Silent Work Behind the Call for Liberty

Fugitive slaves frequently sought refuge in central Illinois on their journey northward to freedom.

Those who travel the contemporary highways and byways of central Illinois are often reminded that they traverse historic ground. Familiar signs denoting the “Lincoln Trail” and the “Reagan Trail” attest to the nascent careers of prominent figures who once lived and worked in our communities, and it is worthy to note such occurrences, but what about the ahistorical, the unmarked, the nameless trailblazers who also crossed these prairies? Native Americans lived here for centuries and roamed this ground for sustenance, hearty pioneer and immigrant families crossed this land to build a continent, and wary fugitives from slavery found this to be contested terrain that might hold the promise of their personal liberty and redemption. We must always remember that the record of the past is often incomplete, and even the silences speak.

Folklore and Fact
The history of the Underground Railroad is one steeped in folklore and legend, but that has its basis in fact. Those who participated tended to remain silent on their actions, and seldom left a body of written records to attest to their deeds, as such documents could have been quite incriminating. Participants in the work of assisting fugitives to escape from slavery were motivated by a “higher law” that called upon them to be merciful unto others and show compassion to their fellow man, but they were well aware that their actions were in direct violation of federal law. As such, individuals in the work of the Underground Railroad did not produce the treasure trove of primary sources for which historians yearn; instead, they silently, yet diligently, conducted noble acts of civil disobedience by aiding, abetting, and often transporting fugitive slaves who sought freedom.

Although central Illinois did play a role in the work of the Underground Railroad, its place in this movement was more peripheral than some might imagine. Far more fugitive slaves progressed northward through Indiana, Ohio and even Pennsylvania rather than Illinois, due to the geographical proximity of those states to the largest slave-holding districts of the South. Of these states, Ohio is generally credited as having experienced the most traffic in fugitive slaves, who were aiming for Detroit and subsequent passage into Western Ontario, where they would attain certain freedom. It is for this reason that Cincinnati, Ohio, was ultimately selected as the location for the National Underground Railroad Freedom Center when it was established in the mid-1990s.

Underground in Galesburg
From its beginning, Galesburg played an integral part in the abolitionist movement, as George Washington Gale, founder of both the city and Knox College, was well-known for his anti-slavery views. In 1837, Gale and several others established one of the first anti-slavery societies in Illinois, and two years later, created another specifically for youth advocates. Many of its members served as conductors of the Underground Railroad, and in 1843, Gale and a number of other abolitionists were indicted for aiding the escape of fugitive slaves.

Several other early Galesburg residents have also been recognized for their efforts with the Underground Railroad. Jonathan Blanchard, the second president of Knox College, is known to have aided the escape of fugitive slave Bill Casey, and in 1854, he engaged in a heated debate with Stephen Douglas over the Kansas-Nebraska Act, which effectively lifted a longstanding ban on slavery in the Kansas territory. In 1842, Susan Richardson, a runaway slave from southern Illinois, found freedom in Galesburg and remained there for nearly 60 years, where she assisted in Underground Railroad operations and established the city’s first black church. And in a rare occurrence of documented evidence, an 1843 journal kept by Reverend Samuel Wright, a Knox College trustee and active participant in the Underground Railroad, states that more than 20 fugitive slaves had passed through the city on their way to Canada.

The National Underground Railroad Freedom Center in Cincinnati has designated Knox College as one of its “freedom stations,” and in 2006, the National Park Service Underground Railroad Network to Freedom Program recognized the Galesburg Colony Underground Railroad Freedom Station for its significant contributions to the understanding of the Underground Railroad in American history. Learn more at knox.edu.

However, it was the presence of chattel slavery in Missouri—particularly in the valley of the Missouri River in the northern portion of the state—that produced a stream of fugitives over the course of four decades who aimed for liberty by trekking across the prairies of central Illinois. Estimates of the exact number of fugitive slaves who crossed this region are inexact at best and can only be interpolated from the population of enslaved persons within Missouri and an assumed rate of successful escape from bondage there. Whether we are speaking of several hundred fugitives or a few thousand who escaped over the course of 40 years or so, the number would not have constituted a flood of refugees from slavery, but it was nonetheless a consequential presence for the small, budding pioneer communities dotting the landscape of central Illinois.

Mixed Messages in Illinois
Scholars of the Underground Railroad acknowledge that the Illinois communities of Chester, Alton and Quincy were the most prominent locations through which fugitive slaves from Missouri crossed the Mississippi River and entered Illinois on their path toward freedom. Of these locations, the Quincy crossing produced the most traffic in fugitive slaves for the area of west-central Illinois. From that entry point, there did emerge an understood path toward freedom where known abolitionists and like-minded sympathizers conducted the operations of what was called the Underground Railroad.

In addition to knowing what communities were considered safe for the fugitive slaves to traverse, the so-called “conductors” of the Underground Railroad also knew what communities needed to be avoided because of the lingering pro-slavery sentiment of area residents. As such, there were central Illinois communities that one needed to go around rather than through, and the informal routes of the Underground Railroad that emerged reflected this tacit understanding of community sentiments and standards.

Although Illinois had been born a free state in 1818, carved out of the Old Northwest Territory, which was ostensibly free of forced labor, it was a region that had a conflicted history with respect to the peculiar institution of slavery. French colonial families first introduced slavery into the Illinois country as early as the 1720s, when they sought to capitalize upon mining ventures near Galena relying upon the forced labor of enslaved Africans. Additionally, the U.S. government later made a special exemption to allow slavery in the salt mines of southeastern Illinois, where the work was considered central to the national interest, despite the acknowledgment that Illinois was a territory—and later state—that was nominally free of slavery.

Illinois also sent mixed messages on the true meaning of freedom within its borders when it adopted the notorious “Black Laws” of 1819. These prohibitive race-based laws intended to discourage those who had been manumitted (legally freed) from slavery from considering the possibility of settling in the free state of Illinois. Although enforcement of these restrictive measures waned somewhat over time, support for the “Black Laws” reemerged in 1856 when Peoria jurist Norman H. Purple reinserted them into his revision of Illinois statutes. For fugitive slaves, the presence of these laws contributed to the notion that Illinois was primarily a region through which one would transit, but not necessarily a place where one would chose to settle permanently. Yet, in spite of these legal impositions, “Free Frank” McWorter did manage to create the successful bi-racial settlement of New Philadelphia in Pike County, and a vigorous free black community emerged in Chicago just north of the Chicago River near the present-day site of Navy Pier.

Moments of Grace
The combined effect of the federal Fugitive Slave Act of 1850 and the state’s Black Laws made it challenging for residents of central Illinois to assist fugitive slaves in an overt fashion. The individuals who openly self-identified as abolitionists constituted a small crowd, but a much larger number found sympathy with the plight of the downtrodden and chose to act righteously despite the legal prohibitions against their actions. These individuals, who made personal decisions about what constituted right and wrong, chose to act in these moments of grace when confronted by another human being in need. Sometimes they chose to act creatively. Deacon Nathan Jones of Canton conducted a fake funeral procession to transport a casket by wagon all the way to Farmington, but the supposed deceased was a fugitive, very much alive, who was being delivered to like-minded sympathizers.

Supporters of the Underground Railroad hid fugitives in their barns, attics and root cellars when they could and helped shuttle those whom they aided to the next safe destination on the journey to freedom. Occasionally, local folklore will attest to the existence of elaborate tunnels or “hidden rooms” that were used to conceal fugitive slaves, but such is far more often the substance of an imagined narrative than authentic history. These claims were designed to elevate the position of abolitionist sympathizers who aided fugitive slaves; but in actuality, these were ordinary citizens who made rational choices based upon the moral impulse of the moment, rather than operating with any elaborate, long-range strategy.

When we know the outcome of a story, there tends to be a desire on the part of many to be on the right side of history. Many local family histories might include claims that one’s ancestors were abolitionists from “way back when” who supported the work of the Underground Railroad, but this is not always documented by the historical record. Those who did the work of the Underground Railroad were a small group, but they were an impassioned lot.

The landscape we cross today, with its rivers and streams, undulating prairies, and seemingly vast expanses, was once a place where freedom was earned—not merely attained—by those who simply sought the natural human condition of liberty for themselves and their children. Here, in this place that came to be called the “Land of Lincoln,” certain individuals followed the moral imperative to aid their fellow man without fear of the legal consequences that might befall them. In short, history happened here. Despite the occasional silences of history and the clouded misperception of folklore and legend, we must never forget that the best elements of humanity were rooted in this place and found cause to advance the calling of liberty. iBi

Photo © Larry Kanfer, www.kanfer.com, from "Barns of Illinois."

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