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THE UNDERGROUND RAILROAD
Historical Encylopedia of Illinois, 1901

©Transcribed by Kim Torp

(Original 1901 terminology is used)


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A history of Illinois would be incomplete without reference to the unique system which existed there, as in other Northern States, from forty to seventy years ago, known by the somewhat mysterious title of "The Underground Railroad." The origin of the term has been traced (probably in a spirit of facetiousness) to the expression of a Kentucky planter who, having pursued a fugitive slave across the Ohio River, was so surprised by his sudden disappearance, as soon as he had reached the opposite shore, that he was led to remark, "The nigger must have gone off on an underground road." From "underground road" to "underground railroad," the transition would appear to have been easy, especially in view of the increased facility with which the work was performed when railroads came into use. For readers of the present generation, it may be well to explain what "The Underground Railroad" really was. It may be defined as the figurative appellation for a spontaneous movement in the free States-extending, sometimes, into the slave States themselves-to assist slaves in their efforts to escape from bondage to freedom. The movement dates back to a period close to the Revolutionary War, long before it received a definite name. Assistance given to fugitives from one State by citizens of another, became a cause of complaint almost as soon as the Government was organized. In fact, the first President himself lost a slave who took refuge at Ports mouth, N. H., where the public sentiment was so strong against his return, that the patriotic and philosophic "Father of his Country" chose to let him remain unmolested, rather than "excite a mob or riot, or even uneasy sensations, in the minds of well-disposed citizens." That the matter was already one of concern in the minds of slaveholders, is shown by the fact that a provision was inserted in the Constitution for their conciliation, guaranteeing the return of fugitives from labor, as well as from justice, from one State to another.

In 1793 Congress passed the first Fugitive Slave Law, which was signed by President Washington. This law provided that the owner, his agent or attorney, might follow the slave into any State or Territory, and, upon oath or affidavit before a court or magistrate, be entitled to a warrant for his return. Any person who should hinder the arrest of the fugitive, or who should harbor, aid or assist him, knowing him to be such, was subject to a fine of $500 for each offense-In 1850, fifty-seven years later, the first act having proved inefficacious, or conditions having changed, a second and more stringent law was enacted. This is the one usually referred to in discussions of the subject. It provided for an increased fine, not to exceed $1,000, and imprisonment not exceeding six months, with liability for civil damages to the party injured. No proof of ownership was required beyond the statement of a claimant, and the accused was not permitted to testify for himself. The fee of the United States Commissioner, before whom the case was tried, was ten dollars if he found for the claimant; if not, five dollars. This seemed to many an indirect form of bribery; clearly, it made it to the Judge's pecuniary advantage to decide in favor of the claimant. The law made
possible and easy for a white man to arrest, and carry into slavery, any free Negro who could not immediately prove, by other witnesses, that he was born free, or had purchased his freedom.

Instead of discouraging the disposition, on the part of the opponents of slavery, to aid fugitives in their efforts to reach a region where they would be secure in their freedom, the effect of the Fugitive Slave Law of 1850 (as that of 1793 had been in a smaller degree) was the very opposite of that intended by its authors-unless, indeed, they meant to make matters worse. The provisions of the act seemed, to many people, so unfair, so one-sided, that they rebelled in spirit and refused to be wade parties to its enforcement. The law aroused the anti-slavery sentiment of the North, and stimulated the active friends of the fugitives to take greater risks in their behalf. New efforts on the part of the slaveholders were met by a determination to evade, hinder and nullify the law.

And here a strange anomaly is presented. The slaveholder, in attempting to recover his slave, was acting within his constitutional and legal rights. The slave was his property in law. He had purchased or inherited his bondman on the same plane with his horse or his land, and, apart from the right to hold a human being in bondage, regarded his legal rights to the one as good as the other. From a legal standpoint his position was impregnable. The slave was his, representing so much of money value, and whoever was instrumental in the loss of that slave was, both theoretically and technically, a partner in robbery. Therefore he looked on "The Underground Railway" as the work of thieves, and entertained bitter hatred toward all concerned in its operation. On the other hand, men who were, in all other respects, good citizens-often religiously devout and pillars of the church-became bold and flagrant violators of the law in relation t this sort of property. They set at nought a plain provision of the Constitution and the act of Congress for its enforcement. Without hope of personal gain or reward, at the risk of fine and imprisonment, with the certainty of social ostracism and bitter opposition, they harbored the fugitive and helped him forward on every occasion. And why? Because they saw in him a man, with the same inherent right to "life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness" that they themselves possessed. To them this was a higher law than any Legislature, State or National, could enact. They denied that there could be truly such a thing as property in man. Believing that the law violated human rights, they justified themselves in rendering it null and void.

For the most part, the "Underground Railroad" operators and promoters were plain, obscure men, without hope of fame or desire for notoriety. Yet there were some whose names are conspicuous in history, such as Wendell Phillips, Thomas Wentworth Higginson and Theodore Parker of Massachusetts; Gerrit Smith and Thurlow Weed of New York; Joshua R. Giddings of Ohio, and Owen Lovejoy of Illinois. These had their followers and sympathizers in all the Northern States, and even in some portions of the South. It is a curious fact, that some of the most active spirits connected with the "Underground Railroad" were natives of the South, or had resided there long enough to become thoroughly acquainted with the "institution." Levi Coffin, who had the reputation of being the "President of the Underground Railroad" - at least so far as the region west of the Ohio was concerned-was an active operator on the line in North Carolina before his removal from that State to Indiana in 1826. Indeed, as a system, it is claimed to have had its origin at Guilford College, in the "Old North State" in 1819, though the evidence of this may not be conclusive.

Owing to the peculiar nature of their business, no official reports were made, no lists of officers, conductors, station agents or operators preserved, and few records kept which are now accessible. Consequently, we are dependent chiefly upon the personal recollection of individual operators for, a history of their transactions. Each station on the road was the house of a "friend" and it is significant, in this connection, that in every settlement of Friends, or Quakers, there was sure to be a house of refuge for the slave. For this reason it was, perhaps, that one of the most frequently traveled lines extended from Virginia and Maryland through Eastern Pennsylvania, and then on towards New York or directly to Canada. From the proximity of Ohio to Virginia and Kentucky, and the fact that it offered the shortest route through free soil to Canada, it was traversed by more lines than any other State, although Indiana was pretty thoroughly "grid-ironed" by roads to freedom. In all, however, the routes were irregular, often zigzag, for purposes of security, and the "conductor" was any one who conveyed fugitives from one station to another The "train" was some times a farm-wagon, loaded with produce for market at some town (or depot) on the line, frequently a closed carriage, and it is related that once, in Ohio, a number of carriages conveying a large party, were made to represent a funeral profession. Occasionally the train ran on foot, for convenience of side-tracking into the woods or a cornfield, in case of pursuit by a wild locomotive.

Then, again, there were not wanting lawyers who, in case the operator, conductor or station agent got into trouble, were ready, without fee or reward, to defend either him or his human freight in the courts. These included such names of national repute as Salmon P. Chase, Thaddeus Stevens, Charles Sumner, William H. Seward, Rutherford B. Hayes, Richard H. Dana, and Isaac N. Arnold, while, taking the whole country over, their "name was legion." And there were a few men of wealth, like Thomas Garrett of Delaware, willing to contribute money by thousands to their assistance. Although technically acting in violation of law- or, as claimed by themselves, in obedience to a "higher law"- the time has already come when there is a disposition to look upon the actors as, in a certain sense, heroes, and their deeds as fitly belonging to the field of romance.

The most comprehensive collection of material relating to the history of this movement has been furnished in a recent volume entitled, "The Underground Railroad from Slavery to Freedom," by Prof. Wilbur H. Siebert, of Ohio State University; and, while it is not wholly free from errors, both as to individual names and facts, it will probably remain as the best compilation of history bearing on this subject-especially as the principal actors are fast passing away. One of the interesting features of Prof. Siebert's book is a map purporting to give the principal routes and stations in the States northwest of the Ohio, yet the accuracy of this, as well as the correctness of personal names given, has been questioned by some best informed on the subject. As might be expected from its geographical position between two slave States-Kentucky and Missouri-on the one hand, and the lakes offering a highway to Canada on the other, it is naturally to be assumed that Illinois would be an attractive field, both for the fugitive and his sympathizer.

The period of greatest activity of the system in this State was between 1840 and 1861-the latter being the year when the pro-slavery party in the South, by their attempt forcibly to dissolve the Union, took the business out of the hands of the secret agents of the "Underground Railroad," and-in a certain sense-placed it in the hands of the Union armies. It was in 1841 that Abraham Lincoln-then a conservative opponent of the extension of slavery-on an appeal from a judgment, rendered by the Circuit Court in Tazewell County, in favor of the holder of a note given for the service of the indentured slave-girl "Nance," obtained a decision from the Supreme Court of Illinois upholding the doctrine that the girl was free under the Ordinance of 1787 and the State Constitution, and that the note, given to the person who claimed to be her owner, was void. And it is a somewhat curious coincidence that the same Abraham Lincoln, as President of the United States, in the second year of the War of the Rebellion, issued the Proclamation of Emancipation which finally resulted in striking the shackles from the limbs of every slave in the Union.

In the practical operation of aiding fugitives in Illinois, it was natural that the towns along the border upon the Ohio and Mississippi Rivers, should have served as a sort of entrepots, or initial stations, for the reception of this class of freight-especially if adjacent to some anti slavery community. This was the case at Chester, from which access was easy to Sparta, where a colony of Covenanters, or Seceders, was located, and whence a route extended, by way of Oakdale, Nashville and Centralia, in the direction of Chicago. Alton offered convenient access to Bond County, where there was a community of anti-slavery people at an early day, or the fugitives could be forwarded northward by way of Jerseyville, Waverly and Jacksonville, about each of which there was a strong anti-slavery sentiment. Quincy, in spite of an intense hostility among the mass of the community to any thing savoring of abolitionism, became the theater of great activity on the part of the opponents of the institution, especially after the advent there of Dr. David Nelson and Dr. Richard Eells, both of whom had rendered themselves obnoxious to the people of Missouri by extending aid to fugitives. The former was a practical abolitionist who, having freed his slaves in his native State of Virginia, removed to Missouri and attempted to establish Marion College, a few miles from Palmyra, but was soon driven to Illinois. Locating near Quincy, he founded the "Mission Institute" there, at which' he continued to disseminate his anti-slavery views, while educating young men for missionary work. The "Institute" was finally burned by emissaries from Missouri, while three young men who had been connected with it, having been caught in Missouri, were condemned to twelve years' confinement in the penitentiary of that State-partly on the testimony of a Negro, although a Negro was not then a legal witness in the courts against a white man. Dr. Eells was prosecuted before Stephen A. Douglas (then a Judge of the Circuit Court), and fined for aiding a fugitive to escape, and the judgment against him was finally confirmed by the Supreme Court after his death, in 1852, ten years after the original indictment.

A map in Professor Siebert's book, showing the routes and principal stations of the "Undergound Railroad," makes mention of the following places in Illinois, in addition to those already referred to: Carlinville, in Macoupin County; Payson and Mendon, in Adams; Washington, in Tazewell; Metamora, in Woodford; Magnolia, in Putnam; Galesbung, in Knox; Princeton (the home of Owen Lovejoy and the Bryants), in Bureau; and many more. Ottawa appears to have been the meeting point of a number of lines, as well as the home of a strong colony of practical abolitionists. Cairo also became an important transfer station for fugitives arriving by river, after the completion of the Illinois Central Railroad, especially as it offered the speediest way of reaching Chicago, towards which nearly all the lines converged. It was here that the fugitives could be most safely disposed of by placing them upon vessels, which, without stopping at inter mediate ports, could soon land them on Canadian soil.

As to methods, these differed according to circumstances, the emergencies of the occasion, or the taste, convenience or resources of the operator. Deacon Levi Morse, of Woodford County, near Metamora, had a route towards Magnolia, Putnam County; and his favorite "car" was a farm wagon in which there was a double bottom. The passengers were snugly placed below, and grain sacks, filled with bran or other light material, were laid over, so that the whole presented the appearance of an ordinary load of grain on its way to market. The same was true as to stations and routes. One, who was an operator, says:
"Wherever an abolitionist happened on a fugitive, or the converse, there was a station, for the time, and the route was to the next anti-slavery man to the east or the north. As a general rule, the agent preferred not to know anything beyond the operation of his own immediate section of the road. If he knew nothing about the operations of another, and the other knew nothing of his, they could not be witnesses in court."

We have it on the authority of Judge Harvey B. Hurd, of Chicago, that runaways were usually forwarded from that city to Canada by way of the Lakes, there being several steamers available for that purpose. On one occasion thirteen were put aboard a vessel under the eyes of a United States Marshal and his deputies. The fugitives, secreted in a woodshed, one by one took the places of colored stevedores carrying wood aboard the ship. Possibly the term, "There's a nigger in the woodpile," may have originated in this incident. Thirteen was an "unlucky number" in this instance for the masters.

Among the notable trials for assisting runaways in violation of the Fugitive Slave Law, in addition to the case of Dr. Eells, already mentioned, were those of Owen Lovejoy of Princeton, and Deacon Cushing of Will County, both of whom were defended by Judge James Collins of Chicago. John Hossack and Dr. Joseph Stout of Ottawa, with some half-dozen of their neighbors and friends, were tried at Ottawa, in 1859, for assisting a fugitive and acquitted on a technicality. A strong array of attorneys, afterwards widely known through the northern part of the State, appeared for the defense, including Isaac N. Arnold, Joseph Knox, B. C. Cook, J. V. Eustace, Edward S. Leland and E. C. Lamed. Joseph T. Morse, of Woodford County, was also arrested, taken to Peoria and committed to jail, but acquitted on trial.

Another noteworthy case was that of Dr. Samuel Willard (now of Chicago) and his father, Julius A. Willard, charged with assisting in the escape of a fugitive at Jacksonville, in 1843, when the Doctor was a student in Illinois College. "The National Corporation Reporter," a few years ago, gave an account of this affair, together with a letter from Dr. Willard, in which he states that, after protracted litigation, during which the case was carried to the Supreme Court, it was ended by his pleading guilty before Judge Samuel D. Lockwood, when he was fined one dollar and costs-the latter amounting to twenty dollars. The Doctor frankly adds: "My father, as well as myself, helped many fugitives afterwards." It did not always happen, however, that offenders escaped so easily.

Judge Harvey B. Hurd, already referred to, and an active anti-slavery man in the days of the Fugitive Slave Law, relates the following: Once, when the trial of a fugitive was going on before Justice Kercheval, in a room on the second floor of a two-story frame building on Clark Street in the city of Chicago, the crowd in attendance filled the room, the stairway and the adjoining sidewalk. In some way the prisoner got mixed
in with the audience, and passed down over the heads of those on the stairs, where the officers were unable to follow.

In another case, tried before United States Commissioner Geo. W. Meeker, the result was made to hinge upon a point in the indictment to the effect that the fugitive was "copper-colored." The Commissioner, as the story goes, being inclined to favor public sentiment, called for a large copper cent, that he might make comparison. The decision was, that the prisoner was "off color," so to speak, and he was hustled out of the room before the officers could re-arrest him, as they had been instructed to do.

Dr. Samuel Willard, in a review of Professor Siebert's book, published in "The-Dial" of Chicago, makes mention of Henry Irving and William Chauncey Carter as among his active allies at Jacksonville, with Rev. Bilious Pond and Deacon Lyman of Farmington (near the present village of Farmingdale in Sangamon County), Luther Ransom of Springfield, Andrew Borders of Randolph County, Joseph Gerrish of Jersey and William T. Allan of Henry, as their coadjutors in other parts of the State. Other active agents or promoters, in the same field, included such names as Dr. Charles V. Dyer, Philo Carpenter, Calvin De Wolf, L. C. P. Freer, Zebina Eastman, James H. Collins, Harvey B. Hurd, J. Young Scammon, Col. J. F. Farnsworth and others of Chicago, whose names have already been mentioned; Rev. Asa Turner, Deacon Ballard, J. K. Van Dorn and Erastus Benton, of Quincy and Adams County; President Rufus Blanchard of Knox College, Galesburg; John Leeper of Bond; the late Prof. J. B. Turner and Elihu Wolcott of Jacksonville; Capt. Parker Morse and his four sons- Joseph T., Levi P., Parker, Jr., and Mark of Woodford County; Rev. William Sloane of Randolph; William Strawn of La Salle, besides a host who were willing to aid their fellow men in their aspirations to freedom, without advertising their own exploits.

Among the incidents of "Underground Railroad" in Illinois is one which had some importance politically, having for its climax a dramatic scene in Congress, but of which, so far as known, no full account has ever been written. About 1855, Ephraim Lombard, a Mississippi planter, but a New Englander by birth, purchased a large body of prairie land in the northeastern part of Stark County,. and, taking up his residence temporarily in the village of Bradford, began its improvement. He had brought with him from Mississippi a Negro, gray-haired and bent with age, a slave of probably no great value. "Old Mose," as he was called, soon came to be well known and a favorite in the neighborhood. Lombard boldly stated that he had brought him there as a slave; that, by virtue of the Dred Scott decision (then of recent date), he had a constitutional right to take his slaves wherever he pleased, and that "Old Mose" was just as much his property in Illinois as in Mississippi. It soon became evident to some, that his bringing of the Negro to Illinois was an experiment to test the law and the feelings of the Northern people. This being the case, a shrewd play would have been to let him have his way till other slaves should have been brought to stock the new plantation. But this was too slow a process for the abolitionists, to whom the holding of a slave in the free State of Illinois appeared an unbearable outrage. It was feared that he might take the old Negro back to Mississippi and fail to bring any others. It was reported, also, that "Old Mose" was ill-treated; that he was given only the coarsest food in a back shed, as if he were a horse or a dog, instead of being permitted to eat at table with the family. The prairie citizen of that time was very particular upon this point of etiquette. The hired man or woman, debarred from the table of his or her employer, would not have remained a day. A quiet consultation with "Old Mose" revealed the fact that he would hail the gift of freedom joyously. Accordingly, one Peter Risedorf, and another equally daring, met him by the light of the stars and, before morning, he was placed in the care of Owen Lovejoy, at Princeton, twenty miles away. From there he was speedily "franked" by the member of Congress to friends in Canada.

There was a great commotion in Bradford over the "stealing" of "Old Mose." Lombard and his friends denounced the act in terms bitter and profane, and threatened vengeance upon the perpetrators. The conductors were known only to a few, and they kept their secret well. Lovejoy's part in the affair, however, soon leaked out. Lombard returned to Mississippi, where he related his experiences to Mr. Singleton, the Representative in Congress from his district. During the next session of Congress, Singleton took occasion, in a speech, to sneer at Lovejoy as a "nigger-stealer," citing the case of "Old Mose." Mr. Lovejoy replied in his usual fervid and dramatic style, making a speech which ensured his election to Congress for life-' 'is it desired to call attention to this fact of my assisting fugitive slaves?" he said. "Owen Lovejoy lives at Princeton, Ill., three-quarters of a mile east of the village, and he aids every slave that comes to his door and asks it. Thou invisible Demon of Slavery, dost thou think to cross my humble threshold and forbid me to give bread to the hungry and shelter to the homeless? I bid you defiance, in the name of my God!"

With another incident of an amusing character this article may be closed: Hon. J. Young Scammon, of Chicago, being accused of conniving at the escape of a slave from officers of the law, was asked by the court what he would do if summoned as one of a posse to pursue and capture a fugitive. "I would certainly obey the summons," he replied, "but-I should probably stub my toe and fall down before I reached him."

N0TE. - Those who wish to pursue the subject of the "Underground Railroad" in Illinois further, are referred to the work of Dr. Siebert, already mentioned, and to the various County Histories which have been issued and may be found in the public libraries; also for interesting incidents, to "Reminiscences of Levi Coffin," Johnson's "From Dixie to Canada," Petit's Sketches, "Still, Underground Railroad," and a pamphlet of the same title by James H. Fairchild, ex-President of Oberlin College.

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Interested in reading more? Here are some more links to our data on this subject:

Illinois and the Underground Railroad to Canada

Illinois Slave County Map - 1824



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