Despite Illinois’ status as a free state, runaway slaves and free blacks did not find the state accommodating in its earliest days.
Slave owners in southern Illinois were allowed to keep their slaves when Illinois joined the union in 1818. Then, they were permitted to commit newer generations of freed black residents to indentured servitude for decades. Illinois’ early years also are littered with laws subverting black residents’ freedoms, the welcoming of slave catchers and on at least one occasion an attempt to change the state Constitution to allow slavery statewide.
Yet, throughout much of the early 1800s, Illinois served as a path to freedom for fugitive slaves traveling between safe houses and seeking asylum in Canada.
“I think Illinois can be proud of its history on racial justice, not so much at how the government reacted and what the laws were, but many individuals in the central, northern and western parts of the state have a proven history of helping slaves avoid capture,” said Owen Muelder, an author and director of the Underground Railroad Center at Knox College in Galesburg. “Illinois can be proud, for the most part at least, that there were many of its people who were on the right side of history.”
Recognized stops on the Underground Railroad dot the landscape of the state, mainly starting at the convergence of the Mississippi and Illinois rivers at Grafton and continuing between the two waterways to Wisconsin. But just how many slaves found assistance and who was providing it is nearly impossible to know, according to historians. Some conductors never sought acknowledgment of their participation in the Underground Railroad, while others might have received too much credit.
“It’s been a long argument of how organized the Underground Railroad was,” said Dennis Naglich, an archaeologist at the Illinois State Museum. “There can’t be that much public knowledge (back then) or the other side would catch on.”
Only a smattering of outspoken abolitionists openly admitted to assisting fugitive slaves, risking legal action, ostracizing or death because of their defiance of federal and state laws.
“But keep in mind, many of these slaves escaped by their sheer wit and guile, and their own determination,” Muelder said. “While they might have gotten some help, much of the time they would have been traveling on their own and a lot of it was just chance.”
Perhaps the most famous Underground Railroad stop in Illinois is in Princeton, a few miles northwest of where the Illinois River takes a sharp downstream turn south from the east.
Owen Lovejoy was a preacher whose older brother Elijah was murdered in 1837 by a pro-slavery mob angered by the elder Lovejoy’s abolitionist views printed in an Alton newspaper he ran. Owen Lovejoy moved to Princeton following his brother’s murder and made ending slavery his calling.
“He was an unabashed abolitionist,” said Lois Peterson, a docent at the Owen Lovejoy House in Princeton, a National Park Service landmark. “People left his church because of his strong beliefs.”
Lovejoy made no secret that his home was a haven for fugitive slaves, even after being arrested on charges in 1843. After his election to Congress, his 1859 speech denouncing slavery made national headlines when he declared he “aids every fugitive that comes to his door and asks it. Proclaim it then from the housetops. Write it on every leaf that trembles in the forest, make it blaze from the sun at high noon,” according to the National Park Service’s website.
Towns like Galesburg and Geneseo were known for their collective anti-slavery views, historians said. When slave catchers would ride into town looking for runaways, many of the towns’ men would gather together and escort the slave catchers out of town, Muelder said.
“They also used imaginative ruses to trick slave trackers,” Muelder said. “They’d send a carriage off from a barn in one direction to lead the trackers away so they could send the slaves off in the opposite direction a few minutes later.”
In northern Illinois, Graue Mill in Oak Brook often was used to house fugitive slaves, as was Blanchard Hall at Wheaton College. Lake County had several Underground Railroad stops, including the Mother Rudd Home in Gurnee and the Kuhn Cabin site in Newport Township.
Lake County Forest Preserve historian and museum curator Diana Dretske said the county was an important way station for slaves fleeing to Canada via the Great Lakes, but it was made tougher because of the state’s notorious Black Laws.
“Most people aren’t very aware of Illinois’ history and how these laws were intended to control and regulate the movement and amount of the state’s black population,” Dretske said.
Even Abraham Lincoln — the Great Emancipator — once defended a Kentucky slave owner in Illinois over the freedom of a black family staying at the slave owner’s Illinois estate near Oakland. He had taken the case over the objection of an abolitionist friend, Dr. Hiram Rutherford, who’d helped the family escape from the slave owner. Lincoln lost the case, and apparently lost a friend, too.
“Dr. Rutherford was very upset that Lincoln took the case and wrote to him expressing his disappointment saying he thought they were ‘like-minded’ on the issue of slavery,” said Kathy Pardi, overseer of the history museum that is now Rutherford’s home in Oakland.
There is no record of the two friends speaking or corresponding ever again.