Tales of Tazewell’s Underground Railroad

This is a revised version of a “From the Local History Room” column that first appeared in February 2015 before the launch of this weblog, republished here as a part of our Illinois Bicentennial Series on early Illinois history.

Tales of Tazewell’s Underground Railroad

Jared Olar
Library assistant

Last week we surveyed the history of the pre-Civil War slavery abolition movement in Pekin, spotlighting local abolitionists such as Dr. Daniel Cheever of Pekin and the Woodrow brothers, Samuel and Hugh.

As we saw previously, Cheever engaged in Underground Railroad activities from his home at the corner of Capitol and Court streets, (and whose farm near Delavan was a depot on the Underground Railroad, by which runaway slaves were helped to escape to freedom and safety in Canada. At the same time, the Woodrow brothers were early Pekin settlers (Catherine Street was named for Samuel’s wife and Amanda Street was named for Hugh’s) who later lived in Circleville south of Pekin, where they aided runaway slaves at their homes.

In his 1879 “History of Tazewell County,” Charles C. Chapman devotes an entire chapter of his book – chapter IX – to the running of the Underground Railroad in Tazewell County, on which the “freight” were human beings. As Chapman explains, abolitionists in Illinois frequently encountered fierce and violent opposition from pro-slavery settlers.

Those whose moral convictions spurred them to assist runaway slaves also risked punishment, since both federal and state law prescribed stiff penalties not only for anyone who helped a runaway slave gain his freedom but also for anyone who refused to help recapture runaways.

Pro-slavery men complained bitterly of the violation of the law by their abolition neighbors, and persecuted them as much as they dared: and this was not a little. But the friends of the slaves were not to be deterred by persecution,” Chapman writes.

Here are some of Chapman’s stories of Tazewell County’s Underground Railroad, from pages 317-319 of his history:

“The main depot of the U. G. Road in Elm Grove township was at Josiah Matthews’, on section 24. Mr. Matthews was an earnest anti-slavery man, and helped to gain freedom for many slaves. He prepared himself with a covered wagon especially to carry black freight from his station on to the next. On one occasion there were three negroes to be conveyed from his station to the next, but they were so closely watched that some time elapsed before they could contrive to take them in safety. At last a happy plan was conceived, and one which proved successful. Their faces were well whitened with flour, and with a son of Mr. Matthews’ went into the timber coon-hunting. In this way they managed to throw their suspicious neighbors off their guard, and the black freight was safely conducted northward.

“One day there arrived a box of freight at Mr. Matthews’, and was hurriedly consigned to the cellar. On the freight contained in this box there was a reward of $1,500 offered, and the pursuers were but half an hour behind. The wagon in which the box containing the negro was brought was immediately taken apart and hid under the barn. The horses, which had been driven very hard, were rubbed off, and thus all indications of a late arrival were covered up. The pursuers came up in hot haste, and, suspecting that Mr. Matthews’ house contained the fugitive, gave the place a very thorough search, but failed to look into the innocent-looking box in the cellar. Thus, by such stratagem, the slave-hunters were foiled and the fugitive saved. The house was so closely watched, however, that Conductor Matthews had to keep the negro a week before he could carry him further. This station was watched so closely at times that Mr. Matthews came near being caught, in which case, in all probability, his life would have been very short.

The homestead of Josiah Matthews, southwest of Tremont in Elm Grove Township, is shown in thise detail from the 1873 “Atlas Map of Tazewell County.” Matthews was a conductor on the Underground Railroad, and at his home he secretly helped fleeing African-American slaves escape to freedom in Canada.

“Mr. Uriah H. Crosby, of Morton township, was an agent and conductor of the U.G.R.R., and had a station at his house. On one occasion there was landed at his station by the conductor just south of him, a very weighty couple, — a Methodist minister and wife. They had a Bible and hymn book that they might conduct religious exercises where they found an opportunity along the way. On conducting them northward Mr. Crosby was obliged to furnish each of them an entire seat, as either of them were of such size as to well fill a seat in his wagon. The next station beyond was at Mr. Kern’s, nine miles. He arrived there in safety, and his heavy cargo was transported on to free soil — Canada.

“The next passenger along the route that stopped at Crosby station arrived on election day. A company had passed on northward when a young man hastily came up. He had invented a cotton gin, and was in haste to overtake the others of the party as they had the model of his invention. He was separated from them by fright. J. M. Roberts found this young man in the morning hid away in his hay-stack, fed him, and sent his son, Junius, with him in haste to Mr. Crosby’s. On his arrival Conductor Crosby put him in his wagon, covered him with a buffalo robe, and drove through Washington and delivered him to Mr. Kern, who took him in an open buggy to the Quaker settlement. He overtook his companions.

The homestead of Uriah Crosby, northwest of Morton in Morton Township, is shown in this detail from the 1873 “Atlas Map of Tazewell County.” Crosby was a conductor on the Underground Railroad, and at his home he secretly helped fleeing African-American slaves escape to freedom in Canada.

“One of the saddest accidents that ever occurred on the U.G. Road in Tazewell county was the capture of a train by slave hunters. Two men, a woman and three children, were traveling together. The woman and children could journey together only from Tremont toward Crosby station, as they had only one buggy. The negro men concluded to walk, but stopped on the way to rest. Waiting as long as they dared for the men to come up, Messrs. Roberts started on with the women and children, but had not gone far before they were stopped by some slave hunters and their load taken from them. The mother and her three children, who were seeking their liberty, were taken to St. Louis and sold, as the slave hunters could realize more by selling them than by returning them to the owner and receiving the reward.

“When the two men came up it was thought best to take them on by a different route, the people determining they should not be captured. J. M. Roberts arranged to take them on horseback to Peoria lake. Several men accompanied them, riding out as far into the water as they could, and by a preconcerted signal parties brought a skiff to them, into which the men were taken and conveyed across the river and sent on the Farmington route in safety. All other routes were too closely watched.”

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Remembering the Pekin Union League

By Jared Olar
Library assistant

On the east side of the Pekin National Bank, on the wall facing N. Capitol Street at the Corner of Court Street, is an informative plaque telling of an important event in Pekin’s history – the founding of the Union League during the Civil War.

This column on Feb. 4, 2012, briefly told of the founding of the Union League. In addition, an article in the Aug. 16, 1975 Pekin Daily Times that lacked a byline but was accompanied by two photographs not only told the story of the Union League but also related the history of Pekin’s historical plaques that have commemorated the Union League.

Shown in this photograph from the Aug. 16, 1975 Pekin Daily Times are Marty Perlman, left, and Gerald Conaghan, right, president of Pekin National Bank, holding a historical plaque commemorating the founding of the Union League. The plaque was first placed on the east wall of the old Smith Bank/Perlman Furniture building at the corner of Court and Capitol in 1920, but in 1975 was remounted in the lobby of the Pekin National Bank, which was built on the same site as the Smith Bank/Perlman Furniture building which burned down in 1968.

First, here’s the story of the Union League as reported in the Aug. 16, 1975 Pekin Daily Times:

“It was June, 1862, and the early summer weather in Pekin had taken a back seat to the bad news coming from such places as Shiloh, the valley of the Shenandoah and communities in Indiana and other northern states which had been hit by Confederate raiders.

“There were reports of sabotage by southern subversive groups like the Golden Circle and the Sons of Liberty, and these, plus inflation and the draft, were beginning to shake the faith in President Abraham Lincoln’s Civil War policies.

“It had become clear to a handful of Pekin leaders that something should be done to firm up the North’s support for the war and to strengthen their resolve to abolish slavery in the South.

“Then came the one bright spot: the capture of Ft. Donelson by Gen. U. S. Grant and the freeing of Tennessee, much of which had remained fiercely pro-union despite harsh Confederate measures to crush Union sympathizers.

“As a result, those Tennesseeans (sic) remaining true to the north had met secretly to encourage each other to oppose the Confederate government. These groups called themselves Leagues of Union men or Union Leagues. . . .

“The concept was brought to Pekin by the Rev. J. W. N. Vernon, the new minister of Pekin’s First Methodist church, who had just come to this community from Tennessee.

“And so it was that on June 25, 1862, Rev. Vernon and ten other Pekin men gathered secretly on the third floor of the old brick building at Court and Capitol known for many years as the Smith Bank building.

“From that meeting came the Union League, an organization which became one of the most influential and fast-growing movements in the nation’s history.

“Within a year of the original meeting, the League had 606 councils and 75,000 members in Illinois alone and eventually may have had 2 million members in councils in nearly every local township and village in the North.

“It was the basis, in fact, of the Union party which elected Lincoln and Johnson in 1864. At the close of the Civil War, the military councils of the League were to become the Grand Army of the Republic.”

As this column recounted over five years ago, in the initial stages of the Civil War pro-Confederacy and pro-slavery sentiment remained prominent even as far north as Peoria and Pekin (both communities having been founded by slave-owning families). Consequently, prior to the formation of the Union League “those who believed in the Union spoke often in whispers in Pekin streets and were wary and often afraid,” says the 1949 Pekin Centenary.

Besides Rev. Vernon, the founding members of the Union League were Richard Northcroft Cullom, former Illinois state senator; Dr. Daniel A. Cheever, abolitionist and Underground Railroad conductor; Charles Turner, Tazewell County state’s attorney; Henry Pratt, Delavan Township supervisor; Alexander Small, Deer Creek Township supervisor; George H. Harlow, Tazewell County circuit clerk; Jonathan Merriam, stock farmer who became a colonel in the Union army; Hart Montgomery, Pekin postmaster; John W. Glassgow, justice of the peace; and Levi F. Garrett, Pekin grocery store owner and baker.

After the Civil War, the Union League became a Republican Party social club, but would carry on its abolitionist legacy through support of civil rights for African Americans.

But here in Pekin, the founding of the Union League was commemorated by a plaque placed on the side of the old Smith Bank building in 1920. Later the building housed Marty Perlman’s business, the Perlman Furniture Co., which was destroyed by a fire in Oct. 1968. But, the Daily Times reported, “Perlman pried the charred plaque off the east wall after the flames had been extinguished, had it reconditioned and saw that it was kept safely until it could be remounted in an appropriate place at a significant time.”

That time and place came on Tuesday, Aug. 19, 1975, when the old 1920 plaque was remounted in the lobby of Pekin National Bank (built on the site of the Smith Bank/Perlman Furniture Co. building) on the occasion of President Gerald R. Ford’s visit to Pekin to dedicate the Pekin Public Library and Everett M. Dirksen Center.

But a few days before that, the outside plaque on the east wall of the Pekin National Bank had already been mounted. That plaque, donated by the Union League of America and the Illinois State Historical Society, was formally dedicated at the same time as the remounting of the 1920 plaque.

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