Explore the Underground Railroad on the Western Frontier
As the nation expanded westward, so did the Underground Railroad. The proximity of Kansas, Nebraska and Iowa to the slave state of Missouri made them popular destinations for freedom seekers hoping to escape the horrors of enslavement. Follow their journey by visiting the places that tell this history that divided a region, and ultimately a nation.
The 1854 Kansas-Nebraska Act which allowed popular vote to decide the status of slavery, made the region an important battleground. The resulting turmoil between settlers on different sides of the issue created the divisive conditions known as “Bleeding Kansas,” because proslavery and antislavery factions often clashed in violence. This conflict anticipated what the Civil War would later reveal, that the question of slavery could not be resolved peacefully. Enslaved people in Missouri seized the opportunity this presented to strike out in search of freedom. However, the hostilities made the Underground Railroad an even more perilous undertaking for all involved. Armed guards and militias often secured Underground Railroad routes to ensure safe passage.
The Lane Trail (US Highway 75), named for abolitionist James H. Lane, provided safe passages for free state settlers into Kansas and became a popular route for freedom seekers making their way north. John Brown and others used the trail to assist freedom seekers. In Osawatomie, the Adair Cabin served as John Brown’s headquarters and Underground Railroad location when Brown brought eleven freedom seekers he liberated in Missouri to the cabin. Now a state historic site and museum, the cabin tells of the exploits of “Osawatomie Brown of Kansas.” Brown would ultimately die in his attempt to end slavery at the Raid on Harper’s Ferry. While John Brown is a central character in the Underground Railroad, the region’s story is much larger than that of one man.
Located just across the river from Missouri is Leavenworth, the first city of Kansas. While the city’s present day notoriety comes from its associations with confinement, prior to the Civil War it was a place associated with freedom. It was here that Henry Clay Bruce, who escaped during the Civil War, finally “felt” himself “a free man.” Leavenworth was home to abolitionist Daniel R. Anthony, brother of famed women’s rights advocate, Susan B. Anthony. Noteworthy in his own right as a journalist, publisher, soldier, and politician, Daniel was also a known operator on the Underground Railroad. His commitment to freedom was further demonstrated by his refusal to allow southern slaveholders to recover escaped slaves behind Union lines, while briefly in command of the Seventh Kansas Calvary.
Leavenworth is also home to the Richard Allen Cultural Center and Museum, located right across the street from Bethel African Methodist Episcopal (A.M.E. ) Church which is believed to have Underground Railroad connections. The museum tells the history of African Americans and offers a tour of the city’s Underground Railroad sites. The Convention and Visitor’s Bureau also has a self-guided Underground Railroad wayside marker tour which include the Planter’s Hotel, whose only remnants are the steps from which Lincoln once spoke. In 1859, the hotel was the site of a fugitive slave case that received national attention involving the kidnapping of Charles Fisher, an African American who was employed as a barber at the hotel.
The ruins of the once bustling abolitionist town of Quindaro, a National Park Service, National Underground Railroad Network to Freedom (NTF) site stand along the Missouri River. Established in 1857, Quindaro (translated as “bundle of sticks” or “in union there is strength”) was originally settled by Wyandot Indians who played an early role in the territory’s Underground Railroad. Next to Kansas’s proslavery settlement of Wyandot, the town was a stronghold of freedom in an otherwise hostile environment. One of Quindaro’s Underground Railroad operators was a woman suffragist, Clarina Nichols, whose home was referred to as “Uncle Tom’s Cabin.” The town was not merely a station, but a destination for some freedom seekers who chose to make their homes in the community. The archeological ruins can be observed from an overlook that has views towards the river. Nearby, there is also the Old Quindaro Museum, which tells the history of the community, and the John Brown Statue and Memorial Plaza.
The Wakarusa River Valley Museum, outside of Lawrence, Kansas, interprets the history of ten communities of the Clinton Lake Area which were destroyed when the Wakarusa River was dammed. These once vital communities were integral to the success of the state’s Underground Railroad. An exhibit tells their stories. The museum, open May through September, also has an outdoor sculpture that represents the communities’ relationship to the Underground Railroad.
Kansas’s Underground Railroad activity was not just contained along its waterways. Moving inland is Topeka, which was home to Kansas’s only free state capitol, Constitution Hall, an NTF site (not open to the public). Built in 1855, the Capitol represents the anti-slavery commitment of freestaters and was the site for covert activities related to the Underground Railroad and the Lane Trail. Another NTF site in Topeka is the home of John and Mary Ritchie (open by appointment only). The Ritchies were ardent supporters of the free state movement and active in the Underground Railroad.
Beyond Topeka in the Flint Hills is the Mount Mitchell Heritage Prairie, a park and NTF site in Wabaunsee County that commemorates the Underground Railroad involvement of the Connecticut Kansas Colony--popularly known as the Beecher Bible and Rifle Colony. New England Emigrant Aid Society members settled there in 1855 to ensure that Kansas entered into the Union as a free state. The park contains a monument for Captain Mitchell, a prominent member of the colony and documented Underground Railroad operator.
Some freedom seekers made their way from Kansas into Nebraska City, where they could find refuge at the Mayhew Cabin (formerly John Brown’s Cave), an NTF site. The cabin was home to Allen and Barbara Mayhew. Barbara was the sister of John H. Kagi, a close confidant and John Brown lieutenant. Kagi, too, would lose his life at Harper’s Ferry. Contrary to popular memory, Brown never stayed at the Cabin, though the group that he brought to Adair Cabin were fed by the Mayhews as they traveled out of Kansas. All of city’s residents, however, did not share the Mayhews’ sympathies and some ignored legal prohibitions, bringing slaves with them. In 1860, Nebraska City was even the site of a slave auction. Enslaved “property” was not secure there, however, as they seized the opportunity to escape across the Missouri River into Iowa and the abolitionist town of Civil Bend (now Percival).
Come explore this exciting history by traveling the Underground Railroad!