Putnam County Illinois and the Underground Railroad

Many very thrilling incidents of before-the-Civil-war events are recorded which serve to show how the Putnam county stood on the slavery question. While there were a few nigger haters, most of our ancestors believed in the principles set forth by our national Constitution recently tersely put by President Roosevelt - "Give every man a square deal."

Putnam county had some popular stopping places on the underground railroad for colored men and women who were seeking to free themselves from the galling chains of bondage. The people generally sympathized with them and if there were any who were not active in aiding the fugitives forward they remained neutral. On one occasion as many as sixteen negroes were seen in the village of Granville at one time, having come in on the "night accommodation train." They had made their way from St. Louis without money or molestation.

In 1835 two negro women who were pursued by their owners and were likely to be captured, were hidden in the cellar of James T. Laughlin's house and there remained a night and a day. The weather was exceedingly stormy and cold and the pursuers were kept in a continual dance from one place to another on false scents and rumors until they were nearly dead from fatigue and exposure. The citizens, while pretending to help the confiding slave-catchers, were deluding them all the time and the fellows finally gave up their job and returned home. Of course the poor fugitives were sent in the opposite direction at (as) fast as possible until they were safe among friendly Canadians.

Harry B. Leeper was a very active conductor on this underground railway and a well-known citizen of Granville, who devoted much of his time to the cause of freedom.

About 1835 a negro was sold in Hennepin under the operation of the infamous black laws of the state. He was a refugee from below and probably reached here on one of the many steamers plying the Illinois.

He possessed no visible means of support and either cared not to work or could not get the opportunity and at the instigation of interested parties was arrested under the provisions of the vagrant act, and advertised for sale for his keeping and costs. There was an active abolition element at Granville and elsewhere in the county and on the day of the sale the members were present but finding there was no claimant for his person nor any arranged plan to return him to slavery, they allowed the sale to go on and he brought, we believe one dollar and costs. William M. Stewart of Florid, became the purchaser, who put him in the harvest field and paid him regular wages. The man earned a suit of clothes besides his freedom and some money to take him on the road to Canada.

A slave was brought to Union Grove in 1830 by Samuel D. Laughlin and remained sometime. He was taken to Chicago by Thomas Hartzell and sent on his way.

Occasionally a fugitive would find the road to freedom through Senachwine, sent upon this out-of-the-way trail to avoid pursuit. Once, a negro hotly pressed by his enemies was disguised by his friends as a woman and passed through Senachwine in a lumber wagon, in charge of George Cone, who lived between this village and Henry.

On another occasion a fellow came to the house of Asa Cunningham, near the village and begged his assistance. He was an escaped slave from Missouri and while resting by the roadside discovered in the distance an approaching horseman, whom he at once knew to be his master. The negro said, "I was so skeert dat I shet my eyes, afeerd he'd see 'em, and didn't dar to draw my bref afeerd he'd smell 'um, for I'd a ben eatin' wild ingens." The master was at the hotel and the slave dare not move, for it was in the middle of the day. Mr. Cunningham was the village undertaker and rightly believing that no one would hunt a runaway in a hearse, hitched up his horse and loading the darkey into a coffin drove through Senachwine at a melancholy amble, the business gait of the ancient nag. The master saw the cavalcade and was amused at the oddity of the turnout while the driver headed his course for Hennepin and safely delivered his living "corpse" into the hands of trusty friends who kept him concealed until the pursuers left the country.

We are quoting from Ellsworth's Record of the Olden Times a few incidents particularly pat to this subject.


SLAVE HUNTERS FOILED

In 1837 Alexander Ross living near Hennepin, while on his way to Galena, when a few miles beyond Princeton encountered a couple of slave hunters returning with two young and attractive mulatto girls who had escaped from slavery. The sight of the weeping girls aroused all his manly sympathies at once. Ross was a democrat, but not of the pro-slavery class and he formed a resolution to rescue and save the victims if possible.

So he proclaimed himself a bitter anti-abolitionist and denounced the slave stealers as he called them in fearful terms. The men were glad to meet someone so much after their own heart and asked his opinion as to how they could best get away with their chattels and escape the fury of the abolitionists. He promptly told them of a friend of his at Princeton who was "all right" and offered to pilot them to his house. His proffered services being promptly accepted, they arrived and were duly quartered for the night, when Ross volunteered to sit up and guard the slaves from any attempt at rescue.

As soon as all was quiet the cunning conspirator and the lady of the house aroused the girls and took them in a cutter to James W. Willis, at Florid, where they safely arrived. Ross returned to Princeton by daylight the next morning. The men awoke, inquired after their property and lo! The birds had flown. Ross was found at his post, sleeping the sleep of the just, where he appeared to have been all night, and as he explained, from the fatigue of watching, had fallen asleep in spite of himself. He was really asleep and was with some difficulty aroused and it took some time to make him aware of what had happened - his head being unusually thick on this occasion. When he realized what had occurred he seemed very much chagrinned and blamed himself for his inability to keep awake.

He promptly volunteered to help the fellows find their property and led them many a wild-goose chase about the town and country but all to no purpose and finally left them and returned to the land office. In the meantime Mr. Willis and other friends of the cause stated the girls on their way to a safer retreat.


MAGNOLIA UNDERGROUND RAILROAD STATION.

The managers of the underground railroad line for this section of country were the Lewis brothers, William and Jehu, the former, however, the chief and ever-active superintendent. There were two branches of the road to the South, which united at William Lewis' house, one from Parker Morse's in Woodford and the other from Nathaniel Smith's at the southwest corner of Marshall county. From William Lewis' house the escaping negroes were usually taken to Chester Duryee's, at Lowell in La Salle county, but occasionally some were sent to Union Grove, a few miles north of Clear Creek, where there lived several sympathizers in the cause of slavery. The Lewises, though Virginians by birth, were thorough abolitionists, and earnest active workers in the cause of freedom.

Once, an old gray-headed negro came along who wore a pair of spectacles, one glass of which was gone and the other badly cracked. He was wrinkled and had but little hair upon his cranium. He could give little account' of himself save that he had "runned away from marser, on de Knaw way in ole Virginy" and that he had ''heered that de norf star would lead him to a lan' or liberty; and he had follered it ebber since he left Knaw way." He had picked out the brightest star he could find in the northwest, probably Sirius, and thus he' 'traveled mostly by night, heading 'hi~ course toward that far off luminary. 'Mr. Lewis gave him better advice and started him on a shorter route.

Once there came an intelligent black woman, whose back and shoulders yet showed the marks of a recent terrible flagellation at the hands of her master. It was her fourth attempt to escape, and this time she was successful. She reached Canada in safety and wrote a touching letter of thanks to her friends.

Another slave came to Mr. Lewis' who was so near' white as to escape suspicion. He was a blacksmith and worked some time at his trade and got liberal wages. His master in Kentucky was his own half -brother, He at length left here and went to Chicago, when his master wrote him a touching letter promising all things that the young man could desire if he would return to the family. The relationship was acknowledged and the family joined in imploring their o "dear Edward" to come home, but he had tasted liberty and breathed the air of freedom and equality. While not doubting the sincerity of his relatives yet he dreaded the possible consequences which the laws then entailed upon a runaway slave and refused to return. This letter was sent to Mr. Lewis whose family still have it in their possession.

Among the fugitives at different times were several young girls nearly white. They did not escape because of any harsh treatment or indignity but simply to avoid the consequences that slavery was sure to bring upon them sooner or later by being sold to go south, or become the victims of brutal men restrained by no law, moral or Divine, in their treatment of the unfortunate females who added youth, 'beauty and gracefulness to the other charms of their 'sex..


WHITE SLAVES

Mr. Morse held the opinion that eight-tenths of all the escaping slaves had white blood in their veins. Among the many who, passed through was a pretty young girl with pure blue eyes, thin, evenly-formed features, a straight nose and auburn hair falling in ringlets down her back. It was not kinky or wavy, but in natural curls. .

On another occasion' two sisters stopped there who seemed the perfection of grace and 'loveliness. Their lips were neither too thick nor yet too thin; their skin was fair and their cheeks bloomed with nature's roses; their hair in long ringlets of a light brown color, their feet small and without the African heel, the nose Grecian without flaring nostrils, 'and the eyes a bright tender blue. On one side their parents had been white for generations; on the other a grandmother was partly colored. Themselves and parents belonged to an aristocratic family, but reverses and imprudent speculations had ruined the estate and- they were about to be sold, and so wisely sought their freedom.

Afterward came a little girl, so purely Caucasian in form and features, that no one could believe she was aught else. Mrs. Morse was strongly tempted to keep her and finish her education that her mistress had begun; and adopt into her family; but fearing to create an attachment that might be broken by the Southern master, she let the child go on her way with a devout prayer for her happiness.

Another incident occurred a year later at Florid in which a slave-catcher was baffled. A couple of slaves, a woman and her daughter traveling by underground railway had reached Wm. M. Stewart's and were stopping for the night. While there, a sharp fellow appeared who claimed to own the fugitives and demanded them. He, too, remained over night, when, to gain time, Mr. Stewart had him arrested on the charge of attempted kidnapping. The slave-hunter familiar with our odious laws, managed his own case and cleared himself, but the woman in the meantime had been hidden in George McCoy's smokehouse and couldn't be found. They got away safely. Ten years afterward, Mr. McCoy while passing through Indiana in the timber, passing a neat comfortable cabin, was astonished by hearing his name spoken by a good-looking black woman, who proved to be one of the two above mentioned. She had since married and was in happy circumstances and her mother also lived near by and was satisfactorily provided for.


Aaron Payne

Aaron Payne was a good Christian, but reared in the South he firmly believed in the divinity of slavery and bitterly opposed the advocates of freedom. During the anti-slavery excitement an enthusiastic meeting was once held at the log school house on Clear creek, north of Magnolia and address and sermons on the subject were delivered by such workers as Benj. Lundy, Owen Lovejoy and Richard Codding. Aaron Payne attended one of these gatherings and created a fearful explosion by getting up and denouncing the meeting and its object as an affront to the Almighty, who had created the negro and condemned the rave to be the slaves of the white man and the institution being of Divine origin, countenanced and approved by the Creator in both the old and new testaments, could not be assailed by human hands without sacrilege and sin. The old pro-slavery preacher was not allowed to finish his remarks being hustled out of the presence of the offended congregation. Nothing but his personal popularity and known goodness of heart, saved him from being roughly handled. He departed highly indignant and often afterward related the incident as a grievous and unpardonable offense to himself, as well as an assault upon free speech.

William E. Curtis, the great newspaper correspondent, wrote up an excellent incident familiar to our people in early days under the caption


NIGGER JIM.

Down at Ottawa the other day the old residents were telling about the famous episode of "Niggar Jim" which occurred at that place in 1859 soon after the Dred Scot decision by the United States Supreme Court. A colored man named Jim who had run away from a plantation in Missouri got as far as Ottawa which was a station on the underground railway and before he could be passed on was arrested and held for trial under the fugitive slave law. His owner came on form Missouri, employed able consel and the case was tried before Judge Caton. The night before the trial a company of citizens gathered as usual at Thompson's drug store which was a popular rendezvous and discussed the subject with great interest and suppressed excitement. Dr. Hopkins and Dr. Stout, the two leading physicians of Ottawa, with James Stout, an attorney and John Hossack who were among those present, formed a plan which they immediately began to carry out. The next morning the seats along the only aisle in the courtroom which led from the main entrance to the bar, were occupied by selected abolitionists and other friends of human freedom were detailed to mingle with the crowd ready to act upon a signal.

The evidence against the prisoner was positive and no one questioned it. There was not a man in town but believed that Jim was a runaway slave and the law as interpreted by Chief Justice Taney of the United States Supreme Court was equally correct and indisputable. Judge Caton, in summing up, stated the law and the facts although he took the liberty to deplore them. He declared in emphatic language that he was not in sympathy with the proceedings, but under his oath he had no alternative but to uphold and vindicate what he believed to be a wicked law. Therefore, he was compelled to find in favor of the plaintiff and order the sheriff to deliver the fugitive to his owner and master.

The court was then dismissed. The prisoner with his master on one side and the sheriff on the other, started down the aisle. When they were about half way to the door James Stout climbed upon a chair and shouted, "Make way for liberty."

That was the signal. The men who had been placed on the seats along the aisle quietly stepped in between Nigger Jim and his custodians and held the latter back while others hustled the prisoner out of the door and into a carriage that Major James Campbell had in waiting. Nigger Jim has not been seen in Ottawa since. Of course his master was furious and Judge Caton boiled with indignation outwardly at the manner in which the law and justice had been trampled upon. James Stout, John Hossack and Dr. Stout were indicted, tried, found guilty and fined one thousand dollars each. James Stout pleaded his own cause and, when asked whether he desired any witness to be summoned, demanded that a subpoena be issued for God Almighty. The convicted men refused to pay their fines. The money was raised by public subscription, but they declined to accept it and served their time in jail.

[Source: Past and Present of Marshall and Putnam Counties, Illinois by John Spencer Burt and William E. Hawthorne, 1907 Page 83-87]


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