IOWA HISTORY PROJECT
STORIES OF IOWA
FOR BOYS AND GIRLS
JOHN BROWN AND THE UNDERGROUND RAILROAD
You perhaps remember reading in your history that at the time Missouri was admitted as a state in 1821, Congress declared that there should be no slavery north of its southern boundary and west of the Mississippi River. This, of course, included Iowa. There were slaves, however, in Missouri.
Slaves had to work for their masters and if they ran away, they might be forced to return and be severely punished as well. The slaves in Missouri were usually treated kindly by their masters. Some of them were even allowed to go away to work and to keep at least part of the money they earned.
Soon after the first miners came to Dubuque, a slave named Ralph came to work in the mines. His master, a Mr. Montgomery, lived in Missouri. He told Ralph that whenever he earned five hundred and fifty dollars and paid it to his master, he was to be free. Of course Ralph wanted to be free.
He worked hard, but five years passed and still he had not saved enough money to buy his freedom. During this time Iowa became a territory. One of the first laws passed by the legislature gave owners the right to take slaves out of Iowa if they could prove that the slaves really belonged to them.
One day while Ralph was working near Dubuque, he was seized by officers and turned over to two men from Virginia. They had promised Mr. Montgomery that they would bring Ralph back to Missouri for one hundred dollars. Off they started with the poor colored man in a wagon.
But a farmer had seen what had happened to Ralph. He hurried to Dubuque and told Judge Thomas S. Wilson about it. Judge Wilson ordered the sheriff to follow the two men who were carrying Ralph away and bring him back to Dubuque. Then they had a trial before the Supreme Court of the Territory of Iowa. Judge Wilson was one of the three judges. After hearing the case the judges decided that slavery could not exist in Iowa. Since Ralph's master had allowed him to come to a territory where there were no slaves, Ralph was free.
There were a number of other negroes in Dubuque at this time. When the Methodists built their log church there in 1834, one of the three women who gave a little money to help build it was a colored woman named Tilda. It is said she was a sister of this Ralph.
More people came into Iowa. Some of them were from the South and believed that slavery was right. They thought that people in the states without slaves ought to send back to their masters the slaves who tried to escape. There were two groups who did not like slavery, however.
One of these was made up of the Friends of Quakers, some of whom settled in southern Iowa near the Missouri boundary. Many of them lived at Salem. These Friends or Quakers did not think it was right to fight. They believed also that all people should have equal rights. Many of the Quakers had lived in North Carolina. They knew how badly some of the slaves were treated, and they wanted to help them get away. Then there were the settlers from New England. One of their towns was named Denmark.
In the summer of 1848 several slaves escaped form a Missouri farmer named Ruel Daggs. They came to Salem, Iowa. When two men tried to arrest them and take them back to Missouri, some of the Quakers said the slaves would have to have a trial. The men did not know the slaves belonging to Mr. Daggs, so the judge said there was no proof that these colored people were slaves. They were allowed to go free.
The two men went back to Missouri very angry. A few days later a large number of men from Missouri came to Salem. They wanted to kill two of the Quaker leaders and looked all through the village for them. But the leaders had been warned and could not be found. When the New England settlers at Denmark heard what was happening at Salem many of them took their guns and went to Salem. Then the men from Missouri left and the Quakers were safe.
Later Mr. Daggs sued a number of these Quakers for several thousand dollars. In this trial he was successful and the Quakers had to pay him the money for the slaves they had helped to escape. The men would have sold for about nine hundred dollars each and the women for six or seven hundred dollars.
To make it harder for slaves to escape, Congress passed a new law in 1850. Any person who helped a slave to escape or refused to assist the owner to capture him was to be punished by a fine or imprisonment. Both the Quakers and the people from New England wanted to obey the laws of the United States. But they felt sure that God wanted the colored people to be free, so they were willing to help them in spite of the punishment.
They had to do this secretly, however. You know perhaps that all these slaves wanted to get to Canada. There they were free and the officers of the United States could not arrest them and take them back to their masters.
To help the slaves get through Iowa, some people organized what was called the Underground Railroad. Of course you know this was not a railroad at all. It was a line of places - houses - at which slaves could be cared for and sent on to the next station. One line of the railroad ran through Tabor, Lewis, Des Moines, Grinnell, Iowa City, West Liberty, Tipton, DeWitt, Low Moor, and Clinton.
The people who ran this railroad did not want anyone except their friends to know that they were helping the slaves to escape. If they were found doing this, the slaves were to be sent back to their masters and the white people were to be punished. They had many queer ways of hiding the slaves, so that no one knew they were there.
One man had some colored people lie down on the bottom of his wagon. Then he covered them up with blankets and drove away to the next place where they were to be kept. The people along the road thought he had sacks of grain. A Quaker in Henry County had a secret closet upon the landing in the stairway. Slaves could be put in here through a hidden trap door and no one could find them.
At another time two young colored women who had escaped from their master in Missouri were staying at the home of a Quaker and his wife. Suddenly a number of men appeared and demanded the girls. The old Quaker told them that they could not come in his house. Just then his wife came up and said, "Father, if the man wants to look through the house let him do so. Thee ought to know he won't find any slaves here." So the men went all through the house, but they did not find the girls. The old Quaker woman had hidden them under one of the featherbeds.
Things became worse in Iowa after 1854. If you read your United State history, you will find that in this year Congress passed a law permitting the people of Kansas to decide whether or not they would have slaves. The slave owners sent men to Kansas to vote for slavery. The people who did not like slavery sent men there to vote against it. Soon these men were fighting.
Among the men who crossed Iowa on their way to Kansas was John Brown. In October, 1856, Brown visited West Branch, a Quaker village in Cedar County. The tavern keeper had heard of John Brown and he was given a room, meals, and care for his horse free.
In August, 1857, John Brown came to Tabor, Iowa, where there were a lot of guns for the free-state men in Kansas - the men who did not believe in having slavery. From Tabor Brown went back to Kansas.
About this time John Brown began to plan to fight against slavery in Virginia. He enlisted thirteen men and started east with them. By this time it was winter. When the party reached Springdale, Iowa, a Quaker settlement in Cedar County, Brown decided to leave his men there for the winter while he went east to secure funds.
The men spent the winter of 1857-1858 in the home of William Maxson. The old house in which they lived that winter is still standing. The people at Springdale were almost all Quakers. They did not believe in fighting, but they were kind to the men in John Brown's band. Indeed, two young men, Edwin and Barclay Coppoc, decided to join the party. In the spring, Brown returned and took his men east, but soon he told them they could go wherever they liked for a while. When he was ready, he would send for them.
Then in the summer of 1858 Brown came back through Iowa on his way to Kansas. This time he and a party of men went into Missouri to get some slaves. One slave owner was killed. Finally Brown with a band of slaves and some horses started for Canada. When they reached Springdale in March of 1859, they heard that a United States marshal was coming to arrest them. With the assistance of William Penn Clarke of Iowa City and J. B. Grinnell of Grinnell a freight car was secured. The slaves were loaded into this at West Liberty. It was fastened to the passenger train and off they all went to Chicago.
After Brown had helped the negroes to Canada he ordered all his men to meet him in Pennsylvania. He had decided to try to capture the arsenal at Harper's Ferry, Virginia. In this arsenal were many guns belonging to the United States army.
On October 16, 1859, John Brown, with about twenty men, made the attack on Harper's Ferry. Of course so few men could not fight against the whole State of Virginia and the army of the United States. John Brown himself was captured and later hanged. Edwin Coppoc, one of the Quaker boys from Springdale, was also captured and put to death. His brother, Barclay Coppoc, escaped and came back to Iowa. When the governor of Virginia sent an officer to arrest him, his friends helped him to escape again and the officer failed to capture him.
Soon after this the Civil War began. Then the slaves were all set free and there was no need for the Underground Railroad any more.
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