Barns have provided refuge for people since the day they were first constructed here in North America. They housed pioneer families and their animals as they built their farms from the ground up. Barns also provided a safe haven for another group of people, escaped slaves.
The Underground Railroad, as it came to be known, was a series of safe havens and routes that escaped slaves from the southern United States could follow and seek shelter and get something to eat. Escape routes led in all directions, not just to the North and Canada but also to Mexico and (before it was purchased by the US) Spanish Florida. At its peak in the 1850s it is estimated that 1,000 slaves a month attempted to find their way to freedom on the Underground Railroad and some estimate over 100,000 left bondage behind thanks to it.
A prime spot to hide many escaped slaves were barns. Like the escaped slaves, the owners of these farms were taking a huge risk. All citizens were required by the Fugitive Slave Act of 1793 to aid in recapturing escaped slaves and if they refused they could be jailed for six months and fined $1000 (around $30,000 today). It even became a federal offense after the passage of the Fugitive Slave Act of 1850. Prison, fines, whippings and even execution could be the punishment for aiding an escaped slave especially in the Southern states. Despite that many acted with their conscience fully knowing the penalties. Free African Americans, Native Americans and many religious groups like the Quakers and Wesleyans were essential to keeping the railroad functional and providing safe havens.
Barns offered numerous hiding places that would allow the escaped slaves a chance to sleep in relative peace. From a horse stable to a hayloft the escapees could hide in plain sight before leaving that night to move onto the next station. A place to hide was necessary as the slave catchers who were after them were well motivated with the law on their side and were often times on their trail right behind them. Rewards offered an incentive for law abiding citizens to turn them in which made traveling at night a necessity. To be fair barns were not the only places used to hide as many hidden cellars and churches were also used.
The Underground Railroad was one of the most daring civilian operations in American history. It showed how much freedom was yearned for from people who had never experienced it and allowed others to show their displeasure with the South’s “peculiar institution” and act with their conscience. Its very existence helped to create the tension that eventually boiled over and allowed our nation to rid itself of slavery.