“The Western Road to Freedom”
The Underground Railroad in the Franklin County Area
For a Kansas child who’d barely ridden an escalator in the 1950s, the phrase “Underground Railroad” was magical. It managed to convey images of steam-spouting locomotives vanishing into tunnels underground, loaded with slaves.
Of course the real Underground Railroad was neither underground nor a railroad, but a loosely organized, clandestine group of abolitionists who were prepared to risk imprisonment and ruin if caught conducting escaped fugitives toward Canada.
Interest in the UGRR is high just now, and a major museum has opened in Cincinnati, the Freedom Center, which like the Holocaust Museum and the Museum of Tolerance, highlights a theme that ties together a multitude of sites and a dearth of actual artifacts into an interpretive whole.
The “Western road,” the branch of the UGRR that came through this area, is little studied in general UGRR literature. Early settlers in the Linn, Miami, Franklin, Anderson and Douglas county area helped Missouri slaves escape to Canada via Kansas, Nebraska, Iowa, and points north.
The conductors on the route only knew the name of the next conductor, so that slaves moved along the route with no one knowing very much about the system as a whole. Books and articles on this “railroad” are beginning to appear.
The most famous Franklin County instance of secreting slaves involves John Brown’s theft of eleven slaves from Vernon County, Missouri, in December of 1858. Brown viewed this blow to the “Slave Power” as a rehearsal for his Harper’s Ferry plan, which he thought would strike terror into every slave owner’s heart and unite the southern slaves and lead them to mass revolt. Of course this plan failed miserably, and Brown was hanged for the attempt.
A loosely affiliated group living in the Lane-Osawatomie-Greeley area was involved in hiding Brown’s eleven refugees for a month during which time a baby was born to one of the women.
The route through Franklin County that these slaves and John Brown followed to get them to the relative safety of Nebraska and then to Canada is known. The group headed west from the southeastern corner of the county toward the now-defunct town of Chemung, then across Middle Creek and north across the Marais des Cygnes River at Fort Scott Crossing. Their route across the Ottawa Reserve was led by Joseph Badger King, an Ottawa who worked for John Tecumseh “Tauy” Jones. The pro-slave territorial laws of Kansas [the so-called “Bogus” laws] made such activities unlawful. Yet locals carried on this activity out of both religious and political beliefs.
The most famous incident involving the escape of slaves in this area occurred in December and January of 1858 and 1859. John Brown and his followers determined to strike a blow against the “Slave Power” by liberating slaves in Vernon County, Missouri—just east of Fort Scott. Eleven fugitives were rounded up and brought across the border. They were sent to the known Underground Railroad sanctuaries: Augustus Wattles’ house at Moneka, Quaker Richard Mendenhall’s farm south of Osawatomie, and the Adair cabin west of the same town. Then the loose group of abolitionists who lived in the “four corners” area of Linn, Miami, Franklin and Anderson counties undertook to hide them for a time, until the intensive search by the authorities had died down and Brown could fetch them for the rest of their trip to Canada and freedom.
Richard Mendenhall, a former teacher at the Shawnee Quaker Mission and co-founder of Spring Grove Friends Meeting in southwest Miami County, deserves more recognition than he has been given. He was a frequent writer of letters to newspapers in the East concerning the border war raging in this region during the 1850s, and was said to have the largest correspondence of any man in Kansas.
He selected property for his farm carefully so as to insure the protection of the natural forms of the land. His “Crescent Farm” was supposed to sit at the narrow end of a natural horseshoe of high land, allowing him to watch for proslavery forces and hide fugitives. He also watched the battle of Osawatomie from his house roof.
Reuben Smith told the Kansas State Historical Society about an incident in Mendenhall’s active life as a conductor on the Underground Railroad. A single black man came to the Mendenhall farm just as Richard was hitching up his wagon for a journey to Meeting. He told the young man that as it was First Day, the Sabbath, he technically couldn’t engage in horse trading with him, but seeing the black man’s tired horse, said “Before thee goes with thy friend Dr. Gilpatrick, thee had better go to my stable and leave thy jaded Horse there and take that little sleek fat Pony of mine, thee has a long journey towards the North Star before thee. Thou Runwest, I can’t swap horses with thee on First Day, but, mind me, take mine and leave thine.”
But both Mendenhall and John Brown’s brother-in-law Samuel Adair knew better than to undertake the hiding of eleven slaves and a wagon and oxen so near the main Ft. Scott-California Road. They sent John Brown’s eleven freed slaves further west to Anderson and Franklin Counties where they could be hidden more easily.
People came to Kansas for reasons both political and personal. For the free soil settlers, it was an opportunity to bring a political vision into being just by doing what most people wanted to do—acquire cheap farm land, develop it, and gain a start in life. These settlers’ sheer numbers eventually assured the triumph of the Free State cause.
Three families from Darke County, Ohio came to the Lane area in the middle 1850s who had all been active conductors on the Underground Railway in Ohio. They all participated in the battles of “Bleeding Kansas.” The inter-related families were the Blunts and Gillpatricks, and the Hanways.
James Hanway (see his page under People) settled just south of “Dutch Henry’s Crossing” of the Pottawatomie and just north of the site of the old Baptist Mission to those Indians. He’s been called Franklin County’s “Renaissance Man,” a writer, historian, geologist, and businessman. The Hanways quarried stone and produced building materials and grave markers.
The Gillpatricks settled in northern Anderson county, just south of the county border that hadn’t yet been surveyed and located. Dr. Rufus Gillpatrick founded a little community west of Greeley called Mt. Gilead.
The Blunts owned land in both counties, but lived east of the Greeley townsite. They would count among their number the only Kansas major general in the Civil War, Dr. James Gillpatrick Blunt.
Dr. Rufus Gillpatrick, Blunt’s uncle, would play many roles in the Free State struggle. Besides active participation in the Underground Railroad, he fought in several engagements such as the Battle of South Middle Creek, and was a leader in the formation of a squatter’s court. It was he who found the victims of John Brown’s Pottawatomie Massacre along Mosquito Creek north of Lane while stopping for his mail.
Gillpatrick’s medical practice kept him constantly on the move and gave him a unique perspective on current events. He was one of the cool and practical conductors of fugitive slaves through Kansas and on to freedom.
He served as a physician for several of Jim Lane’s black and Indian brigades and was a negotiator for General Blunt in the Indian Territory during the Civil War when both U.S. and Confederate governments vied for the support of the Oklahoma Indians.
Gillpatrick was killed on duty in 1863 at Webber’s Falls near Fort Gibson. He had stopped to provide medical care for wounded rebels and was shot by other rebels who approached the scene of the aid. He was buried in the pioneer cemetery at Lawrence a few feet west of the free-state martyr Thomas Barber who had been his friend.
Sadly, his wife Elizabeth was driven mad by the loss of her husband, and lived out her life in an asylum. James Hanway’s papers document his correspondence with the staff of the hospital. Indeed, Hanway’s extensive writings are nearly all that has kept alive the memory of Free-State fighter and Underground Railway conductor Rufus Gillpatrick.