground Railroad. Thank you!