A new book tells the story of how Iowans helped slaves who traveled the “underground railroad” to seek freedom in the north. Lowell Soike is the author of “Necessary Courage: Iowa’s Underground Railroad in the Struggle Against Slavery”.
“In early years most of the runaways from slavery in MIssouri crossed the Mississippi over into Illinois. That was because Iowa was hardly yet settled and so there would be no incentive to head north into the uninhabited reaches of Iowa where you probably wouldn’t survive,” Soike says. “But then as the 1840s came on and greater settlement occured then it opened up a new door for runaways to go north into Iowa.”
There aren’t many letters or dairies about the underground railroad, given the need to keep secret the names and addresses of participants. Soike started piecing the stories together after finding a series of unconnected articles published before the Civil War in pro-slavery newspapers.
“They would be reacting to the event of somebody having been rescued — and in a negative way — and that, oh, ‘What are these people doing betraying the constitution’s right of the south to keep their slaves?’ and stuff,” Soike says.
Soike then found articles and obituaries in Iowa newspapers published in the 1870s and 1880s — in the decades after the Civil War — that included information about the underground railroad.
“You had the second generation of folks that didn’t want to see some of these stories forgotten,” Soike says, “the children of those who had been involved.”
Soike has been director of the Iowa Freedom Trail grant project and the book is the culmination of 11 years of research. He found strong pockets of anti-slavery activism in the Grinnell area and in Henry and Lee Counties in southeast Iowa. One story in his book is about a slave who made it to safety in Salem, Iowa, then went back to Missouri to rescue the rest of his family. During the drama, a mob of people from Missouri came north and searched all the houses in Salem, looking for the fleeing family.
Soike made his comments during an appearance on Iowa Public Radio earlier this month.