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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The abolitionists of Pekin and the formation of the Union League

This is a revised version of a “From the Local History Room” column that first appeared in February 2012 before the launch of this weblog, republished here as a part of our Illinois Bicentennial Series on early Illinois history.

The abolitionists of Pekin and the formation of the Union League

By Jared Olar
Library assistant

On Friday, Aug. 3, at 11 a.m., in the Pekin Public Library Community Room, the library will have a showing of two videos about Pekin’s first astronaut Lt. Commander (ret.) Scott Altman. The videos are a part of the library’s Illinois Bicentennial Series.

First will be a 35-minute video of Altman’s keynote address at an April 1996 meeting of the Pekin Area Chamber of Commerce. Afterwards will be a showing of the footage of Altman’s recent induction into the National Aeronautics and Space Administration’s Astronauts’ Hall of Fame, a video 20 minutes in length.

While the Bicentennial Series videos next week exemplify the astounding technological progress of the modern age, this week’s “From the Local History Room” column looks back to an important aspect of the push for moral and cultural progress in Illinois. This will we will take a trip back to the days of the slavery abolition movement, which made its mark in Pekin and Tazewell County, as it did in many other communities in the Northern States. The “Pekin Centenary 1849-1949” volume presents an enlightening narrative of that important time in our local history.

As we have seen from earlier columns in our Illinois Bicentennial Series, although Illinois was a “free” state, pro-slavery sentiment was predominant throughout southern and central Illinois. In our area, according to the Centenary (p.15), “Pekin was a pro-slave city for years. Some of the original settlers had been slave-owners themselves, and the overwhelming sentiment in Pekin was Democratic. Stephen A. Douglas, not Abraham Lincoln, was the local hero, although Lincoln was well-liked, and had some German following.

Lincoln, of course, was one of Illinois’ leading abolitionist attorneys and politicians, and in 1841 he argued and won a case before the Illinois Supreme Court that secured the freedom of “Black Nance,” a Pekin resident who was the former slave of Nathan Cromwell, whose wife Ann Eliza had chosen Pekin’s name. On Oct. 6, 1858, Lincoln and his fellow abolitionist politician, U.S. Senator Lyman Trumbull, came to Pekin and addressed a large crowd in the court house square. (Trumbull would later co-author the Thirteenth Amendment to the U.S. Constitution outlawing slavery.)

It was largely due to the influx of German immigrants into Pekin, many of whom had fled religious persecution in their home countries, that abolitionist sentiment began to flourish in our city. Many Baptists were abolitionists, and in 1853 a German congregation of Baptists organized in Pekin – the origin of Pekin’s Calvary Baptist Church.

Among Pekin’s abolitionist leaders, according to the Pekin Centenary, was Dr. Daniel Cheever, who 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 Canada. Other early Pekin settlers active in the abolitionist movement were the brothers Samuel and Hugh Woodrow (Catherine Street was named for Samuel’s wife, and Amanda Street was named for Hugh’s). The Woodrows aided runaway slaves at their homes in the vanished village of Circleville south of Pekin.

With the onset of the Civil War in 1861, Illinois cities such as Pekin and Peoria were divided between the pro-slavery element, who favored the Confederacy, and the abolitionist and pro-Union element. In the early days of the war, a secessionist organization calling itself the “Knights of the Golden Circle” (which was something of a precursor to the Ku Klux Klan) boldly worked in support of secession and slavery. The Centenary says the Knights were “aggressive and unprincipled,” and “those who believed in the Union spoke often in whispers in Pekin streets and were wary and often afraid.”

This detail from an 1877 “aerial view” map of Pekin shows the building, marked by the number 55, where the Union League was organized on June 25, 1862.

To counter the dominance of the Knights and promote the cause of the Union, a secret meeting was held on June 25, 1862, above Dr. Cheever’s office at 331 Court St., where 11 of Pekin’s early settlers formed the Union League to promote the cause of Union and abolition. The anti-slavery Germans of Pekin quickly became active in the League. Soon a chapter of the Union League was organized in Bloomington, and then an important chapter in Chicago, where John Medill, founding publisher of the Chicago Tribune, was a leading member.

Very soon the Union League had “swept the entire North and became a great and powerful instrument for propaganda and finance in support of the War” (Pekin Centenary, p.21). After the war, the League became a Republican Party social club, but would carry on its abolitionist legacy through support of civil rights for African Americans.

The 11 founding members of the Union League were the Rev. James W. N. Vernon, Methodist minister at Pekin; 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.

The building where these 11 men gathered in June 1862 was later the location of the Smith Bank and Perlman Furniture in downtown Pekin. Perlman Furniture burned down in 1968 and a few years later Pekin National Bank was built on the site. Plaques commemorating the Union League’s founding are displayed inside and on the outside of the bank building.

A historical plaque on the outside wall of Pekin National Bank at the corner of Court and Capitol streets in downtown Pekin marks the site where the Union League of America was founded. IMAGE COURTESY OF ILLINOIS STATE HISTORICAL SOCIETY

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