How Did The Underground Railroad Get Its Name?

plaque that says oberlin and the underground railroad
Adé Hennis
June 11, 2024

Tice Davids swam as fast as he could through the murky waters of the Ohio River in 1821, escaping the clutches of his Kentucky captor. Unable to explain how Davids seemed to have vanished into thin air, all that the puzzled slaveowner could do was guess that he “must have gone off on an underground road.” Is that the first known use of the term  “Underground Railroad”? Not quite.

There were no underground tunnels or railroads;  it was just a system that happened above ground. Escapees  were called “passengers” and their guides were  “conductors.” “PIlots” trekked south to gather passengers. Resting places were “stations.”

In 1839, an enslaved man in Washington, D.C. escaped from his plantation, disappearing just like Davids.  He supposedly used “railroad [that] ran underground all the way to Boston.” But that’s still not where the name originated.

We don’t know when or how the Underground Railroad started, so how could we know where its name came from?

The Underground Railroad might have gotten its name from the newspapers, the people who used it, or even somewhere else. What’s important to remember is what it accomplished, and its place in our history.