Write a Secret Letter Communicating Along the Underground Railroad

Slaves had been escaping for freedom as long as they had been in America. But the term “Underground Railroad” began in the 1830s when railroads were spreading across the country. Before long, railroad terms were also used to identify the people, hiding places, and runaway slaves on the Underground Railroad. Fugitives were referred to as “passengers” or “baggage.” A “conductor” guided slaves to safe places. “Stationmasters” hid slaves in their homes or “stations.”

Sometimes the language was more secretive to conceal details about the Underground Railroad. After all, helping runaway slaves was illegal and dangerous, so everything had to be done in secret. For example, the conductor William Still received this telegram in Philadelphia: “I have sent via at two o’clock four large and two small hams.” This coded message alerted him of the arrival of four fugitives – two adults and two children. The word “via” signaled they would not arrive on the regular train, as authorities expected, but on the train from Reading. Still was able to meet them at the correct depot and help them escape.

Activity: Complete a Letter

You are an agent on the Underground Railroad writing to a stationmaster in Philadelphia.

Common Terms & Phrases
Review this list of terms and phrases used on the Underground Railroad. Then imagine you are an agent helping runaway slaves and complete a letter to a stationmaster:
  • Agent
    Someone who coordinates escapes for slaves
  • Baggage, boxes, parcel, packages, passengers
    Fugitive slaves
  • Brakeman
    Someone who helps fugitives find jobs and homes when they reach freedom
  • Conductor
    Person who guides or escorts slaves
  • Heaven, Promised Land
    Canada
  • Forward
    To move slaves between stations
  • Freedom Train, Gospel Train
    The Underground Railroad.
  • Moses
    Harriet Tubman
  • Station
    Safe place where fugitives were hid and sheltered
  • Stationmaster
    Someone who provides shelter for fugitives
  • Stockholder
    Someone who donates money or goods to the cause
  • “The wind blows from the South today.”
    Runaway slaves are in the area.
  • “A friend with friends”
    A password used by a conductor arriving with fugitives.
  • “Lost a passenger”
    A runaway slave has been caught.