My eighth grade students do a research paper each year on a topic of Illinois History. The best papers then get submitted to the Regional Illinois History Fair at NIU in DeKalb. If students do well, their paper then advances to the State History Fair in Springfield. Regardless of the National History Day (NHD) theme, there is one topic I never get tired of reading about. That topic is the Underground Railroad in Illinois. Why? Because there are so many things a student can do with the topic. There are virtually hundreds of stories of abolitionists helping escaped slaves make it to Chicago to get on a boat to go to Canada and freedom. And the reverse is true of slaves being taken back to the South.
Each year, out of 40 students, I average about 5-6 students doing research papers on the Underground Railroad in Illinois. Each one is different. No two are ever alike. Here are some examples of topics about the Underground Railroad in Illinois.
1. Owen Lovejoy – Princeton abolitionist
2. Elijah Lovejoy – printer and abolitionist publisher
3. Deacon David West – Sycamore farmer
4. The Equality Slave House – a reverse site for taking escaped slaves back to the south
5. Quilt Codes
6. Songs of the Underground Railroad
7. The Vocabulary of the Underground Railroad
8. The Mayfield Township Church
9. and dozens more!!! One PDF file list over 50 sites in Illinois confirmed to be sites on the UGGR
All throughout Illinois, there are hundreds of stories of people, who at great risk to their own life, helped former slaves on the path to Canada. Why? Why was Illinois such a hot bed for the Underground Railroad? It has to do with timing.
Illinois became a state in 1818. Illinois was bordered by Kentucky and Missouri via the Ohio and Mississippi Rivers in the south and west, and in the northeast, Lake Michigan graced its shores. These geographic features made it an ideal place in which to escape. In a world where the fastest way to get from point A to point B was by water, Illinois was the place. Add in the Illinois River, it was almost a straight shot by water.
In addition, Illinois was not very populated outside of Southern Illinois in the 1820s and 1830s. The map on the right shows early Illinois counties along with its borders. Notice, the northwestern section of Illinois is labeled as the military tract. This was land set aside for veterans of the war of 1812. The border between Wisconsin and Illinois was the Illinois River in 1818. It would later be moved a little bit later. The area where Chicago would sprout up in the 1830s is not even in Illinois. Once the Erie Canal was built, Illinois would move to grab a larger share of the lake shore from Wisconsin. As a result, most of the northern part of the state was mostly uninhabited until the 1830s.
In the 1820s, Illinois had a hard time getting settled. Churches from New York, Pennsylvania, Massachusetts, and Virginia started most communities. Along with the church, came the views of the church. Many of the denominations abhorred the practice of slavery and placed those views in the church doctrine. Once a community was established, it soon became a proponent of abolition. As towns began to grow up along the rivers in the 1820, the Illinois River valley soon became the route to travel.
In the 1830s, Illinois changed drastically. Several events made Illinois go from a backwater western state into an economic powerhouse and a major player in the nation and on the Underground Railroad. First the Black Hawk War paved the way for settlement of Northern Illinois. In addition, John Deere’s plow and Cyrus McCormick’s reaper made it possible to now partake in large scale farming of the thick, rich, and black Illinois prairie soil. Add in the mining of lead in Galena, the founding of the city of Chicago, and the building of the Illinois and Michigan Canal, all the conditions were in place by 1840 for Illinois to explode. And it did. Add in a real railroad in the 1840s and everything was set. In doing so, the UGRR also moved into the northern part of the state.
DeKalb County in the 1840s and 1850s was built on farming. Its location west of Chicago saw the real railroad expand westward from Lake Michigan. As a result, the area became one of the last stops on the UGRR. The aforementioned abolitionist churches were present in DeKalb County as well. The Sycamore Congregational and the Mayfield Township Church (still standing) were two churches who practiced abolition openly. In fact, many of the leaders of the churches were also the leaders of Sycamore and the county, which Sycamore is the county seat. In 1850, the Fugitive Slave Act made it illegal to aid a runaway slave. So, while posters were being put up in Sycamore, the halls of government blocks away were filled with people helping the slaves to escape.
David West owned a farm east of Sycamore. He was a deacon in the local church. He built a special wagon to hide slaves as he took grain east to
what is now the St. Charles and Geneva area. During the 1850s, West and his family would often climb into a buggy at night and act as decoys. When the slave catchers stopped the buggy, they would open it up to find it filled with white people. West’s 15 year old son would often drive the wagon in place of his father. Many other prominent citizens of Sycamore built special hiding places in their houses. If one drives through Sycamore today, many of the gorgeous homes built before the war still ring the downtown area.
As the slaves made their way from the Princeton area in Sycamore, many would often stay only a few days so as not to be caught. However, during the winter, the climate of Northern Illinois could wreak havoc on the escape. Many abolitionists often harbored the slaves for months. The roads would be impassable, the snow too deep, or the Lake too frozen for the slaves to go on.
At the Sycamore Public Library today, the Joiner Room is solely dedicated to the Sycamore’s role in the Underground Railroad. For any student investigating this topic, a visit there is a must. In addition, James Macon’s 2002 documentary “Wade in the Water” is also a must. The documentary (by a then college student) looks at the development of the UGRR in DeKalb County. From the unmentioned James Nickerson, Jesse Kellogg, and many others, the story of the Underground Railroad in DeKalb County is filled with rich tales of deception, bravery, and heroism. It is a topic of which I never tire.