Time Machine

The Underground Railroad in Iowa: Linn County's role in helping escaped slaves continues to evolve

This 1934 photo shows the declining state of the William Maxson House in Springdale, a stop near West Branch on the Unde
This 1934 photo shows the declining state of the William Maxson House in Springdale, a stop near West Branch on the Underground Railroad. Abolitionist John Brown stayed at the home and trained his troops before the infamous raid on Harpers Ferry, Va., before the Civil War. (Library of Congress)
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An exploration of Eastern Iowa’s role in the Underground Railroad before the Civil War reveals a complex narrative that still is being pieced together.

Runaway slaves and the Iowans who helped them were taking big risks. Their clandestine maneuvers were rarely documented, and this makes it hard for historians to piece together what happened.

Occasionally, however, new clues emerge or are rediscovered. It seems that Linn County may have had more of a role in the escape route to freedom than previous maps and historical storylines have indicated.

Complicated position

During Iowa Territorial and early statehood days, Iowans were largely against the idea of slavery, which was legal in neighboring Missouri. In 1854, the Kansas-Nebraska Act allowed people in those territories to decide on the issue of slavery for themselves.

The notion of “free soil, free labor and free men” was widely embraced by the cultural hodgepodge of those who settled Iowa. Congregationalists, Quakers and Methodists came to the state to set up churches and progressive-minded enclaves. Some were motivated to help escaped slaves find freedom in Canada and the northern states.

In Iowa, the Fugitive Slave Act still imposed a $1,000 fine and six months in jail for anyone caught helping slaves on the run. State laws also made it difficult for freed slaves to settle in the state. Some Iowans helped slaves travel to freedom, but the state was not engaged in the fight for equal rights.

The routes

Route maps of Iowa’s Underground Railroad activity evolve with time. We do know there were two general flows of movement — one from the south heading to the northeast, and another from west to east.

The west-to-east flow started in Fremont County in the state’s southwestern corner. The now-vanished town of Civil Bend was the first stop. Next was Tabor, where several of the Tabor College administrators were products of Oberlin College in Ohio, a key Underground Railroad destination and a training ground for abolitionists.

Noted abolitionist John Brown of Kansas famously took fugitive slaves along this route several times, stopping in places like Grinnell, Iowa City and West Liberty. On his last two trips in 1858 and 1859, he and his men stopped in the Quaker hamlet of Springdale, past West Branch, and trained for his raid on Harpers Ferry, Virginia (now West Virginia), to seize arms and start a guerrilla revolt against slavery. Six Iowans joined in that deadly raid.

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Brown was captured and hanged. Before his execution, he wrote several widely published jail letters that amplified the slavery controversy and pushed the country toward Civil War.

Eastern Iowa Clues

Linn County pioneer Elihu Robins is documented as having helped runaway slaves as early as 1843 in the Guernsey County area of Ohio. He and his wife, Mary Ann Hampton Robins, were from a sect of Ohio Quakers known for being heavily involved with the Underground Railroad.

It is speculated — but as of yet unconfirmed — the Robinses aided runaway slaves after moving to Linn County in 1850.

Quaker Meetings (churches) were fracturing across the country, often on the issue of abolition. Records show that was the case in the Linn County community of Quakers before the Civil War, with the Hopewell Meeting — on the road to Viola near the Jones County line — favoring abolitionists willing to help slaves escape.

It is believed that fugitive slaves seeking safety in Cedar Rapids were on the east-to-west route and came from Grinnell. Maps of the era show this was possible via a road that went through Marengo and a Benton County township known as Taylors Grove.

Long before 807 12th Ave. SE in Cedar Rapids was Viola Gibson Park or Tyler School, it was the home of Gabriel and Maria Carpenter. In a 1929 article in The Cedar Rapids Sunday Gazette and Republican, their son Taylor recounted how his parents took food out to the barn where slaves on the run would hide before journeying to their next stop on the Underground Railroad.

One option was to head south to the safe haven of the Walter Terrell Mansion in Iowa City. Terrell, a Quaker, built the original dam and grain mill on the nearby Cedar River. His mansion would become the Mayflower Inn and the Red Ball Inn before giving way to what is now the University of Iowa’s Mayflower Residence Hall.

Much of what we know about Iowa’s involvement in the Underground Railroad has been researched by the Iowa Network to Freedom project, where volunteers continue to contribute research. Iowa’s complicated and often contradictory civil rights history is explored in The History Center’s newest exhibition, “Exhibiting Bias,” which opens Nov. 7.

Joe Coffey is a freelance writer and content marketer in Cedar Rapids who writes for The History Center. Comments: coffeygrande@gmail.com

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