Tuesday, May 14, 2013

Illuminating the Underground Railroad

Doug Jones, self-described "last man standing" within Iowa's decade-long Iowa Freedom Trail Grant Project, condensed so much information into his relatively brief program at First Presbyterian Church Monday evening that it seems unfair to focus on Lucas County --- but this is Lucas County, after all.

And Lucas County, along with Wayne, are the two counties in Iowa's southern two tiers where few if any traces of Underground Railroad activity have been found --- yet.

Doug's colleague, Doug Hamilton (left), drove up from his home at Fairfield to sit in on the program and shared the good news that the Jefferson County Genealogical Society has offered to provide an online home for some results of Freedom Trail research (state funding needed to make this material accessible is lacking). That should ease the path for future researchers and I'm anxious to explore some of the material Hamilton already has posted.

It also turns out that  Hamilton is a shape note singer --- something I found almost as interesting as the Underground Railroad (well, maybe not). But Lucas County is in desperate need of shape note singing. If we can't have the Underground Railroad, at the least we could have that. Doug tried out the acoustics of First Presbyterian (we should have asked him to sing earlier), but sadly didn't promise to return.

Doug Jones asked the audience early in the presentation how we might explain the apparent lack of activity in Lucas and Wayne. Bill Marner would have earned the door prize, if there had been one, by suggesting that more of our early settlers here than elsewhere had roots in southern states where abolitionist sympathies were lacking.

That southern element certainly can be noted in Wayne County, but is not so evident in Lucas County until you start thinking about our Indiana, southern Illinois and other border roots. The senior members of many of our Indiana families, for example, originated in Kentucky, Tennessee, the Carolinas and Virginia. Some of my Lucas County ancestors came to here from southern Illinois during the early 1850s, but had lived before that in Kentucky --- where they did own slaves. Another family branch came to Wayne County from Virginia --- and had owned slaves there.

Beyond that, Jones pointed out, the denominations most closely identified with abolitionist activity --- Quaker, Congregational and to a lesser extent Wesleyan and Free Methodist --- were not widely represented in Lucas County, or Wayne.

Nor did any of the abolitionist firebrands who moved to Iowa specifically to assist freedom seekers from Missouri locate here, as they did for example in Appanoose County --- a hotbed of Underground Railroad activity.

None of this means that there wasn't Underground Railroad activity, Jones pointed out --- only that efforts to explore more thoroughly need to be undertaken. That would involve collecting, researching and thinking about the few scattered rumors of activity that do exist --- involving the Last Chance, LaGrange and the Norwood areas, for example. A route he suggested, too, was considering the associations between potential activists in Lucas County and known activists in other part of the state. So here's a project just wating to be scooped up and carried forward.

A couple of other things I found interesting. Jones pointed out that male abolitionists tend to get all the glory. But Underground Railroad activity was very much a family affair because freedom seekers had to be housed and fed and otherwise supported in many ways. So women and children were important elements of the network, too.

Also interesting was his graphic illustrating the degree of interest in abolitionist activities in Iowa. The largest circle --- the one that probably included a majority of Iowans who thought about such things, encompassed the anti-slavery crowd --- opposed to slavery, but unlikely to do much about it.

At the center, was a very small circle of equal-rights activists --- those who believed that freedom seekers were entitled to the same rights as their white brothers and sisters and who, in addition to working toward universal abolition, were willing to put their livelihoods (and in some cases lives) on the line to help slaves reach freedom, even to promote insurrection.

The legendary John Brown, who made five trips across Iowa prior to his disastrous 1859 attempt to seize the U.S. Arsenal at Harpers Ferry, Virginia, is an extreme example of the latter. Some of the training for the Harpers Ferry raid was carried out in Iowa, Jones pointed out.

Much information about the Underground Railroad in Iowa and elsewhere is available online. You can read my entries about Henderson Lewelling and Salem, here; and about the George B. Hitchcock house at Lewis, here.

No comments: