In 1831, a Kentucky slave named Tice Davids made a break for the free state of Ohio by swimming across the Ohio River. His master trailed close behind and watched Davids wade ashore. When he looked again, Davids was nowhere to be seen. Davids's enraged master returned to Kentucky, exclaiming to his friends that Davids "must have gone off on an underground road."
The name stuck.
Though named then, the practice was made most famous two decades later because of the heroic exploits of the Underground Railroad's most celebrated "conductor"—Harriet Tubman (1820?-1913).
Tubman was raised in slavery in eastern Maryland but escaped in 1849. When she first reached the North, she said later, "I looked at my hands to see if I was the same person now I was free. There was such a glory over everything, the sun came like gold through the trees and over the fields, and I felt like I was in heaven."
Tubman was not satisfied with her own escape to freedom, however. She made 19 return trips to the South and helped deliver at least 300 fellow slaves to freedom, boasting, "I never lost a passenger." Her guidance of so many to freedom prompted the nickname Moses.
Tubman's friends and fellow abolitionists claimed that her strength came from her faith in God as deliverer and protector of the weak. "I always told God," she said, "I'm going to hold steady on you, an' you've got to see me through."
Though infuriated slaveholders posted a $40,000 reward for her capture, she was never apprehended.1