Iowa, Slavery, & The Underground Railroad.

Without a doubt, the national argument over the issue of slavery played a huge part in Our Iowa Heritage.

A divided United States at the time of the Civil War (1861).

In the years leading up to the Civil War (1861-1865), the people of the United States were deeply divided over the issue of slavery. Many believed that it was no longer appropriate for a nation that believed these powerful words (below) from our Declaration of Independence could continue with a system of government that not only allowed, but actually encouraged ownership of other human beings.

We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable Rights, that among these are Life, Liberty and the pursuit of Happiness…

Allow me here to give you a bit of the history of “slave states” vs. “free states.”

Did you know, for example, in 1846, when Iowa became the 29th state in the Union, legislators in Washington DC who wanted slavery to continue insisted that if Iowa was to be admitted as the 29th state, which certainly would become a “free state” based on our state’s constitution, then a “slave state” must be brought in as well. That’s why Florida entered the Union around the same time as Iowa, keeping the balance of power equal in the U.S. Senate.

Prior to the Civil War (1861-1865), a slave state was one in which slavery and the slave trade were legal, while a free state was one in which they were not.

While slavery was legal throughout the Thirteen Colonies in 1776, it was still a very divisive issue among those who gathered in Philadelphia to write the Declaration of Independence. Knowing the subject would divide the colonies versus uniting them, the founders decided to fore-go their differences. But by 1787, when the U.S. Constitution was written, slavery had become the elephant in the room. Pennsylvania had abolished slavery in 1780, and another four did the same soon after.

Click here to read about Judge Charles T. Mason, Iowa’s first Supreme Court Chief Justice (1838-1847), who ruled in favor of the Dubuque slave, Ralph Montgomery, a decision which bolstered the abolitionist movement in 1839.

Between 1812 and 1850, it was considered by the slave states to be politically imperative that the number of free states not exceed the number of slave states, so new states were admitted in slave–free pairs.

Slave statesYearFree statesYear
Mississippi1817Indiana1816
Alabama1819Illinois1818
Missouri1821Maine1820
Arkansas1836Michigan1837
Florida1845Iowa1846
Texas1845Wisconsin1848

But with the addition of four free-states, California (1850), Minnesota (1858), Oregon (1859), and Kansas (1861), the political balance shifted in favor of the abolitionists, with 19 free states and 15 slave states. During the war, slavery was abolished in some of these jurisdictions, and the Thirteenth Amendment to the United States Constitution, ratified in December of 1865, finally abolished slavery throughout the United States.

As you can see from the map (above) Iowa, because of its strategic location just north of the slave-state of Missouri, and just west of the free-state of Illinois, became a prominent location for The Underground Railroad.

Beginning in 1830, The Underground Road became an organized system for helping escaped slaves from the southern states reach freedom in the North. Since steam engines were the newest and most modern means of travel, the name soon transitioned into The Underground Railroad, with those who kept “safe houses” for freedom-seekers becoming “station agents,” those who guided slaves from one point to another ”conductors,” while the men, women, and children who were escaping were “passengers.”

(C-0145) 1846 – 1946  Celebrating Iowa Statehood and the Underground Railroad.

A number of Iowa’s earliest settlers, often motivated by religious convictions and a marked appreciation of the principles of individual rights and personal liberty, provided shelter, transport, and material support for the travelers on this trail to freedom. See the full list of Iowans involved with the Underground Railroad here.

The Henderson Lewelling House in Salem, Iowa (Henry County) There are five underground railroad stops in Iowa that have been preserved (Lewelling House in Salem, Pearson House in Keosauqua, Jordan House in West Des Moines, Hitchcock House in Lewis, and the John Todd House in Tabor). Favorite hiding places seem to have been in the attics of houses, or in outbuildings like the haylofts of barns. Sometimes freedom seekers were hidden outside in the woods along creeks or rivers, or even in tall prairie grass.
West Branch, Iowa – Home of Herbert Hoover. West Branch, home of President Herbert Hoover, was another of those anti-slavery communities (Quaker) involved with the work of the Underground Railroad. Read more about West Branch and her famous son here.
Click here to read more about the Lane Trail that ran through Iowa City.
Click for more on the Iowa City artist & photographer, Isaac Wetherby, who participated with the anti-slavery movement.

Above is a Civil War flag (1863) made by black women from Keokuk and Muscatine. It was carried into battle by African-American troops who bravely fought for their freedom but waged war still being segregated from white Union soldiers.

Click here to see a complete list of Rich Stories of Diversity in Iowa.

Alexander and Catherine Clark of Bloomington (Muscatine), who were pro-actively involved with the abolitionist movement throughout Iowa, working with both John Brown and Frederick Douglas. Click here to read about Muscatine’s Alexander Clark, his daughter Susan, and Supreme Court Justice Chester Cole, who ruled in favor of integrating public schools in Iowa in 1868.

Samuel J. Kirkwood was probably one the better known abolitionists throughout the state. Iowa’s Civil War governer, Kirkwood was nominated in 1859 and defeated Augustus C. Dodge after a bitter campaign which focused on the slavery issue. In 1860, Kirkwood’s first year in office, the John Brown raid on Harpers Ferry (1859) further polarized the nation over slavery, and Kirkwood was clearly on the side of the militant abolitionists. When Barclay Coppock, a youth from Springdale, who was part of Brown’s raid, fled to Iowa, Kirkwood refused to accept extradition papers for him from Virginia, and allowed Coppock to escape. Click here to read more about Iowa’s War Governor Samuel J. Kirkwood.

A riverboat full of Union Soldiers leaving Iowa for the war.

During the Civil War, Governor Kirkwood gained national attention for his extraordinary efforts to secure soldiers and supplies from Iowa for the Union Army. A strong supporter of President Abraham Lincoln’s policies during the American Civil War, he was active in raising and equipping dozens of regiments of infantry, as well as cavalry and artillery, for the Union Army. In 1862, he attended the Loyal War Governors’ Conference in Altoona, Pennsylvania, which ultimately gave Lincoln support for his Emancipation Proclamation.

1909 – A souvenir postcard of the Centennial Anniversary of Abraham Lincoln’s birthday. The postcard text reads, “Lincoln’s Emancipation Proclamation, issued January 1st 1863. Four millions of slaves were liberated from bondage that had existed from the beginning of the National life. Henceforth a Government without a Master and without a Slave.” Lincoln is depicted in the postcard standing with his right arm raised over a black women slave and her children, while holding the emancipation proclamation rolled in his left hand.
(C-0255) In 1963 the USPS issued this commemorative stamp celebrating the 100th Anniversary of Abraham Lincoln’s Emancipation Proclamation. Click here to read about Judge Joseph M. Beck, Iowa’s Supreme Court Chief Justice, who ruled in favor Emma Cogen and her civil rights – bolstering the cause for both blacks and women in 1873.
April 1865 – Memorial Service for President Abraham Lincoln, photographed by Isaac A. Wetherby.

Click here to access our list of stories of those who have made a difference in this call for Unity Through Diversity…

Click here to access our Rich Stories of Diversity Timeline…


Kudos to the amazing resources below for the many quotes, photographs, etc. used on this page.

The Underground Railroad in Iowa, www.arcgis.com

Iowa Freedom Trail Project: Individuals by County, State Historic Preservation Office of Iowa

Slave States vs. Free States, Wikipedia

Iowa Territorial Supreme Court Case of “Ralph,” Pieces of Iowa’s Past, February 26, 2020, Legislative Services Agency

Samuel J. Kirkwood, Wikipedia

Civil Rights: Celebrating 50 Years of Higher Quality Through Equality, Iowa Civil Rights Commission, 2015

Early Civil Rights Cases, Iowa Judicial Branch, IowaCourts.gov

1863 Civil War Flag & Black Women pics, Iowa History 101 – Iowa Dept of Cultural Affairs

1908 Lincoln Anniversary postcard, OhioMemory.org


Click here to go on to the next section…

Click here for a complete INDEX of Our Iowa Heritage stories…