Monday, February 21, 2011

Henderson Lewelling: Salem & beyond

The east front of the Henderson Lewelling house in Salem.

To say that Henderson Lewelling led an interesting life is to understate the case. And the jumping off point for his remarkable adventures is the Quaker village of Salem, just southwest of Mount Pleasant in Henry County, where his 1840 home is preserved as a landmark of both the Underground Railroad and early Quaker history in Iowa.

The Lewelling Quaker Museum it is open to the public during the summer and early fall --- but wasn’t on the autumn day we visited several years ago, just passing through on the road to somewhere else.

Salem was Iowa’s first Quaker settlement, commencing in 1838 --- and Lewelling, affiliated like his neighbors with the Indiana Yearly Meeting, was among the earliest to settle here and a charter member of the Salem Meeting. The little town became southeast Iowa’s chief station on the Underground Railroad and Lewelling, one of its chief conductors.

The Lewelling house from the southwest.

Although Henderson and many of his Quaker friends were active abolitionists --- others of his neighbors were not. Most Quakers were opposed on general principles to slavery, but the Indiana Yearly Meeting frowned on breaking the law to actually assist fleeing slaves.

That caused a split, resulting in the formation during 1843 of the Indiana Yearly Meeting of Anti-Slavery Friends and a similar split in the Salem Meeting. The Lewellings affiliated with the new Anti-Slavery Meeting and Henderson reportedly became a leader of it. His family, and others, were disfellowshiped as a result by the mainline meeting.

When building his fine stone house in 1840, Henderson reportedly planned the crawl space under three of its rooms, accessible through a concealable trap door, as a hiding place for runaways. There’s simply no way of telling how many former slaves the family assisted.


The Lewellings left Salem behind in the spring of 1847 and headed west, but during the next year, because of its association with what became known as the Daggs slave case, the house gained a prominence not enjoyed by others of the several Underground Railroad sites in Salem.

Nelson Gibbs (1823-1903), a youthful justice of the peace, had located his office in the rented two front rooms of the home vacated by the Lewellings by the time the Daggs case began to develop during June of 1848.

The incident began on the first of June, 1848, when nine slaves fled the farm of their owner, Ruel Daggs, in Clark County, Missouri. They were ferried by a friend across the Des Moines River and then brought to Salem by wagon. They were found at Salem by slave-hunters Samuel Slaughter and James McClure, but the Salem Quakers prevented their return to Missouri and demanded a hearing before Gibbs which began at the Lewelling house but was moved shortly thereafter to the Anti-Slavery Friends Meeting House.

Because Slaughter and McClure could not prove ownership, Gibbs released the slaves, who scattered. Five escaped; four were captured and returned to Daggs.

Some time later, Ruel Daggs brought action in federal court against the Salem Friends under provisions of the Fugitive Salve Act and was awarded a judgment of $2,900 against several of those who had aided the slaves although it does not appear that he ever managed to collect.

Salem remained a hotbed of abolitionist activity until the issue of slavery was resolved by the Civil War.


Henderson Lewelling, safe in Oregon by the time the Daggs case developed, was by trade an orchardist, cultivating and selling during his years in Henry County not only fruit but also plant stock. During the mid-1840s he realized the potential of Oregon and in the spring of 1847 set out along the Oregon Trail with friends --- and an especially designed and cumbersome wagon containing the rootstock of more than 700 fruit trees and shrubs, rootstock that had to be tended and watered on a daily basis.

Seven months later after a near-miraculous journey, the Lewelling party and the plants arrived in Oregon’s Willamette valley where the rootstock was planted and thrived. Lewelling generally is recognized, as a result, as the godfather of the Pacific orchard industry. Even the Bing cherry, reportedly developed by Manchurian Chinese orchardist Ah Bing in the 1870s with grafts onto rootstock brought from Iowa years earlier, sometimes is traced back to Salem, Iowa.

Henderson Lewelling was not content to remain in Oregon, however, and in 1854 transferred operations and rootstock to California, where his brother, John, had settled earlier. Henderson developed an extensive operation called Fruit Vale, east of Oakland.

During these years, Henderson’s religious convictions had developed in interesting ways. In Oregon, he apparently became affiliated with the Spiritualist movement, considered logical progression by some radical Quakers. That led to the dream of establishing a utopian community based upon Quaker/Spiritualist principles in central America.

In 1859, Henderson sold out in California, using the proceeds to finance an expedition to Honduras of a group identified in newspapers of the day as the “Harmonial Brotherhood.” Newspapers also identified the group as “free lovers,” although it’s not exactly clear what that meant. Lewelling left behind, when this expedition began, his fourth wife and their young son. She subsequently divorced him.

In any case, the Honduran experiment was a disaster --- the first Henderson had experienced; and he limped back to Calfornia impoverished. The remaining years of his life were spent in obscurity. He died at San Jose on Dec. 28, 1878, of a heart attack sustained while clearing brush and was buried in Mountain View Cemetery at Oakland where the surname is spelled “Luelling” on his tombstone, which further identifies him as the “father (of) Pacific horticulture.”

Henderson’s first wife, Elizabeth --- who had accompanied him west from Iowa --- died at age 35 on March 7, 1851, in Oregon, and is buried in the Milwaukie Pioneer Cemetery there. The surname on her tombstone is spelled "Luelling," too.

The sign on this replica Civil War canon explains why it is located in a picnic area south of the Lewelling house, but I failed to note what it said.

Note: Jean Leeper’s wonderful Web site entitled “Lewelling Quaker Museum” was the source used for some of the information here and was used to fact check other information. If you’re at all interested in Salem’s history, early Iowa Quaker history or the Underground Railroad in southeast Iowa, don’t miss it. This Web site also provided the photo of Henderson Lewelling.

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