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 blacks 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 may have 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]

On April 4th, 5th, and 6th, prominent black Abolitionist leaders met with church pastors, black and white and with white Abolitionist colleagues and friends to help others leave the city.  They met also with officials of the Michigan Southern Railroad to arrange for special transport.  Long-time Underground Railroad activists now negotiated for a fast, final train to freedom.

The panic and rushed reactions had been forced by the actions of one Russell A. Jones, the new Federal Marshall in Chicago, whose appointment by Lincoln was announced on March 15th.  A long time Lincoln supporter and ironically nominated to this position by Congressman and radical Abolitionist Owen Lovejoy, he proved to be far more enthusiastic about the Fugitive Slave Law than any had foreseen.[vii]  Near the end of March, Jones declared that he had “fellows of the right kidney,” willing to follow orders and capture all fugitives in the city, “guaranteeing promptness and dispatch in so doing.“  In reporting his boasting, the Chicago Tribune noted later that during the few weeks since his appointment, “in saloons and bar-rooms about town, the zealous Federal officer is praised, but good men and humane men hang their heads.”  The Tribune continued:

            The actual presence of numerous slave-hunters in town, and the knowledge that several writs are in officer’s hands, has created a perfect stampede among the numerous fugitives resident here.  Within the week, ending with Sunday last [the 7th], nearly three-hundred people of color, from this city, have sought refuge in Canada. . . .

            And, indeed, this is no inconsiderable number to have left one community within a week for a new home and Liberty in the Queen’s dominions.  Many of them had been for years resident among us.  . . . But the fate of the Harris family was too marked and too recent, and the Marshal and his assistants, and the bogus police officers quite too eager at man-hunting, and so the stampede began.[viii]

Along with the hundreds already in transit, about 30 fugitives were concealed aboard a lake schooner, which would carry them on the Great Lakes around Michigan to Detroit and Canada.   Now, most important was to assist a large number of freedom seekers with limited resources to get to Canada.  So, throughout the day on Sunday, April 7th,

. . . the vicinity of the Michigan Southern depot was a scene of excitement and confusion.  After the religious services at the Zoar Baptist Church[ix] in the morning, which was densely attended, the leave-taking commenced . . . the fugitives and their friends, going from door to door, bidding each other good-bye and mingling their congratulations and tears.

For several blocks around the depot, the streets were filled “with an excited multitude of colored people of both sexes.  Large numbers of white people also gathered. . .”  Newspaper reported that the whole loading process moved fairly quickly under the leadership of several black men assisted by some whites.  106 people squeezed in the cars of the Michigan Southern. 

           Each car was supplied with a cask of water and substantial provisions, boiled beef, hams, beans, bread, and apples.  Some of the party were old, but most of them were young men in their prime, as the class obviously most likely to run the risk of fleeing from slavery.  There were quite a number of young families going to save the children from sharing the fate of a slave mother.[x]

It cost two dollars a piece to send them to Detroit.  They were packed into four freight cars attached to the backend of a passenger train.


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.    

[vii] CJ, March 15, 1861. 

[viii] CT, April 9, 1861.

[ix] This congregation becomes Olivet Baptist Church

[x] CT, April 9, 1861.