Little Village black and white logo
John Brown Freedom Trail, 1859 — State Historical Society

For the enslaved people in Missouri and Kansas before the Civil War, the path to freedom often ran through Iowa. The crisis of 1820 over how far slavery should be allowed to expand in the territories of the United States acquired in the Louisiana Purchase had set the northern limit for slavery at the border between Missouri and Iowa. Missouri became a slave state in 1820, and as strong a defender of slavery as the states of the Deep South. Twenty-six years later, Iowa entered the union as a free state.

Iowa wasn’t just a free state as a matter of law. Many of its residents also had a strong anti-slavery conviction, especially in Quaker and Congregationalist communities. Some were willing to act on their beliefs and help enslaved people seeking freedom. Well before it became a state in 1846, Iowa was an important part of the Underground Railroad.

There were dozens of sites — known as stations — across the southern half of the state that provided safe harbor for those making the dangerous journey to freedom, but only four sites of significance are still extant and listed on the National Park Service’s Itinerary of Underground Railroad sites open to the public. They range from a town in southwest Iowa where anti-slavery militants trained and stockpiled weapons, to a town in southeastern Iowa that was overrun by an armed mob of slavers from Missouri.

Tabor Antislavery Historic District

Downtown Tabor

(National Park Service)

Tabor was founded with a purpose. In 1852, a small group of families from Oberlin, Ohio settled in Fremont County, located at the southwestern corner of Iowa. The settlers were looking to recreate the spirit of Oberlin in their new state. The Ohio town was centered around Oberlin College, which sought to instill in a fierce sense of egalitarianism as well as an active dedication to abolition of slavery. Just months after settling in Iowa, the groups succeeded in establishing Tabor College, a school but an Oberlin and associated with the Congregationalist Church. (The college closed in 1927.) More significantly, they also brought Oberlin’s opposition to slavery to a town close to the borders of both Kansas and Missouri. Tabor became a center of antislavery activity.

As the fight between pro- and anti-slavery factions in Kansas turned bloody in the 1850s, militants fighting against slavery, including John Brown and his sons, found Tabor to be a safe haven, and a convenient location to store weapons for raids into the Kansas territory and Missouri. Brown even drilled his fighters on Tabor’s Public Square, before setting off on his ill-fated mission to raid the federal armory at Harpers Ferry, Virginia.

The Public Square, now Tabor City Park, is the heart of the Antislavery Historic District. Equally significant is the nearby Todd House. The two-story clapboard house was home to Rev. John Todd, a Congregationalist minister and one of the town’s founders. In the 1850s, it was probably the most important station on the Underground Railroad in western Iowa. The Tabor Historical Society offers tours of the house, which can be scheduled by calling 712-313-0102.

George B. Hitchcock House

63788 567th Ln, Cass County
Tours: May 1-Sept. 15, Thursday-Sunday, starting at 1 p.m.

(National Park Service)

Sixty miles northeast of Tabor, and just outside the town of Lewis, the Hitchcock House was another important station on the Underground Railroad. Built in 1856, it was home to the family of Rev. George Hitchock, a Congregationalist minister with strong abolitionist beliefs who came to Cass County in the 1840s, after becoming circuit-riding preacher in western Iowa. Hitchcock and his family originally lived in a log cabin, but in the mid-1850s the minister hired workers to build a two-story house, made from locally quarried sandstone. For Hitchcock, an essential feature of the construction was a secret room in the basement, where people fleeing from their enslavers could find temporary safety.

Hitchcock and family lived in the house until the end of the Civil War in 1865. The house, whose style is a western Iowa interpretation of the federal style, has been restored to its condition in the 1850s, when it welcomed fugitives as a station on the Underground Railroad.

Jordan House

2001 Fuller Rd West Des Moines
Tours: Friday and Sunday, 11 a.m. and 1 p.m.

(National Park Service)

By the time the first phase of construction on this two-story Italianate Gothic-style house was completed in 1850 and the Jordan family moved in, James C. Jordan was already one of the richest and most important citizens of the state. One of the largest property owners in Iowa, a farmer and cattle rancher, Jordan was also a force in banking and politics. He led the push to move the state capital from Iowa City to Des Moines, and played a decisive role in determining the path railroads took across the new state. And in the 1850s, Jordan also became known as the “chief conductor” of the Underground Railroad in Polk County.

Fugitives probably did not stay in the Jordan family’s house, but found shelter somewhere else on his sprawling estate. Jordan also hosted John Brown on at least two occasions.

The house is now a museum of the West Des Moines Historical Society, displaying artifacts from its time as a station on the Underground Railroad, as well as other items from the early history of the city.

Henderson Lewelling House

401 South Main St, Salem
Open Sundays, May-September and weekdays by appointment

(National Park Service)

The small town of Salem in southeastern Iowa was the first Quaker settlement in Iowa. Established in 1835, in what would become Henry County a year later, its residents were opposed to slavery as a matter of faith held by members of the Society of Friends. But just how far they should take that opposition divided the community. It wasn’t a question that could be ignored, since the Missouri border was just 25 miles away.

The town’s congregation split into two factions in 1843: the Salem Monthly Meeting and Abolition Friends Monthly Meeting. Henderson Lewelling, who had arrived in Salem six years earlier, was one of the organizers of the abolitionist group.

Lewelling’s two-story stone house served as a meeting place for the town’s most committed abolitionists. It is possible that he sheltered escapees from Missouri there as well. But the most important moment in Salem’s anti-slavery history came a year after Lewelling and his family left Iowa for Oregon in 1847.

Justice of the Peace Nelson Gibbs purchased the house from Lewelling, and both lived and held court there. On June 2, 1848, nine enslaved people — men, women and children — escaped from Ruel Daggs farm in Clark County, Missouri. Three days later, bounty hunters from Missouri caught up with them near Salem. Local residents blocked the bounty hunters from taking away the fugitives, insisting everyone go before the justice of the peace for a hearing.

Gibbs demanded the bounty hunters produce proof that the people they captured were owned by Ruel Daggs and they were working on Dagg’s behalf. The bounty hunters had nothing to back up their words. Gibbs declared their captives were free to go. The bounty hunters seized four of the fugitives, forced their way through the locals and hurried back to Missouri.

Daggs announced a reward of $500 for anyone who captured the missing five fugitives. On June 7, a mob of armed men from Missouri stormed Salem. They occupied the town and began forcing their way into homes, searching for the missing five. A local man slipped past the mob, and rode at top speed to the county seat of Mount Pleasant to alert the sheriff. The sheriff assembled a group of armed volunteers, and headed to Salem. As soon as the sheriff and his men confronted the Missourians, the mob fled back across the border. The five remaining freedom seekers were never recaptured.

Furious, Ruel Daggs sued 19 Salem residents for damages under the Fugitive Slave Act of 1793, demanding $10,000 in compensation for his “lost property.” The case went to trial in federal court in Burlington in June 1850. The law was on Daggs’ side, and he won. The attorneys for the defendants filed an appeal to the U.S. Supreme Court, not because they thought they’d win, but just to give the defendants time to transfer their property to other family members. It worked. Daggs was never able to collect any of the money the court awarded him.

Ruel Daggs v. Elihu Frazier et al was the last case brought under the Fugitive Slave Act of 1793. The Daggs case would be cited in congressional debates, as Southern states pushed through the Fugitive Slave Act of 1850, a more expansive version of the older law. That use of the federal government to force free states to honor wishes of enslavers further deepened the schism in the country over slavery, and became a milestone on the path to the Civil War.

This article was originally published in Little Village’s June 2023 issue, Rec’d.