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Sunday, April 17, 2011

An Overlooked Chapter--
John Brown, Iowa, and the Underground Railroad

John Brown as he appeared in
Iowa, winter of 1858-59
(Weekly Gazette, Davenport, Ia., 1877)
TIPTON, IA — Before the first shots of the Civil War were fired 150 years ago this month, some Iowans played a significant role in helping escaped slaves on their way to freedom. The Underground Railroad, neither underground nor a railroad, was a network of safe havens provided by abolitionists willing to break the law to help slaves flee to the North or Canada. Doug Jones, an archaeologist with the State Historical Society of Iowa in Des Moines, is also the project manager the Iowa Freedom Trail Project, which is documenting activities in Iowa.

“When people talk about Underground Railroad history in Iowa, they read about Kansas and say, ‘oh yeah, they went through Iowa,’” he says. “But the details aren’t right. We want to document what we can and get that out there so people understand just what kind of role these activities in Iowa played in the story nationally and regionally.”

Iowa’s role in the Underground Railroad dates back to as early as the 1840s and 1850s, when religious sects like Quakers and Congregationalists helped runaway slaves, or freedom seekers, escaping from Missouri. Many slaves came straight north from Missouri but others traveled through Iowa via Kansas or Nebraska, also free states.

These routes generally followed the line near present-day Interstate 80, including Grinnell, Des Moines, Marengo and Iowa City.

Just east of Iowa City, Cedar County was a hotbed of Underground Railroad activity. Jones, who is originally from Olin in Jones County, didn’t realize so much history played out near his hometown until he delved into his research. “We’ve had so much important history happen,” he says. “Cedar County was a very important hub of activities.”

In the late 1850s, abolitionist John Brown made several trips through Iowa from his base in Kansas. He had relatives in Cedar County, including cousins who taught at the Tipton Union School, which was considered the first free school west of the Mississippi River. When the school held reunions in the late 1800s, it was discovered through the meeting minutes that the Underground Railroad made several stops in the area.  “A woman remembered when John Brown came to school,” says Sandy Harmel, director of theCedar County Historical Museum.  Minutes from five reunions were made into a bound book, “Proceedings of the Reunions of the Tipton, Iowa Union Schools, 1856-1906,” which reveals more stories from the Underground Railroad. According to the minutes, “we all knew what was going on in the barn,” referring to the barn near Dr. Maynard’s home which stood across the street from the southeast corner of the courthouse in Tipton.

The building that housed Union school still stands at the corner of Meridan and Second streets in Tipton. Now an apartment building, a plaque on a rock in the front yard recognizes its place in history. Other sites have been harder to prove as assisting escaped slaves was illegal under the Fugitive Slave Act.

William Maxson
Many of the documented stories are chronicled in “Cedar County, Iowa: A Door to Freedom,” an exhibit which runs through the end of the month at the Herbert Hoover National Historic Site Visitors Center in West Branch. “This was a vibrant area for the Underground Railroad,” says Bonnie Blaford, Hoover National Historic Site interpretive park ranger. “It’s mysterious because it’s secret. They couldn’t write it down because it was an act of treason.” The exhibit’s “Door” refers to an actual door from William Maxson’s house near Springdale where Brown’s anti-slavery troops spent the winter of 1857-58 training for a raid on Harpers Ferry, Va. While the raid was postponed because one of his followers had threatened to reveal the plan, Brown’s men returned to Springdale in early 1859. Although the Maxson home has been razed, a marker was put up in 1924 by the Iowa Society of the Daughters of the American Revolution.

About a mile from the Maxson site is the North Liberty Cemetery where it is believed up to 17 runaway slaves are buried. “The Quakers thought they deserved a burial location like they did,” Harmel says. Brothers Edwin and Barclay Coppock of Springdale also played a part in pre-Civil War history. They trained with Brown’s group who eventually invaded Harpers Ferry, Va., in October 1859. When Barclay Coppock escaped the Harpers Ferry raid, he went back to Iowa. Although Virginia’s governor wanted him extradited, Iowa Gov. Samuel Kirkwood refused based on technical grounds.  “This infuriated people in South Carolina who already were agitated,” Jones says. “That (South Carolina’s secession) was in part how the Civil War started.”

Iowa’s participation in the Underground Railroad is an early indicator of the state’s commitment to civil rights, Jones says. He points to Iowa’s state motto as an example: “Our liberties we prize and our rights we will maintain.” “Until I was working on this project, that never registered with me,” Jones says. “But it became clearer and clearer.”

In 1868, Iowa was the first state outside New England to grant African-American men the right to vote, two years before the 15th Amendment to the U.S. Constitution, which allowed all men to vote regardless of their race, was passed in 1870. “There was a high population of equal rights advocates in Iowa,” Jones says. While much of the Iowa Freedom Trail Project’s research has been completed, Jones knows there are many more stories to be told. “These stories are so compelling,” he says. “The risks these people were knowingly taking; aiding and abetting freedom seekers. A lot of these people didn’t want anybody to know what they were doing, but some didn’t care.” He credits those who didn’t care if they were caught with passing down the stories like the ones from Cedar County. “Cedar County is such a unique place in that they care so much about their history,” Jones says. “A lot of descendants are still there. That’s part of the reason they care so much; their history is still part of their lives today.

Source: Angie Holmes, "Underground Railroad Traveled Through Eastern Iowa."  Eastern Iowa Life [Cedar Rapids, Ia.], April 17, 2011.

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