Madison County, Iowa



The Underground Railroad

By J. Hoisington*

Beginning about the year 1850 and continuing until about 1862 numerous runaway Negro slaves from Missouri passed through this county on their way northeast to Canada, or to northern portion of the United States, where abolition sentiment was strong enough for them to feel safe from pursuit and capture. Until 1855-6 the political sentiment of the county was largely opposed to abolitionism.

About 1850 there were very few persons in the county with anti-slavery sentiments, to actively aid slaves in making their escape from their masters.

By 1856 the number had greatly increased and by 1860 they were so numerous as to make no secret of their work in aiding the Negro to freedom. Those who harbored and actively helped slaves to escape were commonly called "agents of the underground railroad" and, extending across the country from south to north and some miles apart, were "stations," which were the homes of the more courageous and radical abolitionists. These stations were made known and gave shelter to runaway slaves who traveled by night and were secreted in them in the daytime. In many cases the "agents" would haul the runaways by team from one "station" to another in the nighttime, or on horseback. During the later ‘50s and early '60s they were frequently taken in the daytime along circuitous routes, concealed in wagons.

James Farris who settled in Union Township in 1851 was one of the boldest and most active of these "underground station agents" from the very first. He was far past middle age but of strong physique a noted deer hunter and trapper and feared nothing. He used to brag about his work in this line and even publicly defied searching parties. One early morning during the later '50s a runaway Negro man approached him, from the timber close by his house much fearing to do so and yet desperate because of hunger and fatigue with his overnight travel. The black man had been directed to Farris' place but not further, and didn’t know where to go next. Farris thought he had seen the Negro before and finally the poor fellow admitted he belonged to a son-in-law of Farris' who lived in Missouri and whom Farris occasionally visited.

Farris at once put his visitor at ease and told him he would be taken care of and shielded from his enemies; that he would he taken on to the next station over on Coon River. The slave was then hidden in the loft of one of the double log houses in which Farris lived. But early that evening who should arrive at the house but the son-in-law and his party to stay all night, never suspecting that his father-in-law was at that moment giving refuge and asylum to his human chattel. It would not do to send the runaway ahead, so slave and master slept in the same house that night, the former overhead and the latter below. The slave was very quiet that night, as might well be supposed. Next morning the master and party were directed by Farris where probably it was wise to look for the slave. He told them to hunt as far as to the North River, but that it was useless to cross the divide over to the Coon, for the reason that, if the runaway had reached that far he was perfectly safe since there were so many bitter and tough abolitionists in that vicinity. The slave hunters consumed all the day in searching along North River without success as a matter of course and returned to the Farris house to stay all night, the son-in-law saying he would give up the chase and go home next morning. That night, David Gilliland and another man took the darky on his way and the disconsolate master returned to Missouri short a $1,000 slave through the radical abolitionism of his father-in-law.

William McDonald who lived in Southwest Jefferson Township, was another "station agent.’’ Among other chattels he brought with him from Ohio a fine family carriage, and it was said that the vehicle did much and valiant duty as a passenger coach on the ‘‘underground railroad’’ tracks.

John Early, of Jackson Township, was in charge of a very busy "underground station,‘‘ and it is said, had as many as five runaway slaves on his place at one time. Advocates of the "peculiar institution’’ of the South were becoming exasperated at the repeated loss of their human chattels through connivance of abolitionists in the North, and placed warrants in the hands of deputy United States marshals for the recovery or their property. Early soon received a "telegram" presumably from "underground wires," that a United States officer was in his neighborhood hunting slaves out of bounds, which led him to clean up an antiquated pistol and announce himself as being ready for all comers.

On another occasion Early became the host of Sheriff Sam Hamilton a pro-slavery man, and another democrat, whose name has gotten away. The men were billed to speak on the political situation, at the Early schoolhouse and were at the home of the slave’s friend by his invitation. When supper was about to be announced three chairs were placed at one side the table and the democratic guests were so placed in them that the middle seat was left vacant. Then Early told his wife to bring in her other visitor, and upon compliance with his request a ponderous black "n***** mammy" was escorted to the dining-room and placed between the sheriff and his democratic friend. The trio made a remarkable setting to the scene and the present day reader can hardly realize the ludicrousness of the situation. But Hamilton and his companion were equal to the occasion and joined heartily with Early in his manifest and successful effort to please all. After the intentionally prolonged meal was finished without any demonstrations of chagrin or hostility the two pro-slavery politicians thanked their host for his hospitality and took their departure for the democratic meeting waiting for them at the schoolhouse.

* James L. Hoisington was born about 1872, the son of early Madison County settlers Albert Jefferson Hoisington and Elizabeth Limb. This article is taken from History of Madison County (Iowa) & Its People, Herman A. Mueller, editor, Chicago: S. J. Clarke Publishing Co., 1915 


An Underground Railway Station

Courtesy of the Winterset Madisonian

Area residents still remember the days when it was said that the underground railway had a path from the northeast side of Winterset to ‘somewhere" in what is now Winterset City Park. A spur of that railway, if you will, went to what is now the Winterset Art Center. Used as an underground railroad station during the Civil War, the art center, located just a few blocks south of the southeast corner of the town square, now features the work of local artists. And, it is a place area residents may go to take classes and learn about a myriad of art topics. A not-for-profit organization was formed in the 1950s to purchase the building, which presently houses the art center. The building once had a tunnel under the road to the house directly across the street to the east. From there, the railway path extended farther eastward. When visiting the art center, one might be able to coax a volunteer to open an isolated room, which can be entered only by a trap door, where slaves hid on their quest for freedom in the north. The underground room is about four feet wide and about eight feet deep.

Coordinator's note: As of the beginning of 2015, researchers of Madison County history working specifically on the details of the Underground Railroad have been unable to find any documentary evidence that this particular story is true.


Madison County in Context

Homes in Madison County, principally in Winterset and Earlham served as stations on the underground railroad. Slaves passing through Earlham came in from Stuart, Guthrie County and then went on to Des Moines.  Slaves passing through Winterset came from the west through Fontanelle, Adair County or from the south through Osceola, Clarke County on their way to Des Moines.

For an excellent historical overview of Iowa's role in the underground railroad, see the IaGenWeb site "Underground Railroad in Iowa".


Maintained by the County Coordinator

This page was created on July 10, 2004.
This page was last updated Thursday, 19-Jan-2017 21:37:17 EST .