Atlantic Slave Trade and the Underground Railroad

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Slave Trade and the Underground Railroad

A slave auction in Charleston in 1769
Slave Auction Ad.jpg
A slave auction ad in Charleston

Resistance to lifetime servitude began with the first Africans forcibly brought to the Western Hemisphere in the 1500s, and resistance continued until the last emancipations in the Americas.


For the former British colonies, which became the United States, colonial-era resistance and early antislavery activities are the base on which the Underground Railroad was built. Without resistance, there would have been no need for the extensive legal codes which upheld property rights in human beings or for the brutal intimidation which always existed just beneath the surface of this coercive social system.

The circumstances which gave rise to the Underground Railroad were based on the transportation of Africans to North America as part of the Atlantic slave trade. About twelve million Africans were transported across the Atlantic to the Western Hemisphere in the 400 years from 1450 to 1850. Of that total, only about five per cent were brought to British North America and, later, to the United States from Africa--most of them arriving between 1680 and 1808.

Varied forms of bonded labor had existed in Europe and Africa, but as the need for labor grew in the New World's plantations and mines, the importation of unwilling Africans also grew. In early North America, the system of lifetime servitude, or slavery, was supported by an elaborate and severe legal code based on race. A few Africans slipped through that legal net and were free, but not many.

Distribution of slaves in the Western Hemisphere (1450-1900)

Destination Percentage
Brazil 35.4%
Spanish Empire 22.1%
British West Indies 17.7%
French West Indies 14.1%
British North America and future United States 4.4%
Dutch West Indies 4.4%
Danish West Indies 0.2%

The Atlantic slave trade, also known as the transatlantic slave trade, was the trade of African people supplied to the colonies of the "New World" that occurred in and around the Atlantic Ocean. It lasted from the 16th century to the 19th century.
The Underground Railroad was an informal network of secret routes and safe houses used by 19th century Black slaves in the United States to escape to free states and Canada with the aid of abolitionists who were sympathetic to their cause. 
Other routes led to Mexico or overseas. The Underground Railroad was at its height between 1810 and 1850, with more than 30,000 people escaping enslavement (mainly to Canada) via the network. See also Slave Trade, Slavery, and Early Antislavery, History of Slavery in the United States of America, and Slave Trade: Questions and Answers.

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Recommended Reading: The SLAVE TRADE: THE STORY OF THE ATLANTIC SLAVE TRADE: 1440 - 1870. School Library Journal: Thomas concentrates on the economics, social acceptance, and politics of the slave trade. The scope of the book is amazingly broad as the author covers virtually every aspect of the subject from the early days of the 16th century when great commercial houses were set up throughout Europe to the 1713 Peace Treaty of Utrecht, which gave the British the right to import slaves into the Spanish Indies. The account includes the anti-slavery patrols of the 19th century and the final decline and abolition in the early 20th century. Continued below...

Through the skillful weaving of numerous official reports, financial documents, and firsthand accounts, Thomas explains how slavery was socially acceptable and shows that people and governments everywhere were involved in it. This book is a comprehensive study from African kings and Arab slave traders to the Europeans and Americans who bought and transported them to the New World. Despite the volatility of the subject, the author remains emotionally detached in his writing, yet produces a highly readable, informative book. A superb addition and highly recommended.

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Related Reading:

Recommended Reading: The Underground Railroad from Slavery to Freedom: A Comprehensive History (Dover African-American Books). Description: This pioneering work was the first documented survey of a system that helped fugitive slaves escape from areas in the antebellum South to regions as far north as Canada. Comprising fifty years of research, the text includes interviews and excerpts from diaries, letters, biographies, memoirs, speeches, and other firsthand accounts.


Recommended Reading: Bound for Canaan: The Epic Story of the Underground Railroad, America's First Civil Rights Movement. From Publishers Weekly: Though the Underground Railroad is one of the touchstones of American collective memory, there's been no comprehensive, accessible history of the secret movement that delivered more than 100,000 runaway slaves to freedom in the Northern states and Canada. Journalist Bordewich (Killing the White Man's Indian) fills this gap with a clear, utterly compelling survey of the Railroad from its earliest days in Revolution-era America through the Civil War and the extension of the vote to African Americans in 1870. Using an impressive array of archival and contemporary sources (letters, autobiographies, tax records and slave narratives, as well as new scholarship), Bordewich reveals the Railroad to be much more complicated--and much more remarkable--than is usually understood. Continued below…

As a progressive movement that integrated people across races and was underwritten by secular political theories but carried out by fervently religious citizens in the midst of a national spiritual awakening, the clandestine network was among the most fascinatingly diverse groups ever to unite behind a common American cause. What makes Bordewich's work transcend the confines of detached social history is his emphasis on the real lives and stories of the Railroad's participants. Religious extremists, left-wing radicals and virulent racists all emerge as fully realized characters, flawed but determined people doing what they believed was right, and every chapter has at least one moment--a detail, a vignette, a description--that will transport readers to the world Bordewich describes. The men and women of this remarkable account will remain with readers for a long time to come.


Recommended Reading: The Underground Railroad: Authentic Narratives and First-Hand Accounts. Description: A "conductor" based in Philadelphia, Still (1821–1902) helped guide fugitive slaves to safety in the years before the Civil War. He also created this unforgettable history, a collection of carefully preserved letters, newspaper articles, and firsthand accounts about refugees' hardships, narrow escapes, and deadly struggles. Over 50 illustrations. "Highly recommended."


Recommended Reading: Passages to Freedom: The Underground Railroad in History and Memory. Publishers Weekly: Myth and metaphor, the Underground Railroad was also real in the lives of escaping slaves, in the activities (legal and illegal) of black and white people, free and slave, who aided and abetted them and in the structures in which they found refuge. Bountifully illustrated with 78 color and 174 black-and-white photos and other images, this collection also comprises highly, readable essays by 15 distinguished historians. The first section, "Slavery and Abolition," lays a historical foundation with cogent accounts of slavery in the colonial years and in the 19th century and of the antislavery movement. Continued below…

The Fugitive Slave Act of 1850, the Civil War, William Still and Harriet Tubman are all carefully treated. Short-term stay escapes and long-term fugitive communities within slave territory, escape by water, escape into Northern free black communities, escape to South Florida and escape to Western Canada are all freshly covered, as are "current uses of the Underground Railroad in modern thought, tourism, and public history." Eddie S. Glaude Jr. discusses the African-American appropriation of the Exodus story, with the U.S. being Egypt rather than the Promised Land. …A coherently arranged collection with two thought-provoking essays exploring the role of history and memory and probing the current attention to the Underground Railroad that "says much about who we are as well as who we say we want to be."

Sources: National Park Service; Thomas, Hugh. The Slave Trade. Simon and Schuster, 1997; King Leopold's Ghost: A Story of Greed, Terror, and Heroism in Colonial Africa. Houghton Mifflin Books, 1988; Klein, Herbert S. and Jacob Klein. The Atlantic Slave Trade. Cambridge University Press, 1999; BBC Quick guide: The slave trade; Welcome to Encyclopędia Britannica's Guide to Black History; Migration Simulation; Ronald Segal, The Black Diaspora: Five Centuries of the Black Experience Outside Africa (New York: Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 1995); Eltis, David and Richardson, David. The Numbers Game. In: Northrup, David: The Atlantic Slave Trade, 2nd edition, Houghton Mifflin Co., 2002; Basil Davidson. The African Slave Trade.

This page, including links and books, covers: US Slave Trade History, Atlantic Slave Trade History, Trans-Atlantic Slave Trade Details, American Slavery and Slave Trade Results, US Slave Trade Map, Atlantic Slave Trade and the Underground Railroad History.

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