I was in the classroom earlier this week as an aide in some middle school social studies classes, and they were studying the Underground Railroad. All this week they were watching a movie entitled Race to Freedom about slaves trying to make it to Canada. We hear so much about the Underground Railroad, and movies like this make it seem like most slaves did try to escape. As a history nerd, I became curious — how many slaves actually did make a run for it?
First, how many slaves were there? According to Google, the 1850 Census reported 3.6 million African Americans in the U.S. population. Of these, about 3.2 million were slaves. (I chose 1850 because that’s when the Fugitive Slave Act was passed.) As to how many tried to escape, according to Yahoo Answers, of course no one was able to keep accurate records (or at least chose not to for security reasons), but the best estimates are that between 40,000 and 100,000 slaves escaped on the Underground Railroad. The Wikipedia entry for the Underground Railroad has one estimate of 100,000 escaping by 1850. Another estimate is that 30,000 escaped during the Railroad’s 20-year peak period, although U.S. Census figures only list 6,000. If my math is correct, 30,000 to 100,000 would be about one to three percent successful escapes out of the total slave population — significant enough to help start a civil war, but not a huge number.
There is no way of knowing how many tried and failed — perhaps that would be the statistic to focus on if we knew. In any event, there was enough concern that Southern politicians were able to get the Fugitive Slave Act passed in 1850, so the economic burden of lost slaves, and probably hunting for lost slaves, was very real. I hope these figures, imprecise as they are, add some perspective.