Strategies Harriet Tubman And Others Used To Escape Along The Underground Railroad

The trans-Atlantic slave trade which saw to the successful shipping of some 12.8 million Africans to the New World, is arguably today the most horrendous atrocity of human history. For about four centuries, blacks from Africa were made to face the horrors of slavery with very thin hope of breaking free.

As notable, however, enslaved people, through various means, sought for and obtained freedom at all costs. From elaborate disguises to communicating in code, to fighting back, enslaved people found multiple paths to freedom.

Notwithstanding the horrors of slavery, it never came as easy for an enslaved to make up his/her mind to break away. This was so because escaping often involved leaving behind one’s family and friends and heading into the absolute unknown, where possible, hunger and harsh weather await.

These not being the only menaces, there was also the constant threat of capture. So-called slave catchers and their dogs roamed both sides of the Mason-Dixon line, arresting runaways—and sometimes free blacks like Solomon Northup—and transporting them back to the plantation, where they would be whipped, beaten, branded or ultimately killed.

Despite this, those willing to brave the risks did have one main ally: The Underground Railroad. A vast network of secret routes and safe houses established in the United States during the early to mid-19th century, this part most times was used to guide enslaved African-Americans to freedom.

In the decades preceding the American Civil War of 1861, about, if not, more than 100,000 slaves had escaped. While some went to Mexico or Spanish-controlled Florida, others hid out in the wilderness, while most, traveled to the Northern free states or to Canada.

Abolitionists and political activists such as Harriet Tubman (born Araminta Ross, March 1822) using the Underground Railroad, assisted in the freeing of many hundreds of slaves. This task, however, did not come without proper strategizing before execution, hence, the enslaved and their collaborators employed various strategies in their quest for escape.

Here are some of the six strategies Harriet Tubman and others used for escape along the Underground Railroad.

Getting Help

No matter how courageous or clever enslaved people maybe, only a few broke free from slavery 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 among them, however, followed alleged “conductors,” such as Harriet Tubman, who, after escaping slavery in 1849, devoted herself fully to the Underground Railroad.

Back to the Eastern Shore of Maryland where she had been enslaved as a child, Tubman, in about 13 trips rescued some 70 people, mostly family, and friends. Like fellow conductors, Tubman intelligently raised a network of collaborators—including stationmasters—who undertook the job of stashing her charges in barns and other safe houses along the way.

Knowing the Maryland landscape inside and out, Tubman generally followed the North Star or rivers that wound north. She also knew how to communicate and gather intelligence without being caught, as well as knowing which authorities were susceptible to bribes.

With this knowledge—in addition to mailing coded letters and sending along with messengers, Tubman, for example, would sing certain songs, or mimic birds (especially the owl), in order to signify when it was time to escape or when it was dangerous to come out of hiding.


Through intelligence, Tubman, over the years developed certain extra strategies for keeping her pursuers at arm’s length. For one, she took operating mostly in winter, when longer nights allowed her to cover more ground. Again, she preferred leaving on Saturdays, with the knowledge that since there was no paper on Sunday, no runaway slave notices would appear in the newspaper until Monday. Tubman carried a pistol, which provided her with protection and allowed her to intimidate those in her care who considered turning back. In addition to these, she carried drugs with her, using them when a baby’s cries threatened to give away her group’s position. “I never ran my train off the track,” Tubman would later state, “and I never lost a passenger.”

Use of Codes and Secret Pathways

The Underground Railroad scarcely existed in the Deep South, from which very few slaves escaped. Though pro-slavery sentiment wasn’t quite as strong in the Border States, those who obliged to offer assistance to slaves there, nonetheless faced the constant threat of being snitched by their neighbors and punished by the authorities. Therefore, they saw to it, albeit with great pains, that they kept their operations secret, which they did, in part, by communicating in code.

A station master might receive a letter—for example, referring to incoming fugitives as “bundles of wood” or a “parcel.” The words “French leave” stood to indicate a sudden departure, whereas the parlance “patter roller” implied a slave hunter. On certain occasions, runaways might use a secret chamber or secret pathway, which would come to epitomize the Underground Railroad in the popular imagination.

Disguises and Hiding

To successfully return repeatedly to Maryland, Tubman often relied on disguises, oftentimes dressing as a man, an elderly woman, or a middle-class free black depending on the situation. Similarly, fellow conductors made use of costumes. They might, for example, enter a plantation posing as a slave in order to round up a group of escapees. Also, conductors needed disguises (or at least nicer clothes), for the charges in their care: it was logical that they couldn’t very well flee in tattered slave rags without attracting unwanted attention.

Some sartorial efforts centered on pure genius. In the state of Georgia, for example, a light-skinned female slave was reported to have posed as an injured white gentleman, having bandages on her face and her right arm in a sling, while her darker-skinned husband pretended to be under her possession.

Traveling openly by train and boat, they made it to the North, despite several close calls. Likewise, Frederick Douglass (writer and statesman) escaped slavery by hiding in plain sight. Dressed as a sailor and boarding a train, Fredrick flashed a sailor’s protection pass borrowed from an accomplice, with which he fooled the conductor. Douglass would later acknowledge in writing that “…had the conductor looked closely at the paper, he could not have failed to discover that it called for a very different looking person from myself.”

By contrast, other runaways took several extreme measures to conceal themselves. Desperate to avoid her master’s unwanted sexual advances, one slave was reported to have hidden for seven years in an attic crawlspace. Another reports also state, lodged himself inside a wooden crate from which he shipped himself from Richmond, Virginia, to abolitionists in Philadelphia.

Buying Freedom

For much of its length, through existence, the Underground Railroad, despite the passage of the 1850 Fugitive Slave Act, which mandated harsh punishments for those found to have aided runaways, operated openly and brazenly. Certain stationmasters were acknowledged to have claimed to have hosted several thousands of fugitive slaves and very much made public their actions. A certain Syracuse, a former slave-turned-stationmaster in New York, fondly referred to himself in writing as the city’s “keeper of the Underground Railroad depot.”

Meanwhile, so-called “stockholders” helped in raising money for the Underground Railroad, funding anti-slavery societies that provided ex-slaves with food, clothing, money, lodging and job-placement services. Oftentimes, abolitionists simply bought a slave’s freedom, as they did with Sojourner Truth (famous for her speech on racial inequalities, “Ain’t I a woman?”). Going further, they used the courts to secure the release of Truth’s five-year-old son, additionally, fighting to change public opinion, financing speeches by Truth and many other ex-slaves, in order to bring the atrocities of bondage to light.


When everything else failed, Underground Railroad participants occasionally formed large groups to forcibly liberate fugitive slaves from captivity, as well as intimidate slave-catchers into returning home empty-handed.

Perhaps not surprisingly, John Brown was among those who advocated the use of armed insurrection to overthrow the institution of slavery in the United States. Prior to his failed slave revolt in Harpers Ferry, West Virginia, in October the 16, 1859, Brown had led a group of armed abolitionists into Kanas, Missouri, in what came to be known as the “Bleeding Kansa Crisis” in 1856, where they rescued 11 slaves and killed a slave owner.

Hotly pursued by pro-slavery forces, Brown with the fugitives embarked on a 1,500-mile journey through several states, finally landing safely in Canada.


Cross, L. D. (2010). The Underground Railroad: The long journey to freedom in Canada. Toronto ON: James Lorimer Limited, Publishers.

Editors, B. (2019, September 5). Sojourner Truth. Retrieved December 23, 2019, from

Greenspan, J. (2019, October 30). Six strategies harriet tubman and others used to escape along the underground railroad. Retrieved December 20, 2019, from History:

Article Researched And Written By Ejiọfọ Ọlaedo Madụabụchi

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