History, Tales, and Destinations in the Land of Ahs


The Underground Railroad

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One measure of the Missouri Compromise of 1850 -- the fugitive slave law -- was thought by many to violate the principles of justice, as it provided no safeguard for the claimed fugitive against perjury and fraud. Every case that occurred under it -- every surrender of a claimed fugitive -- did more than the abolitionists had ever done to convert Northern people, to some part at least, to abolitionist beliefs. Senator William Seward, in a senate debate on the compromise measures, had made a casual allusion to "a higher law than the constitution," and the phrase was caught up. To obstruct, resist, frustrate, the execution of the statute came to be looked upon by many people as a duty dictated by the "higher law" of moral right. Legislatures were moved to enact obstructive 'personal liberty laws and "quiet" citizens were moved to riotous acts.  


Active undertakings to encourage and assist the escape of slaves from the Southern states began, and a remarkable organization of helping hands was formed, taking the name of the "Underground Railroad," to hide and pass the freed slaves to the safe shelter of Canadian law. The slaveholders lost thousands of their servants for every one that the law restored to their hands.


Underground Railroad

The Underground Railroad, by Charles T. Webber, 1893.

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The underground system extended from Kentucky and Virginia across Ohio, and from Maryland through Pennsylvania, New York and New England to Canada. The field extended westward, and the territory embraced by the middle states and all the western states east of the Mississippi River was dotted with "stations," and covered with a network of imaginary routes, not found in the railway guides or on the railway maps. Lines were formed through Iowa and Illinois, and passengers were carried from station to station till they reached the Canada line. Kansas was associated with Iowa and Illinois as a channel for the escape of runaways from the southwestern slave section. The Ohio-Kentucky routes probably aided more fugitives than any other. The valley of the Mississippi River was the most westerly channel until Kansas opened a bolder way of escape from the southwest. The route through Kansas entered the state from Missouri near Bain's Fort, and important stations on the line were at Trading Post, Osawatomie, Lawrence, Topeka, Holton, Horton and Albany, near which last named place an entrance was made into Nebraska.


John Brown, 1850'sFrom the first settlement of Kansas, Lawrence was known as an abolition town, and as a chief station on the Underground Railroad gained considerable notoriety. The reputation of the place reached the ears of the slaves in Missouri and whenever one of them was able to make his escape he came directly to Lawrence, from which, he was sent on his way rejoicing to Canada. In the four years from 1855 to 1859, it was estimated that nearly 300 fugitives passed through and received assistance from the abolitionists at Lawrence.


One of the leading incidents connected with the history of the Underground Railroad through Kansas was the famous raid of John Brown into Missouri in 1858. After his return from the eastern states to Kansas in 1858, he and his men encamped for a few days at Bain's Fort. While there, Brownwas appealed to by a slave named Jim Daniels, who was owned by James Lawrence of Missouri. His prayer was for help to get away, because he was soon to be sold, together with his wife, two children and a another man. On the following night, December 20th, Brown's raid into Missouri was made, and the following is his account of it:


"Two small companies were made up to go to Missouri and forcibly liberate five slaves, together with other slaves. One of these companies I assumed to direct. We proceeded to the place, surrounded the buildings, liberated the slaves, and also took certain property supposed to belong to the estate. We then went to another plantation, where we found five more slaves; took some property and two white men. We all moved slowly away into the territory for some distance and then sent the white men back, telling them to follow us as soon as they chose to do so. The other company freed one female slave and killed one slave owner who fought against liberation."


When the two squads began the march back to Bain's Fort, Brown asked the slaves if they wanted to be free, and then promised to take them to a free country. With his company he stayed only one day at Bain's Fort; then proceeded northward by way of Osawatomie to the house of Major J. B. Abbott, near Lawrence, then by way of Topeka, Holton, Horton and Albany into Nebraska. At Holton, a party of pursuers, two or three times as large as Brown's company, was dispersed in instant and ridiculous flight, and four prisoners and five horses were taken. The trip, after leaving Holton, was made amidst great perils, but under an escort of seventeen "Topeka boys" Brown pressed rapidly on to Nebraska City, where the passage of the Missouri River was made on the ice, and the liberators with their charges arrived at Tabor, Iowa in the first week of February. At Springdale, Iowa, the freed slaves were stowed away in a freight car bound for Chicago, and on March 10th they were in Detroit, practically at their journey's end. On the 12th they were ferried across the Detroit River to Windsor, Canada, under Brown's direction. The trip from southern Kansas to the Canadian destination had consumed three weeks.

The manner in which this result had been accomplished was highly dramatic, and created great excitement throughout the country, especially in Missouri. Brown's biographer, James Redpath, writing in 1860, speaks thus of the consternation in the invaded state: "When the news of the invasion of Missouri spread, a wild panic went with it, which in a few days resulted in clearing Bates and Vernon counties of their slaves. Large numbers were sold, many ran into Kansas Territory and escaped, and  others were removed farther inland. When John Brown made his invasion, there were 500 slaves, which were reduced to about 50."

The Underground Railroad movement was one that grew from small beginnings into a great system. It was largely responsible in developing, if not in originating, the convictions of such powerful agents in the cause as Harriet Beecher Stowe and John Brown, and it furnished the ground for the charge brought again and again by the South against the North of injury wrought by the failure to execute the law, a charge that must be placed among the chief grievances of the slave states at the beginning of the Civil War. The period sometimes designated the "era of slave-hunting," contributed to increase the traffic along the numerous and tortuous lines of the Underground Railroad, which, according to the testimony of participants, did its most thriving business in all parts of the North during the decade from 1850 to 1860. When John Brown led his company of slaves from Missouri to Canada despite the attempts to prevent him, and when soon thereafter, he attempted to execute his plan for the general liberation of slaves, he showed the extreme to which the aid to fugitives might lead. The influence of his training in Underground Railroad work is plain in the methods and plans he followed. While Kansas was but sparsely populated, and in the midst of the throes of a border warfare, her citizens who opposed slavery, conducted an important branch of the railroad.



Compiled and edited by Kathy Weiser/Legends of Kansas, updated March, 2017.


Fugitive slaves

Fugitive slaves.



About the Article: The majority of this historic text was published in Kansas: A Cyclopedia of State History, Volume I; edited by Frank W. Blackmar,  A.M. Ph. D.; Standard Publishing Company, Chicago, IL 1912. However, the text that appears on these page is not verbatim, as additions, updates, and editing have occurred. 



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