Time Era

Historic time period: 1801–1877

Slave Life and the Underground Railroad

Between the American Revolution and the end of the Civil War, millions of Africans were brought to America as slaves.

Men, women, and children from the west coast of Africa were captured and forced onto slave ships that sailed across the Atlantic Ocean to North America.

During the long two-month trip, many became sick and died. Those who survived were sold at auction to the highest bidder. Families were separated never to be reunited.

Many West Africans were sold to plantation owners who cultivated rice in the marshy lowlands of South Carolina. Planters preferred West Africans because they were experienced rice farmers who could make the plantations successful.

Slaves were treated as property. Some masters required slaves to wear tags that identified them when they were away from the plantation. Thousands tried to escape to freedom over the secret routes known as the Underground Railroad.

You can learn more about slave life and the Underground Railroad by reading Follow the Drinking Gourd, and by trying out the activities below.

Read more about the Underground Railroad »

Read This Book

You can learn more about slavery and life on a plantation by exploring these books. Click on the book titles below for more information, or visit our complete bibliography.

Follow the Drinking Gourd book cover

Featured Book

Follow the Drinking Gourd

by Jeanette Winter

Images from Follow the Drinking Gourd courtesy of Jeanette Winter. Used by permission from Dragonfly Books a division of Alfred A. Knopf


  • Document Detective

    Document Detective

    Study in School

    Documents leave us clues to the past. Study a document to figure out what it was used for, and what it can tell us about the past.

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  • Using Rice Plantation Tools

    Using Rice Plantation Tools

    Learn From Objects

    Study pictures of rice plantation tools. How do you think the tools were used?

    Download the PDF »

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