Underground Railroad in National Forest Lands

Underground Railroad Mural from the Bronzeville Historical Society
The Midewin National Tallgrass Prairie's Underground Railroad Mural
Currently residing at the Bronzeville Historical Society


As early as the 1780s, in civil disobedience against the laws of the United States, there were loosely coordinated attempts to aid runaways by guiding them from place to place, always leading them north. By the 1840s, this informal system of resistance, the Underground Railroad, had many permanent "stations" or safe houses. Many of these stations still exist, and all are largely architectural in nature. They consist of houses, large and small with unobtrusive nooks and crannies, hidden rooms, sub-floor cellars and cisterns which were used to hide runaways during the day--or sometimes for many days--until it was safe for them to continue on their way again, through the night and on to the next "station."

To date, research on the Underground Railroad has focused almost solely on the built environment, consisting mostly of structures, cellars and false walls used in hiding runaways during the daylight hours. Routes are only documented as leading from one safe house to another, with little or no discussion assigned to the physical environment through which the escaping slaves traveled. The Underground Railroad did use woods, fields, and rivers as places of refuge during their flight. According to Levi Coffin, a well-known station master in Indiana, "one night...she...left the plantation and plunged into the forest, which there was a labyrinth of swamps and canebreaks... Slaves often fled to these swamps and took refuge among the thickets...traveled at night and hid in thickets during the day, living mostly on fruit and green corn....” The success of their escape depended on avoiding being detected and apprehended. Aside from traveling at night, the choice of travel routes as determined by the landscape was the most important factor in avoiding detection, and hence, a swift and sure return to involuntary servitude...and worse.


Parts of the Underground Railroad operated in what are now National Forest System lands. Throughout February we will be releasing excerpts from the 2001 Underground Railroad Management and Interpretive Plan, like the introduction above . This research was prepared by the Midewin National Tallgrass Prairie in northern Illinois, Shawnee National Forest in southern Illinois, Hoosier National Forest in southern Indiana, Wayne National Forest in southeastern Ohio and a host of partners.


Click below to find out more about the Underground Railroad in each state.