Freedom Seekers and the Underground Railroad in Illinois

From the 1820s, fugitive slaves were moving north into and through Illinois and Indiana, and European Americans and African Americans who were “free people of color” were becoming involved in providing information, support and direct assistance for these people of courage.  Northern Illinois and Indiana were beginning to be seen as hotbeds of Abolitionist sentiments, containing people that not only opposed slavery but also would be willing to provide assistance for fugitives.  By the 1830s, in slave states there was a developing awareness that for those in bondage and for slave owners, these northern regions were destinations and gateways.

 In 1829, a group of freedom seekers and free people moved from St. Louis across the Mississippi to start the community of Brooklyn, Illinois.   With the leadership of Priscilla and John Baltimore, this grew as a black community initiated and sustained by black leadership.   Born in slavery, Priscilla Baltimore had been purchased by a Methodist missionary and eventually was able to pay for her own freedom.  She carried a life-long commitment to church work and through that had developed and maintained a series of relationships across the Mississippi.  Thus she was deeply immersed, as were the other settlers of Brooklyn, in connections with slaves and free people of color in the St. Louis region.  Their community served as a stimulant and passageway for the movement of freedom seekers out of Missouri and into Illinois.  Over time, through the creation of congregations by the African Methodist Episcopal Church, Brooklyn would be linked to other black settlements in Illinois leading to Chicago.[i]           

In 1830, Frank and Lucy McWorter, with their four children, left Kentucky and moved to Illinois.  “Free Frank,” as he was known, established a farm in Pike County in western Illinois and, in 1836, created the community of New Philadelphia.[ii]  One of the most remarkable examples of a set of black towns founded across the county in the 19th century, the McWorter farm and New Philadelphia grew as places of support for freedom seekers.  According to family tradition, Frank and Lucy were deliberate about being prepared to assist others, having created a place for concealment of fugitives in even their first cabin.[iii]  Before they had left Kentucky, in 1826, their oldest son, Frank, Jr., had fled to Canada.  In 1829, he returned and joined his parents in Pike County.  Building on his own experience, Frank, Jr., along with his three brothers occasionally assisted freedom seekers on their journeys to Canada.[iv] 

 A collection of local history stories and traditions from Putnam County, located at the great bend in the Illinois River, where it shifts from generally north-south to basically east-west, include a rich set of accounts of freedom seekers moving through the region on their own, traveling on and near the river starting in 1835.  The stories tell of the encounters, often unexpected, of white farmers with freedom seekers in transit and occasionally in need.[v]

Spurred in part by the growing encounters and connections with freedom seekers, and in part by the work of Elijah Lovejoy and other public Abolitionists, anti-slavery societies began forming across Illinois.  Putnam County, on the river, formed an Anti-Slavery Society in July, 1837.  Earlier in that year, in February of 1837, the Will County Anti-Slavery Society had been formed as the first formal society in northeastern Illinois. [vi]  On July 6, 1837, Lovejoy had published in his Alton Observer a call for an organization gathering anti-slavery advocates from across Illinois.  In response, the Madison County Anti-Slavery Society sent out an invitation for a state-wide convention to be held in Upper Alton [now Wood River] on the river.  From this was formed the Illinois Anti-Slavery Society at the end of October of that year.  Lovejoy’s tragic death in early November of 1837 strongly reinforced these movements to organize.

Thus, by the end of 1837, anti-slavery groups were formed and in process across northern Illinois and other parts of the state.  Activists in Michigan has formed a state-wide Anti-Slavery Society in 1836, and in Indiana, one was organized in 1838.  In Wisconsin Territory, a similar territorial society was formed in 1842. The farmers and towns’ people who supported these anti-slavery efforts were often directly involved with freedom seekers.  Across the region, much of this activity was focused in networks within and among congregations.  Most of these were Congregationalists, but there were also folks involved who were in Methodist and Presbyterian Churches.  Particularly in northern Indiana and southern Michigan, Quaker families and the networks that grew through congregations were of crucial importance for the movement and safety of freedom seekers.

As these anti-slavery and congregation-based activities emerged, almost without exception they were completely white.  In these early years, there may have been some incidental contact of these with the networks developing among black settlements and through black congregations.  However, by the mid-1840s, clearly in Chicago and Detroit, and to a lesser extent in other communities across the Midwest, networks of assistance were reaching across racial lines.  In some instances, this led to deep friendships and extended collaboration not only in assisting freedom seekers, but also in other areas of community life.

Immediately following the Civil War and through most of the 20th century, the image of the Underground Railroad for fugitive slaves was essentially a white man’s story.  The railroad language became imbedded in the country’s history, with its delineation of conductors, routes, and stations.  With few exceptions, this produced accounts of courageous whites helping fearful blacks.  A few examples, like Harriet Tubman, were held up as images of great success by the downtrodden

The railroad imagery and the language of “conductors,” “routes,” and “stations” acted to impose a kind of order and organization where it rarely existed.   From the late 1830s, writing about the Underground Railroad used the railroad language but also usually noted that it was never really so formal.   Those involved with and reacting to the movement of freedom seekers picked up on the most compelling new language of the day, the new technologies and terms associated with the coming of the railroads.[vii] 

In 1898, Wilbur Siebert, a long time professor at The Ohio State University, published his massive The Underground Railroad from Slavery to Freedom, which continues to be one of the crucial, although limited, sources for research.[viii]  In this, he had noted,

It is quite apparent that the Underground Railroad was not a formal organization with officers of different ranks, a regular membership, and a treasury from which to meet expenses.  A terminology, it is true, sprang up in connection with the work of the Road, and one hears of station-keepers, agents, conductors, and even presidents of the Underground Railroad; but these titles were figurative terms, borrowed with other expressions from the convenient vocabulary of steam railways; and while they were useful among abolitionists . . . [they also helped] to mystify the minds of the public.  The need for organization was not felt except in a few localities[ix]

However, popular perception reinforced the assertions that the UGRR was very well organized.  As an example, in Waller’s History of Illinois, used by thousands of Illinois school children in the two decades at the start of the 20th century,  there was a brief explanation of the Underground RR and some of its routes and this added emphasis:

 The engineers, conductors, brakemen and station agents upon these lines were God-fearing men, who had the courage of their convictions, and, if occasion required, did not hesitate, when on duty, to use force to protect their passengers from the interference of slave owners and slave catchers, whom they loathed and despised.[x]

Since the beginnings of the “celebration” of the involvement of white abolitionists in UGRR activism in the 1870s, such language focused on the roles of those who were assisting in the process, and placed freedom seekers in the essentially passive role as passengers.  Yet, again and again, in the actual details of UGRR encounters, reports most often tell of freedom seekers arriving on their own, moving on after some assistance and directions, and otherwise managing their own passage to freedom.

In any accounts involving freedom seekers and the Underground Railroad in Illinois and nearby states in the middle of the Midwest, it may be useful to see that there were changes over time:

 Prior to 1837  -- In this period of state formation and the emergence of early communities,  almost all evidence points to freedom seekers acting on their own, receiving some ad hoc assistance from individuals and settlements with strong anti-slavery opinions.   Several black settlements like Brooklyn and New Philadelphia had been established and direct assistance was being provided.  It is probable that the encounter with freedom seekers in predominantly white farming regions and small towns helped to encourage those holding anti-slavery opinions to get organized, both for providing assistance when needed, but also to form anti-slavery societies and other groups for political and public response.

1838 – 1844    State-wide anti-slavery societies were now functioning across our region, formed in Michigan in 1836, in Illinois at the end of 1837and in Indiana in  1838.  With these were a multitude of local groups and later, in 1842, a state society in Wisconsin Territory. Along with the independent movement of freedom seekers and the activity of some fairly isolated black settlers and communities, now there were networks of assistance, predominantly involving white abolitionists.  They were connecting through old friendships and the new anti-slavery groups, and understanding and talking about what they were doing as part of the networks of the Underground Railroad. 

1845 – 1854    The patterns outline above continued, but now with clear and visible leadership being provided by people of color.  The black community of Detroit, in conjunction with black activists in Canada, were well-organized to receive, support and settle freedom seekers.  The work of John and Mary Richardson Jones, the Wagoners and Fords, and others in the Chicago region paralleled and connected with the work of other African Americans across Illinois.  These included Jameson Jenkins in Springfield, and black churches and leadership in Alton, Jacksonville, Galesburg, Aurora, Joliet, and other locations.  In Illinois, the completion of the I & M Canal in 1848 enlarged the options for movement through the Illinois River Valley.  In Michigan, railroads were being completed from Detroit to Chicago and becoming an option for far more rapid movment.

1855 – 1861  Although other forms of travel continued, increasing numbers of freedom seekers were moving across the region, both coming into Chicago as a focal point and onto Detroit and other destinations using the network of rail lines in operation in the late 1850s.  The stunning exemplar of this was the journey of James and Narcissa Daniels, the Samuel Harper family and others  in the escape from western Missouri engineered by John Brown.  After reaching Iowa, they came into Chicago on the Rock Island line.  Then, they traveled on to Detroit by railcar, paralleling Caroline’s journey from south of Chicago across northwest Indiana and southern Michigan.

 [This essay is adapted from the Introduction in To the River:  The Remarkable Journey of Caroline Quarlls, by Larry McClellan and Kim Simmons, to be published in 2015.]



[i] Sundiata Keita Cha-jua,  America’s First Black Town, Brooklyn, Illinois, 1830 – 1915  (Urbana:  University of Illinois Press, 2000).

[ii] See their story in Juliet E. K. Walker, Free Frank, A black Pioneer on the Antebellum Frontier  (Lexington:  The University Press of Kentucky, 1983).

[iii] Walker, 149.

[iv] Walker, 149-151.

[v] John Spencer Burt and William E. Hawthorne,   Past and Present of Marshall and Putnam Counties, Illinois  (Chicago:  The Pioneer Publishing Co.,1907), 83-87.

 [vi] N. Dwight Harris,  The History of Negro Servitude in Illinois (New York:  Haskell House Publishers, 1969, originally published in 1904), 125.

[vii] In a somewhat similar way, currently we use computer language to talk about the brain.  It is helpful, but may create images of brain function that will at some point become too restrictive.  

[viii] Wilbur H. Siebert, The Underground Railroad from Slavery to Freedom (New York:  The Macmillan Co., 1898).  This continues to serve, along with Siebert’s files, as one of the critical sources for researching the UGRR.  There are a variety of points at which one needs to consider the limits and omissions in the text, especially with his disregard of the activity of many African Americans.  It has been reprinted several times, most recently by Dover Publications, Mineola, New York, 2006.  In addition, of great value are Siebert’s research files held by the Ohio State Historical Society, available online.  The Illinois files are extensive.  Also, the rare books collections at the Weidner Library at Harvard University hold a collection of Siebert’s scrapbooks and related miscellaneous materials that are mostly parallel to, but also include some quite different sources from those at Ohio State.

[ix] Siebert,  67.

[x] Elbert Waller, Waller’s History of Illinois (Galesburg:  Wagoner Printing Company, Seventh Edition, 1920), 70.  This is Item 129 in Chapter IV.  Waller has the paragraph in quotes, but does not indicate the original source.