The Underground Railroad was a network of secret routes and safe houses
used by 19th-century
freedom-seeking slaves in the United States to escape into free
states and Canada with the aid of abolitionists and allies who were
sympathetic to their cause. The term is often also applied to the
abolitionists, both black and white, free and enslaved, who aided the
fugitives. While the term can apply to those helping freedom seekers, many who helped, did not participate in the abolition movement outside of their aid to the freedom seekers. An example of such a person would be Auburn's William Seward. There is one documented case of a freedom seeking slave hiding in the Seward home in Auburn, while the community pulled together resources to help the man get to Canada. The man safely reached Canada via railroad. However, Seward denied being an abolitionist, and while he supported bills stopping the spread of slavery westward, he also believed in leaving it intact where it already existed.
Because it was illegal to help a known fugitive, it is often difficult to document these safe houses today. Generally speaking, those helping freedom seeking slaves did so in secret, often referring to those they helped in code. Cayuga County was an important part of the Underground Railroad because of its proximity to waterways and railroad routes. Especially after 1850, if a freedom seeker made it as far North as Auburn, local residents could help the individuals acquire new clothing and give them train fare to present-day Ontario. Others, blended in within the African American population in Auburn.
Perhaps the Underground Railroad's most famous "conductor" lived right here in Cayuga County. Harriet Tubman, the "Moses of her People" purchased land in the then Town of Fleming, from William Seward in 1858. Today, the site is under development as a National Historical Park site.
Railroad reached its height
between 1850 and 1860. British North America
(present-day Canada), where slavery was prohibited, was a popular
destination, especially after the passage in 1850 of the Fugitive Slave Act. Its long border gave many points of access. Although the Underground Railroad helped many freedom-seeking slaves, it is estimated that only about 1,000 slaves made it to free states or Canada each year.