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Across the bend on "free" soil

The Sauk Valley served as an Underground Railroad connection between the Mississippi River and Lake Michigan, helping runaway slaves seek freedom

Sometime in the mid-1850s, Henry Elsey, a recent transplant from England, lived with Fulton’s village blacksmith, Frank Dodge. 

One day, Dodge decided to make his tenant useful.

Elsey recalled a rather secretive request from his landlord many years later in a 1917 Fulton Journal newspaper article. Little did he understand at that time that he would be one of the many locals who assisted “passengers” on the Underground Railroad.

“Go down to the river west of the Fairchild’s house,” Dodge asked. “There, in the tall weeds, you will find two leave boys. Whistle softly, and they will know you are a friend. They were brought over from the Iowa side this evening. Take them along the river bank to the willows, where our fishing boat is tied in the creek above the old dam.

“‘Old Pinkeye’ Wright is watching for them, so you must work sly or you may get Franklin Pierce and his pack of two-legged blood hounds after you.

“Cross the creek and guide the slaves to the bluff road and stay with them until a team and wagon comes along and picks up the black boys, then come home and tie the board where you found it.”

Living life as slaves in the southern United States, many blacks sought freedom by traveling the Underground Railroad toward slave-free states in the northern half of the country, and as far north as Canada. 

Contrary to its definition, the path away from the southern plantations was neither underground, nor a railroad.

“The excuse why they couldn’t find slaves, they said ‘It’s like they disappeared through an underground road,’” said Dan Wykes, historical educator at the Byron Museum of History, which has a detailed exhibit of Underground Railroad paths through northern Illinois. “It was always ‘underground road’ because the railroads didn’t come in until the 1850s.”

The northerly paths took a turn east as far north as the Sauk Valley. Steamboats could reach Chicago or Milwaukee at the bottom of Lake Michigan and ship them to lakeside cities in Ontario along Lake Huron, such as Collingwood or Windsor. 

The Mississippi River was a natural guide to the north. Cairo, the southernmost city in Illinois, was the first spot of “free” territory along the river. Escaping slaves travelled up the river on the Illinois side, hoping not to get caught by anti-abolitionists, especially those from Missouri, which was added to the Union as a slave state as a result of the Missouri Compromise of 1850. 

The Fugitive Slave Law came as a result of the Compromise, requiring captured slaves in the north to be returned to their owners in the south. This law strengthened the efforts of Underground Railroad conductors to assure safer passage. 

“They were breaking federal law to shelter slaves,” Wykes said. “Especially from that time on, they wanted to move on to Canada, because they didn’t allow slave catching.”

The rising popularity of the railroad led to the slave paths being called an Underground Railroad, with the increased use of terms such as station manager, conductor, and parcels and packages instead of people. 

Much code was used; the River Jordan could have been interpreted as something from a Sunday sermon or the fact that a runaway slave came up through the Mississippi River.

“They would hide under straw, or on a wagon during the daytime,” Wykes said. “You didn’t have to use tunnels, that’s a little bit of a myth. Many people talk about secret roads and tunnels, that really wasn’t necessary. All you had to do was keep the drapes shut, because slave catchers did have to get a warrant, they couldn’t just bust in your house.”

The Lucius Read House in downtown Byron was one of three locations in town where runaway slaves took shelter. Today, the house is part of the Byron Museum of History. Fugitives would rotate between the three locations in an attempt to keep their presences a secret.

Sauk Valley railroad connections 

In between, many places in the Sauk Valley provided help to runaway slaves. Some were provided by people of high standing, according to research done by Wykes. 

Lehmon Emmons, for whom Emmons Road in Rock Falls is named, operated a station in Rapids City – the predecessor to Rock Falls – in the 1850s while serving as postmaster. He was said to be a “warm personal friend” of Abraham Lincoln, according to a 1904 Sterling Evening Gazette article. 

Whiteside County Sheriff John Galt Manahan helped runaways from his home in Sterling, as did Coroner Ivory Colcord from his farm near Coleta.

One of the lone physical reminders of the Underground Railroad’s presence in the Sauk Valley is in the possession of Abbott family, who has owned a farm west of Morrison in Ustick Township since 1847. “Squire” Asa M. Abbott was the first to settle on the property. He used his land as a stop on the Underground Railroad and forever documented each slave that came through with a notch on a near-footlong stick.

Clergymen also provided stops for runaways. The Rev. John Cross, a Presbyterian minister, opened his home near what is today Temperance Hill Cemetery along U.S. Route 52 north of Amboy. Cross made no secret of his actions, and once was jailed in Ottawa for his services as a conductor. Cross started a “Free Soil Club” in Lee Center, an abolition society. 

Other local places with documented connections to the Underground Railroad, according to Wyke’s research, are Albany, Buffalo Grove, Daysville, Dixon, Eagle Point, Erie, Grand Detour, Fenton, Lyndon, Payne’s Point, Paw Paw, Polo and Prophetstown – most of which are along a river.

Not all places were helpful in helping runaway slaves. According to the 1904 history, “The History of Negro Servitude in Illinois,” by N. Dwight Harris, The Rev. Chauncey Cook noted resistance in Dixon, Grand Detour, Oregon and Rapids City during his travels for the Illinois Antislavery Society. 

Most documented locations were in the open country, where few people roamed. Many structures from the area are long gone, save for a few. 

Learn more

The Byron Museum of History, 110 N. Union St., has an exhibit about Underground Railroad connections throughout northern Illinois.

The museum is open from 10 a.m. to 3 p.m. Wednesday through Saturday. Admission is free.

Email or call 815-234-5031 for more information.

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