Where does the Term Underground Railroad Come From?
There are several versions of the origin of the term "Underground Railroad." One story says that in 1831 a fugitive slave named Tice Davids escaped from Kentucky to safer ground in Sandusky, in northern Ohio. When David's master looked in vain for him in Ripley, just across the Ohio River, he is said to have commented, "The nigger must have gone off on an underground railroad." Another version explains that the term came into use among slave hunters in Pennsylvania who experienced similar frustrations. Yet a third story places the origin in Washington DC, in 1839, when a fugitive slave, after being tortured, allegedly claimed that he was to have been sent north, where "the railroad ran underground all the way to Boston." Whatever the actual first use of the term, it was common by the mid-1840s to speak and write of the Underground Railroad as a clandestine system for runaway slaves. It was already in part a legend, a construction of historical memory, as much as it was historical by the time of the Fugitive Slave Act of 1850.
Passages to Freedom.