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Underground Railroad

In keeping with the celebration of Black History Month, Erma DeRosear has submitted several stories passed on to her by people associated with this important, not widely known part of American history. Information was rarely documented due to the secrecy of these operations.

The Underground Railroad was not a railroad at all. It was a network of safe houses, barns, root cellars, and similar places where people who had escaped from slavery were hidden during their flight to safety. If these places could talk, their tales would be ones of fear and hope, desperation and inspiration. When it became necessary to communicate by mail regarding the transportation of slaves, cleverly coded messages were sent between stations, which were not more than nine or ten miles apart.

During the Civil War thousands of slaves rode the Underground Railroad to freedom. Most of us associate this path to liberty with Kentucky, Missouri, and Tennessee. The “railroad” however had some of its important routes right here in the Hawkeye State. These five stories tell it as it was, so if you are ready, “All Aboard!”

The Slave Hunter: On June 2, 1843, nine slaves working on the property of Ruel Daggs (born in Virginia and a farmer) near Luray, MO left the homestead. Daggs had not been mean to them but he was living in an area where some people frowned on slavery and he was thinking of selling them into the South. The slaves said they were afraid of being sold and decided to head north to freedom instead. Daggs and his sons hired two slave hunters to track them and bring them back.

One of the men was James McClure and the other was Samuel Slaughter, a Virginian and farmer living in Section 33 of Harrison Township in Lee County. They followed the wagon trails which lead to Salem, IA where they found themselves among the Quakers, who would not allow the men to take the slaves back to Missouri because there were no arrest 9 warrants. Eventually, five of them had escaped to freedom and the other four ended up back in Missouri. Daggs decided to sue the Quakers because he said he had lost too many hours of work from their absence. Daggs was awarded $2900 from several of the Friends but never collected any of it because the ones who had been involved had willed or given all their possessions away so there was nothing left.

Samuel Slaughter raised a large family in a heavy wooded area where he watched for slaves coming north out of Missouri. The census of 1860 shows him with a lot of wealth but in the 1870 census, which was after the Civil War, he has very little. He has many descendants living in Harrison Township today.

Conductor Benjamin Cook: Benjamin Cook came to Iowa from Ohio and married Susanna Hill in Lee County in 1851. They owned a farm in Section 11 about a mile and a half north of Primrose. They were Quakers, among quite a few in the area -- the Cooks, Carvers, McMillens, Hills, Hamptons and others -- many of whom are buried in the Cook Cemetery which was located on his farm. In 2004, Cook family descendants revealed that great grandpa Benjamin had a hiding place for slaves in his home. The Atlas of 1874 shows Benjamin owning the bottom half of the southwest corner of the section. There were three Quaker schools in Lee County: Chestnut Hill, Old Pilot Grove and Rabbit Ridge. Few people in the county today know where Rabbit Ridge School was located; it is called Fairview and stood where the home of Stanley and Marilyn Watkins now stands. The Cooks are buried in the cemetery on the land they owned. This farm was a station on the Underground Railroad.

The “Hidey Place”: Edward and Helen (Kirchner) Hohl bought their old home place in 1914 on the west edge of Franklin from William Thomas. When their sons Jacob Hohl of Donnellson and Carl Hohl of Keosauqua tore it down in the 1980’s, they found a trap door in the living room in the northeast corner of the house which opened to a “hidey place” in the basement. The floor boards, originally 1 inch thick, were worn down one half inch with the knotholes still the original size, indicating a lot of traffic or activity near the entrance to the trap door. Howard Raid, the historian for the Mennonite College in Bluffton, OH, had lived in Donnellson and felt sure that house was a station on the Railroad.

The Light in the Window: May Crowe of Charleston wrote this wonderful story for the library. The pre-Civil War house of Brian and Hazel Hancock stood in Section 31 of Charleston Township about one and one-half miles northwest of Argyle. The Hancocks had moved to this house in the 1950’s. May says “When we visited Uncle Brian and Aunt Hazel, we admired the noble architecture of the large home, with floor-to-ceiling windows in the living rooms, the expansive views over the fields from the bedrooms upstairs. The unforgettable highlights of the house, however, were the Underground Railroad connections”.

At the top of the house, possibly the third floor, small windows opened facing south. The station to the south was a house in Revere, MO. If an escaping slave was being helped, the Missouri people would place a lighted lantern in an upper window which made it visible in Iowa. If it was safe to bring the slave over, an answering lantern would be placed in the Iowa window.

We were shown the secret closet in the basement where the slaves were hidden after they arrived. The Lee County family then placed a signal in the north window and the next safe house north would signal back and receive the slave. The route ran north to Salem and eventually into Canada and freedom.

On a fierce windy day in April 1968, fire destroyed the house but a new house was built in its place – now the home of Howard and Joy Hancock.

The 1874 Atlas of Charleston Township shows a lithograph of the old homestead.

Mary’s Story: This last story was researched by Betty Eis of Bonaparte, Mary Savage of Salem and Erma DeRosear of Donnellson. This is a story that has not come to a close but continues to be researched and documented. These ladies believe it is time after all their efforts for Mary’s story to be written and told.

If you were caught harboring a slave in the mid-1800’s, you were fined  $1000. Henry and Eleanor Pickard, Quakers who lived in the New Garden area near Pilot Grove sheltered a little slave girl in their home. Lewis Savage, a historian and Quaker minister, and his cousin Mary Savage, came to the Donnellson Library in the summer of 2004 seeking information. They told of a slave on his way to freedom in Canada in 1857 that left his child with the Pickards saying he would return for her.  He said her mother had been “sold down the river”.

In 1933 Mary came to a Pickard Reunion in Donnellson as Mrs. Wm G. Mills. She had lived about 20 years with the Pickards and then left. Her name has been found as well as that of her parents; information was found on her marriage, where she worked, and where she lived and died.

In addition to Mary’s Story, the Underground Railroad is still being researched and documented, adding information to a part of American history that is not widely known.

Researched, compiled and submitted by Erma Derosear.

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