Thursday, February 1, 2018

In Illinois, the Underground Railroad began in Cairo (at the confluence of the Mississippi and Ohio Rivers), Illinois' southern most point.

This house, which stands on Nashville Road between Oakdale, Illinois and Coulterville, Illinois in Washington County was a stop on the Underground Railroad... or maybe it wasn't... or it might have been, but we just cannot be completely sure. In studying the past, one must prepare oneself to accept ambiguity in the face of a lack of solid evidence.
The John Hood House - a Stop on the Underground Railroad.
What we do know about this house is that it was built in 1843 by a man named John Hood.

John Hood belonged to a Presbyterian movement referred to as the Covenanters. Originally hailing from Scotland, the Covenanters came to North America beginning in the early 18th century. There were settlements of Covenanters in northeastern Randolph County (near Sparta, Illinois) and in Washington County. The Covenanters strenuously opposed slavery and often aided escaped slaves on their journey.

Of the Underground Railroad routes in Illinois, there was one that passed through Washington County. Starting in Chester in Randolph County (on the Mississippi River), the route traveled northeast through Randolph, Washington, and Marion Counties.

John Hood's house would have been on this route. So, what can be said of its connection to the Underground Railroad? It is likely, even very likely, that John Hood and his family sheltered slaves in their house as they made the exciting yet dangerous journey to freedom.

Primary evidence related to the Underground Railroad is difficult because the activity of the former slaves and "conductors" was at the time illegal. The stories of the route to freedom often cross the line between history and folklore. Still, this does not lessen the impact of sites like the Hood House. It likely had its role to play in the movement of formerly enslaved people to the north during the 19th century.

The Underground Railroad was a system designed to assist those held in bondage to escape slavery.
Four Generations of Slaves.
It was not a single route, but a multitude of routes from the southern states to Canada. Though caves and other underground places were sometimes used as hiding places, the Underground Railroad was not underground. It was not a railroad either. Some escapees used railroads as part of their transportation north, although wagons, closed carriages, boats, and on foot were more common.

The origin of the term Underground Railroad cannot be precisely determined, but by the 1830’s the term was used in reference to runaways and the network, which aided their escape. Abolitionists and friends of human liberty operated the Underground Railroad. Stations, usually homes of abolitionists, were safe places where the escaped slaves could rest. Operators and conductors were people who helped the escapees to the next station. These stations were dangerous to the operators and conductors because the fugitives along the Underground Railroad were considered property in the South and contraband in the North.

While most runaways began their journey unaided and many completed their self-emancipation without assistance, each decade in which slavery was legal increased the network and persons willing to give aid to the runaway. With the Underground Railroad’s success, came more restrictive laws on slaves in the south and free persons of color everywhere. To slow the tide of runways, southern states relied on a system of patrols and slave catchers. When these tactics failed, slave owners would use advertisements and rewards to catch runaways.

Illinois played an important part of the Underground Railroad system. Illinois went further south than any other free state and bordered two slave states, Missouri and Kentucky. Illinois’ rivers also played an important role, slaves would have to cross either the Mississippi or Ohio rivers to enter Illinois. Rivers were a vital avenue north to Chicago and the Great Lakes.

In Illinois, the Underground Railroad contained liberty lines; two known lines began in Southern Illinois. One point was at Cairo in Alexander County and the other at Chester in Randolph County. These two lines merged at Centralia and extended north through Vandalia, Pena, Decatur, Bloomington, Joliet, and into Chicago. Another line began in Alton and went up the Illinois River to Chicago.

Once they reached Chicago, they boarded a boat to Canada, the "Promised Land." The Illinois Anti-slavery Society was organized in 1837 and printed papers pleading their cause. One of the best known was Rev. Elijah Lovejoy, who operated the Alton Observer.

The public became incensed with Lovejoy and his anti-slavery writings and destroyed his press. He continued to order new presses to print his paper. The next two were destroyed and thrown into the Mississippi River.
Another one of Lovejoy's printing presses smashed.
His friends begged him to stop because they feared for his life. The fourth printing press purchased by Lovejoy was hidden in a warehouse. The pro-slavery men attacked the warehouse killing Lovejoy.

Although these actions may have frightened abolitionists and escaping slaves, they did not stop their commitment to freedom. One of the most important aspects of the Underground Railroad is the number of attempted and successful escapes. The manner in which it consistently exposed the grim realities of slavery and that it refuted the claim that African Americans could not act or organize on their own behalf does not measure its importance. It also encouraged men and women of both races to set aside assumptions about the other race and to work together on issues of mutual concern.

Compiled by Neil Gale, Ph.D. 


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