The Underground Railroad and Iowa: On the Road from Slavery to Freedom
“I looked at my hands to see if I was the same person… There was such a glory over everything. The sun came up like gold through the trees, and I felt like I was in Heaven.” Harriet Tubman uttered these words when she arrived in Pennsylvania, a free woman at last (National Geographic). Years later, when talking about the reasons she ran away, Ms. Tubman would state, “[There are] two things I [have] a right to and these are Death and Liberty. One or the other I mean to have. No one will take me back alive” (America’s Civil War, 42). While most research on the Underground Railroad focuses on the northern states, the state of Iowa played an essential role in the Railroad. Clinton, Iowa was often a runaway’s last stop before crossing the Mighty Mississippi River.
The first documentation of the name Underground Railroad is from the year 1831 and in one case, attributed to the owner of a former slave, Tice David. David successfully gained freedom by traversing along small creeks, rivers, and dense woods and his owner finally gave up searching for him. Upon returning to Kentucky, Tice David’s former slave-owner announced, “He must have gone on an underground road” (America’s Civil War, 42). Another name given to the Underground Railroad was the Freedom Train (National Underground Railroad Freedom Center) and Harriet Tubman was inarguably one of the most famous conductors on this train, leading thousands of slaves to their freedom in the north.
Since the formation of the Iowa Territory, the largest population group, settling in what would become Iowa, came from southern states. Because of this, early historians assumed that Iowa would take a pro-slavery stance (History of Clinton County, 54). At the first Constitutional Convention in 1844, there was consideration given to excluding African-Americans from living in Iowa but this could have had a negative effect on its bid for statehood. In 1850, representatives of Clinton County tried to introduce the bill again. Both houses opposed it, but eventually the bill passed and the governor signed it. However, there was an important stipulation to the bill; it could only go into effect after it was published in the newspapers; Iowa City Reporter and the Iowa Freeman of Mt. Pleasant. Fortunately, the Freeman refused to publish it, thus effectively stopping the bill from becoming law (History of Clinton County, 54). Nevertheless, there was another legal move to block runaway slaves from achieving freedom, this time from the United States Government. Before the Federal Government passed the Fugitive Slave Act of 1850, slaves felt safe if they could run away to a free state. However, after this law went into effect slave catchers everywhere hunted them. The Fugitive Slave Act brought the problem of slavery to “Iowa’s doorstep” (History of Clinton County, 54).
People protested against the Fugitive Slave...