Book explores county's connection to the Underground Railroad

This historic Chappell-Whittemore house, built around 1870, which still stands at 232 S. Main St. in Sycamore, Ill. on Thursday, May 9, 2013.
This historic Chappell-Whittemore house, built around 1870, which still stands at 232 S. Main St. in Sycamore, Ill. on Thursday, May 9, 2013.

Was your family a part of the Underground Railroad? Until recently, it was a mystery who might have been involved in the local movement to assist runaway slaves to freedom in the years leading up to the Civil War.

“No records were kept,” former Sycamore resident and historian Nancy Beasley said.

“It was notoriously difficult,” Northern Illinois University graduate student Kweku Williams said. Williams archived names for an exhibit on slavery opening June 8 at the NIU Anthropology Museum. “You would think that once it was over, they would talk about it.”

In the Joiner History Room’s extensive file on the Underground Railroad, there is a list of only 21 confirmed families and nine known stations – three in Sycamore, two in Somonauk and one each in Genoa, South Grove, Mayfield and Waterman.

In her new book, “The Underground Railroad in DeKalb County, Illinois,” Beasley estimates there could have been as many as 600 local residents involved. “Until now, many of the people active in the anti-slavery movement were unknown,” she said.

Beasley, who spent 10 years researching “whatever history I could find,” discovered that about 500 of the 3,000 subscribers to the Chicago-based anti-slavery publication “The Free West” lived in DeKalb County. She compared those names to the membership of four local churches noted for their abolitionist views: First Congregational and Universal in Sycamore, Wesley Methodist in Mayfield and Somonauk Presbyterian in Somonauk.

Beasley said the churches required new members to sign affidavits declaring their allegiance to the cause, then reaffirm them before taking communion. Fueled by the belief they were following “a charter from God,” many believed their expenses would be paid in the next world.

According to the 1909 “Past and Present in DeKalb County,” as many as 400 slaves could have been helped by local abolitionists. Deacon David West, who was known as much for his shooting as his beliefs, is estimated to have helped about 100 alone.

According to “A Journey Through DeKalb County, Volume II,” by local historian Steve Bigolin, West lived on the north side of Old State Road outside of Sycamore. After his home was sold many years later, the new owner discovered a hidden, windowless room. There also was a fake wall in a bedroom where four people could stand. Outside, an 8-foot hiding place was uncovered in a corn crib.

Many of those involved in the local movement were prominent business leaders and county officials, such as Jesse Kellogg, who was deputy clerk for 35 years as well as the president of the DeKalb County Bible Society. Beasley said she feels that explains why in DeKalb County, unlike neighboring counties, there are no recorded arrests for Underground Railroad activities.

Despite bounties of up to $5,000 and the threat of imprisonment under the Fugitive Slave Law of 1850, many Underground Railroad conductors became bolder over time. In the Dec. 8, 1909 issue of the Sycamore True Republican newspaper, William Nickerson of Mayfield is quoted: “We had to do our work at night, but the time came when we did it in the daylight.”

“They were immediatists,” Beasley said. “They wanted it stopped now.”

Many of the agents used covered wagons filled with wheat and corn and equipped with false bottoms and took zigzag routes known as the “drunkard’s path” to evade bounty hunters.

In “The Underground Railroad in Illinois,” Glennette Tilly Turner describes how lines stretched throughout the state, with the main ones starting in Quincy and Alton on the Mississippi River. They ran through northern Illinois to Chicago. The ultimate destination was Canada, which banned slavery in 1833. In fact, there’s a sign posted outside a log cabin in Puc, Ontario, proclaiming that was where the Underground Railroad officially ended.

In DeKalb County, lines ran through the north and south of the county, largely avoiding DeKalb in the middle.

DeKalb County historian Sue Breese said the main sympathizers were located in the northern and southern ends of DeKalb County. At that time, Beasley noted, most of the county’s inhabitants lived in small towns and on farms, and Sycamore was larger than DeKalb.

An article at the NIU Regional History Center reports that, in a 1907 speech, Prof. Lewis Gross claimed that 90 percent of the city of DeKalb – composed mainly of southerners – had been opposed to the Underground Railroad.

The Underground Railroad was the subject of a 2002 NIU student documentary, “Wade in the Water,” by graduate student James Macon. Thanks to Mac McIntyre, who was appointed to a national commission in 1998, Sycamore hosted a national Underground Railroad conference.a few years earlier.

“In my opinion, the Underground Railroad is the benchmark for all grassroot movements to be measured by,” McIntyre said.

Beasley has included a biographical dictionary in “The Underground Railroad in DeKalb County” identifying more 600 families in DeKalb County. The book is available for $45 on Amazon.

Loading more