Country Facts and Folklore
By Andy Reddick

Along the Freedom Trail

The "underground railroad" was an organized system for helping escaping slaves from the south find freedom in the north or in Canada, but this does not refer to an actual railroad as we know the term.  The name came about in 1831 when a runaway slave named Tice David ran away from his plantation home in Kentucky.  His master followed him to the Ohio River but lost track of him because the slave dived into the river and swam across to Ripley, Ohio.  The slave owner returned to his home region empty handed and told everyone that his slave "must have escaped on an underground road."
According to Clay Lanman, the very nature of the business of transporting former slaves had to be kept very secret.  There were plenty of bounty hunters roaming the vincinity looking for dark-skinned people.  Those suspected of harboring them were subject to vandalism and bodily injury, and since it was against the law to help or harbor ex-slaves, not much could be done to prevent violence.  Even so, religious belief won out for many.  Quakers were among the churches whose anti-slavery beliefs were so strong that many defied the law in order to help the fugitives as much as possible.
Benjamin Franklin Pearson who built the Pearson House in Keosauqua was of Quaker faith before moving to the frontier, and he built his huge home on the edge of Keosauqua with a hidden cellar where it was possible he kept ex-slaves on their way to freedom.  Just because it had the hidden cellar isn't proof in itself that any were ever hidden there.  The Lewelling House in Salem, Jordan House in West Des Moines, Hitchcock House in Lewis and the John Todd home in Tabor all had secret cellars as well and each was suspected of being a stop on the Underground Railroad.  But many were hidden in attics, outbuildings, haylofts such as in the barn that once stood behind the Mason House in Bentonsport, in the woods near creeks and rivers, and even in the tall prairie grass.
Salem, Keosauqua, Bentonsport, Tabor, West Des Moines, Lewis and other communities were involved in the process big time.  There was a station south of Birmingham, at least one at Farmington, and many communities helped scoot people along the freedom trail at least once.  There were at least three other stations operating in Keosauqua besides the Pearson House and as many as five are known to have been in Salem.  Not all conductors were of Quaker faith, but all were brave citizens who believed that justice and doing the right thing was more important than laws which prevented all people from enjoying the freedom of our Constitution.

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Contributed to the Van Buren Co. IAGenWeb Project by Andy Reddick