Photo: Eli Smith
Source: Reminiscences of Bureau County (IL)
By N. Matson
Originally published 1872
Republican Book & Job Office, Princeton, IL
Transcribed by: Denise McLoughlin
Tampico Area Historical Society
Photo: Will Smith
For a number of years Bureau county was a strong-hold of abolitionism, and many exciting incidents, in connection with runaway slaves, took place within its boundaries, a brief account of a few of which may interest the reader. The first case this kind occurred at the house of Elijah Smith, in December, 1835, and it created at the time great excitement in the neighborhood.*
*Those engaged in assisting slaves to escape, were regarded by many as wild families, violators of law, and therefore could not be good citizens. Whether the acts of these men were justifiable or not, it must be admitted that they were persons of moral integrity, and did only what they believed to be their duty. Among those most actively engaged in this business, were Owen Lovejoy, John Walters, Deacon Caleb Cook, D. E. Norton, Eli Smith and J. T. Holbrook. Eli Smith owned an old sorrel horse, named John, and a Dearborn wagon, with which, for many years, slaves were carried on their way to freedom. This horse and wagon became noted along the line, and it is said that it furnished the design for a cut that headed the advertising bill of the underground railroad.
In the summer of 1835, two black girls, belonging to Maj. Dougherty, of St. Louis, escaped from bondage and found refuge at Mineral Point, Wisconsin. Some months after they arrived there, a professional slave catcher, named Harris, learning of their whereabouts, captured them, and was on his way to St. Louis, where he expected to receive the large reward that was offered for their return to slavery. Harris was traveling on horseback and leading by is side another horse, on which the two girls were mounted. On a cold December night, Harris, with his two captives, whose feet were badly frozen, arrived at Elijah Smith's house of entertainment, where he procured quarters for the night. It so happened that same night that James G. Ross, of Ox Bow prairie, being on his way to Galena, was staying over night at Smith's house. Mr. Ross, being an abolitionist, was soon engaged in a warm controversy with the slae catcher, each of whom accused the other of rascality. Smith's house of entertainment consisted of a double log cabin, of two apartments, the men occupying one, and the women, with the two black girls, the other. Eli Smith and wife, with another neighbor, were there spending the evening, and on hearing the girls tell their sad story, they became interested in their behalf, and a plan was adopted for their rescue. Mr. Ross being a party to this project, proposed to take the girls to his friends, east of the river, where they would be assisted on their way to Canada.
To avoid being suspicion by Harris, Ross complained of sudden illness, and the women gave him warm teas, but getting worse, he went up stairs to bed.Each of the cabins of which Smith's residence was composed, had a flight of stairs that met at the top. Ross, instead of going to bed, walked down the other flight of stairs, brought out his horse, hitched it on to Eli Smith's sled, and with the girls started for Hennepin. On reaching the timber, near Joel Doolittle's residence, he found the snow so near gone that his horse could not draw his load, so he left the old sled by the wayside, placed the girls on his horse, and going on foot himself, he continued the journey.
Harris, believing that Ross was sick in bed, gave himself no further trouble about his chattles, but went on to tell what he would do if any one should attempt to steal his negroes. Before retiring for the night, Harris went into the other apartment to see if everything was right, and he was much surprised to find the girls gone. Assisted by Elijah Smith, carrying a lantern, the barn and haystacks were searched, but without effect. Harris was in a terrible rage, accused the family of being accessory to the escape of the girls, and taking out his revolver, he swore he would shoot all about the house if they were not forthcoming.
For three days Harris remained in the neighborhood searching for the runaways, but without success. The girls were assisted on their way towards Canada, and were never returned to slavery.
In 1840, Johnathan T. Holbrook, of La Moille, was indicted and tried in the circuit court of this county, for harboring a runaway slave. This being the first case of its kind tried in Bureau county, it caused much excitement among the people, and it established a precedent for similar cases, which were afterwards tried under the fugitive slave law.
A black man, named John, supposed to be a runaway slave, had been in the neighborhood of La Moille about one year, working for Mr. Holbrook and others. It being well known that Mr. Holbrook was an abolitionist, some of the friends of slavery thought it best to make an example of him, hence the indictment. J. D. Caton and T. L. Dickey, both of whom were subsequently circuit judge of this district, were employed in the defense of Mr. Holbrook. Thomas Ford, afterwards governor, was on the bench at that time, and his rulings were such as to displease the prosecution. The trial was a mere farce, and Mr. Holbrook was acquitted.
In the fall of 1838, a young man, with black hair, broad shoulders, and peculiar expressive blue eyes, was seen coming into Princeton on horseback. He was alone, and a stranger, without means, being in search of a place to make his future home, and came here by mere chance. This man was Owen Lovejoy, subsequently of political celebrity.* Soon after arriving here, Mr. Lovejoy was installed pastor of the Congregational Church, and occupied that position for sixteen years. From that time Princeton became a place of note; although containing but few inhabitants, and having but little commercial relation with other parts of the world, it was, nevertheless, the head center of abolitionism for the west. Newspapers of that day reported state conventions held here, and great speeches made in favor of immediate emancipation, so that Princeton was known in abolition circles throughout the Union. Even slaves at the south heard of it, and many of them came to see it, which caused Col. Barksdale in a speech in Congress, to denouce Princeton as one of the greatest negro stealing places in the west.
*On the morning of the 9th of November, 1837, the writer landed from a steamboat on the wharf at Alton, and learned from the excited people what had transpired there the night before. The pebbles on the wharf were stained with the blood of Biship, and on the floor of Godfrey & Gilman's warehouse, was seen standing in clotted pools, the life-blood of Elijah P. Lovejoy.
The death of Lovejoy was heralded throughout the Union, and caused people everywhere to go wild with excitement, but at that time no one thought that a quarter of a century would scarecly pass away before thousands of lives and millions of money would be sacrificed on account of slavery.
According to abolition papers of that day, an underground railroad was established, which extended from the slave states to Canada, passing through Princeton, and making it a place for changing cars. John Cross, a Wesleyan Methodist minister, who lived near La Moille, was announced general superintendent, and he was succeeded in office by Owen Lovejoy. Mr. Cross had hand bills and large posters circulated through the country advertising his business, and calling on abolitionists everywhere for assistance in carrying out his plans. His bills were not headed with a picture of a locomotive and a train of cars, but with a bobtail horse in a Dearborn wagon the driver leaning forward and applying the whip, while the heads of two darkies were seen peering out from under the seat. Stations were etablished at proper distances, and agents in readiness to convey fugitives forward as soon as they arrived. It was almost an every day occurrence for slaves to pass through on this line, while their masters followed after by the ordinary means of conveyance, and were surprised to find how fast their chattles had traveled. Many exciting incidents occurred on this underground railroad, some of which are still fresh in the minds of the people.
In 1849, a young slave named John, ran away from his master in Missouri, located in Princeton, and became quite a favorite among the people. His master, hearing of his whereabouts, and accompanied by a friend to prove property, came after him. The slave was mowing in an out lot in the north part of town, and did not observe the slave catchers until they came upon him, each of whom presented a pistol to his head, which caused him to make no resistance. His hands were tied behind him, and his master holding one end of the rope, led him like a dog through the streets of the town. News of the boy's capture flew like lightning, and people, much excited, were seen running hither and thither, marshaling their forces for the rescue. A warrent was issued, and the slave catchers arrested on the charge of kidnapping, and with the slave were taken to the court house for trial. The court room was filled with excited people, some of whom sympathized with the slave, and others his master. While the trial was progressing, some one cut the rope that bound the slave, and during the confusion he excaped from the court room, followed by the excited crowd, some to catch, and others to assist him in making his escape. A horse, with a woman's saddle on, was hitched in the street, on which they placed the slave, and ordered him to ride with all speed to the residence of Mr. Lovejoy, followed by the court and crowd of excited people. The house of Mr. Lovejoy was surrounded by the excited people, some to protect, and others to capture the slave. Behind the barn a man was seen to mount a horse, and a cry was raised, "There goes the negro." The slave party put their horses at full speed inpursuit for the fugitive, who had taken across the prairie in the direction of Dover, but on coming up with him they were surprised to find instead of the negro Mr. Waldo with a black veil over his face.
The slave party attempted to force an entrance into the house, but Mr. Lovejoy forbid them doing so without due process of law. A messenger was sent for a search warrant, and while they were waiting for his return, the boy in disguise, with a basket on his arm, went to the barn. Behind the barn a wagon was standing, into which the slave was placed and covered up with empty bags. This wagon was drove quietly away, and the slave escaped while the slave party stood guard around Mr. Lovejoy's house, waiting for a search warrant.
The Rev. John Cross, general agent and superintendent of the underground railroad, was charged by parities in Knox county with assisting a slave on h is way to freedom. For this offense a warrant was issued for his arrest, and placed into the hands of the sheriff of this county, as Mr. Cross resided near La Moille at that time. The deputy sheriff arrested Cross, and proceeded with him on his way to Knoxville, where he was to be tried for the heinous offense of assisting a slave on his way to Canada. At Osceola, Stark county, the deputy, with his prisoner, stopped for the night, and as Cross had an engagement to preach there the next day, he asked permission of the officer to fill his appointment, but his request was not granted. The friends of Mr. Cross offered to guarantee his safe delivery after the service, but the officer was inexorable, and explained to them that the law made no provision for a criminal to stop while on his way to jail to deliver abolition lectures, - telling them that he was an officer of the law, and should carry out its provisions at all hazards, - that no abolition mob could intimidate him. To this the friends of Mr. Cross replied that he should stay and preach, intimating to the officer that he might get into trouble if he undertook forcible means to carry off his prisoner. The deputy, finding that he had fell into the hands of the Phillistines, lost all his courage, became nervous, and finally consented that his prisoner might stay and preach, but he kept all the while at his elbow to prevent his escape. After preaching was over, the officer summoned a pose to assist him in taking the prisoner to Knoxville, but finding they were all friends of the prisoner, he dismissed them, as they would be likely to do him more harm than good. The officer then inquired of Mr. Cross how much he would ask to deliver himself up peacably to the jailor at Knoxville; to which he replied that he would do it for ten dollars. The officer thought the price exhorbitant, but offered him five, and they finally agreed on seven dollars. Things being now arranged, they proceeded on their journey, but the officer appeared uneasy, being fearful that the prisoner's friends had laid a trap to rescue him on the road. The officer frequently inquired of Mr. Cross if he though, in case of a rescue, they would commit violence on him, to which Mr. Cross replied he could not tell what they would do, as his friends were very angry at his arrest, and therefore he would not be responsible for their acts. Fearful forebodings of evil and now taken possession of the officer's mind, and he turned pale, became nervous and excited. Mr. Cross assured hm that he had nothing to do with the rescue, and in fact did not wish it, for in that case he would lose the seven dollars, which he very much needed.
As the officer with his prisoner came near Spoon river timber, they saw two men in the road ahead of them, who were engaged in conversation, while two others were seen going towards them. Mr. Cross appeared surprised to see his friends about to rescue him, and said he would defeat their plans, as he coud not think of losing the forthcoming seven dollars. He told the sheriff to lay down i the bottom of the buggy and he would cover him over with buffalo robes, so his friends, seeing him alone and not under arrest, would not stop him. This arrangement was agreed to by the sheriff, and he was nicely wrapped up in robes and horse blankets, so that no part of his person was visible. On coming up with themen in the road, who were there by chance, Cross spoke to them, at the same time whippiing his horses, and went on at great speed. A little further on, where the road was very rough, he spoke to some imaginary person, again whipping his horses into a gallop. The old buggy rattled and creaked, as it bounded over stamps and through deep ruts, the sheriff's head coming in contac with the seat, then against the side of the box, while suppressed groans came forth from the official victim. Again and again Mr. Cross would speak as though meeting some one, and whipping his horses into a gallop as before, the buggy rattled and the sheriff groaned, but on he went, Jehu-like, for about two miles, over a rough timber road. At last Mr. Cross made a halt, uncovered the sheriff, telling him to get up, as they had now passed all danger. As he arose, looking cautiusly around him to see that no enemy was near, he took out his two pistols to examine them, saying at the same time, "If they attacked me, I would have made a powerful resistance."
That same day the prisoner was safely delivered over to the authorities at Knoxville, and was set at liberty without an examination.