The Underground Railroad in Illinois



UGRR Books
Freedom's Struggle


Using primary sources that include the diary of Samuel G. Wright, a Lane Seminary graduate who participated in the Underground Railroad in northern Illinois from 1840 to 1860, and the Illinois letters in the Wilbur Siebert Collection, Owen Muelder has written a compelling description of the Underground Railroad from Quincy along the Mississippi River to Chicago on Lake Michigan.

The book’s opening chapter is one of the best descriptions of the Underground Railroad in print and would be useful for anyone teaching a course that introduces students to the Muelder also does an exceptionally good job describing the geography that contributed to make Western Illinois a heavily traveled section of the Underground Railroad. Noted for its prairies and tall prairie grass that grows as high as seven feet, the region provided natural hiding places for fugitive slaves. Also described were the many bodies of water that could be used to transport fugitive slaves in a northwesterly direction like the Rock River and the Illinois River, which meanders from the Mississippi River nearly all the way to Chicago, providing convenient means of transportation.

The book covers nineteen counties in the northern and western regions of Illinois which were part of the Illinois Military Tract, a land grant that was created for veterans of the War of 1812, and which were settled by individuals who were overwhelmingly evangelical Presbyterians and Congregationalists. Many of them came after the completion of the Erie Canal in New York in 1825 and were almost universally opposed to slavery. However, after 1832, a large emigration of proslavery individuals from southern states occurred in the southern section of the state. This conflict created a battleground between conductors on the Underground Railroad and slave catchers which was a microcosm of conditions that existed in the North and the South. Three primary stops along the route were given detailed attention: Quincy, Galesburg, and Princeton. Quincy was the home of the Mission Institute, a theological seminary, and of Underground Railroad conductors David Nelson and Richard Eels. Hundreds of fugitive slaves crossing the river there into freedom were aided by them and others at the school. Most notable was the effort of three Mission students, James Burr, Alanson Work and George Thompson, that resulted in their arrest and imprisonment for violating the Fugitive Slave Law.

Galesburg, the home of Knox College, was founded by George Washington Cable, an evangelical minister from upstate New York, whose students there had included Charles Finney and Theodore Weld, two of the most influential voices during the early years of anti-slavery agitation. For a time, the radical Underground Railroad conductor John Cross lived nearby and organized a network of conductors that led from Iowa all the way to Michigan. Cross became famous for the advertisement of the Underground Railroad showing a train passing through a mountain. He created it for the abolitionist newspaper the Western Citizen while in jail on charges of aiding fugitive slaves.

In Princeton lived perhaps the state’s most important Underground Railroad conductor, Owen Lovejoy, to whom Muelder devotes nearly an entire chapter. The brother of the anti-slavery martyr Elijah Lovejoy, Owen was with him when he was murdered by a mob in1837.


Owen Muelder is director of the Underground Railroad Freedom Center at Knox College in Galesburg, Illinois