Spellman speaks to LCGHS about area's underground railroad
August 21, 2013, By Phil Bertoni, Lynn Spellman, retired Lincoln College English Professor, presented a very interesting program on the Underground Railroad (UGRR) at the Logan County Genealogical & Historical Society's monthly meeting/speaker-series this past Monday evening.
Ms. Spellman discussed some of the history of the UGRR in Stark County, Illinois, where she spent her childhood. Her research and findings included details from a journal written by a 19th century pastor of her family's church. The Rev. Samuel Wright, a conductor on the UGRR, kept a journal (diary) written over the time during which he and others assisted runaway slaves through Stark County to safety.
Lynn revealed to us that the founders of the city of Galesburg and Knox College were abolitionists who contributed immensely to the transportation of fugitive slaves through Illinois onto Chicago and freedom. The following appears on the Knox College website: "There are few communities that rival Galesburg in contributing to the anti-slavery cause and Underground Railroad activism". Another reference here reports: "Among the few written records of the Underground Railroad in the area is the journal of the Reverend Samuel Wright, a Knox trustee from 1849 to 1872.
Here is an entry from the journal from 1843: 'February 6 … another fugitive from slavery came along, which makes 21 that have been through this settlement on their way to Canada.' " Lynn quoted from a few other entries from Wright's journal, as well. She pointed out that these early entries were written in a hush-hush manner, using disguised or cryptic words like "horse thieves", but then later the pastor's entries simply referred to them as "fugitives", "Negros" or "Colored". She also explained that law enforcement often knocked on the pastor's (and many others) doors, but surprisingly never uncovered this particular journal.
Lynn told us that Pastor Wright had been educated at a Presbyterian Theological Seminary in Cincinnati, Ohio, and that his mentor there had been Rev. Lyman Beecher, its first president in 1832 (Beecher was a Yale College graduate in 1797, entered Yale Divinity School the following year and was ordained in 1799 following a year of pastoral work). As we know, reminded Ms. Spellman, Beecher was the father of Harriet Beecher Stowe and Henry Ward Beecher - both of whom became famous in their own right.
Lynn passed around two maps showing the UGRR that existed in this region: One map entitled: "Routes of the Stark County Underground Railroad", shows the UGRR as it worked its way north to Stark County from Quincy and Galesburg, through Knox and Peoria counties. She also pointed out that in West Jersey, refuge was found at the Webster Settlement; in Wyoming at the Stagecoach Inn; and in Toulon at the Congregational Church, the Nicholson Home and the Turner House. Then, the fugitives would move north to Elmira, where "they would be hidden in the second basement of Roadhouse Inn and probably in the Presbyterian Church. After leaving Elmira, the fugitives would find their way to Princeton, Illinois, and the Rev. Owen Lovejoy."
The second map was taken from a book published in 1898 (map facing page 113) by Dr. Wilbur H. Siebert, Associate Professor History at Ohio State University, entitled: The Underground Railroad from Slavery to Freedom. The research contained in this valuable primary-sourced treatise and the maps within have been widely use by many successive researchers. This particular map show the old stagecoach trail between St. Louis and Chicago, which we know today as I55 (old Route 66). Siebert marked "Phillips Pl." in McLean county as one of the UGRR stops. Professor Siebert noted for us that he began his investigation in 1892 - using "patience and care ... required to overcome the difficulties attaching to a subject that was in an extraordinary sense a hidden one".
Lynn wrapped up her excellent talk by pointing out that although the UGRR was a romantic yet hush-hush operation, the abettors were at great financial risk with fines up to $500 and more, sometimes including a year or more in jail. She referred us to a documented family in Ohio whose father had been found out, which led them to great financial hardships following his fine of $600.
Finally, Lynn passed around copies of her bibliography and suggested we might explore more about this topic from these and other sources. From this and from a caption to one of her distributed maps, it was discovered that Professor Siebert's book may be found on-line.
So, then, using the Siebert reference, it is indicated in the Introduction to Siebert's book (by Dr. Albert Bushnell Hart - Professor of History at Harvard University), that the UGRR served several purposes: a) an effective protest against the continuance of slavery, b) helping the oppressed in a tangible way c) eluding the oppressor in a tangible way by enjoying the most romantic and exciting amusement open to men who had high moral standards - taking risks, defying the laws, and making himself liable to punishment, yet "glowing with healthful pleasure of duty done". It was a "form of combined defiance of national laws, on the ground that those laws were unjust and oppressive." - it was the "opportunity for the bold and adventurous; it had the excitement of piracy, the secrecy of burglary, the daring of insurrection; to the pleasure of relieving the poor negro's sufferings it added the triumph of snapping one's fingers at the slave-catcher; it developed coolness, indifference to danger, and quickness of resource."
Since this book was written in 1898, it contains primary source materials - "he has done for the history of slavery what the students of ballad and folk-lore have done for literature; he has collected perishing materials" from those yet alive that witnessed the events. As Dr. Hart suggests in his Forward, "the facts presented in the brief compass of the map would have been of immense value also to the leaders of the Southern Confederacy in 1861, as a confirmation of their argument that the North would not perform its constitutional duty of returning the fugitives; yet there is no record in this book of betraying the secrets of the U.G.R.R. by any person in the service - the moral bond of opposition to the whole slave power kept men at work forwarding fugitives by a road of which they themselves knew but a small portion."
Dr. Hart further explains to us that Professor Siebert "has gathered the names of about 3,200 persons known to have been engaged in this work - a roll of honor for many American families...that he (Siebert) appears to prove his concluding statement that 'the Underground Railroad was one of the greatest forces which brought on the Civil War and thus destroyed slavery'."
member and webmaster: http://www.logancoil-genhist.org/
Sources: Dickinson College Digital Collections: http://deila.dickinson.edu/theirownwords/title/0090.htm
http://archive.org/stream/jstor-40186798/40186798_djvu.txt (Clare McKenzie's "175 Years...")
Routes of the Stark County UGRR map; Siebert map