It was neither under the ground nor a real railroad, but its participants helped thousands of black slaves in America to escape from bondage. Writer and photographer Jon McGinty takes us to points in southern Wisconsin and northern Illinois that were part of an organized system designed to help runaway slaves journey to free states, Canada, Mexico and the Caribbean.
Before Columbus’ visits to the “New World,” slavery existed in America among some Indian tribes. But the enslavement of black Africans began in the American colonies in 1619, with the settlement of Jamestown, Va. Estimates are that, by the year 1700, 300,000 slaves had been brought to the Americas by English vessels. During the American Revolution (1775-1783), American and British ships carried 40-50,000 Africans to America each year. The normal mortality rate aboard these slave ships was around 25 percent.
By the time of the first U.S. census in 1790, there were an estimated 698,000 slaves in the country, comprising 17 percent of the population. After 1750, slavery began to decline, but Whitney’s invention of the cotton gin, in 1793, made cotton a viable cash crop, and demand for slave labor to supply northern mills with cotton increased dramatically. Even though U.S. ports were closed to the importation of slaves in 1807, another 250,000 were smuggled ashore before the Civil War began in 1861, making a total of more than 4 million people in bondage, owned by less than 2 percent of the white population.
From the beginning of their bondage in America, slaves attempted to escape, but it wasn’t until the end of the 18th century that an organized system began to assist runaways. Even George Washington complained in 1786 about a society of Quakers that helped one of his slaves escape. What finally emerged, in the 19th century, was an informal network of routes and safe houses which stretched across 16 states, several territories and Canada. Run mostly by escaped slaves, white and black abolitionists, American Indians, and members of religious groups, they assisted Southern runaways in their journey to free states, Canada, Mexico or the Caribbean. During its peak period (1850-1860), this Underground Railroad helped an estimated 1,000 slaves each month escape from slave-holding states, and by the beginning of the Civil War, probably more than 100,000 had escaped successfully.
While this number was small compared to the 4 million still in bondage, its impact on our history cannot be underestimated. As historians remind us, because participants were in direct violation of federal laws which threatened fines and imprisonment, the Underground Railroad can be considered the largest movement of civil disobedience since the American Revolution. And because it involved whites, blacks and American Indians, it was also the first racially-integrated civil rights movement in U.S. history.
Many historians agree that most slaves escaped from their masters on their own, with little or no help from the Underground Railroad, and that the majority of workers on it were not whites but former slaves. Because of its clandestine nature, few records of Underground Railroad activity were kept, and most information about it comes from the writings of white abolitionists.
Travel over the Underground Railroad could be treacherous and exhausting, for both slaves and their guides. Typically, they traveled singly or in small groups on foot, by wagon, boat or sometimes train, usually at night. “Conductors” led the way from one safe house to the next, 10 to 20 miles apart, and communicated by means of secret codes [see p. 100] and signals. The cell-like structure of the network prevented anyone assisting runaways from knowing little more than their immediate contacts in the area.
A theory emerged in the 1980s that designs on quilts displayed on fences by Underground Railroad workers were used to transmit messages to weary escapees. Recent scholarship has debunked the theory as folklore. A lantern in a window or a handkerchief tied to a gate was used most often to tell runaways when it was safe to approach the next hiding place.
Slavery existed in Illinois beginning in the early 1700s, when French traders brought Africans to work in the lead and salt mines. The Northwest Ordinance of 1787 banned slavery in the Northwest Territory (which included Illinois) after 1800. In spite of this, when Illinois became a “free” state in 1818, slavery still existed there, with little interference from authorities. In fact, the first governor, Shadrack Bond, owned 13 slaves himself. In 1824, a vote to convert Illinois to a slave state was narrowly defeated.
Because of its common borders with two slave states, Kentucky and Missouri, and access to the Great Lakes via Lake Michigan, Illinois became an important part of the Underground Railroad network. River ports like Cairo, Alton and St. Louis were common entry points for escaping slaves, and most routes through the state ran in a northeasterly direction, often following rivers and leading to Chicago or Wisconsin.
Although technically a free state, Illinois enacted infamous “Black Laws,” which deprived free blacks of basic rights like serving in the militia, traveling without documentation, testifying in court cases involving whites, or gathering in groups. As a result, runaway slaves, for the most part, kept moving northward, although some chose to be assimilated into larger black communities in larger cities like Chicago.
Byron, Ill. (Ogle County)
A two-story red brick building in the center of town houses part of the Byron Museum of History, but the building itself is also a part of that story. Built in 1843, it’s one of the oldest structures in Byron and was home to the Lucius Read family until the early 1900s. From 1850 to 1862, the Read house was also one of three “stations” in Byron as part of the Underground Railroad, and the only one still standing. The other buildings were the Tanner and Dresser barns.
“Byron held a large group of abolitionists during that time,” says Jessica McCanse, executive director of the Byron Museum. “Most were members of the Congregational Church, and came here from New England. George Gammell was their pastor from 1843 to 1850, and he used his sermons to preach the gospel of abolitionism.”
Runaway slaves were hidden in the cellar of the Read home, where they could eat, change clothes, and rest before the next phase of their journey. A small exhibit in the basement shows how the room might have been furnished for the fugitives.
“An inn across the highway to the south was operated by another abolitionist named Dudley Wood,” says McCanse. “Many Byron residents believe there was a tunnel connecting the Read cellar to the inn, where fugitive slaves could move or be brought food. But we never found any evidence of a tunnel during renovations.”
Lydia Read Artz, daughter of Lucius and Emily, later became publisher of the local paper, the Byron Express. In the Aug. 10, 1900, edition, she recounted her childhood memories of her family’s involvement in the Underground Railroad, and described witnessing the arrival of the last group of runaways in 1862.
“Without [Lydia’s] writing about her childhood experience, we might not have known about their activities at all,” says McCanse.
The Read House has served as an inn, tavern, printing house, post office, school, store and meeting house for the Congregational Church. In 1987, a small group of local citizens contributed the seed money to save the structure from demolition. In 1993, after thousands of volunteer hours and $35,000 in renovation costs, the Read House opened as a museum. The following year, it expanded into adjoining buildings. In 2002, the National Park Service recognized the Lucius Read House as an official landmark and a part of the National Underground Railroad Network to Freedom, one of only 13 in Illinois.
Polo, Ill. (Ogle County)
Shortly after the Black Hawk War of 1832, Polo began as a settlement called Buffalo Grove, a few miles west of the present town. When the Illinois Central Railroad came through in 1852, people and businesses gradually moved toward Polo’s present location, incorporating as a town in 1857.
Betty Obendorf has been curator of the Polo Historical Society ever since she retired from teaching 13 years ago. In that time, she has accumulated and organized numerous letters, diaries and newspaper articles documenting the activities of local abolitionists in the Underground Railroad. The society’s collection is housed in a small storefront on North Franklin Avenue – the former newspaper office, now the Polo History Museum.
“A group of abolitionists from Delaware County in New York began arriving here in 1836,” explains Obendorf. “One couple, John and Phoebe Waterbury, were the great-great-grandparents of my husband, Ken.”
According to Obendorf’s research, the Waterbury family was heavily involved in the Underground Railroad. When the 1850 Samuel Waterbury home was razed in 1938 to make room for a filling station, a tunnel connecting the cellar to the barn was discovered, and is assumed to have been used to hide fugitive slaves.
Samuel’s daughter, Anistine, recalled events from her childhood at a meeting of the Polo Historical Society in 1907. She told of hearing her Uncle John tell her father of the arrival of a woman and ten children the night before, “and every one of them is as black as a hat.” After some discussion of the risks involved, including fines and imprisonment if they were caught helping the runaways, the men decided that “at whatever risks to themselves, the fugitive slave woman and her children must go on.”
Another prominent member of the Delaware County group, William Wamsley, was also a conductor on the Underground Railroad. In a letter written in 1932, his daughter-in-law, Jane Wamsley, recalled how he would transport and shelter fugitive slaves.
“The slave owner would [also] be helped to find his slave, but usually not until he was safely away, and anyone would usually direct them the wrong way to find him,” wrote Wamsley.
“Most slaves passing through Polo came from Missouri, which was a slave state,” says Obendorf. “The largest auction block for slaves north of New Orleans was in St. Louis.”
Many abolitionist families in the area belonged to the Congregationalist-Presbyterian Church in Polo. This early church disbanded in 1848 due to disputes and dissention over the slavery issue. Another church was organized, the Independent Presbyterian Church, in which slavery was absolutely banned.
“Among the townspeople, it was called the Abolitionist Church,” says Obendorf. “It became the First Presbyterian Church in 1918, and the building became the Polo Historic Wedding Chapel in 2006.”
According to the Milton Historical Society, early settlers in Wisconsin came primarily from New England and New York, and brought with them their abolitionist views. Wisconsin’s first abolitionist society and anti-slavery newspaper were both established before the territory became a state in 1848.
In Southeastern Wisconsin, underground railroad activities probably began around 1840. Racine and Milwaukee were destinations for escaped slaves and embarkation points for travel by ship to Canada. As a result of the escape of the slave Joshua Glover, Wisconsin became the only state in the Union before the Civil War to declare the Fugitive Slave Law of 1850 unconstitutional and unenforceable.
Attempts to admit Kansas as a slave state in 1854 led to the formation of what would become the Republican Party in Ripon, Wis., and in 1859, the party nominated Abraham Lincoln as a candidate for President of the United States.
Milton, Wis. (Rock County)
The town of Milton was founded by Joseph Goodrich, who, with his family and several other members of the Seventh Day Baptist church, relocated to southern Wisconsin from upstate New York in 1838. All abolitionists, they soon became involved in the local Underground Railroad network.
While his family resided in a nearby log cabin, Goodrich began construction of the Milton House, which was completed in 1844. Its unique hexagonal shape and construction materials of concrete, called “grout,” quickly established it as a local landmark. A secret 45-foot-long tunnel was dug sometime around 1850, to connect the Goodrich cabin behind the Milton House to the hotel basement. The tunnel was probably used to transport meals to runaway slaves hidden in the cellar and to facilitate their escape.
“The original tunnel was only 3 feet high and collapsed from time to time during its use,” says Cori Olson, executive director of the Milton Historical Society. “Milton College students dug it out in the 1950s. It was then enlarged and lined with concrete. Original access to the tunnel was through a 3-foot-square trapdoor in the floor of the cabin floor. The entrance was disguised to resemble a normal root cellar.”
Although no one knows for sure why Goodrich chose the hexagonal shape for his hotel, the design does promote air circulation in the upper rooms, since each room has at least two opposing windows. The concrete grout was probably chosen because it was cheaper than either wood or brick, and it was made from the abundant local limestone.
“The Milton House is the oldest concrete home in the U.S. still standing,” says Olson.
Because Milton was located where the Territorial Road –Wisconsin Hwy. 26 today – and the Chicago & Northwestern Railroad crosses, the Milton House was a busy and prosperous place during much of its lifetime.
“There was a stagecoach depot on one side of the building, and a railway depot on the other,” says Olson. “During its heyday [the 1840s to the 1860s], 27 stagecoaches and 36 trains stopped in Milton each day.”
Although the Goodrich family was surrounded by many like-minded opponents to slavery, the public nature of the Milton house precluded them from making their underground activities known to their customers. Goodrich did, however, publicly advocate for the abolishment of slavery through his leadership in Milton’s Seventh Day Baptist Church. In 1852, the church’s general conference adopted the following “radical” resolution:
“Resolved, that we enter our solemn protest against the system of American slavery, as a sin against God, and a libel upon our national declaration, that‘all men are created equal;’ that we regard the Fugitive Slave Law as an atrocious violation of the rights of humanity … and that to aid in its execution would be treason to Jesus Christ.”
According to Olson, the world’s largest Seventh Day Baptist congregation is still located in Milton.
The Milton House stayed in the Goodrich family until 1948, when members donated it to the Milton Historical Society. After five years of restoration, the museum opened to the public in 1953. A new addition was completed in 2006, making it possible for the museum to be open year-round.
The building was designated a National Historic Landmark in 1998, and has been listed as an official site on the National Park Service’s Network to Freedom ever since.
Burlington & Racine, Wis. (Racine County)
The corridor through southeastern Wisconsin, from Spring Prairie Township in Walworth County, through Burlington to Racine, contains numerous sites and stories which were part of the Underground Railroad.
“The first known passenger through here was Caroline Quarlls,” says Don Vande Sand, vice-president of the Burlington Historical Society. “She escaped from her mistress, who was also her aunt, in 1842 in St. Louis.”
Because of her light skin color, Quarlls was able to travel unhindered to Milwaukee, where she was befriended by a former slave. He eventually betrayed her, but before she could be recaptured, Quarlls was taken by conductors to Waukesha, Wis., then back to the Spring Prairie area, where several farmers took turns hiding her. A local abolitionist, Lyman Goodnow, then took her by buggy through Illinois, Indiana, and Michigan – a five-week journey – to Detroit, where she finally entered Canada.
“Several of Quarlls’ descendants visited the Burlington area for the first time in 2004,” says Vande Sand. “It was quite an emotional visit, both for them and for us.”
Burlington’s most prominent abolitionist, often referred to as “commander-in-chief” for the area’s Underground Railroad activities, was Dr. Edward Dyer. He was also Burlington’s first physician when he arrived there with his family in 1839.
“Dyer gave a speech in Delavan [Wis.] on the 4th of July, 1840, in which he talked about temperance and slavery,” says Vande Sand. “He predicted that, in 20 years, there would be a war in the U.S. over the slavery issue. He was off by only a few months.”
The area’s last known passenger on the southeastern Wisconsin Underground Railroad was Joshua Glover, whose story was, like Quarlls’, well-documented in the writings of local abolitionists. In 1852, Glover escaped from his master in St. Louis and made his way to Racine, where he got a job working in a sawmill. On March 10, 1854, Glover was captured by his master and a U.S. Marshal, who had been tipped off by one of Glover’s black acquaintances.
“They took him to the jail in Milwaukee, because they thought the jail in Racine was too flimsy,” says Vande Sand.
A group of angry citizens from Racine went to Milwaukee to demand Glover’s release, where they joined a larger crowd in Monument – now Cathedral – Square and marched to the jail. The enraged mob battered down the jail door and freed Glover, who escaped to Waukesha in a buggy driven by John Messenger, a local businessman. A short time later, C.C. Olin, a Waukesha abolitionist, brought Glover back to Racine in hopes of finding passage for him aboard one of the sailing ships captained by a fellow abolitionist.
“Lake Michigan was still ice-bound, so Glover was hidden in various locations in the Burlington area until later that spring,” says Vande Sand. “Then he was taken back to Racine and put aboard a ship to Canada.”
Freedom At Last
According to historian Howard Zinn, about 500,000 slaves ran away from their masters in the South during the Civil War. More than 200,000 blacks served in the Union army and navy, and nearly 38,000 were killed. When the war ended in 1865, 19 of 24 northern states still didn’t allow African Americans to vote. By 1900, all southern states had adopted laws disenfranchising and segregating African Americans from the rest of society, in spite of the 15th Amendment to the Constitution, ratified in 1870, guaranteeing black suffrage.
Editor’s Note: Information for this article was corroborated by the following books, which are recommended reading for this topic.
Bound for Canaan, by Fergus M. Bordewich, 2005.
Fleeing for Freedom, edited by George Hendrick, 2004.
The History Buff’s Guide to the Civil War, by Thomas R. Flagel, 2003.
A People’s History of the United States, by Howard Zinn, 1995.
Rockford – Big Town, Little City, by Pat Cunningham, 2000.