Reasons for escaping? Who escaped? How did they escape?
The enslaved individuals who escaped on the Underground Railroad were of different ages and genders and from all parts of the country. However the majority of the enslaved individuals were men in the prime of their lives. Men were more easily able to survive on their own. They could travel both farther and for longer periods of time. It was difficult for women to escape, as they often had children or other people with them. Older enslaved individuals would have had trouble with the physical strain of escaping. Even still, hundreds and even thousands of enslaved individuals escaped.
The most common form of transportation for escaping enslaved individuals was walking. Those attempting to escape walked the hundreds of miles from the South to the North and even all the way to Canada. But that wasn't the only way to travel; slaves frequently traveled by wagon, boat, horseback and even train with the help of those working on the Underground Railroad. Secret compartments, traveling only at night, using disguises and carrying false papers provided cover for these risky methods of escaping. When escaping slaves arrived at safe locations they were often given shelter in barns, stables, false rooms in houses, attics, basements, cupboards, or under floor boards.
A strong oral tradition gave enslaved individuals the necessary knowledge to begin their journey north and connect with Underground Railroad sties. For example, it was known to look for moss on the north side of trees. Some slaves even knew about using the North Star, the brightest star in the nighttime sky, to guide them in a northerly direction. From this oral tradition enslaved individuals also knew to travel during the nighttime and to follow rivers and streams to hide their scent from dogs and slave catchers.
Making the decision to escape was often under very difficult circumstances. For many slaves, the conditions they endured while enslaved - long work days, harsh punishments, inadequate housing, and poor diets - provided the incentive to escape. W.H. Lyford, an abolitionist from Illinois, pointed out that the majority of the slaves who escaped did so because they had finally reached a point in their lives where they could no longer tolerate their enslavement. In spite of the difficulties they would face, individuals wishing to run away believed that their lives in slavery were worse than any hardship they would encounter in the effort to gain freedom.
Jacob Blockson, an enslaved individual from Delaware, gives insight into another reason why many enslaved individuals would have decided to escape. He says, "My master was about to be sold out this fall, and I made up my mind that I did not want to be sold like a horse...I resolved to die sooner than I would be taken back." For enslaved individuals like Jacob, the thought of being sold or having a family member sold from them was a fate worse than death. Slave sales tore family, friends, and communities apart and forced enslaved individuals who were sold to start their lives over with new owners, new people, and no familiar connections. Enslaved individuals in these circumstances were more willing to run if they were soon to be sold away from their loved ones.