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Heroes of the Underground Railroad

A groundbreaking chronicle sheds new light on one of the most dramatic chapters in American history

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Beyond the River: The Untold Story of the Heroes of the Underground Railroad
Ann Hagedorn
Simon & Schuster, $25
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Few stories in American history combine as much suspense, adventure and moral righteousness as the Underground Railroad—the far-flung system of safe houses established to enable between 50,000 and 100,000 fugitive slaves to reach the Free States and Canada in the decades before the Civil War.

Until recently, few books have penetrated the character and motives of the estimated 3,000 men and women who, as they aided fugitives and led them to safety, constituted the Underground Railroad. Ann Hagedorn reveals how it functioned in an Ohio River town that became one of the most significant centers of abolitionist activity. Ripley, just east of Cincinnati, is today a sleepy hamlet whose largely deserted waterfront belies its tortured, violent history, when slave hunters tracked fugitives through the surrounding countryside and gun battles erupted in its now quiet lanes.

From the 1830s to the 1860s, John Rankin, a farmer, was the linchpin of Ripley’s Underground Railroad. Well before the Civil War began, the Ohio River separated North and South, in effect two separate nations engaged in a cold war over the issue of slavery. Escapes across the Ohio were no less dramatic than those across the Berlin Wall more than a century later. Rankin’s house, which still stands, atop a steep hill behind the town, was a beacon of liberty...quite literally. Hagedorn writes that the light in the Rankins’ window burned so brightly it could be seen for miles, "its radiance...amplified by the hopeful spirit it invoked among those who wanted to believe that there was a better life beyond the river."

Passage of the Fugitive Slave Act of 1850 required all citizens, no matter their beliefs, to assist in the capture of fugitives. The effect of this abrogation of liberties in the furtherance of slavery was to swell the ranks of the Underground Railroad. Although Rankin’s enemies, as late as 1856, were still burning his anti-abolitionist writings, "the roster of citizens willing to help runaways was growing," Hagedorn writes."New recruits bolstered the spirits of those who had labored for many years in the underground movement."

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