People & Places

Iowa was more than a stopover in anti-slavery's Underground Railroad

Experiences of risky escapes to freedom may never be documented

African American Museum of Iowa educator Krystal Gladden discusses Feb. 17 an exhibit on Iowa Territorial Supreme Court
African American Museum of Iowa educator Krystal Gladden discusses Feb. 17 an exhibit on Iowa Territorial Supreme Court rulings regarding slavery. (Cliff Jette/The Gazette)

One of America’s most well-known slavery abolitionists spent time in Eastern Iowa preparing for his infamous 1859 raid on a federal arsenal in the South.

John Brown hoped the raid on Harpers Ferry, in what’s now West Virginia, would trigger an uprising of slavery freedom fighters.

He trained his group of supporters in Springdale at the home of William Maxson, according to the Cedar County Historical Society Review.

While Brown’s raid was ill-fated — even resulting in his hanging — his journeys across Iowa highlighted the state’s importance in the Underground Railroad — the secretive routes and safe houses that helped slaves escape to freedom in the 19th century.

“Iowa’s role in the Underground Railroad has been significantly understated and underrepresented among historians,” said Dave Holmgren, a volunteer at the State Historical Society of Iowa. Holmgren recently wrote a book called “Abolitionists and free thinkers with the underground railroad in Clinton County, Iowa.”

The Iowa Freedom Trail Project documented Brown’s final journey across Iowa before his Harpers Ferry raid. He crossed into Iowa after conducting a raid in Missouri in December 1858.

With him in Iowa were 10 of his men and 12 men, women and children who were freed from slavery, according to a State Historical Society research document provided by the Johnson County Historical Society.



Holmgren has taken a lead role in the Iowa Freedom Trail Project, the effort of recording the state’s Underground Railroad history. Volunteer researchers across the state contribute.

Holmgren said the project was created about 15 years ago under a grant to study the Underground Railroad. While the grant ran out in about 2013, research continued because of the level of interest.

The project lost the only state employee devoted to the work after Doug Jones, an archaeologist, died last year. Since then, Holmgren began coordinating with other volunteers, who have hopes of creating a Facebook page where they can share research and pose questions.

In the meantime, the Iowa Freedom Trail Project as well as local organizations such as the African American Museum of Iowa and the Cedar County Historical Society have done research into the Underground Railroad in the state.

Finding information about those who were involved in the state’s Underground Railroad is a difficult one, said Krystal Gladden, an educator with the African American Museum of Iowa. Gladden said it’s unlikely historians would find evidence like a journal or diary because slaves often didn’t know how to read and write and the Underground Railroad was secretive.

“One of the biggest challenges about recording information about the Underground Railroad is that fact that there is more of a lack of information than there is information,” Gladden said. “Most of this documentation is coming from primarily white males, some white women, a lot of the abolitionists, but not necessarily the experiences of the slaves.”

Holmgren said it’s difficult to know just how many slaves passed through Iowa’s Underground Railroad, partly because those involved were breaking federal law after the Fugitive Slave Act was passed in 1850. He compared counting their numbers to a hypothetical apple tree, asking if anyone would be able to say just how many apples had fallen off the tree in the last 20 years, roughly the time between Iowa’s official statehood and the end of the Civil War.

Slaves’ experience on the Iowa Underground Railroad was unique, especially considering it was the railroad operators’ westernmost free state. Slaves and “conductors” often traveled from west to east rather than from south to north, Gladden said.


“Most likely escaping slaves would’ve spent long periods of time hiding in the tall prairie grasses or hiding in small spaces like small barns or outhouses.” Gladden said.

Because Iowa was a territory before 1846, people of different beliefs and political and socioeconomic backgrounds traveled to settle here. Although Iowa was never a slave state, everyone who lived here wasn’t always so “Iowa nice,” Gladden said.

“There are a lot of difference between traveling on the Underground Railroad here versus doing it in other places,” Gladden said. “The experience would’ve been still that challenge of being in a loose network and having to kind of take that risk and figure out who was going to help you and who wasn’t.”


This division over slavery certainly was the case in Iowa City, where Brown passed through on his way to Springdale, according to the research document. One night while he was staying in Springdale, Brown slipped into Iowa City to meet with local abolitionists Jesse Bowen and William Penn Clark.

Bowen, who once lived at 914 Iowa Ave., was a local leader and a “mover and a shaker” who ran the Iowa Militia for a decade before the Civil War, Holmgren said. He was also a physician, editor of a temperance newspaper and a state senator, according to the research document.

Word got around Brown was in town and “soon others were on the lookout for this so-called anti-slavery ‘fanatic.’” To protect Brown, Bowen provided a hiding spot at his home during early morning hours until another man named Col. S.C. Trowbridge could guide him out of town.


Once Brown re-entered Springdale, which was a strong Quaker community, citizens posted sentries outside the town, concerned a mob from Iowa City might take him for reward money offered after the previous raid in Missouri, according to the research. Quakers, who are pacifists, were very involved in the Underground Railroad, Holmgren said.

For Quakers, ”while assisting slaves to freedom was an illegal act in the eyes of the law, giving relief to suffering human beings was a Christian duty,” according to the Cedar County Historical Society Review.


Two Springdale brothers, identified in the research document as Barclay and Edwin Coppoc, joined Brown’s force that eventually raided Harpers Ferry.

Edwin was captured and hanged after the raid but Barclay made it back to his hometown and served in the Army before dying in a train wreck in 1861.

From Springdale, Brown’s group passed through West Liberty and Davenport before eventually getting to Harpers Ferry.


The story of the Underground Railroad is mostly told through the history of abolitionists who were not African American. Gladden said there’s really no way of knowing the specific people, stories or experiences of freedom-seeking slaves actually traveling through Iowa’s Underground Railroad.

“It’s always frustrating, especially being in a field where you have no argument unless you have evidence,” Gladden said. “We just have no way to know what their emotional state (was), that particular individual’s mind-set, the exact places that one individual would’ve stopped.

“It’s one of those things that’s just try to find whatever shreds of evidence you can and understand that for the rest, especially with something that was such a secretive network, there may just never be a way to know.”


Little evidence of Iowa’s Underground Railroad remains. Maxson’s and Bowen’s homes have long since been torn down, but four known stops are still standing, according to the research document. They are:

• Todd House in western Iowa’s Tabor;

• George B. Hitchcock House in western Iowa’s Lewis;

• Henderson-Lewelling House in southeast Iowa’s Salem;

• and James C. Jordan House in West Des Moines.

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