Iowa and the Underground Railroad
The “underground railroad” was an organized system for helping escaped slaves from the southern states reach freedom in the North or Canada in the years before the Civil War. The name may have come from an incident in 1831 when a freedom seeker (runaway slave) named Tice David ran away from a Kentucky plantation. His master followed him to the banks of the Ohio River, but lost track of him when he dived into the water and swam across to Ripley, Ohio. Returning home empty-handed, Tice’s owner told everyone that his slave “must have escaped on an underground road.”
Steam railroads were a new and exciting means of travel in 1831. Maybe that’s why the “underground road” became an “underground railroad.” Those who kept “safe houses” for freedom seekers were called “station agents.” Others who guided freedom seekers from one place to another became ”conductors.” Freedom seekers themselves were referred to as “passengers.”
Underground Doesn't Mean Under Ground
The word “underground” makes people think freedom seekers on the run must have been hidden in basements or cellars. There are five underground railroad stops in Iowa that have been preserved (Lewelling House in Salem, Pearson House in Keosauqua, Jordan House in West Des Moines, Hitchcock House in Lewis, and the John Todd House in Tabor). They all have cellars, but there’s not much proof that freedom seekers were actually hidden in them—except possibly at the Hitchock House. Instead, favorite hiding places seem to have been in the attics of houses, or in outbuildings like the haylofts of barns. Sometimes freedom seekers were hidden outside in the woods along creeks or rivers, or even in tall prairie grass.
And Railroad Doesn't Mean Trains
Despite the name, escaped slaves didn’t usually travel to freedom on railroad trains. Trains didn’t come to Iowa until 1855. Usually wagons pulled by oxen or horses were used. If it was necessary to transport freedom seekers in broad daylight, a horse-drawn buggy or carriage was sometimes used. Many freedom seekers probably entered Iowa by boat across the Missouri River. They probably left by boat across the Mississippi River to Illinois on their way to Canada. Freedom seekers often managed to escape on horses or mules. Very often, they had no other means of transport than their own two feet.
A Few Brave People
We know the names of more than 100 Iowans who helped in one way or another with the underground railroad. Among the best-known are Congressman Josiah B. Grinnell of Grinnell, James Jordan near West Des Moines, Anna and John Cook of “Quaker Divide” near Earlham and John Williamson, a free African-American living near Council Bluffs.
Many who helped freedom seekers escape from slavery, even though it was against the law to do so, were driven by a religious belief that slavery was wrong. In Iowa anti-slavery Quakers played a leading role.
We don’t usually know the identity of the African-American freedom seekers who passed through Iowa on the underground railroad. But sometimes we do know at least their first names. Two young men named John and Archie passed through Appanoose County on their way to freedom in Canada. Two young women named Celia and Eliza stayed at the Robert Smith farm in Clinton County for several weeks until the ice on the Mississippi River was frozen enough to cross safely. In June 1848 nine slaves owned by a man named Ruell Daggs in Missouri slipped away to Salem, Iowa: Sam and Dorcas Fulcher, John and Mary Walker, two girls named Julia and Martha, a small boy named William, and two other young children, one an infant, whose names we don’t know. In October 1861 four men from near Maryville, Missouri, named John Graves, Alec Nichols, Henderson Hays and Anderson Hays made it to Winterset after two days of riding at night on horses and mules.
People often think freedom seekers were families or women with children. In fact, traveling with children slowed freedom seekers down. Parties traveling with young children were more likely to be recaptured. Nearly 75 percent of the freedom seekers who were successful were young men. Most of the rest were young women in their teens, who did not yet have children.
It's the Law
If slave catchers did succeed in recapturing a freedom seeker, they were supposed to take him or her before a justice of the peace. They had to prove that they had the right person. In one of the very few cases where that happened in Iowa, the freedom seekers were released because their captors did not actually know them personally and couldn’t make a positive identification to the justice of the peace. Even though the Fugitive Slave Act of 1850 called for a fine of $1,000 and a term of six months in jail for anyone convicted of helping a freedom seeker escape, there is no known case of anyone being convicted under that law in Iowa.
Unsure of Numbers
Most runaway slaves didn’t get very far and were soon recaptured. Only a few made it to the free states of the North or to Canada. One guess is that about 35,000 from 1830 to the end of the Civil War in 1865 made it to freedom. There were 4 million slaves in the South in 1860. The underground railroad was a serious annoyance to slaveholders, but it didn’t make much of a difference in the number of slaves held.
It’s harder to guess how many freedom seekers passed through Iowa on the underground railroad. Most came from Missouri. Some came from Arkansas or Indian Territory (Oklahoma). A few came from Kentucky, Tennessee or Mississippi. Most likely not more than a few hundred passed through Iowa on the underground railroad.
It's important to remember that black freedom seekers were not just waiting for help from sympathetic whites. Many ran away and traveled on their own. If they were successful in reaching the free states, they often became station agents and conductors helping other passengers on the underground railroad.
- Berrier, G. Galin. “The Underground Railroad in Iowa, “ in Bill Silag, et al., eds., Outside In: African American History in Iowa, 1838-2000. Des Moines: Iowa, State Historical Society of Iowa, 2001.
- Dykstra, Robert A. Bright Radical Star: Black Freedom and White Supremacy on the Hawkeye Frontier. Cambridge, Massachusetts: Harvard University Press, 1993.
- Franklin, John Hope, Schweninger, Loren. Runaway Slaves: Rebels on the Plantation. New York, New York: Oxford University Press, 1999.
- Richman, Irving B. John Brown Among the Quakers and Other Skteches. Des Moines, Iowa: State Historical Department of Iowa, 1894.
- Todd, John. Early Settlement and Growth of Western Iowa, or Reminiscence. Des Moines. Des Moines, Iowa: State Historical Department of Iowa,1906.
- Van Ek, Jacob. “Underground Railroad in Iowa,” The Palimpsest, II (May, 1921), 129-143.
Written for Iowa Pathways by Galin Berrier.