From the beginnings of slavery, those enslaved sought to be free. American history was shaped significantly by the tensions in slavery and freedom and then the deep struggles to understand what it is to be free and what it is to be equal. The struggles continue. This is a brief introduction to that part of the struggle for freedom that came to be known as the Underground Railroad in Illinois – whites and Blacks engaged in networks to support freedom seekers.
From the onset of statehood in 1818 until the outbreak of the Civil War, an estimated 4,500 to 7,000 freedom seekers moved into and through Illinois. They traveled up the Illinois River Valley and overland from the Mississippi River towns of Cairo, Chester, Alton, Quincy, Galena and innumerable smaller places. Some came north through Indiana, some by foot, coach and horseback from Iowa and Wisconsin, and starting in the mid - 1850s, by train. Throughout, the vast majority came from Missouri, Kentucky, and Tennessee. A limited number came up the Mississippi River valley from Louisiana, Mississippi, and Arkansas, and a few from eastern states.
An estimated 3,000 to 4,500 freedom seekers came into northeastern Illinois over these years. These numbers appear reasonable not only estimating from local accounts, but also in relation to the current estimates that 35,000 to 45,000 persons found freedom in Canada through the Underground Railroad.
Over time, a significant number of freedom seekers saw themselves as refugees, remaining in Chicago due to a relatively open and safe environment. Often, places of safety in Chicago and in the Calumet region south of the city also served as places of decision for those heading for Canada. From northeastern Illinois, the major goal was Detroit, where movement to Canada was relatively easy with significant bases for support both in Detroit and in free settlements across the Detroit River in Ontario, Canada.
Many traveled overland through northwest Indiana and southern Michigan to reach Detroit. By the mid-1840s, an increasing number went through Chicago and other Lake Michigan towns to obtain passage or to be assisted in being placed on vessels going to Detroit. After the mid-1850s, travel by train was of growing importance, from Cairo, other Illinois towns, and Iowa.
Significant points of response and assistance emerged across the state in the 1830s, and these networks grew until 1861. Communications across northeastern Illinois grew rapidly in the early 1840s, and those assisting freedom seekers were, by this time, self-identified as the Underground Railroad. In Chicago, by the late 1840s, the work of receiving, assisting and sending fugitives on their way or settling them in the city was led in large measure by leaders in the African American community.
After 1845, the work of white activists and Black activists in Illinois was at times integrally related and at times parallel. From the late 1840s into 1861 and the Civil War years, there were growing bi-racial collaborations and some enduring friendships across racial lines, especially in Chicago.
In the telling and re-telling of incidences involving the Underground Railroad, it was inevitable that the great images of total secrecy true to some parts of this national story would be applied to activity in the Chicago region. Yet, across northern Illinois, the UGRR was a fairly public process. Perhaps the stories of secret hiding places, tunnels, and collaborations kept deeply hidden were experienced in other parts of Illinois and in other states. However, in Chicago and northern Illinois, in large part because of broad based abolitionist sentiments, activists needed to be discrete but not totally secretive. Stories in the Chicago region are compelling enough and it is a distraction to force romanticized images of the situation.
In a similar way, the railroad imagery and the language of “conductors,” “lines,” and “stations” acted to impose a kind of order and organization where it rarely existed. From the late 1830s, writing about the Underground Railroad used the railroad language but also usually noted that it was never really so formal. Those involved with and reacting to the movement of freedom seekers picked up on the most compelling new language of the day, the new technologies and terms associated with the coming of the railroads.
However, by the 1850s in Illinois, collaboration among those assisting freedom seekers was fairly well-developed. This was helped by common interests and communications for whites through anti-slavery societies and for Blacks through AME churches and the occasional “colored conventions.”
In any accounts involving freedom seekers and the Underground Railroad in Illinois, it crucial to see that there were changes over time.
A great deal of work is yet to be done to fully explore and report on the documentation related to freedom seekers and the Underground Railroad in Illinois. To date, only a handful of sites have been fully researched. The National Park Service Network to Freedom program has received site reports on activity in 26 Illinois communities, with the potential for 3 to 4 times that number. In northeastern Illinois, current research suggests at least 40 communities can be identified as places reflecting the movement of freedom seekers and the activities of Illinois residents to provide assistance.