Iowa’s Underground Railroad

Underground Railroad | FIND Iowa
Jul 25, 2024 | 2:47
Question:

Why was this network called the Underground Railroad if it wasn’t a railroad and it wasn’t underground?

The Underground Railroad in Iowa was a network of secret locations where freedom seekers were supported by Iowans on their journey northward.



Description

(Abby Brown, host of FIND Iowa, is standing in a tallgrass prairie. She has blonde hair that is all one length and falls just past her shoulders. She is wearing a red t-shirt under a blue jean jacket.)

[Abby Brown] When Iowa was first entering statehood, the land didn't look anything like it looks today. There were tall, thick prairies everywhere. There were no highways. There were no fields with nice rows of crops. There were no cars and there were no trains. But there was something called the Underground Railroad. And it was a big secret. We're talking about a time in American history when people strongly disagreed about slavery.

(Text on screen - Iowa’s Underground Railroad)

(A 1848 map of the United States. The map focuses on Iowa with the Missouri River labeled on the western border of the state and the Mississippi River labeled on the eastern border of the state. The state of Missouri is labeled just below Iowa. The Nebraska Territory is labeled to the west of the Missouri River with the Kansas Territory labeled below the Nebraska Territory in the upper northern corner of Missouri.)

Iowa was always a free state. But geographically, we border Missouri, which was a slave state. Iowa was also near Kansas and Nebraska Territories where violence was taking place about whether slavery should be allowed or not. The Underground Railroad refers to all efforts made to support freedom seekers. In Iowa, there were locations and people doing all sorts of work to support freedom seekers. But it was not a railroad. Train tracks were only just being built in Iowa and it wasn't actually under the ground either. Underground just meant secret.

(Stricter Federal Slave Law passed; five Salem Quakers are convicted of helping Dagg’s slaves escape. 1848 Slaves of Missouri slave owner, Ruell Daggs, flee Missouri to Salem, Iowa. 1850 James Jordan begins building his house. 1852 Tabor, Iowa founded by Anti-Slavery Congregationalists from Oberlin, Ohio.)

Because of laws at the time, it was just too risky to write anything down. So documentation about the details is rare and super hard to find. However, there are four locations in Iowa that still exist today and have been given spots on the National Register of Historic Places for their evidence showing that they played a role in the Underground Railroad. Come along with us as we visit these important locations, all built by abolitionists who felt slavery was wrong. The Todd House in Tabor, built by Reverend John Todd. The Jordan house in West Des Moines, built by James Jordan. The Hitchcock House in Lewis, built by George Hitchcock, and the Lewelling House in Salem, built by Henderson Lewelling. For freedom seekers, the journey across Iowa's prairies was extremely dangerous. They were amazingly brave. Let's explore some of the locations documented as part of Iowa's Underground Railroad.

(Text on screen - Iowa’s Underground Railroad)

(An 1848 map of the United States. The map focuses on Iowa with the Missouri RIver labeled on the western border of the state and the Mississippi River labeled on the eastern border of the state. The state of Missouri is labeled just below Iowa. The Nebraska Territory is labeled to the west of the Missouri River with the Kansas Territory labeled below the Nebraska Territory in the upper northern corner of Missouri. The Todd House is labeled at Tabor, Iowa in the southwest corner of Iowa just north of Missouri. The Hitchcock House is labeled at Lewis, Iowa. The Hitchcock House is northeast of Tabor, Iowa. The Jordan House is labeled at West Des Moines, Iowa. The Jordan House is northeast of Lewis, Iowa in southern, central Iowa. Finally, the Lewelling House is labeled at Salem, Iowa in the southeast corner of the state above Missouri.)

[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)