MUSCATINE, Iowa — Some Iowa settlers were so opposed to slavery that, although they were law-abiding citizens, they believed slavery was a violation of God’s law and it was their moral obligation to help slaves escape from their “owners.”
Many actively aided runaway slaves before and after during the Civil War, risking arrest and punishment for the sake of their conscience.
These abolitionists were often Quakers, Episcopalians or Congregationalists — all represented in Muscatine.
The history of the Underground Railroad that assisted slaves’ escape to freedom is difficult to trace.
Since liberating slaves was of necessity done in secret, no written records were made and it is difficult to get accurate information regarding names and locations.
However, Muscatine and Cedar counties are documented in several sources as being among the stops along the Underground Railroad. Little is known about the actual secret hiding places in homes, barns, and other places that provided shelter, protection and transportation for slaves seeking freedom.
Famed abolitionist John Brown secretly trained his followers in Cedar County before his famous aresenal raid at Harper’s Ferry, Va. He had found encouragement for concept of ending slavery during an 1856 visit to the Pedee Settlement of Quakers in Cedar County, and the surrounding area proved to be very pro-abolitionist. The Quakers did not believe in violence or war and were not supportive of his rumored military activities, however.
Prior to Brown’s activity in Iowa, the early strongholds of anti-slavery sentiment and those opposing the return of slaves to their masters were Salem, a Quaker settlement in Henry County, and Denmark in Lee County, a village whose residents were mostly Congregationalists from New England.
From those areas, many escaping slaves came north through Muscatine. A few stayed and called the city home.
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Although the escape network was called a railroad, trains were seldom used to transport the fugitives. Typical tactics for moving slaves to the North called for local residents to drive a wagon along a roadway with human cargo hidden beneath hay or sacks of flour. A single male slave might be dressed in a woman’s clothing, with bonnet and veil, and driven fearlessly along the public road to the next friendly stop along the secret route. When not traveling, the slaves were often hidden in cellars whose entrances were hidden by trap doors.
Octagon Place, a two-story octagonal brick home on the northeast edge of Muscatine, is thought to have been a stop on the Underground Railroad. Built in 1855, it was the site of much lavish entertaining in its day. A basement triangular room on the northwest of Octagon Place was reached by a hidden trap door in a closet. From that room, there was a tunnel to the road that passed in front of the house.
Legend has it that the house served as an inn during the Civil War period and that the tunnel was used to smuggle slaves to freedom.
Local historian Kent Sissel says he saw and photographed the secret room in the 1960s, but it no longer exists because of major remodeling.
“Researching the blacks in this area and the Underground Railroad is a tough topic to document,” Sissel said. “They clearly left no records. It was so very private — very underground.”
Oral histories passed through generations have come to light in recent years. The book “Hidden in Plain View” describes secret messages coded into geometric patterns in common quilt designs. Stitches and knots on quilts supposedly hung on clothes lines could signal safe routes.
However, since the publication of “Hidden in Plain View,” many American quilt history scholars, and a noted black history scholar, have rebutted the theories of authors J.L. Tobin and R. G. Dobard.
The book “Quakers of Iowa” by Louis Thomas Jones states that Quaker communities, including those in Henry, Muscatine, Cedar, and Linn counties, constituted new links in the growing chain of Underground Railway stations. With Springdale in Cedar County as a center, they “played a part second to none.”
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