The Todd House

Underground Railroad | FIND Iowa
Jul 25, 2024 | 5:37

Why was the location of the Todd House so valuable to freedom seekers leaving slavery in the south?

Reverend John Todd and his neighbors worked to move freedom seekers through Tabor, Iowa.


[Abby Brown] Iowa played a role in the Underground Railroad. This map shows what the United States looked like around the time the Todd House was built in Tabor, Iowa. It was located near the border of Missouri, which was a slave state at the time. It was also close to the Nebraska and Kansas Territories, where harsh disagreements were happening on whether slavery should be legal or not. So its location in the southwest corner of the free state of Iowa made it a valuable destination for freedom seekers traveling on the Underground Railroad. But it was also very dangerous. The Todd House is listed on the National Register of Historic Places. Reverend John Todd built this house. He believed slavery was wrong.

(A white, single-story, square, wood-frame house. The house has a black door in the center with two rectangular windows, one on each side of the door. There is a ground-level porch that runs the length of the front of the house. Holding up the porch are four, evenly-spaced, white rectangular pillars.)

John Todd and the residents of the whole town of Tabor helped freedom seekers.

(Abby stands inside the Todd House with Harry Wilkins from the Tabor Historical Society)

In what ways would John Todd and his neighbors have been supporting freedom seekers?

[Harry Wilkins, Tabor Historical Society] I guess the most important thing was they were ready whenever a freedom seeker showed up. They never knew when one would show up, whether it would be one person or two. In 1859, there were 11 that showed up. They had to be ready, and the rule was to move them out of the town as fast as they got here because there would normally be bounty hunters on their trail.

(galloping horse)

[Abby] What is a bounty hunter?

[Harry] Well, escaped slaves were valuable property and their owners wanted to get them back. So, they would offer a reward or a bounty for their capture. There were men who earned their living by tracking down escaped slaves.

[Abby] Wow. So even though Iowa was free at the time, it was still very dangerous because these bounty hunters were constantly coming after them. How would a freedom seeker know that John Todd's home, or one of the neighbor’s homes, was a safe place?

[Harry] That's difficult to answer. We don't know for sure. We do know that Todd, Reverend Todd, had friends in Kansas and Missouri that would know about Tabor and would steer people here.

(A black and white portrait of Reverend John Todd. He has short hair that is cut just above his ears and is parted on the left side and combed over to the right. He has a full, thick beard that is trimmed so it is low on his chin, does not cover his mouth, and reaches his ears on both sides. He is wearing a black suit with a high-collared white shirt and a dark bow tie.)

But the word spread. It wasn't just a network of, say, ministers. The word spread and Tabor was known as a safe haven. Which meant that if you could get to Tabor, they would take care of you.

[Abby] Is there any evidence in this home that would indicate that this was a safe place on the Underground Railroad?

[Harry] There's no physical evidence. And the primary reason is because these people were committed to helping the runaways; but they knew they were breaking the law and they could be arrested for it. They didn't keep records. Only many years after the fact did some of these men who participated, wrote down their experiences. But there is no other physical evidence.

[Abby] It was important that it remained a total secret.

[Harry] Absolutely

(A close up map of Iowa in the late 1800s. Tabor, Iowa, is designated in the southwest corner of the state about 20 miles from the Missouri state line. The Missouri River is shown on the map and creates the western border of Iowa and is located about 7 miles west of Tabor.)

[Abby] So, Tabor, Iowa, almost didn't start right here. In fact, they tried closer to the river and eventually for lots of reasons, ended up inland a little bit. But what remains is what they consider Civil Bend.

[Harry] Right.

[Abby] So tell me about Civil Bend.

[Harry] Well, Civil Bend was a small community. Friends and family of the people in Tabor. They were also abolitionists. Civil Bend had a reputation of being abolitionists, which it was. The people that lived there would do just about anything to help freedom seekers

(A close up map of Iowa in the late 1800s. Civil Bend, Iowa, is designated on the map to southwest of Tabor on the Missouri River.)

Civil Bend, since it was right on the river, it was an entry point into the Iowa network, the underground network.

[Abby] They had a river to cross.

[Harry] And the Missouri River was a dangerous river. At that time, there were no bridges. So ferries, which are small boats that are moved back and forth with a rope, they were used to bring the runaways into Iowa. However, there was only one ferryman that was sympathetic, that we know of, that would move the runaways across the river at night.

[Abby] So, the John Todd House was one of several stations here in Tabor, Iowa, that served in the Underground Railroad. And for how long?

[Harry] Well, John Todd's house is the only one that's left standing in Tabor. The others have been torn down. The first escape was on the 4th of July, which was kind of neat, in 1854. Escapes continued in Tabor through 1859.

(Abby is standing on the porch of the John Todd House.)

[Abby] Today, Tabor, Iowa, is a beautiful, thriving community. But back then, all these other houses wouldn't have been there. It would have been prairie grasses, and freedom seekers would not have stayed inside the homes. They would have hidden in outhouses or barns or even amongst the prairie grass. Thanks for investigating the Todd House right here in Tabor, Iowa.

[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)