Iowa History Project
The Iowa Quakers and the Negroes
Among the Quakers there had long prevailed the feeling that of all “the various calamities which flow from the ambition and cupidity of man, there are few productive of more extensive and distressing evils, or which give rise to greater degrees of human misery and wretchedness… than the African Slave Trade”(252) and the great institution of slavery.
On the Missouri Border
Hardly had the members of this religious sect planted their homes upon the free soil of Iowa before two families arrived at Salem, direct from Virginia. One of these families brought to the frontier community an old negro mammy who had for years been in the family as a domestic slave. Such an arrival was of course unwelcome at Salem; and in no uncertain manner and with no waste of time, the newcomers were made aware of the fact, their attention being called to the prohibitory clause of the Ordinance of 1787. As a result, a part of the company disappeared for a time, only to return before long with “one beast of burden, and the remnants of an old store”, which they had somewhere received in exchange for their human chattel.(253)
With the rapid settlement of the Iowa country, its rise to the stage of an organized Territory, and the bitter dispute over the southern boundary question,(254) the troubles of the Missouri slaveholders began. As water percolates through the unknown passes in the rocks, so the news of a possible escape from their bondage in some way reached the ears of negroes across the border, and raised within their breasts the hope of freedom. Taking his life in his hands, some unknown slave made his way to safety, then another, and another, each opening wider the way for those who were to follow. Salem, but twenty-five miles from the Missouri line, and surrounded by numerous wooded streams well adapted for hiding, proved for the negro a most advantageous place at which to stop for food. The unfailing help which they there received soon became widely known. Could he but reach the town where lived the people of plain grey clothes and broad brimmed hats, the fugitive was assured of safety.
Having noted the separation among the Friends at Salem on account of the anti-slavery agitation, the reader is prepared for a recital of the events which transpired in that quiet little village. What with the heavy loads of human freight concealed within hollow loads of hay or beneath grain sacks filled with bran, and the strange proclivity of this Quaker folk for midnight drives to unknown mills or markets, large numbers of fugitive slaves were spirited away to safety by that mysterious route which justly gained the name: “Underground Railway”. Month after month and year after year with Quaker-like precision this work went on at Salem—not a single slave being retaken, it is said, once he had reached this community. The children in the homes were trained to ask no questions, much less to answer any asked by strangers. They were supposed to have no eyes and no ears concerning this solemn business. Among the adults vague but well understood terms were used in conversing on this subject; and while it is certain that this grave concern was frequently the subject of guarded discussion in the two Monthly Meetings, still on the records no written reference to the subject is to be found.
Fruitless were the patrols which the Missourians kept on the road to this Quaker center. At last, stung by their failure to uncover the nest of “nigger thieves”, they determined to destroy the entire community. The specific event which led them to this drastic decision occurred at Salem in 1848.
About June 2nd of that year, nine slaves owned by one Ruel Daggs of Clark County, Missouri, made their escape into Iowa; and being pursued, they were found hidden among the bushes about a mile to the south of Salem by two slave-catchers, Messrs. Slaughter and McClure. The captors at once seized their prey, and were in the act of leading them back to bondage when they were met face to face by three stalwart Salem Quakers, Elihu Frazier, Thomas Clarkson Frazier, and William Johnson. One of the Quakers demanded that the negroes be taken to Salem, and there before a Justice of the Peace be identified as fugitive slaves before they be returned to Missouri; while a second declared that “he would wade in Missouri blood before the negroes should be taken.”
Apparently there was nothing the Missourians could do but to comply with the demand, so to Salem they went. As they neared the Quaker village, the strange sight created the wildest excitement; and it is said that almost as a single man the people of the town abandoned their work and rushed down the road to meet the approaching strangers. In the confusion that followed some of the slaves disappeared; while the crowd proceeded to the great stone house of Henderson Lewelling where Justice Gibbs had his office.(255) The room proved too small, and by common consent the trial was transferred to the abolition meeting-house. On the way thither Henry Dorland, the village schoolmaster, mounted a pile of lumber and harangued the crowd, while all about him the shouts and threats of the men were intermingled with the prayers of the women. When the church was reached and quiet obtained, Aaron Street and Albert Button came forth as counsel for the negroes. The plaintiffs were unable to show warrants for the arrest of their captives, and so Justice Gibbs dismissed the case. Seizing the opportunity, and with apparent meaning for the slaves, a member of the crowd, Paul Way, called out: “If any body wants to foller me, let him foller.” Two of the negroes obeyed the impulse and in a moment were on horseback and on their way to freedom. Foiled and outraged at their treatment, Slaughter and McClure made their way back to Missouri, uttering threats of vengeance on the Quaker settlement.(256)
A few days later Salem was startled by the approach of a large band of Missourians, variously estimated from seventy-two to three hundred in number, armed to the teeth and bent on searching every “nigger-stealing house” in the town, and, if necessary, burning them to the ground. The streets were blocked and the village surrounded, while small squads went forth to make the search. One of these squads made straight for the home of Thomas Frazier, the most vigorous abolitionist in the settlement. Hearing of their approach, Frazier hurried the negroes then in hiding on his premises into the neighboring timber, and when the boisterous gang arrived he with his family sat quietly eating dinner. The Missourians came tramping in with threats and oaths, declaring that they proposed to search the house. Frazier quietly told them to do so. Other homes were entered, and where a stand was made wild confusion reigned. Finally the Missourians abandoned their attack and made for their native State, having accomplished little either in recovering escaped property or in frightening the Quakers of Salem.(257)
The Springdale Quakers and Old John Brown
Active as was Salem in the cause of aiding fugitive slaves, other Quaker communities as they arose in Iowa were not to be outdone in this work. The settlements to the northward in Muscatine, Cedar, and Linn counties constituted new links in the growing chain of Underground Railway stations, and with Springdale as a center they played a part second to none. All went well, until one day Old John Brown of Kansas fame made his appearance, with results long to be remembered. Often has the tale been told, but until now, not from the Quaker point of view.
John Brown’s connection with this interesting Quaker settlement began late in October, 1856, when, astride a mule, weary and travelstained, he rode into the little town of West Branch, halted before its only tavern, “The Travelers Rest”, and from the proprietor, James Townsend, received a Quaker welcome which until his death he never forgot.(258) Learning of the strong abolition sentiment in the neighborhood and of the activity of these Quakers in the transportation of fugitives by means of the Underground Railway, Brown at once realized the advantages of such a place for maturing the schemes he then had in mind. Turning from the scenes of his exploits in “bleeding Kansas”, plans were fast forming in his mind fro another attack on the institution of slavery—this time in the East.
A little over a year after his first visit to the Springdale neighborhood, Brown reappeared late in December, 1857—this time with some ten companions(259) and for purposes which he seemed not anxious to have known. The men were lodged with a Quaker, William Maxon, about three miles northeast of the village of Springdale, Brown agreeing to give in exchange for their keep such of his teams or wagons as might seem just and fair. Brown himself was taken into the home of John H. Painter, about a half-mile away; and all were welcomed with that unfeigned hospitality for which the Friends have always been known.
Not many days passed by until suspicions were aroused concerning this group of men; for the word was spread that strange maneuvers, much like military drill, were daily being conducted on the lawn at the Maxon home. Much as these Quakers sympathized with and aided in the escape of fleeing slaves, there was on thing they could not sanction: an appeal to force. If Brown had this in mind he could expect no sympathy or support from the Springdale Friends—a fact which other writers seem to have failed fully to appreciate.(260) Some there were of this Quaker sect, however, more charitable and less suspicious than their brethren who believed that these men gave signs of being Mormon missionaries; while John H. Painter and William Maxon alone had any definite information as to what John Brown actually had in mind.(261)
During their stay in this pleasant community, many friendships were formed between Brown’s men and the young people of the surrounding country; and when the 27th of April, 1858, arrived, the day when these men were to depart for unknown scenes and adventures, among those who came to bid them “farewell” scarcely a dry eye could be seen—though it may safely be asserted that “flirting with the fair young Friends” and the kissing of “a very handsome young school teacher” in “the confusion”, (262) as depicted by one writer on the subject, had neither place nor sanction among this Quaker fold of sober mind.
The months passed swiftly by with only an occasional line from the men whom Brown had led to Canada; when suddenly, and much to the surprise of the Springdale Friends, Brown himself reappeared on February 25, 1859, with some twelve slaves rescued from Missouri. With their usual avidity, his Quaker friends found hiding places for the slaves: but fearing the approach of a United States Marshal, Brown felt insecure, and so he departed in haste for Chicago and Canada.(263)
Nothing more was heard from Brown until the middle of July, when, in accordance with their previous promise, the two sons of Ann Coppoc, Edwin and Barclay, received from John Brown a summons to meet him at Chambersburg, Pennsylvania, that the earliest possible moment. Unhesitatingly they prepared to depart, and on July 25th Barclay Coppoc said to his mother: “We are going to start of Ohio to-day.” “Ohio!” said his mother, “I believe you are going with old Brown. When you get the halters around your necks, will you think of me?”(264)
The Coppoc boys departed, and soon the affair was half forgotten. The summer passed quietly as the Springdale Quakers busied themselves with the humdrum of daily cares. Autumn had begun, when one day there came to this peaceful village, like a clap of thunder from a clear sky, the startling news of Brown’s attack on Harper’s Ferry. In the act of treason Edwin Coppoc had been captured and throw in prison, with sure death staring him in the face; while his brother Barclay, pursued by men and dogs, was fleeing for his life through the Pennsylvania mountains.(265)
Haggard and worn with his long flight,(266) with a price upon his head, and hunted by an official with a requisition from Governor Wise of Virginia upon Governor Kirkwood of Iowa for his immediate rendition to justice,(267) Barclay Coppoc reached his home in Iowa on December 17th.(268) On the day before, his brother Edwin, loaded with chains and shackles, had yielded up his life upon a Virginia scaffold. Thus the mother’s parting prophecy was fulfilled.
When it had become clear what had actually transpired in their midst, the Friends at Springdale made haste to state their position. On November 9th, three weeks after the disastrous raid on Harper’s Ferry, the Springdale Monthly Meeting convened; and among its most important actions was the appointment of a large and representative committee(269) to investigate the report that there “appears to be an impression abroad that Friends in this neighborhood have improperly encouraged a war spirit.”(270) The committee at once took the matter vigorously in hand, visited each of the members of the Society who had been connected in any manner with Brown and his men, and on December 7, 1859, rendered the following significant report:
We have endeavored to consider the subject confided to us in all its bearings, & are united in the conclusion, that any publication [in the way of a defense] o the part of the Mo. Mee. [Monthly Meeting] is unnecessary. While we believe that our principals of peace were never dearer to most of our members than now, we feel it to be cause of deep regret that those engaged in the late deplorable outbreak at Harpers Ferry, have been entertained, & otherwise encouraged by some of our members.
While brought under a deep concern we desire to establish a forgiving feeling towards those who may have been overtaken in weekness & would tenderly admonish all to an increased watchfulness in the precepts of our Redeamer.(271)
For the sake of accurate history, it now seems necessary to make plain the real relation which the much-eulogized Coppoc boys bore to the Society of Friends at the time of the events in question. Early in life both of the boys developed wayward tendencies, discomfiting to the mother and to the church. Edwin took to dancing, and though repeatedly dealt with in the “spirit of restoring love” by the Monthly Meeting, he spurned all advice, refused to “condemn his course”, and was in consequence duly disowned from membership in the Society on May 6, 1857.(272) Barclay, also, about this same time gave the Springdale Friends grave concern. Fresh from the stirring scenes in Kansas,(273) he had engaged in a fight soon after reaching home, and a month after his brother’s disownment the complaint was entered on the records of the Monthly Meeting that “Barclay Coppoc has used profane language, and struck a man in anger.”(274)
Coppoc gave the proper satisfaction fro this first offense, and the meeting “passed it by”. But immediately upon his return from Harper’s Ferry his conduct called for new attention. With the officers close upon his heels Coppoc sought his home in Cedar County; and upon his arrival there a large number of the young men in the vicinity united as a military guard to prevent his capture, while he himself went heavily armed. His presence of course attracted wide attention, and the overseers of the Preparative Meeting called upon him. Action seemed necessary and on January 11, 1860, a report was made to the Monthly Meeting that “Barclay Coppoc has neglected the attendance of our religious meetings & is in the practice of bearing arms.”(275) The usual care was extended to him, but with no avail. Two months later Barclay, like his brother, was formally disowned; and thus came to a close this interesting episode in the history of the Iowa Friends.
The work of aiding fugitive slaves, however, practically came to an end with Lincoln’s Emancipation Proclamation,(276) and so the Iowa Friends turned to the freedmen with a view to helping them adjust themselves to their new conditions and responsibilities.
For years various of the Monthly and Quarterly Meetings in Iowa had maintained standing committees on the welfare of the “people of color”, and when the Iowa Yearly Meeting of Friends first convened in the fall of 1863 strong efforts were made by interested parties to consolidate this important work for the entire field. The Yearly Meeting concurred in the plan, and on September 11th appointed a committee of nine members with instructions “to embrace every opening for the relief and benefit of that much injured people”.(277)
The committee at once took up the work with a vigor that brought results. An appeal was issued to every part of the Yearly Meeting for help, and during the ensuing year in response to this appeal the committee received subscriptions to the amount of $3,181.74 and clothing valued at $1,691.90, all of which was dispatched to the destitute freedmen at given points in the South. When the Yearly Meeting heard the report of the new work in 1864, there was great enthusiasm. “During the consideration of this important subject”, reads the record, “our hearts have been dipped in sympathy with the distressed condition of our colored brethren of the South now being freed from bondage”. Proposals were made for the extension of the work, and with hearty accord the Yearly Meeting now appointed a larger and more completely organized committee termed the “Executive Committee on the Relief of the Freedmen”, with the charge to labor for “the physical necessities of the Freedmen, and to their advancement in knowledge and religion.”(278)
While the Quakers in Iowa were thus inaugurating their new project, the Friends in the East were engaging in the same work and with similar enthusiasm. Upon learning this fact the Iowa Executive Committee immediately combined its resources with those of similar committees of the Ohio, Indiana, and Western Yearly Meetings for united effort. Schools, mission stations, and posts for physical relief were opened in various parts of the South, the Iowa committee alone contributing to the work $4,451.19 for the year 1864-1865. Such a united organization, though not permanent, was of immense importance in connection with activities which were undertaken later.
During the year 1865 it seemed best to the Friends of the western States to again divide the work, allotting specific fields to the several Yearly Meetings. Under this arrangement the work in Missouri and Kansas was turned over to the Iowa Yearly Meeting. The Iowa committee at once secured Isaac T. Gibson of Salem, then a man in the very prime of life, as the “General Agent” to take personal charge and devote all of his time to the work. This he did, and with an enthusiasm that won for the undertaking immediate success. He appealed for aid to the Quakers at large, to the Northwestern Freedmen’s Aid Commission, to the railroad and steamboat companies of surrounding States, and to the negroes themselves. From every quarter, and with a readiness that was almost beyond belief, there came response to the call. With the money at hand he began the organization of negro schools, and in his report to the Iowa Yearly Meeting in 1866 he was able to say that the following schools had been opened and maintained with Iowa Quaker teachers in charge:
In Missouri: at Weston, eight months, two teachers, 127 enrolled; at St. Joseph, eight months, two teachers, 350 enrolled; at Sedalia, four and one-half months, one teacher, 140 enrolled; at Columbia, five months, one teacher, 70 enrolled; at Springfield, eight months, two teachers, 450 enrolled; at Mexico, five months, one teacher, 60 enrolled. In Kansas: at Atchison, six months, two teachers, 160 enrolled.
The total number of pupils enrolled in these seven schools was 1367, and with the scripture schools maintained on Sunday, which old and young alike attended, the total number of negroes reached was over two thousand.(279)
It was difficult both to meet the white man’s prejudice and to dispel the negro’s ignorance; but the teachers worked devotedly and the blacks responded to a surprising degree. Beginning with A. B. C. classes the negroes advanced to the first, second and third readers, and then to arithmetic, geography, and history. Practical courses in manual labor and farming were introduced; and throughout all these activities a strong religious tone was maintained. With ever growing magnitude the work went on. As the State of Missouri gradually took over the work, the Friends continued their labors in the public schools. In 1871 a certain County Superintendent wrote the following concerning their efforts:
The young ladies who came here from Iowa to teach in our colored schools, have all done unusually well; they were faithful as teachers; bore themselves well as ladies, and have done the black people of this county much good, and I can report nothing but unqualified praise of all they have done.(280)
In 1880, due to unfavorable local conditions, the school so long maintained at Sedalia was abandoned and a new site was chosen at Parsons, Kansas, where the Hobson Normal School” was established. The purpose of this school was the training of negro teachers for work among their own people. Under its first principal, D. W. Bowles, the enrollment of prospective teachers reached seventy-five for the year 1883-1884.(281) In 1890, A. W. Hadley took up the work for which Bowles had given his life,(282) and with the same spirit of devotion and self-sacrifice, he labored in this field until his health gave way. In 1898 the school was sold,(283) and for a time the interest on the proceeds was given to Southland College to be used as tuition for needy children; but in 1901 the entire principal was turned over to that institution.(284) Thus the work for the freedmen, better known to the Friends as the “people of color”, came to its close.
It is interesting, in view of the long and helpful relation which the Friends of Iowa have borne towards this people, to observe that but very few negroes have ever been taken into membership in the Society of Friends in this State.
252- A View of the Present State of the African Slave Trade, published by the direction of a meeting representing the Religious Society of Friends in Pennsylvania, New Jersey, and other States (Philadelphia, 1824), p. 3.
253- See Reminiscences of Rachel Kellum in Western Work, April, 1908, pp. 4, 5.
254- For a discussion of the Missouri-Iowa boundary dispute see Pelzer’s Augustus Caesar Dodge, Ch. VI; And Parish’s Robert Lucas, Ch. XXII.
255- The Lewelling house, still in a good state of preservation, is an excellent sample of the first stone houses erected in early Iowa. The walls of solid stone are nearly two feet thick. Great stone chimneys at either end of the house made possible a large open fire place in each room. A stone extension to the rear provided a spacious dining room and kitchen combined, with plenty of pantries. In the center of the floor of this large room a trap door, always covered with a rag carpet and the dining table, led into an extensive opening separate from the cellar. It was here that the fugitive slaves were kept, and though the house was searched many times by the Missourians, this opening was never found nor the slaves secured.
256- Of the nine slaves in question, but four were taken back to Missouri, two women and two children. In 1850 Ruel Daggs brought suit against Elihu Frazier, Thomas Clarkson Frazier, John Comer, Paul Way, John Pickering, William Johnson, and other citizens of Henry County in the District Court of the United States at Burlington for $10,000 damages. The case was there tried and dismissed on demurrer (see 6 Federal Cases, No. 3538). For his account of the affair in general the writer has depended on the testimony taken at the trial, found in the Fugitive Slave Case, Daggs vs. Frazier, et. als, as reported by George Frazee.
257- In her reminiscences (Western Work, April, 1908, pp. 4,5) Rachel Kellum states that word reached Salem concerning the approach of the Missourians, and a messenger was at once dispatched on horse to notify the county sheriff at Mt. Pleasant, about ten miles away. When the sheriff arrived at Salem he found most of the Missourians at the hotel with their dinner cooked and on the table. He entered at once and “gave them just fifteen minutes”, says Rachel Kellum, “to leave town”. “They swore that they would have their dinners. He said that one blast of his bugle would bring on the company of well trained men, and if they came at his command, they would come to shoot, and shoot to kill. ‘Now, gentlemen, you have your choice, to clear the town in fifteen minutes or take the consequences.’ They went… grabbing what dinner they could carry.”
Another old settler, who was a boy living in Salem at the time, states that upon the approach of the Missourians Jonathan A. Frazier rode in haste to the Congregational settlement at Denmark and made known the attack. The Congregationalists immediately responded in arms and when the Missourians saw them coming up the dusty road they at once took to horse and fled.
258- See Lloyd’s John Brown Among the Pedee Quakers in Annals of Iowa, Vol. IV, pp. 669, 670.
259- The men brought by Brown to Springdale on this occasion were his own son, Owen Brown, Aaron D. Stevens, John Kagi, John E. Cook, Richard Realf, Charles W. Moffitt, Luke J. Parsons, Charles H. Tidd, William Leeman, and Richard Richardson, a colored man. See Lloyd’s John Brown Among the Pedee Quakers in Annals of Iowa, Vol. IV, p. 712.
260- In his excellent work on John Brown Among the Quakers (Third Edition), pp. 22, 23, Irving B. Richman makes the following statement, to which the present writer takes exception: “To be sure, John Brown and his followers were not men of peace; they, one and all of them, had fought hard and often in the Kansas war; but much was pardoned to them by the Quakers because of the holiness of their object”. To grant the truth of this statement would be to concede that through leniency the Springdale Friends were willing to compromise their principles of non-resistance, something of which the strong men who then were in control of the Springdale Monthly Meeting were incapable.
261- See the answers made by Richard Realf in his examination before Senator Mason’s committee, as given in Richman’s John Brown Among the Quakers (Third Edition), pp. 56-59.
262- Lloyd’s John Brown Among the Pedee Quakers in Annals of Iowa, Vol. IV, pp. 714, 715.
263- Lloyd’s John Brown Among the Pedee Quakers (Third Edition), p. 49.
264- Quoted in Richman’s John Brown Among the Quakers (Third Edition), p. 49.
265- Brown’s attack on Harper’s Ferry occurred on Sunday night, October 16, 1859; the Government troops retook the place on the morning of the 18th. See Villard’s John Brown: A Biography Fifty Years After, Ch. XII.
266- For an excellent description of Barclay Coppoc’s escape and flight see Teakel’s The Rendition of Barclay Coppoc in the Iowa Journal of History and Politics, Vol. X, pp. 519-522.
267- See Teakel’s The Rendition of Barclay Coppoc in The Iowa Journal of History and Politics, Vol. X, pp. 522-566.
268- Aurner’s A Topical History of Cedar County, Iowa, p. 424.
269- The men appointed on this committee were Joel Bean, Henry Rowntree, Israel Negus, Laurie Tatum, James Schooley, Samuel Macy, Amos W. Hampton, James Staples, Benjamin Miles, Thomas Barrington, and Samuel Jepson.
270- Minutes of Red Cedar Monthly Meeting of Friends, 11 mo., 9th, 1859, p. 70.
271- Minutes of Red Cedar Monthly Meeting of Friends, 12 mo., 7th, 1859, pp. 77, 78.
272- Minutes of Red Cedar Monthly Meeting of Friends, 5 mo., 6th 1857, p. 220.
273- Showing signs of tuberculosis, Barclay Coppoc went to Kansas in 1857 for his health, and while there is said to have taken part in some of John Brown’s expeditions in that State.
274- Minutes of Red Cedar Monthly Meeting of Friends, 6 mo., 10th, 1857, p. 225.
275- Minutes of Red Cedar Monthly Meeting of Friends, 1 mo., 11th, 1860, p. 83.
276- Lincoln’s Emancipation Proclamation was given to the press on September 23, 1862, and was intended by him to go into effect on January 1, 1863.
277- Minutes of Iowa Yearly Meeting of Friends, 1863, p. 13.
278- Minutes of Iowa Yearly Meeting of Friends, 1863, p. 13.
279- Minutes of Iowa Yearly Meeting of Friends, 1865, p. 35; 1866, pp. 17, 18.
280- Quoted in Minutes of Iowa Yearly Meeting of Friends, 1871, p. 11.
281- Minutes of Iowa Yearly Meeting of Friends, 1884, p. 24.
282- R. D. Bowles opened the school in September, 1889, with a crowded enrollment, but he broke down in health in January, 1890. The school was closed and he, with his wife, went to Springdale where he died on July 8th.
283- Minutes of Iowa Yearly Meeting of Friends, 1898, p. 69.
284- Minutes of Iowa Yearly Meeting of Friends, 1901, p. 47.