Illinois February 15, 2018
8 Facts About The Underground Railroad In Illinois You Didn’t Know
Whether you’re celebrating Black History Month or just love learning about Illinois’ past, these eight facts about the refugee passageways in our state will blow your mind. Illinois was actually one of the pioneer states to develop this intricate network of safe houses and trails leading to freedom, and it’s something to be proud of. Keep reading for an eye-opening account of anti-slavery societies in Illinois and be sure to check out the Underground Railroad tour events listed at the bottom of the article.
1. Black communities started appearing in Illinois as early as 1829, and they stretched from St.Louis to Chicago.
In 1829, Priscilla Baltimore, who bought her freedom, moved across the Mississippi River from Missouri and started the first black community in the state: Brooklyn. Later in 1836, Frank McWorter, who crossed the border from Kentucky in 1830, established New Philadelphia. Both served as passage and refuge for freedom seekers, and McWorter's sons even helped get people as far as Canada.
2. The first Anti-Slavery Society in Illinois was in Putnam County, and it influenced many other counties (and eventually neighboring states) to do the same.
Putnam abolitionists established their society in July of 1837, followed by Will and Madison counties. Later that same year, counties came together and organized the Illinois Anti-Slavery Society. Prior to the creation of these groups, the Underground Railroad was not an organized ordeal. Steam railway terminology was used as code so as not to reveal specific sites as safe houses, which is why many thought it was a rail line.
3. Illinois College (1829) was the center for the anti-slavery movement in the state.
Built between 1829 and 1830, Beecher Hall was the original structure for the college, and in addition to being a place for freedom seekers to take refuge (in classrooms and residential halls), it was a place for students to speak freely and share ideas about how to end slavery. Its first president and a couple trustees were involved in creating the Illinois Anti-Slavery Society, and it was often under attack by those in the area who felt differently.
4. An Illinois Congressman from the mid-1800s opened up his home (and his town) to freedom seekers in Princeton, Illinois.
Owen Lovejoy moved into this home in 1836 as a minister for a Congregationalist Church. His brother was previously killed by a mob for publishing an abolitionist newspaper, but it only made him more committed to the cause. He used his pulpit to further preach his platform and helped freedom seekers pass safely through his town. He was not elected to the House of Representatives until 1856, but once there, he was known for his passionate anti-slavery speeches and even openly admitted his involvement with helping refugees.
5. Illinois abolitionists were tried for breaking "Black Laws" that forbade former slaves from residing in the state from 1819 to 1865.
Most famous for this was John Hossack who built this house in Ottawa in 1854. He hid up to 13 refugees here as he was a huge opponent of slavery. In 1860, he was one of several people charged in Federal Court for violating the Black Law and the Federal Fugitive Slave Act. Hossack will always be remembered for the final words he gave before his sentencing, claiming he felt absolutely no guilt and expressing disdain at what his country had become. He spent 10 days in prison
6. Abraham Lincoln defended a slave owner in 1847 in the Matson Trial.
Pictured above is the home of Dr. Hiram Ruthorford where the Bryant family were housed to escape being split apart. General Robert Matson brought his slaves up from Kentucky to work his land in Illinois, which was illegal, and he was planning on selling off the family of one the men who worked his Illinois farm. When the Bryants escaped, seeking refuge with the Dr. Ruthorford, Matson sued, and he was represented by Abraham Lincoln, despite Ruthorford's plea that he represent his cause instead. Regardless, the Bryants won the case.
7. Jacksonville, Illinois was at the center of the Underground Railroad in the mid-1800s, and you can tour a farm where refugees once lived.
On February 24, 2018 at Woodlawn Farm, guests can get an early tour of a homestead that served prominently in this network system. It was established by Michael Huffaker in 1824 where he built a two-story home for his family as well as four cabins for free black families seeking passage north. Educational tours will take place between 10 a.m. and 4 p.m., and the cost is $4 for adults and $3 for students.
8. You can take tours of infamous sites of the Underground Railroad almost year round.
Between February 24 and October 27, 2018, the city of Alton will give two-hour shuttle tours that stop at homes, churches, and more that played a part in helping former slaves escape safely. These include New Bethel-Rocky Fork AME Church, Enos Apartments, and more. Tours run on Saturdays at 10 a.m. and 1 p.m and cost $25 per person.
For more interactions with history, check out
12 landmarks in Illinois you absolutely must visit.
What other facts about the Underground Railroad in Illinois have you learned? Share your knowledge with us in the comments below!