Thursday, November 21, 2013

Pardon me, but I'm reading ...

Two books mentioned here during the last couple of weeks --- Jim Sleeper's vintage (1973) Turn the Rascals Out: The Life and Times of Orange County's Fighting Editor Dan M. Baker and Lowell J. Soike's brand new Necessary Courage: Iowa's Underground Railroad in the Struggle against Slavery --- arrived this week. So I've been reading.

The first title is out of print so my new copy is used and cost practically nothing --- hard cover, dust jacket and all; Necessary Courage, published only in paperback, was considerably more expensive and most likely won't last as long.

But both are well-written, well-researched, lively and good reads. They even work together in a way, since one adds insight to the other even though there is no direct relationship between Lucas County's (and California's) Dan M. Baker and heroes of the Underground Railroad movement in Iowa.

Soike points out in an excellent prologue that the abolitionist impulse developed and gained strength in southern Iowa, settled initially in large part by pioneers with southern sensibilities --- from Virginia, Kentucky, Tennessee and southern Indiana and Illinois, plus of course Missouri --- as new pioneers with northern roots and northern sensibilities moved in.

The earlier southern element had not necessarily owned slaves nor did it necessarily want Iowa to be a slave state, but shared the outlook honed in places of origin --- that black people were inferior and that it would be scandalous to interfere with the "property rights" of those who owned them in other states and territories.

The new wave of northern settlers brought with them a different sensibility, especially those with religious convictions influenced by emerging evangelical denominations, some quite new --- Wesleyan Methodists, for example; and break-away Presbyterians. Congregationalists with New England roots were foundational among abolitionists, as were Quakers. Nearly all of the fierce abolitionists in the south of Iowa during those years leading up to the Civil War were affiliated with those denominations.

An interesting illustration in Necessary Courage is based upon a study of 1856 state census data and shows Iowa townships where 20 percent or more of citizens during that year had been born in the South. The biggest concentration of those townships was in Wayne County and Decatur, which joins it on the west. Three of Lucas County's four southernmost townships, adjacent to Wayne, demonstrated the same characteristic.

This is useful information because traces of Underground Railroad activity have not been located in either Wayne or Lucas, among all counties in the three tiers adjoining slave state Missouri.


The Bakers, who arrived in Chariton during 1853 when Dan was 11, were part of that southern contingent. William Walker Baker was a native Tennessean and his wife, Eliza, a native Kentuckian. They were living in Brown County, Indiana, before heading west to Iowa. Brown County, like much of southern Indiana, had been settled largely by pioneers from states where slavery was part of the culture.

Sleeper makes the case than the Bakers, staunch Democrats --- at that time the party of slavery and the South --- would have qualified as Copperheads during their time in Chariton, generally sympathetic to the southern cause although not sympathetic enough to head south and enlist.

Dan M. Baker may or may not illustrate that Copperhead tendency --- he simply didn't talk or write much later about his views during the Civil War years. He did not, however, enlist --- and the early 1860s were a time when most young, and not so young, Lucas County males were heading off to fight for the Union cause, most willingly.

We have no idea what Dan was doing during the opening years of the war because he left no record, but in 1864 he headed west to Montana, where he remained from 1864 to 1867. Quite a number who chased precious metal and other things in Montana during those years were southerners or southern sympathizers with strong feelings but no desire to die --- so they removed themselves from the potential of conflict by heading west.

In 1872, Dan, who had returned to Chariton to practice law after his Montana adventures, founded The Leader as a Democrat alternative to the Republican Patriot with his law partner, Napoleon Bonaparte "Bone" Branner, a veteran of the Confederate Army, and others. 

Although Baker consistently deplored the institution of slavery and war in general in The Leader and later life, embedded racism still is evident in his writings during those Chariton years. But, of course, Democrats did not have the racism market cornered.

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