The Jordan House

Underground Railroad | FIND Iowa
Jul 25, 2024 | 5:31

How and why did James Jordan break the law?

James Jordan was a rule maker and a rule breaker.


[Abby Brown] As freedom seekers escaped through the free state of Iowa, they didn't always know who they might encounter along their terrifying journey. At the Jordan House, which was one of the first structures built in the West Des Moines area, they might meet Polk County's chief conductor on the Underground Railroad, James Jordan. He was a rule maker who was also a rule breaker. The Jordan House is listed on the National Register of Historic Places.

As one of the first settlers in Polk County, James Jordan built this house with his wife Melinda. Jordan was a cattle farmer, an influential businessman and a politician. He was elected to the Iowa Senate in 1854 and had strong political influence.

(The Jordan House is a two-story, wood-frame house that is painted ivory with dark green shutters. The side of the house that is showing has two doors with a door and a small balcony above. On the second floor there are three square windows to the right of the small balcony and one to the left. There is a wooden spindle balcony and handrail that runs the length of the second floor in front of the three square windows. On the first floor, there are three rectangular windows, a green bench and three green rocking chairs to the right of the front doors.)

(A portrait of James Jordan. He has short, dark hair that is parted on the left and is brushed over to the right. He has a full, thick beard and mustache. In the portrait, he is wearing a black suit jacket, a white shirt and a black tie.)

Jordan was also an abolitionist who worked to abolish or end slavery, even if it meant secretly helping freedom seekers

(An exhibit shows some known places on the Underground Railroad in Iowa. The places are shown on an Iowa map and are located in the southern half of the state with arrows pointing to the right, or east, between each place.)

So James Jordan was wealthy, he was an influential member of society, even a politician; and yet, he was helping freedom seekers, which was illegal.

(Abby turns toward Gale Brubaker, executive director, West Des Moines Historical Society.)

So what sense can you make of that?

[Gale Brubaker, Executive Director West Des Moines Historical Society] Well, I think this is one of those times when somebody's beliefs were stronger than the law. He was protected because of all of those things you said. Because he was a white man. Because he was very good friends with other influential white men. That really helped save him from getting caught. Although, he came close a couple of times.

[Abby] Even though Iowa was always a free state, the Fugitive Slave Act of 1850 still made it dangerous for freedom seekers to stay here. The act stated that all freedom seekers had to be returned to their owners even if they were in a free state. How risky was that work?

[Gale] Oh, it was very risky. I mean this was a federal law. It's very interesting that he made Iowa laws for other people to follow; but he decided this federal law, “Nah I'm not going to follow it.” It really speaks strongly to his personal beliefs about freedom and equality.

[Abby] When freedom seekers would come here, what sort of ways would the Jordan family support them?

[Gale] Well you know, they didn't stay actually in the house. They stayed up the hill; but they still needed supplies. You still needed food and warm clothing. And that would just allow the freedom seekers to stay up the hill, to stay hidden, and get their energy going for that next trek the next day.

(A slight rise, a distance from the house, covered in tall prairie grass. From the hill, slightly behind a tree, a side door on the Jordan House is seen between two tall trees.)

[Abby] How would freedom seekers know that this was Jordan's house, and that this would be a place where they would be safe?

[Gale] Well, one thing that we have been told is you can do coded messages according to what color of laundry you put out on the laundry line. Everybody's going to have a laundry line out so that's not suspicious. But if you have a red dress in the middle of all the rest of the clean laundry that's out there drying, you can see that from a long way away. Like at the top of a hill. And know that it is safe to come down. That there are no slave catchers in the neighborhood. But if there's a black piece of laundry in the middle, you need to stay up the hill because the sheriff is around; and we don't want you to get caught. There was also a lot of communication. I think people don't give freedom seekers enough credit for being really smart. Sure it was illegal for them to know how to read and write, but they had a great oral tradition. There was a lot of communication done as best as they could in secret.

[Abby] Is there anything in this physical structure that we could see today, put our hands on, that would indicate back in the day that this was a safe house for freedom seekers?

[Gale] No, because it had to be a secret. It was so dangerous. It was really dangerous, not just for the Jordans; but for the freedom seekers as well. You had to be really smart and able to decide if you needed to backtrack a couple miles, and then keep going. How you are going to hide. You wanted to keep everything as secret as possible, and that is what underground means in Underground Railroad — secret or hidden.

(Abby is standing up the hill from the Jordan House.)

[Abby] You can see the Jordan House way down there. Up here, there would have been many more big trees when freedom seekers came through to rest and receive assistance from the Jordan family. They would have stayed here. Can you think of any reasons why they would have stayed here instead of down in the house? Good luck investigating.

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

(Text on screen - Iowa PBS Education)