If there were nearly 4,000,000 slaves in the United States, why did only 100,000 escape along the railroad?
Given the risks associated with escaping slavery, having 100,000 people escape is an incredible number and speaks to the bravery and desperation of those being held as slaves. See below for reasons why this number wasn't even higher.
The Underground Railroad was a loose organization of people who helped escaped slaves reach freedom.
There are all sorts of reasons why the numbers escaping slavery aren't anywhere close to the numbers of those who were in slavery.
First off, let's talk percentages - if the numbers in the question are correct, we're talking
Now to why the numbers weren't higher:
People held as slaves had to have a means to escape from slave owners. It wasn't the case where a slave could simply leave - slave owners and overseers didn't want to have their "property" simply walk off the job. Slaves lived in controlled areas that weren't simple to escape.
People had to want to leave. There were all sorts of reasons why they wouldn't want to:
- Not knowing where they'd go after escaping from a slave owner.
- Being too far from a safe haven (few of the escaped slaves came from the Deep South)
- Fear of being caught. This wasn't simply being caught in the escape from the slave owner - people then had to make their way across the United States (and often into what is now known as Canada), while dodging enforcers of Slave Reparation Laws (in essence, slaves became stolen property, meaning that theft from the slave owner had occurred. Federal marshals and bounty hunters actively sought out escaped slaves.)
- The Underground Railroad was not an organized institution. "Conductors" (the most famous of which was Harriet Tubman, who made 17 trips to the South and helped roughly 70 people escape slavery) would help small groups of slaves escape, make "stops" along ad hoc routes and would seek assistance from "stations". It was a laborious effort.
Given the risks associated with escaping slavery, having 100,000 people escape is an incredible number and speaks to the bravery and desperation of those people being held as slaves.