Introduction

The Underground Railroad can be defined as a loose network of concerned and interested individuals who assisted freedom seekers whenever the occasion presented itself. Assistance mainly occurred in the North, primarily by abolitionists, men and women, both white and black, working together. Free people of color had the most impact by helping freedom seekers blend into their communities.


Making the decision to escape was never easy because individuals were choosing between life and death, and in many cases between their liberty and their family. However, the incentive to leave was often based on: long difficult work days, inadequate food and shelter, the fear of being sold, cruel often brutal punishments that brought people to a point where they could no longer tolerate their enslavement.


The majority of freedom seekers were young men in their prime as it was easier for them to travel the required longer distances. Women had a difficult time leaving children, and elderly individuals had a difficult time with the physical strain during the escape. However, despite the obstacles and seemingly impossible choices, thousands of enslaved individuals still made the decision to escape their slavery. Men old and young escaped, women escaped with their children, families sometimes escaped together, and older persons, both men and women, endeavored and labored to make their escape to freedom.


There were two routes that have been identified through Staten Island. The first route, the one preferred by the Underground Railroad agents, crossed the state of Delaware and made its way to Camden County New Jersey. From there, freedom seekers were directed to Bordentown, and then to Princeton and various points north and south of New Brunswick. When the agents found too many “slave chasers” milling about the ports of the Raritan River, the route took a turn and ferried freedom seekers across the Raritan River, near Perth Amboy, to Staten Island. This route was soon discovered and a blockade was placed on it, which made it necessary for each freedom seeker to patiently wait for instructions for the safest place to cross. Another route through New Jersey began in Phillipsburg towards Somerville, on to Elizabeth, and then crossed into Staten Island. For those who did not go to Staten Island, the route remained in New Jersey and moved towards Morristown, Newark, and Jersey City. Throughout the late 1850s and early 1860s, Staten Island schooners were often searched for “fugitive slaves” under the guise of having violated Virginia’s Inspection Laws.


African American residents were heavily involved in the Underground Railroad. Freedom seekers departing the Chesapeake Bay area were reported to have found assistance from the African American community when they reached the South Shore of Richmond County. On the North Shore, tales of escape from southern ports through the Quarantine Station were recounted in several slave narratives. Importantly, African Americans took huge risks to assist self-emancipators under threat of harsh reprisals from an intensely pro-slavery white population.


Underground Railroad Route. Courtesy of Rutgers University.
Underground Railroad Route. Detail of Staten Island. Courtesy of Rutgers University.