Iowa History Project


Making of Iowa

Chapter XXX

Iowa and Slavery

Iowa always has been a "free state".  Slavery never had a foothold here.  But during many years preceding the Civil War the slavery question was a burning issue in Iowa politics.

Adjoining Iowa on the south lies Missouri, and Missouri was a "slave state."  When Missouri was preparing for admission into the Union it was known that her people desired to keep slaves.  There was a sentiment in Congress against slavery so far north, and a law was passed prohibiting slavery in that part of the Louisiana Purchase, save Missouri, lying north of latitude 36 deg, 30 min.  This law was termed the Missouri Compromise.

But this action created intense feeling, which grew so strong that in 1854 the South and the slavery interests were enabled to secure the repeal of the law.

The question of slavery or freedom was now left to be disposed of by the voters of the various States and territories, and the Kansas troubles increased.  This was termed squatter sovereignty.  When Kansas was settled the antislavery people did all in their power to obtain a majority in the population; the slavery supporters tried to prevent this.  Thus Missourians and others holding slavery to be right used every endeavor to keep "Free Soilers" from passing into Kansas.  "Border ruffians" guarded the borders of Missouri, trying to turn back the tide.

Southwestern Iowa was the gateway into Kansas, and on Iowa's southwestern border occurred many exciting scenes.  As soon as the Missouri Compromise was repealed, hundreds of slavery men were sent into Kansas, in order to take part in the election of 1855, and secure a Legislature composed principally of men in favor of slavery.  "Border ruffuans" invaded Kansas, abusing the "Free Soilers" and intimidating them, so that outrages amounting in many cases to murder, were of frequent event.

James Grimes was now governor of Iowa.  The situation required a firm, energetic man at the head of State affairs, and Governor Grimes was the right person in the right place.  In his inaugural address in December, 1854, he said:

"The removal of that great landmark of freedom, the Missouri Compromise line, when it had been scredly observed until slavery has acquired every inch of soil south of it, has presented the aggressive character of that system broadly before the country.  It has forced upon this country an issue between free labor, political equality and manhood on the one hand; and on the other, slave labor, political degradation and wrong.  It becomes the State of Iowa - the only free child of the Missouri Compromise - to let the world know that she values the blessings that compromise has secured to her, and that she never will consent to become a party to the nationalization of slavery."

Governor Grimes did all he could to aid the people who were desirous of crossing into Kansas through Iowa.

But although Iowa was a "free state", there have been slaves within her limits.  Before she was a Territory, and while she was attached to Michigan and to Wisconsin, some of the whites among her earliest citizens possessed blacks whom they had brought into the new country.

In 1839 an important decision in a slave case was handed down by the Iowa Supreme Court.  In 1834 a negro named Ralph had come into this region from Missouri.  He had the written consent of his master, and was to send back money with which to purchase his freedom.   Ralph worked hard on a little mineral lot just west of Dubuque, but was unable to earn enough, within the time set, for his purpose.  Two kidnappers from Virginia heard of the negro, ascertained that he had been a slave, and wrote to his master offering for $100 to seize Ralph and bring him to Missouri.

The offer was accepted.  The kidnappers lost no time in laying hands on the colored man.  The sheriff hustled him into a wagon, and he was taken to Bellevue.  Here the prisoner was to be put aboard a steamboat for St. Louis.  Poor Ralph saw himself once more a chattel in a slave state.

In the field next to the one where Ralph had been apprehended an Irishman named Alex Butterworth had been plowing.  He heard of the whole proceeding, and his blood boiled.  The kidnappers had been afraid to take Ralph to Dubuque, because they knew the temper of the settlers at that village.  Butterworth hastened there, and had no difficulty in getting a writ, and an officer to serve it.  The kidnappers were stopped at Bellevue, and with their charge were brought to Dubuque.

The outcome to the trial was, the Supreme Court decided, that so long as Ralph came into a "free state" with the consent of him master, he could not be seized while living here.  So Ralph was released.

Among Iowa's settlers were many persons from the South.  Not all of these had been slave owners, but they had lived in a community where slavery was considered only the natural order of things.  Thus it came about that not only were there people in Iowa who openly favored slavery, but there were others who by their passiveness encouraged this sentiment.

In 1850 the South and the slave interests succeeded in putting through Congress what was termed the Fugitive Slave Law.  By this law a person of negro blood apprehended in any State or Territory on charge of being a fugitive from his owner was denied trial by jury, or his own testimony before a court.  Courts were required to surrender the fugitive to the claimant, on the owner's word.  In absence of a court, special commissioners were to be appointed, whose fee, if they decided in favor of the claimant, should be double what it would be otherwise.  Furthermore, it was made a crime to aid a fugitive, and all citizens were "commanded" to assist in the execution of the law.  Officers making arrests might order citizens to help them.

This law created intense consternation among colored people, and excited the greatest indignation at the North.  The passage of escaped slaves through the "free states" was now a hazardous matter.  The "free states" no longer offered a refuge to the fugitives.  Professional kidnappers penetrated everywhere, for the seizure of slaves was made a most lucrative business.

Strange to us as it may seem, in Iowa were to be found a number of persons who either were in favor of the Fugitive Slave Law, or did not frankly oppose it.  The old traditions, inherited through long association with the South, caused these citizens to disapprove of the "Abolitionists".  "Nigger stealers," the more rampant termed the persons who would assist slaves to freedom.

An agent of the Massachusetts Anti-Slavery Society arrived in Iowa to deliver lectures.  He talked to an unsympathetic audience in Clinton.  Then his friends decided that he ought to appear in Camanche, Clinton County.  So handbills were printed advertising the lecture, and the Baptist Church was engaged for the meeting.

But on the evening appointed, when the lecturer and a companion reached the church not a light was visible in it.  They looked up the sexton.

"What's the matter with the church?"  they asked.

"The church is all right," he said, gruffly.

"But it's dark.  Didn't you know I am to speak there this evening?" inquired the lecturer.'

"Yes, I heard about it," replied the sexton, "but I'm not going to light up for any black Abolitionist - not if I know myself."

The two men then went to the hotel.  There, instead of finding sympathy, they were roughly treated, and only hasty flight prevented an application of tar and feathers.

In 1855, in Burlington, lived Edward James, a quiet man, who had been a surgeon in the regular army, and was a wellknown scientist and traveler.  He was an avowed "Abolitionist".  In those days it was not pleasant to have such a title, even in Iowa.  Prejudice against the negro was great, and although a person might look upon slavery as cruel, yet the thought of giving the negro privileges like a white man was obnoxious.

One day in June Dr. James had driven into Burlington early in the morning, with a negro at his side.  He had crossed the river on the ferry, but on the Illinois shore was stopped by two slave hunters, or kidnappers.  These men alleged that the negro was named Dick, and was a fugitive slave from Clarke County, Missouri.  They demanded that he be surrendered to them, as agents for one Rutherford, said to be Dick's owner.  They had bowie knives and pistols, and were very rough.

As a result, Dr. James and the negro were conveyed back to Burlington, and the two Missourians looked for a lawyer.

In the meantime quite a crowd surrounded the carriage.  The people stormed and threatened, and jibed at the white man and the negro.  But Dr. James with white hair and wrinkled face, sat there unmoved.  Both he and his companion seemed wholly unconcerned.

The anti-slavery people also were aroused.  The sight of a strong, healthy man, black though he was, seized by a pair of human blood-hounds just as he was about to gain liberty, awoke a spirit of resistance which had not before appeared.  It was decided that if the court did not free Dick, he would be rescued by force.  Governor Grimes' home was in Burlington.  The energetic executive notified his brother and all friends of the negro to be present at the trial, in order to see that the alleged fugitive obtained whatever assistance he needed.

In a letter to Mrs. Grimes, then in Maine, the Governor wrote that in all ways at his command he intended to thwart the efforts of the slave hunters.

Trial was postponed for two weeks.  Before the case came up, the excitement grew so great that personal encounters took place between the friends and enemies of the negro.

Then, when the day of trial arrived, the son of the Missourian who claimed the negro was on hand.  Lo and behold, the minute he saw the prisoner he promptly swore that this was not Dick, and that he had never set eyes on him before.  The slave hunters had made a mistake.

Dick was discharged, and went his way to liberty.

He was given back a huge horse pistol which had been taken from him, and a throng of cheering people escorted him to the ferry.  A guard was provided to see him safe on the railway train, and it is supposed he reached Canada all right.

An institution of these days was the "Underground Railroad", or "Grapevine Route".  The Fugitive Slave Law made it difficult and dangerous to openly harbor escaped slaves, or to assist them on their way.  So routes were established through Iowa, along which fugitives were passed from hand to hand until delivered to friends in Illinois.  The great majority of the fugitives came by way of Missouri.  Tabor, in the southwestern part of the State, was one station for receiving escaping slaves.  The "Underground Railroad" went through Des Moines, Grinnell, Iowa City, West Liberty, Springdale, DeWitt and Low Moor, and reached the Mississippi at Clinton.

Here the negroes were allowed to rest a short time.  Then they were taken across the river in skiffs, put in a wagon, and sent on to Union Grove, Illinois.  Finally they arrived at Lake Michigan, where friends procured transportation for them across the lake to Canada.

It was while acting as an agent for some of the branches of the "Underground Railroad" that Dr. James was apprehended.  He had been too bold.

When a party of slaves came over the border into Iowa from Missouri, word was dispatched ahead, to prepare the agents for work.  The message would read something like this:

"By to-morrow evening's mail you will receive two volumes of the 'Irrepressible Conflict', bound in black.  After perusal please forward, and oblige."

The text of the communication signified to those in the secret the number in the party, the sex, and other details.

The fugitives were taken from point to point in wagons.  Dark, stormy nights were preferred for the operation.  Stations were ten to fifteen miles apart.  During the day the negroes were concealed in garrets and barns and cellars.  At Springdale, Cedar County, stood the Maxon house, the cellar of which was a famous hiding place.

The men employed in the service of the "Underground Railroad" were resolute and brave.  The work was attended to with no little peril.  In every community there were persons only too glad to inform against them, for a reward.  In the operations of the railway the Quakers were a great force.  Quakers, the world over, ever have been known as lovers liberty, and when they were moved to aid the poor black to escape from slavery they proved a power in th work.

The first constitution of Iowa State contained, in a number of sections, the word "white", limiting certain privileges to the white race.  Only whites were allowed to vote, and to appear in court to testify.  Not until after the war, and until after right to vote had been conferred on the negro race, was provision made for extending the common school system to "all the youth in the State".  The question of  educating the negro in the same school with the white child, caused a bitter fight, not only in the Legislature, but among the people at large.

Now all men are equal, not only in Iowa, but in the whole United States.

While thinking of slavery agitation in Iowa, we must not forget that Abraham Lincoln once made a speech in Burlington.  In 1858 Lincoln and Stephen A. Douglas were rival candidates for senatorship, and made a famous campaign.  They spoke in Illinois along the Mississippi.  Between dates Lincoln stopped in Burlington, October 9, and delivered a short address in Grimes' Hall.

In the summer of 1859 Lincoln visited western Iowa, having been in Kansas on a speaking tour.  He came to Council Bluffs from St. Joseph, Mo., by steamboat.  Although it was August, the weather had been so rainy and disagreeable that the roads were deep with mud.  When Lincoln was taken for a carriage ride about Council Bluffs he was well covered with soil.

His fame as a speaker and a thinker had preceded him, and when the citizens of the town heard that he had arrived, a reception was planned for him.  It was given at the house of a banker.

Council Bluffs was then little more than a frontier settlement, and everything was quite rude and primitive.  But Lincoln was not prepared for even the social demands of a western outpost.  When he appeared on Council Bluffs streets his trousers were tucked into cowhide boots, and his suit, of a cheap blue linen fabric, was much bespattered and wrinkled.

At the reception the trousers were outside of the boots.  The very toes of these boots had been blackened by a boy at the hotel, but the major portion of the leather was red and rusty.  Some of the mud had been removed from his clothing.  Yet he was hardly in garb adapted to his surroundings.

Many people wondered if this really could be the famous Lincoln, who had debated with Douglas.  A few could not repress smiles at his awkwardness.  His long arms, with their enormous hands, swung by his sides just a though they were on hinges at the shoulders.  Lincoln seemed not to know what to do with them.  His rough boots and his homely features added to the unfavorable impression.

Also, he wouldn't talk to the women.  He was afraid of them.  When the society ladies tried to engage him in conversation, he answered in monosyllables, and acted like a school-boy.

However, when a public meeting was held for him at a hall, following the night of the reception, he presented a very different appearance.  He spoke from the platform, on the issues of the day, and was much applauded for his dry wit and his telling words.

Thus both eastern and western Iowa had an opportunity to see Lincoln before he was called to take charge of the nation in its time of need.



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