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The debate in Congress in 1819 and 1820 over whether Missouri should enter the Union as a slave or free state made it clear to the entire nation that the slavery issue was not going to simply evaporate. For free blacks, the formation of the national American Colonization Society persuaded them to organize for the abolition of slavery rather than act individually. The Colonization Society wanted federal government funds to pay the costs of settling free blacks in an African colony they founded and called Liberia. The threat to free African-Americans that this appeared to represent a need for a more organized black response and for more white allies. The era of immediate abolitionism is generally acknowledged to have begun on January 1, 1831, when William Lloyd GARRISON first published his abolitionist newspaper, The Liberator.

The abolitionists were divided over strategy and tactics, but they were very active and very visible. Many of them were part of the organized Underground Railroad that flourished between 1830 and 1861. Not all abolitionists favored aiding fugitive slaves, and some believed that money and energy should go to political action. Even those who were not abolitionists might be willing to help when they encountered a fugitive, or they might not. It was very difficult for fugitives to know who could be trusted.

Southerners were outraged that escaping slaves received assistance from so many sources and that they lived and worked in the North and Canada. As a part of the Compromise of 1850, a new Fugitive Slave Act was passed that made it both possible and profitable to hire slave catchers to find and arrest runaways. This was a disaster for the free black communities of the North, especially since the slave catchers often kidnapped legally-free blacks as well as fugitives. But these seizures and kidnappings brought the brutality of slavery into the North and persuaded many more people to assist fugitives. Vigilance Committees acted as contact points for runaways and watched out vigilantly for the rights of northern free blacks. They worked together with local abolition societies, African-American churches and a variety of individuals to help fugitives move further on or to find them homes and work. Those who went to Canada in the mid-nineteenth century went primarily to what was then called Canada West, present-day Ontario.

The term "underground railroad" probably dates back to an incident that occured in 1831. In Kentucky, a runaway slave by the name of Tice David ran away and his master followed his trail to the banks of the Ohio River. The master lost the trail when Tice dived into the water and swam across the river to Ripley, Ohio. When the master returned to the plantation, he told everyone that Tice 'must have escaped on an underground road."

Steam railroads were a new and exciting means of travel in 1831. Maybe that's why the "underground road" became an "underground railroad." Those who kept "safe houses" for freedom seekers were called "station agents." Others who guided freedom seekers from one place to another became "conductors." Freedom seekers themselves were referred to as "passengers."

Because the issue of helping runaway slaves was against the law, the entire operation was conducted in uptmost secrecy. Therefore, it is difficult to trace the history of the underground railroad, who was involved, and other such statistics. This was possibly even more so for those in Ringgold County given the close proximity to the State of Missouri.

If one was caught aiding a runaway, the maximum penalty was six months in jail and a fine of $1,000.

Most runaway slaves didnít get very far and were soon recaptured. Only a few made it to the free states of the North or on to Canada. One guess is that about 35,000 from 1830 to the end of the Civil War in 1865 made it to freedom. There were 4 million slaves in the South in 1860. The underground railroad was a serious annoyance to slaveholders, but it didnít make much of a difference in the number of slaves held.

Itís harder to guess how many freedom seekers passed through Iowa on the underground railroad. Most came from Missouri. Some came from Arkansas or Indian Territory (Oklahoma). A few came from Kentucky, Tennessee or Mississippi. Most likely not more than a few hundred passed through Iowa on the underground railroad.

The population in western Iowa during this time was quite sparse. Ringgold County, being one of the last counties to be organized an populated, was among the sparsest populated counties at the time, not requiring quite the level of care an precaution as necessary in eastern Iowa.

The first station on the underground railroad in Ringgold county was the Milton TRULLINGER farm along Fiddler's Creek. The second station was believed to be the home of G. K. GRIMES, located near the town of Eugene in section 7 of Liberty township. Eugene, now a ghost town, was located approximately eleven miles north of Mount Ayr.

Thayer BENNETT relates a conversation he had with the late Captain Andrew JOHNSTON (1829-1917) not long before the latter's death. Captain JOHNSTON's neighbor, Stanbury WRIGHT, one of the early pioneers of Ringgold county, made his home, before the Civil War, a station on the "underground railroad." This was the name commonly given to homes where fugitive slaves, on their way from the southern states to freedom in Canada, were protected, fed and helped on their way to freedom. Captain JOHNSTON's home in the northeast corner of Liberty township is still owned and occupied by his descendants, while the records show that prior to the Civil War, Stanbury WRIGHT owned the land in the southwest corner of Union township and the south eastcorner of Tingley township.

Little ALLEN, a native of Buncombe County, North Carolina, had arrived in Middle Fork Township during the Spring of 1852, bringing with him his two slaves, a boy of about the age of 16 and a girl about 14. Public disapproval forced him to sell the slaves around the year 1853 to a man from St. Joseph, Missouri, for $1,000. Squire Milton S. TRULLINGER, who lived approximately five miles from the ALLEN farm, was probably one who raised a protest over the ALLEN slaves. TRULLINGER actively assisted fugitive slaves as they fled towards freedom in Canada. TRULLINGER's farm was one of the underground railroad stations and noted for the flock of pea fowl. Renown for their shrill calls when their territory has been "invaded," perhaps the pea fowl acted as an alarm when fugitves and/or authorities arrived on the TRULLINGER farm.

Charles S. GRIMES, residing in the northern portion of Tingley Township, also assisted fugitive slaves. According to legend, GRIMES had as many as six run-aways hiding in the corn shocks, waiting until they could proceed on to the next station, believed to be located in Hopeville, Clarke County, Iowa.

Lena SAVILLE Collection, Mount Ayr Depot Museum, Mount Ayr, Ringgold County, Iowa

"History Highlights" Mount Ayr Record-News, Mount Ayr, Ringgold County, Iowa. August 28, 1974.

"Operating the Underground Railroad"

PARISH, John C., ed. The PALIMPSEST Vol. II, No. 5. Pp. 45-49. State Historical Society of Iowa. Des Moines. May, 1921.

Ringgold County History Complied and written by the Iowa Writers' Program of the Work Projects Administration in the State of Iowa, Sponsored by Ringgold County Superintendent of Schools, Mount Ayr, Iowa. 1942.

Harriet TUBMAN photograph, Library of Congress

Compiled by Sharon R. Becker, June of 2009


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