Wednesday, February 16, 2011

Along the Underground Railroad

Some years ago, I followed the threads of the underground railroad in Iowa to Lewis, located almost due east of Council Bluffs in southwest Iowa's Cass County, and  wish I'd followed up on the interest I had then so that I knew more now. Especially since Lucas County's underground railroad role, if any, has never been adequately explored. That's the great challenge of life --- so many things to you'd like to know more about; so little time to do the research and reading.

But southern Iowa, because of its proximity to the border of Missouri, a slave state, was in those years prior to and during the Civil War a hotbed of underground railroad activity as slaves managed to escape their masters down there and slip across our border. Because of activist Iowa judges, all men and women were by default free once they set foot on Iowa soil.

Also because of our proximity to Missouri, however, those now-free men and women were not safe from raiders and slave hunters until they had been spirited farther north. Those who aided them also were subject to federally-imposed penalties under the fugitive slave act of 1850 and that combined with a good number of southern Iowans who were southern sympathizers made secrecy necessary.

The Rev. George B. Hitchcock, whose home is carefully maintained now at Lewis, was one of the state's leading abolitionists and his fine stone house, a station along the underground railroad.

Hitchcock was born in Massachusetts during 1812 and moved west through Illinois to Iowa, arriving in Scott County along the Mississippi in 1841. He felt the call to the Congregational ministry, was tutored in that calling at Fairfield (where his parents had settled and his father, David, is buried) and was ordained during 1844 in the Congregational Church at Bentonport --- a fine old building that now is gone.

Congregationalists and Quakers were at the forefront of Iowa's abolitionist and underground railroad movements

Now affiliated with the Congregational American Home Mission Society, he served callings in Oskaloosa (1844-48) and Eddyville (1847-53) before moving west to Lewis, He was a jack of all clerical trades --- missionary, evangelist, organizer of congregations and pastor serving broad areas centered on the town where he established his family's home. Ministers at that time also were expected in many cases to farm in order to help support their families, and so he did that, too; and also picked up skills as a stonemason.

The Hitchcock family moved to a cabin on this hill west of the East Nishnabotna River in Cass County overlooking the river and the emerging town of Lewis, in 1853. Soon thereafter, he conceived the idea of building this unusual stone house, completed in 1856. He reportedly helped quarry the standstone east of the Nishnabotna, raft it across the river and haul it up the slope to the building site.

The basement of this house is generally thought to have been the place were former slaves were concealed, and the entrance to one of its two rooms reportedly could be concealed if danger threatened. A fireplace in the other basement room may have provided warmth.

The Hitchcocks remained in this home until 1865, when George felt called to minister to newly-freed slaves in Missouri and moved to Kingston. Still following that call, he moved in 1869 to the neighborhood of Baxter Springs in extreme southeast Kansas, but died there on Aug. 4, I872.

The Hitchcock home at Lewis served as continuously occupied farm home until 1966. During the next 20 years, when it stood empty, structural problems developed and the building was heavily vandalized, but Lewis-area residents and others pulled it back from the edge of collapse.

Today, the site is owned by the state but managed by Cass County Conservation and operated by volunteers affiliated with several organizations. The Hitchcock House has a simple Web site that can be accessed here.

This elaborate wrought iron frame in the side yard of the Hitchcock House may (or may not) mark the gravesites of a Hitchcock son who died at age 19 in a shooting accident and a young girl who died along the Mormon Trail. The location is traditional, but unconfirmed.

No comments: