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Finding Ancestors in the Anti-Slavery Movement and Underground Railroad


The chronology below highlights some key milestones both in the expansion of slavery in the United States, and in the various forms of opposition and resistance to slavery. Links included here highlight digital resources and related research guides for further exploration.

Anti-Slavery Chronology

1688 Germantown protest against slavery
1775 First meeting in Philadelphia of Society for the Relief of Free Negroes Unlawfully held in Bondage (aka the Pennsylvania Abolition Society)
1788 Ratification of U.S. Constitution
1800 Gabriel’s Rebellion of the enslaved, Virginia, August
1803 Louisiana Purchase
1808 Abolition of the (international) slave trade
1820 Missouri Compromise (prohibits slavery north of 36°30´)
1822 Denmark Vesey Revolt of the enslaved, South Carolina, June

Founding of The Liberator newspaper demanding immediate, unconditional, uncompensated, and universal emancipation, Boston, January

Nat Turner’s Rebellion of the enslaved, Virginia, August

1832 - 1833 Nullification Crisis
1833 Founding of the biracial American Anti-Slavery Society, Philadelphia
1834 Emancipation in the British West Indies
1836 - 1844 Gag rule prohibiting any discussion of the antislavery petitions then flooding into Congress
1846 - 1848 Mexican War, ends in the addition to the territory of the United States of the land that later became the states west of Louisiana
1850 Fugitive Slave Law, part of the Compromise of 1850
1851 In Christiana, Pennsylvania, a group of escapees and supporters fight back against slavecatchers, and a slavecatcher is killed.
1852 Publication of Harriet Beecher Stowe’s novel, Uncle Tom’s Cabin.
1854 Kansas-Nebraska Act is passed by Congress (effectively repeals the Missouri Compromise restriction on slavery’s expansion)
1854 - 1856 Violent skirmishes between pro- and anti-slavery migrants to Kansas Territory
1856 Pro-slavery U.S. Representative from South Carolina Preston Brooks surprises an unarmed anti-slavery U.S. Senator from Massachusetts Charles Sumner in the Senate chamber and beats him unconscious with a heavy cane.
1857 U.S. Supreme Court issues its decision in the Dred Scott case, maintaining that slaveholders may enjoy the protections of their human property anywhere in the Union, also that Black Americans are not U.S. citizens, and that they have no rights that White Americans are bound to respect.
1859 Abolitionist John Brown leads a biracial assault on the U.S. Armory at Harper’s Ferry, October 16. The raid fails and Brown is executed December 2.
1860 Abraham Lincoln, Republican candidate, wins the U.S. Presidential election. South Carolina secedes from the Union the next month, followed by ten other slaveholding states which form the Confederate States of America.
1861 Civil War breaks out between the Confederate States and the United States of America, April.
1863 President Lincoln issues the Emancipation Proclamation, January, which frees all those enslaved in parts of the Confederacy not under the control of Union forces, and which allows for enlistment of Black Americans as soldiers in the Union Army.
1864 A presidential election is held while the Civil War raged. Abraham Lincoln is re-elected.

Abraham Lincoln is fatally shot about six weeks after his inauguration. Vice-President Andrew Johnson becomes President (April)

The Thirteenth Amendment to the U.S. Constitution is ratified, virtually abolishing slavery in the United States (December)