Illinois Underground Railroad
Illinois Underground Railroad

The Great Chicago Exodus

The Great Chicago Exodus


April 7, 1861.  For freedom seekers who had settled in Chicago and those stopping on their way to Canada, the fear of capture and return was supposed to be distant and now unlikely.   34 days earlier, Abraham Lincoln had been sworn in as President.  Yet in the early days of April, the news was awful as it spread through the African American community in Chicago.  Free Black residents along with long-settled and newly arrived refugees were raising the alarm.  Chicago was no longer safe; it was essential for those identified as fugitives to get to Detroit and then quickly to Canada and freedom.  Within four days, over 400 left, and in two weeks, more than 200 others  joined the exodus.[i]

After Lincoln’s election in November, 1860, South Carolina left the Union, soon followed by six other states.  By March, the entire nation, already fractured, was following the tension in Charleston – what would happen with Fort Sumter?  This outpost of the U.S. Army sat in the range of South Carolina’s guns and militia.  Would the confrontation lead to some kind of shooting?  Was the country falling into some sort of war among the states?  On March 14th, the Chicago Journal headlined:  “Civil War the Great Danger.”[ii]

Over a span of several weeks, in scattered places across the northern states, agents of the Federal government were making disjointed final efforts toward appeasement with the southern states.  They were gathering up fugitive slaves to be returned to their owners.  This was the word on the streets in Chicago.

April 3rd, Onesimus Harris, his wife and three children, were taken from their home in Chicago at 6:00 am, and placed on a special train to Springfield, where they would be in court.  As the arrest was happening, a large crowd gathered outside their home and called for vengeance against all those involved.  “. . . a colored expressman named Hayes, who was suspected of giving information, approached the crowd and was set upon by the mob and severely beaten.” [iii]  Others gathered at the train station and “one or two shots were fired at the train.”[iv]  The train carried sheriff’s deputies, the Harris family, and two men from St. Louis claiming ownership of the family members.  In court in Springfield the next day, the family was declared to be fugitives and they were returned to St. Louis on the night train.[v]

This brutal and rapid act served to focus and intensify the growing fears of fugitives, settled refugees, and free people of color across the region.  Over the next several days and nights, hundreds simply packed up and left Chicago, traveling by train, overland, and booking passages on ships soon to leave for Detroit.  In the midst of this, the Chicago Journal trumpeted:

            We advise every colored fugitive in the city to make tracks for Canada as soon as possible.  Don’t delay a moment.  Don’t let grass grow under your feet.  Stand not upon the order of your going but go at once.  You are not safe here and you cannot be safe until you stand on English soil where you will be free men and free women.  . . . .  Strike for the North Star.[vi]


For the complete story, see the prologue to my 2023 book, Onward to Chicago:  Freedom Seekers and the Underground Railroad in Northeastern Illinois.

Endnotes and comments

[i] For these numbers, see Chicago Tribune (noted as CT), April 9, 1861, and the New York Times (NYT), April 9, 1861.  Principal sources on the exodus are from reports in the Chicago Journal, Chicago Tribune, and New York Times.  Reports include the 106 who left on April 7th, a total around 300 in the initial wave, and a NYT report that most of 1000 recent refugees in Chicago had left.  Several NYT articles are particularly detailed indicating that the Times had its own reporter in Chicago.  

[ii] Chicago Journal (noted as CJ), 3/14/1861

[iii] CJ, 4/3/1861

[iv] NYT, 4/4/1861.

[v] NYT, 4/6/1861.

[vi] CJ, 4/5/1861. .  I first ran into an account of these remarkable days in April, 1861, in the opening chapter of Black Metropolis by St. Clair Drake and Horace Cayton, New York:  Harcourt, Brace & Co. 1945.