The Hitchcock House

Underground Railroad | FIND Iowa
Jun 12, 2024 | 4:50

What leads us to believe the Hitchcock House was a station on the Underground Railroad?   

The Hitchcock House has unique characteristics that may have helped freedom seekers.


[Abby Brown] Freedom seekers risked their lives to escape slavery. In the mid-1800s, some freedom seekers journeyed through Iowa along the Underground Railroad. This map shows what the United States looked like around the time the Hitchcock House was built by George Hitchcock in Lewis, Iowa.

(Map of the United States in the mid-1800s showing free and slave states. The free states are: Ohio, Indiana, Illinois, Michigan, Iowa, Wisconsin and Minnesota. The slave states are: Texas, Missouri, Arkansas, Louisiana, Kentucky, Tennessee, Mississippi, Alabama, Georgia, Maryland, Delaware, Virginia, North Carolina, South Carolina and Florida.)

It wasn't as close to the Missouri border as the Todd House, so it's assumed that it wasn't the first stop for freedom seekers coming into the free state of Iowa.

(A map shows Iowa, bordered by Missouri to the south. The Todd House is marked at Tabor which is about 7 miles east of the Nebraska border of Iowa and 20 miles north of the Missouri border. The Hitchcock house is marked 40 miles northeast of the Todd House at Lewis.)

A fact we do know, based on John Todd's written memoirs, is that he and George Hitchcock were friends. Both men were ministers and abolitionists. So seeing how close the Todd House and the Hitchcock House are on the map, about 60 miles from each other. Freedom seekers may have been directed to go from the Todd House up to the Hitchcock House. The Hitchcock House is listed on the National Register of Historic Places.

George Hitchcock settled in Lewis, Iowa, with his family. His goal was to start a church. He was a stonemason. He built this impressive house in 1856. Hitchcock was sympathetic to freedom seekers, so he used his building skills and creativity to help.

(Rev. George B. Hitchcock House is built in the Federal Style. This means that the house has no formal front porch, however, the house has a wooden slab in front of the front door to make it easier for visitors to get into the house. The house is built with locally sourced sandstone, limestone, walnut and oak. It is a two-story home. There are five windows at the front of the house. Three on the second floor and two on either side of the front door. You can also see four windows, two on the second floor and two on the ground floor on the west side of the home. The windows are known as six-on-six windows since they have six squares of glass on the top part of the window and six squares of glass on the bottom part of the window. The house sits on a slight hill overlooking the property.)

Is there anything about the house that would indicate that it was a safe place for freedom seekers?

[Sandy Fairbairn] Well, not outwardly, obviously; but there is a secret room in the basement.

[Abby] And tell me about the secret room.

[Sandy] The secret room is actually one half of the basement. Full basement. Hitchcock made the full basement in order to divide it into two rooms. And one of them was to hide people in the secret room.

(Walking down into the basement through the white cellar doors at the side of the house. To the left of the entrance there is a white, limestone fireplace. At the far corner, There is a staircase leading up into the interior of the house. Straight ahead is a doorway leading into the second half of the basement.)

[Abby] And, of course, we don't have anything written down that says that. But tell me all of the reasons why we think that that's a pretty safe assumption.

[Sandy] Well, for the fact that houses didn't have full basements. They wouldn't be looking. They would look at a wall that was just like the basement, limestone with an opening in it. It is my personal opinion that there would be no furniture in there. If it had been found, they would have had a lot of questions to answer. But, maybe it was. I don’t know.

[Abby] How would freedom seekers have known that this was a safe place?

[Sharon Guffey-Lewis] Well, there were sometimes signals. They were passed along by word of mouth. We think that the signal in this house was a candle in the window. Plus the fact that there were people called conductors, and the conductors knew where the safe houses were in a particular area. And so if a conductor could win the confidence of the freedom seekers, then they would bring them to this house.

[Abby] We think we have an idea how freedom seekers moved through Iowa. Do you have any idea where they would have been coming from and where they're heading from here?

[Sharon] Many of them came from Missouri, which was a slave state, up through the little corner of Nebraska and into Tabor. We think that many of them probably came from Tabor. The thing about the Underground Railroad was that it was a system. It was not direct paths. And so, people made their own ways. Many of them would have come up from Missouri into the southern part of the state.

[Abby] And of course leaving the Hitchcock House they are headed north, right?

[Sharon] North and east.

(Abby is standing in front of the Hitchcock House.)

[Abby] It was dangerous to write anything down about the activities of the Underground Railroad because it was illegal to help freedom seekers. But visiting historical places like the Hitchcock House, where significant historical events occurred, helps us understand Iowa's role in the Underground Railroad.

[Announcer] Funding for FIND Iowa has been provided by the following supporters.

(Text on screen - The Coons Foundation, Pella, Gilchrist Foundation)

(Text on screen - Iowa PBS Education)