The Lewelling House

Underground Railroad | FIND Iowa
Jul 21, 2024 | 6:33

How did Henderson and Elizabeth Lewelling support freedom seekers?

The Lewelling House is the oldest house still in existence that was considered part of the Underground Railroad in Iowa.


[Abby Brown] Escaping slavery was dangerous for every freedom seeker, and each journey was unique. Before Iowa was officially a state, Henderson Lewelling and his wife Elizabeth moved to an area that became Salem, Iowa. They were abolitionists. The house they built, the Lewelling House, is the oldest house still in existence that was considered part of the Underground Railroad here in Iowa.

(1848 map of the United States showing an outline of the state of Iowa. Salem, Iowa is represented with a dot in the southeast corner of the map just above the state of Missouri.

Missouri was a slave state at the time, and the Lewelling House was only 25 miles from the Missouri border. So it may have been the first stop for freedom seekers journeying out of Missouri northward. The Lewelling House is listed on the National Register of Historic Places.

(The Lewelling House is a two-story, brown, limestone house with a full front porch. It has two solid green front doors, one on each side of the gray wooden steps leading up to the porch. On the second floor, there are four windows with green shutters equally spaced across the front of the house. There are two windows with green shutters on the ground floor, one beside each of the front doors. The sign hanging from the porch roof over the steps reads “Lewelling Quaker Museum.”)

Salem, Iowa, was a Quaker community. At the time it was established, some Quakers were working to abolish slavery and families like the Lewellings assisted freedom seekers. Today, over 175 years later, descendants of Iowans who were helpers on the Underground Railroad still live here.

(Abby is standing in a common room in the Lewelling Quaker Museum with Cathy Helman and Dave Helman.)

So, Cathy, you have a direct tie to a conductor on the Underground Railroad. Tell me about it.

[Cathy Helman] Yes, I do. My great-great-grandfather, Joel C. Gerritsen, and my great-great-grandmother, Elizabeth, both conductors on this Underground Railroad. They were close friends with Henderson Lewelling, who lived here in the home.

[Abby] And you guys are in costume today. So tell me about your costumes.

[Dave Helman] Well, today we are Henderson and Elizabeth Lewelling, who were pioneers, settlers here very early before Iowa was even a state. And I am a Quaker farmer, an abolitionist. I opposed slavery. And this might have been what I wore as I went to town, did business with local people.

(Dave Helman is dressed in black pants and a long sleeved white shirt with large buttons. He has on a black vest and is holding a beige hat with a short rounded top with a wide brim.)

(Cathy Helman is dressed in a long-sleeved black dress with a high collar. She has tied a yellow and white striped apron at her waist.)

[Abby] All right. And this is the Lewelling home. And we know that this was a site on the Underground Railroad. Is there any physical evidence that tells us that?

[Dave] Yes, there is.

(In the house’s kitchen along one wall is a cast-iron stove, a wooden trunk with bags of supplies inside and various kitchen utensils. Along the other wall is a kitchen table and chairs. An open square hole in the center of the floor has a wooden hatch propped up. A wooden safety rail surrounds the hole on three sides.)

The kitchen is the most important place in this house to convey that. There is a cavity or an opening in the kitchen floor and it has a hatch. And freedom seekers would be concealed there for a very brief period of time if there were bounty hunters in the area. It would have been covered by a rug and a table and hopefully they would not be found. The slave owner would hire what were called agents. They were known as bounty hunters. They would be paid a fee to come north and find and capture the runaway slaves or freedom seekers. Their sole purpose was to catch people and take them back to Missouri.

[Abby] And they'd be paid money.

[Dave] They'd be paid money by the person to do that. Perhaps $50 or $100 for each person captured and returned to slavery in Missouri.

[Cathy] Joel had a bounty on his head of $500 if he were caught. Our family story is that he had a fast horse.

[Abby] Bounty hunters weren't just looking for freedom seekers. They were also looking for people who were supporting freedom seekers.

[Cathy] Yes, right.

[Abby] So how is it that bounty hunters never figure out about the trap door?

[Dave] Oh, this is only one of hundreds of places they had to look. The tall prairie grass was a great place to hide. There were barns, hay mounds, hidden walls and certain barns and other buildings. The bounty hunters had their work cut out for them to look all over. This is just the one place that has survived.

[Abby] So freedom seekers coming up from Missouri into Iowa. How would they know that the Lewelling house was a safe place?

[Cathy] It was done by word of mouth. Most of the time. Maybe sometimes, we wouldn't know. But if they were working in the fields in Missouri or further south, a trusted friend or neighbor might come up to them and whisper in their ear if they can make it to the town of Salem, Iowa, there are friends who are called the broad brims, after Dave's broad brimmed hat. And they will help you on your journey.

(As she is speaking, Cathy points to Dave’s hat in his hand, and he puts it on his head.)

[Abby] And we also know there are some landmarks that they might have noticed along the way. Tell me about them.

[Cathy] Oh, yes. Groves of trees. Fields and streams and rivers. All the landmarks they would be looking for.

[Dave] This was a big house for the day, too. Made of sandstone. There was no other house like it. So they might have been told to be looking out for this house.

(Abby, Cathy and Dave stand near a doorway in a common room.)

[Abby] Tell me about what sort of ways the Lewellings and others in this community would have supported freedom seekers.

[Dave] Well, one would be that they were very spiritual in their beliefs and that slavery was evil. So they were community leaders. They helped promote the idea among their neighbors that we must do something. We must help these poor souls. They're hungry, they're tired. So they provided a home. They provided a safe harbor. They provided a place to hide. It provided food. It provided clothing.

[Abby] Would he wait here in the home for freedom seekers to come, or did he go out and…

[Dave] He would go about his business. He was a farmer. He had an orchard. He had cattle. He had horses. He had lots of things to take care of. So he would probably only go into action when they knew that there were some freedom seekers heading towards this house.

[Abby] So tell me about Elizabeth.

[Cathy] Well, she also helped freedom seekers working in her kitchen. That was a really busy place. That was where the hiding place was. And so, of course, she would prepare lots of food, say a pot of beans and bacon. She also might do some sewing where sometimes the children on the Underground Railroad were not clothed well enough for that journey. Or medical needs. She was a busy lady.

(Abby stands on the front steps of the Lewelling House.)

[Abby] There's a lot we don't know about the Underground Railroad in Iowa, because writing anything down meant that somebody could read it and find out. For a freedom seeker that could mean getting captured. For someone helping a freedom seeker, that could mean a large fine or even jail time. Thanks for exploring the Lewelling House with me.

[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)