Tag Archives: Underground Railroad

Database Report: Black Abolitionist Papers and Black Abolitionist Archive

Stampede article, Weekly Anglo-African, October 7, 1859

Weekly Anglo-African, October 7, 1859

Search Summary

  • Search conducted by Amanda Donoghue on Dec. 20
  • Keywords:  stampede, exodus, group slave escape, Missouri escape
  • Total results: Black Abolitionist Papers (BAP) = 6, Black Abolitionist Archive (BAA) = 1


  • “A Cincinnati paper of the 28th ult says: A stampede of slaves took place on the evening of the 27th-the whereabouts of several of the fugitives having been discovered here, officers at noon today proceeded to make arrests-upon approaching the house where the slaves were secreted, the latter fired, wounding two or three spectators, but not severely. One slave woman, finding escape impossible, cut the throats of her children, killing one instantly, and severely wounding two others: six of the fugitives were apprehended, and eight are said to have escaped.” (Editorial, Provincial Freedom, Toronto, February 2, 1856)
  • “A number of fugitives, I have been informed-fifteen in number-have just passed through from Detroit into Canada. Quite a stampede.” (Our Detroit Letter,” Weekly Anglo-African, New York, NY, October 7, 1859, Black Abolitionist Papers)
  • On Brown’s raid at Harper’s Ferry: “It seems to have been at the outset, an attempt to procure a large stampede of slaves, and to have grown, by force of circumstances, into an invasion of these United States and of the Commonwealth of Virginia.” (“The Emeute at Harper’s Ferry,” Weekly Anglo-African, New York, NY, October 22, 1859, Black Abolitionist Papers)
  • “A colored man named Harris, and his wife and two children were arrested here this morning, on a warrant issued by the United States Commissioner Conneau, and sent by special train to Springfield, where they will be examined tomorrow. The man is claimed by Mr. Patterson, of St. Louis County, MO” (“A Carbonari Wanted,” Weekly Anglo-African, New York, NY, April 13, 1861, Black Abolitionist Archive)
  • “[In 1843] Our next undertaking was a regular stampede from Maryland. We met at Banning’s Bridge, and mustered seventy strong at starting, but through some misunderstanding the wrong road was taken, and consequently they were tracked, and after a severe encounter, with the loss of three killed and many wounded, they were forced to surrender to superior numbers, who were well armed. When the return caravan passed through Washington a perfect panic prevailed among the slaves; and of the free colored people there were many who left for fear of the threats which were being made against them carried out.” (“Recollections from the Underground Railroad,” The Elevator, San Francisco, CA, September 22, 1865, Black Abolitionist Papers)
  • BAP includes excerpts from Martin Delany’s unfinished novel Blake (1859, 1861-62) that includes a reference at the beginning of chapter 30 to slave stampedes:  “The absence of Mammy Judy, Daddy Joe, Charles, and little Tony, on the return early Monday morning of Colonel Franks and lady from the country, unmistakably proved the escape of their slaves, and the further proof of the exit of ‘squire Potter’s Andy and Beckwith’s Clara, with the remembrance of the stampede a few months previously, required no further confirmation of the fact, when the neighborhood again was excited to ferment.” [NOTE:  Delany serialized Blake at first in the Afro-American Magazine in 1859 –that was the version contained within BAP]

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General Notes

  • Black Abolitionist Papers (BAP) is a subscription Pro-Quest database that is available to Dickinson College students.  Black Abolitionist Archive (BAA) is available to the public for free through University of Detroit Mercy [WEB].
  • BAP is the larger, more comprehensive collection (over 15,000 items), but BAA director, Roy Finkenbine, was part of the editorial team at BAP, which includes a printed five-volume collection as well as a microfilm series (and now database).  BAP includes black abolitionist newspaper editorials, speeches, meeting and convention materials, and selective private correspondence. BAA offers about 800 published speeches and selected newspaper articles.  
  • Five articles were found using the term “stampede” to refer to the “colonization” movement of free blacks moving to Haiti or Africa to escape the risk of being enslaved or re-enslaved.

Missouri Slave Stampedes Crossing State Borders: The Underground Railroad in Western Illinois by Owen Muelder

In Peoria County, Illinois in the 1850s, many enslaved people escaping from their slaveholders stopped to seek shelter in Brimfield’s Congregational Church, which was under the ministry of “violent

Brimfield Congregational Church Drawing

Brimfield Congregational Church (Brimfield Union Church)

abolitionist” J. E. Roy. According to Illinois historian Owen Muelder, one episode even involved “a party of 11 freedom seekers, who had fled from Palmyra, Missouri, carrying along “a crippled woman whom the others carried in a sheet, tied at the corners and suspended on a pole.”[1] If nothing else, this remarkable incident demonstrates the importance of looking beyond the state’s borders when examining the experiences of escaped Missouri slaves.

In The Underground Railroad in Western Illinois, Muelder, who is the director of Knox College’s Galesburg Colony Underground Railroad Freedom Center, presents a thorough overview of the major agents and activities of the Underground Railroad (UGRR) network in the “military tract” region of Western Illinois. Each chapter, organized based on the different counties of the region, is filled with stories quoted directly from original sources. In sharing these stories exactly as they were told from the voices of the abolitionist agents themselves, Muelder helps readers to “visualize more fully” the lives and stories of runaway slaves, many of which originated from Missouri, “in the late 1840s and 1850s in their valiant bid for freedom from bondage.”[2]

According to Muelder, everyone –including slaves, slaveholders, and abolitionists– was aware of the importance of the borderland between enslaved Eastern Missouri and Western Illinois. In fact, Illinois abolitionists frequently took advantage of this proximity, leading to the concentration of UGRR agents who were “eager to liberate slaves from across the river” in towns right along that border, such as in Quincy.[3] According to abolitionist Hiram Mars, Quincy abolitionists would even go as far as actually crossing the state line to seek out slaves and convince them to escape.[4]

Many of the abolitionists who risked traveling into Missouri to guide freedom seekers across the Mississippi River were themselves once escaped slaves. Throughout his text, Muelder makes reference to the ubiquitous figure of “Charlie,” an escaped Missouri slave who spent his whole life traveling in and out of slave states along the UGRR. According to numerous sources presented by Muelder, Charlie helped Missouri slaves escape along the UGRR to the Illinois counties of Plymouth, McDonough, Knox, and Stark.[5] Little is known of Charlie’s actual life and most of what is known is impossible to corroborate, but the popular narrative is that after Charlie escaped his enslavement, he returned to seek out and rescue his wife only to find that she had already been sold away. Charlie then spent years helping countless other enslaved families escape, perhaps always still searching for his wife.[6] It is possible that this story has been romanticized over the years, but nonetheless it underscores the important role that previously escaped slaves often played on the UGRR.

Charlie was certainly not alone. Chapman’s History of Knox County, Illinois describes an 1858 stampede in which “a colored man was taken through [Galesburg] to Canada, who shortly afterward found his way back to Missouri and started with nine other slaves for the land of freedom, but reached Galesburg with only five or six. With these it is presumed he got safely through to Canada.”[7] This important fact about the nature of slave stampedes, that some of them may have been initiated and led by former slaves still in hiding, emphasizes a critical aspect of the network that was essential to enabling larger group escapes.

[1] Owen Muelder, The Underground Railroad in Western Illinois (Jefferson, NC: McFarland & Co., 2008), 93.

[2] Galin Berrier, “The Underground Railroad in Western Illinois,”  Annals of Iowa 67:2 (2008): 225.

[3] Muelder, 35.

[4] Muelder, 8.

[5] Muelder, 55-56, 69-71, 112, 136.

[6] Muelder, 136.

[7] Muelder, 110-111.

Runaway and Freed Missouri Slaves by Harriet Frazier

In July of 1841, Illinois abolitionist Alanson Work and two of his students, George Thompson and James Burr “attempted to induce slaves of four different masters in Marion County to leave their owners and travel through Quincy and Chicago to freedom.”

George Thompson Photograph

George Thompson (House Divided)

These four enslaved people, presumably wary of the white abolitionists, instead alerted their owners of the abolitionists’ presence. Work, Thompson, and Burr were then arrested and sentenced to twelve years in prison—the second longest slave stealing sentence in Missouri history. [1]. These three men were not the only abolitionists sent to prison in Missouri for “slave stealing,” the term denoted to describe those who are caught assisting the enslaved in their escape attempts. In Missouri courts, slave stealing was an act of grand larceny, and at least 42 “slave stealers” were imprisoned by Missouri circuit courts between 1837 and 1862.[2]


Legal scholar Harriet Frazier places this “slave stealing” episode within the larger historical context of centuries of slave escapes and the growth of the Underground Railroad in the decades leading up to the Civil War in her book Runaway and Freed Missouri Slaves and Those Who Helped Them (2004). Frazier’s book presents “unique and valuable information” about enslaved and free Blacks living in Missouri in the 18th and 19th centuries as well as the agents and processes of the Underground Railroad. Frazier’s background as a law professor at Central Missouri State University and a licensed attorney provides a unique lens to thoroughly analyze the ways that law, culture, and society shaped the nature of slavery and slave escapes in Missouri from 1763 to 1865.[3] The author presents a comprehensive overview of the history, legal system, and people in Missouri that shaped the experiences of the enslaved, as well as actions taken by slaves to assert their agency and achieve freedom. Frazier’s book notes numerous individuals and stories from the historical record that shed insight on the nature of slave stampedes.

Frazier claims that slave stampedes and the public panic surrounding them did not become significant in Missouri until the 1850s, following the passage of the Fugitive Slave Act.[4] The term “stampede” is used once, in a reference to the Louisiana Journal article entitled “Stampede of Negroes from Lewis County,” which describes the June 1860 escape of 11 enslaved people belonging to seven different slaveholders from Lewis County. Frazier does not comment on the use of the term “stampede,” but she writes that “these accounts of absconding slaves all appeared in Missouri newspapers after the Thirty-First Congress passed the Fugitive Slave Act in September 1850,” suggesting a direct connection between the Fugitive Slave Act and the recognition of slave stampedes in the media.[5]

Frazier also provides the names and stories of numerous abolitionists living in Missouri in the years leading up to the Civil War. In the fourth chapter, which describes the lives of numerous notable free blacks in the state, the Reverend John Meachum is mentioned again (learn more here). According to Frazier, Meachum’s abolition work primarily consisted of purchasing slaves to train them in professional skills such as carpentry and then free them. He also allegedly taught enslaved and free people of color to read and write in the basement of his church, and then, when the operation was shut down by the police, on a steamboat on the Mississippi River. However, a more complicated portrait of Meachum is revealed in a freedom suit filed against him by a female slave named Judy. The decision was made to grant Judy her freedom, but Meachum’s opposition to Judy’s case throughout the trial paints a “less attractive side of Meachum than the one usually presented.”[6] Later in the book, Frazier mentions the 1855 arrest of Mary Meachum, John Meachum’s wife, for attempting to help nine slaves across the Mississippi River in their bid for freedom. In 2001, the Mary Meachum Freedom Crossing and Rest Area in St. Louis was dedicated to commemorate this event.[7]

Freedom's Crossing Mural

Freedom’s Crossing, a mural at the Mary Meachum Freedom Crossing Site. (Kevin McKague)

Another notable case was that of Dr. John Doy, who was already known for his friendship with John Brown, an infamous abolitionists who in 1858 freed 11 enslaved Missourians in a spontaneous raid.[8] In January of 1859, Dr. Doy and two other men were caught in Kansas by Missouri slaveholders the company of thirteen freedom seekers. Dr. Doy and one of the men with him, his son, were arrested for slave stealing and taken to Platte County, Missouri.

Doy article

New York Times, “Dr. Doy of Kansas,” March 18, 1859
Click to enlarge. (House Divided)

His case became so well known through newspapers and word of mouth that Doy and his son were kidnapped by an angry mob of Missouri slaveholders and almost lynched while awaiting trial. After numerous retrials, Doy was sentenced to five years in prison. However, on July 23, 1859, ten of his friends broke into the Buchanan County jail at midnight and successfully rescued Doy and returned him to Kansas. Dr. Doy wrote about this entire experience in his memoir, The Thrilling Narrative of Dr. John Doy of Kansas (1860), and continued to claim for the rest of his life that he had nothing to do with the escape of the thirteen slaves.[9] Most historians, such as Diane Mutti-Burke, dismiss this claim of Doy’s. Whether he did assist the freedom-seekers or not, however, Doy’s experience, and the experiences of other jailed abolitionists, reveal how much anger the pro-slavery population of Missouri felt towards white abolitionists who “stole” their property and stampeded them to freedom.

rescue party

Dr. John Doy and his rescue party (Kansas Historical Society)

[1] Harriet C. Frazier, Runaway and Freed Missouri Slaves and Those Who Helped Them, 1763-1865 (Jefferson, NC: McFarland & Company Inc., 2004), 131-134.

[2] Frazier, 124, 131.

[3] “Runaway and Freed Missouri Slaves and Those Who Helped Them,” Judy Sweets, Kansas History 28:1 (2005), 75.

[4] Frazier, 101.

[5] Frazier, 102.

[6] Frazier, 76-78.

[7] Frazier, 173.

[8] Frazier, 145-150.

[9] Frazier, 154-161.

Slave Stampedes and Abolitionist Agents in Wilbur Siebert’s The Underground Railroad

“The barn of Deacon Jireh Platt at Mendon, Illinois, was a haven into which many slaves from Missouri were piloted by way of Quincy.”[1]

This is all that is said about the abolitionist Platt family in Wilbur Siebert’s The Underground Railroad: From Slavery to Freedom, published in 1898. Siebert’s book was the first academic work to focus on the history of the Underground Railroad, piecing together his interpretation from interviews and recollections mostly collected from aging, former abolitionist agents.

Zora Galle

Zora Platt Galle holding photographs of Jireh and Sarah Platt. (Sarah Middleton, The Kansan)

However, recently, Zona Platt Galle, the great-great granddaughter of Jireh and Sarah Platt, wanted to know more about her ancestors than what Siebert had provided. During a visit to the Kansas Museum of History in Topeka, she discovered that the Kansas Historical Society was home to five boxes of Platt family papers. At least one recollection within this collection revealed that  during the 1840s, Jireh and Sarah hid a group of four escaped slaves, presumably from Missouri, on their farm for two weeks while fifty slave catchers intermittently searched their property. Galle states that “the slave hunters fired their guns, caused the chickens to squawk and even shouted death threats at the family, but eventually left empty handed.”[2] This amazing discovery now offers a fascinating modern addendum to Siebert’s groundbreaking work.mimig

When Siebert mentions large group escapes of enslaved people in The Underground Railroad (1898), he typically describes them as “companies.” The text does utilize the term stampede once, however, in a chapter on the impact of the Underground Railroad on the coming of Civil War.  “The prospect of a stampede of slaves, in case [border states] should join the secession movement,” Siebert writes, “was a consideration that may be supposed to have had some weight in fixing the decision of border slave states. Certainly it was one to which Northern men attached considerable importance at the time in explaining the steadfast position of these states.”[3]

Like many newspaper comments from the period, Seibert seems much more focused on the significance of the term “stampede” as it relates to slave owners and politicians rather than on what it might have meant to the slaves themselves. In this case, Siebert implies that Northern unionists employed the term as a scare tactic to try to help keep Upper South states in line during the winter of 1860-61.[4] However, even if the term “stampede” was mostly a political maneuver, mass slave escapes were very real. The largest mass escape of Missouri slaves that Siebert described was the December 1858 raid by John Brown that freed Jim Daniels and his family and resulted in the death of slaveholder David Cruse.  Other than this “highly dramatic” event that “created great excitement throughout the country, especially in Missouri,” Siebert does not describe any other escapes, either individual or mass, that emanated out of Missouri.[5] According to the author, “the number of [Underground Railroad] lines was relatively not so great” in Missouri compared to states further east.[6]

The Underground Railroad (1898) was the first comprehensive, academic review of the efforts of slaves to escape their bondage and of abolitionist agents to help them find freedom in the North. As such, its value to this project is significant. Most importantly to this project, it reveals that even just three decades after the Civil War, the concept of stampedes was part of the story of the era.

[1] Wilbur Siebert, The Underground Railroad: From Slavery to Freedom (New York: The MacMillan Company, 1898), 63.

[2] (Patricia Middleton, “Tracing Abolitionist Ancestors,” The Kansan (Newton, KS), Sept 24, 2018. [WEB]

[3] Siebert, 355.

[4] Siebert, 354-355.

[5] Siebert, 162-163.

[6] Siebert, 135.

Larry Gara- Liberty Line

UGRR article

Missouri Republican, August 30, 1854, p. 3 (State Historical Society of Missouri)

On August 30, 1854, the Daily Missouri Republican responded to a rash of slave escapes in St. Louis by publishing a sensationalized story about the “Underground Railroad” and its supposedly well-organized network of abolitionists who were engaged in “negro-stealing,” as the leading Democratic journal bitterly put it. According to historian Larry Gara, this exposé then set off a furious back-and-forth between pro- and anti-slavery newspapers in the city, a debate that highlighted the polarizing nature of slave escapes.[1]

Larry Gara’s pioneering book, The Liberty Line (1961) uses propaganda battles like the one among St. Louis newspapers in the summer of 1854 to help explain the origins of some myths about the Underground Railroad. Gara was one of the first scholars to expose some descriptions of the Underground Railroad as folklore. His work claims that the Underground Railroad was more localized than its national romantic legend and that escapes from slavery were far more spontaneous and self-motivated than any kind of by-product of organized help from white abolitionists.[2]

Liberty Line

“Liberty Line” illustration originally from The Western Citizen, July 13, 1844

Gara uses the term  “stampede” or its variants at least twice in his work, once when describing how “there were veritable epidemics of slave escapes from time to time,” adding, “Southern papers referred to group escapes as stampedes.” [3]  The second time, Gara provides a revealing paraphrase from Wendell Phillips, when the controversial Boston abolitionist denied any responsibility for John Brown’s 1859 raid because (in Gara’s words), “he had always discouraged and discountenanced the idea of stampeding slaves.” [4] In addition, Gara’s text occasionally refers to various group or mass escapes without explicitly labeling them as stampedes.

Richmond article 1859

Richmond Enquirer, December 30, 1859 (Chronicling America)

Gara often focuses on such group escapes when attempting to debunk popular myths that portray Quakers as the main actors helping fugitive slaves; Gara’s description of an 1856 family escape from Kentucky highlights a different reality.  In 1856, a former slave living in Ohio returned to Kentucky to help guide his enslaved wife and children north to freedom. The former slave led his family and three others to freedom without encountering any help until reaching the free state of Indiana. In Indiana, the group finally met Quakers who fed them, gave them money, and forwarded them along the underground railroad. Despite this help, the fugitives were clearly on their own for the most dangerous part of their journey. [5]

The Liberty Line focuses on restoring black agency when describing the nature of fugitive slave escapes. In the years since the publication of this landmark work in 1961, there have been many other works that have also emphasized the agency of both enslaved and free blacks.  One goal of this project on slave stampedes will surely be to continue to seek out such examples and evidence of black resistance, organization, and power in the process of securing freedom.


[1] Larry Gara, The Liberty Line: The Legend of the Underground Railroad (Lexington, Kentucky:  University of Kentucky Press, 1961), 157.

[2] Jennifer Schuessler, “Words From the Past Illuminate a Station on the Way to Freedom,”  New York Times, January 14, 2015, [WEB

[3] Gara, 22. 

[4] Gara, 88.  Gara cites this claim by Phillips to the Richmond Enquirer, December 30, 1859.

[5] Gara, 59.

Eric Foner- Gateway to Freedom: The Hidden History of the Underground Railroad

Sydney Gay

Sydney Howard Gay, courtesy of Columbia University Libraries

The Record of Fugitives, a journal kept by abolitionist newspaperman Sydney Howard Gay, was a secret record detailing the escapes of over 200 enslaved people who passed through New York City during their flight to freedom. [1] This remarkable primary source and the fascinating stories it contains remained largely unknown and unexamined by historians until Eric Foner finally analyzed the document in detail for Gateway to Freedom (2015), his recent capstone study of the Underground Railroad.  Gay’s journal reveals a number of insights, including important ones about the frequency of group escapes.  Foner writes that “while the popular image of the Underground Railroad tends to focus more on lone fugitives making their way North on foot, in fact more slaves who passed through New York in the mid-1850s escaped in groups than on their own.” [2]

Eric Foner, the Dewitt Clinton Professor of History at Columbia University and author of Pulitzer Prize-winning The Fiery Trial, focuses on the Underground Railroad in New York City in the 1840s and 1850s but his work has national implications. In particular, the Record of Fugitives includes valuable information about slave stampedes that traveled through New York.  In Gateway to Freedom (2015), Foner uses the word “stampede” twice in reference to group escapes. In 1857, he writes, “a newspaper reported a ‘general stampede,’ (as the press called group escapes) from Dover, the state capital, ‘by the underground railroad.’” [3] Here, Foner is explicitly describing the term “stampede” as used by the antebellum press. He also employs the term later on his own when describing a number of stampedes out of Chestertown, Maryland, which was “particularly vulnerable to mass escapes.” [4] Within only two months in 1855, at least three groups of seven or more individuals are reported by the local newspaper to have successfully escaped their masters in Chestertown. Foner writes that “Not surprisingly, these ‘stampedes’ alarmed Chestertown slaveowners,” asserting a direct connection between mass escapes and slaveholders’ anxiety over the fugitive slave crisis, an anxiety heavily reinforced by the press. [5]

Throughout the book, there are at least twelve cases of group escape depicted for the 1840s and 1850s. For example, Foner writes of the well-known 1848 attempted escape of 76 individuals on the schooner Pearl. This escape from Washington, DC was “particularly alarming to slaveholders” in the enormous number of escapees and the level of planning required to execute the escape. [7] Other examples of stampedes, such as the 35 enslaved people who fled from a single county in Maryland on a single day in 1850, are used to emphasize the anxiety that slaveholders felt about stampedes. [8]

However, Foner does spend some time analyzing certain group escapes themselves, and makes some valuable claims for this project. For example, he writes that ”when slaves escaped in groups, these frequently included relatives—husbands and wives, brothers and sisters, even, as in the case of eleven women or married couples and one man in Gay’s records, small children.” [9] Additionally, Foner’s analysis of how group escapes occurred reveals the instrumental role that the Underground Railroad and its agents played in stampedes. Every group escape documented by Foner involved at least one antislavery agent who housed, fed, or directed the group to safety.


Harriet Tubman, courtesy of the National Women’s History Museum

Harriet Tubman directed one of the most dramatic examples of such group escapes pulled from the Record of Fugitives.  In 1856, Tubman and four escapees fled from the Eastern Shore of Maryland by foot. After being forced to hide from the owners in a “potato hole” for a week, Tubman tapped into the Underground Railroad network to help get the four enslaved men to safety in Wilmington, Delaware. Then, with the help of vigilance committee operative William Still, the group took a train from Philadelphia to New York, where they were placed under the protection of Gay. From there the slaves were sent to Syracuse and then Canada. [10] Without the Underground Railroad and its many known and unknown agents willing to take the enormous risk of traveling with large groups of fugitives, slave stampedes would never have been possible.


[1] Eric Foner, Gateway to Freedom, The Hidden History of the Underground Railroad (New York: W.W. Norton & Company, 2015), 10.

[2] Foner, 122.

[3] Foner, 229-230.

[4] Foner, 156.

[5] Foner, 206.

[6] Foner, 206.

[7] Foner, 205.

[8] Foner, 116.

[9] Foner, 200.

[10] Foner, 191-192.