Here are a few of the more complete stories that involve Madison County citizens risking their lives and livelihoods to assist Freedom Seekers. (Note: Original texts are quoted that include some phrases we no longer use.)
Family bonds were often tested over the issue of slavery. Living in a “free” state where slavery was illegal or in a “slave” state where slavery was allowed often affected your view.
James Farris, who settled in Union Township in 1851, was one of the boldest and most active of these “underground station agents” from the very first. He was far past middle age but of strong physique, a noted deer hunter and trapper and feared nothing. He used to brag about his work in this line and even publicly defied searching parties.
One early morning during the later ‘50s a runaway negro man approached him, from the timber close by his house, much fearing to do so and yet desperate because of hunger and fatigue, with his overnight travel. The black man had been directed to Farris’ place but not further, and didn’t know where to go next. Farris thought he had seen the negro before and finally the poor fellow admitted he belonged to a son-in-law of Farris’, who lived in Missouri and whom Farris occasionally visited.
Farris at once put his visitor at ease and told him he would be taken care of and shielded from his enemies; that he would be taken on to the next station over on Coon (Raccoon) River. The slave was then hidden in the loft of one of the double log houses in which Farris lived, but early that evening, who should arrive at the house but the son-in-law and his party, to stay all night, never suspecting that his father-in-law was at that moment giving refuge and asylum to his human chattel. It would not do to send the runaway ahead, so slave and master slept in the same house that night, the former overhead and the latter below. The slave was very quiet that night, as might well be supposed.
Next morning the master and party were directed by Farris where probably it was wise to look for the slave. He told them to hunt as far as the North River, but that it was useless to cross the divide over to the Coon, for if the runaway had reached that far he was perfectly safe, since there were so many bitter and tough abolitionist in that vicinity. The slave hunters consumed all the day in searching along North River without success, as a matter of course, and returned to the Farris house to stay all night, the son-in-law saying he would give up the chase and go home next morning.
That night, David W. Gilliland and another man took the darky on his way, and the disconsolate master returned to Missouri, short a $1000 slave through the radical abolitionism of his father-in-law.
An Uncomfortable Dinner
Political tensions ran high during the elections of the late 1850s through the early 1860s both nationally and in Madison County. The Republican Party was newly formed out of several others and the Democrat Party was splitting along north and south lines. Generally, Democrats in Madison County felt that the South should be allowed to continue their way of life and be brought back into the Union without a war, earning them the name “Peace Democrats.” Then, as today, they took advantage of situations that would “ruffle the feathers “ of their opponents.
John Early and his wife, Elizabeth McMurn Early, arrived in Madison County in 1855. Much of the land in this county was still in the possession of the government and the vast unbroken prairies gave little promise of becoming the thickly settled agricultural region of today. Mr. Early bought raw prairie land in Jackson township and continued to reside upon his farm until his death.
John Early, of Jackson Township, was in charge of a very busy “underground station,” and, it is said, had as many as five runaway slaves on his place at one time. Advocates of the “peculiar institution” of the South were becoming exasperated at the repeated loss of their human chattels, through connivance of abolitionists in the North, and placed warrants in the hands of deputy United States marshals for the recovery of their property. Early soon received a “telegram,” presumably from “underground wires,” that a United States officer was in his neighborhood, hunting slaves out of bounds, which led him to clean up an antiquated pistol and announce himself as being “ready for all comers.”
On another occasion Early became the host of Sheriff Sam Hamilton [elected in 1859 and 1861 for 2-year terms], a pro-slavery man, and another democrat, whose name has gotten away. The men were billed to speak on the political situation, at the Early schoolhouse, and were at the home of the slaves’ friend by his invitation. When supper was about to be announced, three chairs were placed at one side of the table and the democratic guests were so placed in them that the middle seat was left vacant. Then Early told his wife to bring in her other visitor, and upon compliance with his request, a ponderous black “nigger mammy” was escorted to the dining room and placed between the sheriff and his democratic friend. The trio made a remarkable setting to the scene and the present day reader can hardly realize the ludicrousness of the situation. But Hamilton and his companion were equal to the occasion and joined heartily with Early in his manifest and successful effort to please all. After the intentionally prolonged meal was finished, without any demonstrations of chagrin or hostility, the two pro-slavery politicians thanked their host for his hospitality and took their departure for the democratic meeting waiting for them at the schoolhouse.
Times Are Changed
Presbyterian minister Rev. John Graham moved his family two miles east of Winterset in 1856 and he participated in the Underground Railroad until the end of the Civil war. Three of his sons served in that war. Here he looks back on Madison County’s contribution with satisfaction of a job well done.
Times and things are changed. When we came here, and for years after, especially during the rebellion, the under-ground railroad (in which I was a share-holder and office bearer,) did a very extensive business; so much so, that additional night-trains had to be put on in order to accommodate the passengers.
But when the Company broke up for want of employment after the war was over, and the books were balanced, all the share-holders and officers felt amply rewarded for all the money, time, and labour they had bestowed on the undertaking.
Now, no wanderer who had fled at the risk of his life from a land of bondage is seen crossing Middle River at some secret place after sun-down when all is still; and trudging along the prairie, looking behind him to see whether his pursuers were not on his track; with all he possessed on earth tied up in a coarse dirty clout; coming to our humble habitation and inquiring if ‘Oul massa ——– lived in dis house?’ O then cursed system of iniquity, injustice, and oppression! that ‘hast come to a perpetual end!’ The God of Justice has listened to the groaning of the prisoners and sent them deliverance. Happy are we who have lived to see our prayers answered, and our feeble endeavors in behalf of the down-trodden and oppressed crowned with success; and who have been permitted to witness the last fragment of that villainous system, slavery, taken up and dashed against the stones! Oh, what a glorious change has taken place! — The Jubilee trumpet proclaiming liberty to all the inhabitants of the land! Four millions of human beings of the race of Adam who were formerly bought and sold, and treated like brute beasts in our far-famed land, which had declared that ‘all men are born free and equal,’ — made free, and never again to return to bondage.