Glossary of Underground Railroad Terms
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Glossary of Underground Railroad Terms

“A friend with friends”: An Underground Railroad conductor would use this password as a signal that fugitive slaves had arrived.

Baggage: escaping slaves

Bundles of wood: fugitives to be expected

Canaan: Canada (usually found in “spirituals”)

Coloured/Negro: words once used to describe Blacks; they are now socially outdated

Conductor/Agent: the men and women who operated the Underground Railroad and “conducted” escaping slaves along the route to safety

Drinking Gourd: refers to the constellation known as the Big Dipper, which includes the North Star. The North Star was the escaping slaves’ main navigational tool as they travelled North to freedom, usually Canada

Entry Ports: Words of praise and thanksgiving to God were used as code words for the routes into Canada, i.e. Windsor - Glory to God and Port Stanley - God be Praised

Forwarding: Transporting escaping slaves from one station to the next

Freedom Seekers: the thousands of escaped slaves who risked their lives travelling North to Canada and personal liberation

Freedom Train: The Underground Railroad

Gospel Train: The Underground Railroad

Heaven or Promised Land: Canada (usually found in “spirituals”)

“Left foot, peg foot”: A visual clue for escapees to follow. The trail was left by an Underground Railroad worker, a sailor named Peg Leg Joe, famous because of his wooden leg. Travelled through the South, used the song, Follow the Drinking Gourd, teach it to the slaves, who would later escape.

Load of Potatoes: In a wagon, escaping slaves hidden under farm produce

Moses: Harriet Tubman, a “conductor” who aided escaping slaves and was a former slave

Parcels: fugitives to be expected

Passengers/Freight/Cargo: escaping slaves. Males were referred to as “hardware” and females as “dry goods”

Preachers: leaders, speakers of the Underground Railroad

River Jordan: The Mississippi River or the Ohio River

Shepherds: people escorting slaves

Station Master: the keeper of the safe-house or “station”

Stations: the places of safety and temporary refuge where slaves hid along the escape route. Safe-houses. They could be churches, barns, or houses. Station names were referred to in code, such as:

  • Pennsylvania - #10
  • Ohio - #20
  • Cleveland - Hope
  • Sandusky - Sunrise
  • Detroit - Midnight

“Steal away, steal away, steal away to Jesus” (words from a spiritual): sung to alert other slaves that an escape attempt would be happening soon

Stockholder: one who donated money, clothing or food to the Underground Railroad

“The dead will show you the way”: If the stars weren’t visible, this phrase was a reminder that moss grows on the North side of dead trees.

“The friend of a friend sent me”: Escaping slaves, travelling alone, used this password to indicate they were sent by the Underground Railroad network

“The river bank makes a mighty good road”: A reminder that tracking dogs are unable to track the scent through water.

“The river ends between two hills”: A clue for the directions to the Ohio and Tennessee Rivers

“The wind blows from the South today”: A phrase informing Underground Railroad workers that escaping slaves were in the vicinity.

“When the sun comes back and the first quail calls”: An especially good time of year to escape (early spring)


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