The Underground Railroad was the work of individuals as they assisted runaway slaves to escape bondage and travel to a location where they could live as free men and women. The activity was illegal and shrouded in secrecy, so exact dates, places, and the number of slaves assisted are difficult to pinpoint.
The term “Underground Railroad” was coined in the early 1800s due to how quickly the runaway slaves, also known as Freedom Seekers, seemed to disappear once they had fled slavery. Although they traveled primarily by horseback, walking through the night or hiding in a wagon, railroad terms were adopted to coincide with their quick escapes: cargo for Freedom Seekers, stations for places where they were sheltered, conductors/station agents for those who assisted them on their travels, shareholders for those who provided money, etc.
Madison County was located on a very active section of the Underground Railroad in southwestern Iowa. Here in our vicinity, the active Underground Railroad years were from 1857 through 1862. The work here did not involve a railroad, as the railroad didn’t arrive in Madison County until after the need to assist Freedom Seekers ended.
After Kansas was declared a “free state” (one that did not permit slavery), it was apparent to Missouri slave owners that their slaves could easily gain their freedom by foot or by horse into surrounding free states. Some slaveholders began to sell their slaves farther south, which expedited the slaves’ desire to run away. Freedom Seekers from northwestern Missouri crossed into Iowa with the goal of reaching Polk or Jasper County, then made their way to eastern Iowa’s railroad, next to Chicago, and finally on to safety in northeastern states or in Canada.
Life in Madison County for the early settlers was a hard one, facing a treeless prairie of unturned sod and battered by weather extremes and difficult economic conditions. Most of the Underground Railroad activities took place in rural areas with towns being generally avoided. Prominent Winterset businessmen seemingly funded the work while farmers and their families put their lives in danger in the effort to assist the Freedom Seekers on their way through rural Madison County.
Under the threat of large fines and lengthy imprisonments, the determination of all those who engaged in the cause for individual freedom is an inspiring example of courage.
Please visit our other Underground Railroad links to learn more about active Madison County citizens, the Freedom Seekers they assisted, the stations used, the routes used, and specific Madison County stories from the Underground Railroad days, plus a glimpse into what’s next?