It is still surprising to many Iowans to learn that the state's earliest settlers played in important role in antislavery and Underground Railroad efforts in the years leading up to the Civil War.
Though slaves were escaping and being helped to freedom from the early days of slavery in the United States, the phenomena known as the Underground Railroad lasted from about 1830 to 1861. Neither underground or an actual railroad, the term alluded to a loose network of sympathetic individuals and groups that were willing to risk life and liberty to help these fugitive slaves as they headed for the free states of the North and Canada.
Antislavery and underground railroad participants who operated north of the border states knew Iowa as their westernmost free-state link. The risks of this already dangerous activity of helping escapees increased on September 18, 1850 when the United States Congress passed the Fugitive Slave Act of 1850. It required the United States government to aid in returning escaped slaves and punish those who hindered it. Nevertheless, a number of Iowa's earliest settlers, often motivated by religious convictions and a marked appreciation of the principles of individual rights and personal liberty, provided shelter, transport, and material support for the travelers on this trail to freedom.
The State Historical Society of Iowa has been conducting historical research and fieldwork since 2002 through the Iowa Freedom Trail Project. This project seeks to document Underground Railroad activities throughout Iowa by identifying individuals and groups who were involved with these activities and the places where these events occurred in Iowa.
A subsequent effort to share the results of the research with the public is an important component of the project. Outreach activities, presentations at conferences and to the public, and a series of interpretive signs have been produced and placed near the stops made by John Brown and his party on his last trip across Iowa in 1859. Finally, this web presence seeks to further share the collected information as part of an ongoing process.
The project continues to uncover new information, sometimes obtained from local sources and descendants of individuals involved in Underground Railroad activities. Please contact us if you have a piece of the story of the Underground Railroad in Iowa to share.
Contact for the Iowa Freedom Trail project is:
Doug Jones, SHPO Archaeologist