Ohio History Journal

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VOLUME 69 ?? NUMBER 3 ?? JULY 1960




The Underground Railroad:

A Re-evaluation






FOR MANY YEARS discerning scholars have suspected the

inadequacy of traditional accounts of the underground rail-

road, yet the elusive nature of source material for re-evalu-

ating the history of the mysterious institution has apparently

discouraged such reinterpretation.1 Even some recent encyclo-

pedia articles, textbooks, and monographs describe the

underground railroad in terms of its legendary character-

istics. The thrilling human drama with its mysterious signals,

its intricate network of stations, and its hairbreadth

escapes has a secure place in the lecture notes of countless

history teachers who have felt confident that this part of their

survey course, at least, need not be revised. Yet these same

historians know that an oversimplified view of the under-

ground railroad which depicts only saintly abolitionists con-

tending against wicked slaveholders lacks historical validity.

Three elements in the more traditional accounts are par-

ticularly open to reinterpretation. They are: the implication


* Larry Gara is a professor of history at Grove City College.

1 This article was read as a paper at the annual meeting of the American His-

torical Association in Chicago in December 1959. It is based on a book-length

study of the legend of the underground railroad to be published by the University

of Kentucky Press. A grant from the Penrose Fund of the American Philosophi-

cal Society made it possible for the author to complete the research upon which

both studies are based.