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Anti-Slavery - Underground Railroad

The first anti-slavery society of Jersey County was formed in 1830 in Lofton's Prairie. Thomas McDow was its president, and James Brown its secretary.

In May, 1837, Owen Lovejoy made a speech, probably the first ever made by him in Illinois, at a meeting held by this society in Lofton's Prairie, but it was not the last by several hundred. As a result of the agitation of those times, there was more or less ex citement in regard to an underground railroad, having a principal depot at Jerseyville, and branches extending into various settlements of the county. It was even thought that some of the citizens of the county knew more of these dark practices than good, law abiding people should. In those days anti-slavery agitators went a step farther in the slave freeing connection with existing parties, and started one of their own. In the contest during 1840 to 1844, if the Liberty party did not fill as many dates as the others, they made quite as much noise and attracted as much attention as the other parties. The following is a quotation from B. B. Hamilton's History of Jersey County, of 1876, in which he goes on to say: "Among my treasures there is no work that I value higher than the records of the Lofton Anti-Slavery Society. Very many of that society passed away before the agitation had culminated in the war of the rebellion."

The murder of Rev. Elijah Lovejoy of Alton, in 1837, and the de struction of his press, intensified the feeling against slavery, especially in this part of Illinois, and, as has been said above, what was known as the "underground" railroad was agitated and perfected to a certain extent, and in later years was used as a means of assisting runaway slaves from Missouri and other states, to Canada, where their liberties were secure.

This feeling was further intensified by the passage of the Fugitive Slave Law by Congress, which not only gave the slave owners, or the men who claimed to be slave owners, the right to follow runaway slaves into Illinois, but required every citizen of Illinois, and every police officer of the state to assist the so-called slave owner in recapturing and reclaiming his property, without any process of court, or record means of identification.

Black laws were enacted by the State Legislature, prohibiting the bringing of colored people into this state for any purpose. During the years that agitation was being carried on, it is doubtless true that many slaves escaped from Missouri, crossed the Mississippi River, and were assisted on their way to Canada.

The anti-slavery people were very discreet and astute in the management of, and their connection with what was known as the "underground railroad." In Jerseyville, George W. Burke, Newell L. Adams, two brothers, Samuel and Isaac Snedeker, and probably others were supposed to be connected with a good many of these transactions; while at Otterville, Hiram White and several others were similarly suspected. The system had its supporters, according to popular supposition, in Lofton's Prairie Settlement, among the McDows and Whites. An illustration of the skill and astuteness with which the anti-slavery people conducted their operations and plans, is related by Barclay Wedding, a son of Benjamin Wedding, to the writer, of a conversation between Thomas Ford, Harley E. Hayes and Benjamin Wedding, the latter the father of the relator.

Thomas Ford was a son-in-law of Newell L. Adams, and Harley E. Hayes was a Vermonter and a strong anti-slavery man. The story was that in the fifties before the Civil War, they had word that there was a runaway negro hiding in the timber on Calhoun Point, between the Mississippi and Illinois rivers, where the bottom is very heavily timbered. Ford and Hayes drove in a spring wagon to Mason's Landing, and there getting a skiff, went up the river to Camden, where they crossed to the Calhoun side of the Illinois River. On their trip they had seen a man by the name of Bentley, who was a strong pro-slavery man, and was constantly watching for opportunities to catch runaway negroes. It was in the afternoon when they crossed the river, and they found the runaway negro in hiding. About dusk they started back in the skiff across the Illinois River to the Jersey County side, where they were met by Bentley who was looking for them. He immediately seized the negro, and hitched up his one-horse wagon, put the negro in, got in himself, and drove off home to his residence about six or seven miles away. Some little time after the departure of Bentley, Mr. Ford went back in the skiff to Calhoun Point and taking the fugitive slave brought him to Jerseyville and he was sent from there to Canada. It is needless to say that Bentley had taken away Harley E. Hayes in mistake for the fugitive slave. They had very skillfully blackened Harley's face and hands, and as it was in the dusk of the evening, and Hayes did not utter a word, Bentley did not know he had a white man instead of a runaway slave, until he arrived at his home.

The writer does not remember of a single instance of a failure on the part of the anti-slavery men to carry out their plans, once they secured possession of the runaway slave. Of course at the close of the war, these "underground railroads" became obsolete, but up to then, they were operated successfully through the territory covered by Jersey Comity, and no slaves ever reached Jerseyville, who were returned to their old masters, as far as the writer knows.

Source[History of Jersey County, Illinois 1919, Edited by Oscar B. Hamilton, President ot Jersey County Historiical Society, Published 1919]