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Necessary Courage

Iowa's Underground Railroad in the Struggle against Slavery

Lowell J. Soike

Publication Year: 2013

During the 1850s and early 1860s, Iowa, the westernmost free state bordering a slave state, stood as a bulwark of antislavery sentiment while the decades-long struggle over slavery shifted westward. On its southern border lay Missouri, the northernmost slaveholding state. To its west was the Kansas-Nebraska Territory, where proslavery and antislavery militias battled. Missouri slaves fled to Iowa seeking freedom, finding opponents of slavery who risked their lives and livelihoods to help them, as well as bounty hunters who forced them back into bondage. When opponents of slavery streamed west across the state’s broad prairies to prevent slaveholders from dominating Kansas, Iowans fed, housed, and armed the antislavery settlers. Not a few young Iowa men also took up arms.
In Necessary Courage, historian Lowell J. Soike details long-forgotten stories of determined runaways and the courageous Iowans who acted as conductors on this most dangerous of railroads—the underground railroad. Alexander Clark, an African American businessman in Muscatine, hid a young fugitive in his house to protect him from slavecatchers while he fought for his freedom in the courts. While keeping antislavery newspapers fully apprised of the battle against human bondage in western Iowa, Elvira Gaston Platt drove a wagon full of fugitives to the next safe house under the noses of her proslavery neighbors. John Brown, fleeing across Iowa with a price on his head for the murders of proslavery Kansas settlers, relied on Iowans like Josiah Grinnell and William Penn Clarke to keep him, his men, and the twelve Missouri slaves they had liberated hidden from the authorities. Several young Iowans went on to fight alongside Brown at Harpers Ferry. These stories and many more are told here.
A suspenseful and often heartbreaking tale of desperation, courage, cunning, and betrayal, this book reveals the critical role that Iowans played in the struggle against slavery and the coming of the Civil War.

Published by: University of Iowa Press


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pp. 1-1

Title Page, Copyright Page

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pp. i-viii


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pp. ix-x

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Introduction. Between Slavery and Freedom

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pp. 1-4

...In late May 1848 a young man who had recently arrived in Salem, Iowa, hoping to improve his prospects decided it was time to bring his family to join him. But this man, a sturdy twenty-three-yearold named John Walker, faced much greater obstacles than most, for, as he was later described in court records, he was a...

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1. Iowa and the Politics of Slavery

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pp. 5-20

...Iowa’s first white American settlers arrived during the 1830s, and it became a state only in 1846, so it isn’t usually thought to have had much of a role in the tensions leading up to the Civil War. But a closer look at the involvement of Iowans in the underground railroad...

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2. Iowa Becomes Antislavery

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pp. 21-46

...How did Iowa go from being a strongly Democratic, proslavery state to hosting major stations along the underground railroad and sending money, arms, and men to fight in the mid-1850s battle over whether Kansas would be a free state or a slave state and later in the Civil War? The answers lie partly in the settlement of several...

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3. The Struggle Intensifies

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pp. 47-65

...Northeastern Missourians were not wrong to worry. The battle over the Walkers and the Fulchers was just one of many struggles over fugitive slaves during the late 1840s and early 1850s. Often, as in that case, the legal conflict hinged on proving whether a person was enslaved or free. That question was rarely as simple to answer...

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4. A Hole of Abolitionists

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pp. 66-84

...In the winter of 1852–1853, a black Missouri teenager helped to set the underground railroad in motion in south-central Iowa. Only sixteen, this young man had seen his brothers and sisters sold off one by one upon reaching maturity. He and a friend had vowed this would not happen to them and, whenever chance allowed...

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5. The Kansas-Nebraska Act and Political Change in Iowa

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pp. 85-123

...In May 1854 President Franklin Pierce, a Democrat, signed the Kansas-Nebraska Act. By superseding the Missouri Compromise of 1820, which had prohibited slavery in the Louisiana Purchase lands west and north of Missouri’s southern border, the new law heightened the growing tensions over slavery. Now the question...

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6. Escapes and Rescues

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pp. 124-152

...When the last wagon train, led by Milton C. Dickey and J. P. Root, left Tabor for Topeka toward the end of 1856, things settled down in the village for about six weeks. Then on December 18 came three men from Jackson County, Missouri, looking for two runaway slaves. Knocking at George Gaston’s door to ask what the family...

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7. Iowa and the Martyrdom of John Brown

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pp. 153-187

...John Brown, perhaps the most famous white opponent of slavery, was closely connected with Iowa’s antislavery communities, as his stay in Tabor in 1856 revealed (see chapter 5). He relied heavily on these connections between 1857 and 1859, as he planned an ambitious national assault on the institution of slavery. Probably the first...

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8. Fearless Defiance

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pp. 188-199

...Going into 1860, the Northern and Southern sections of the nation were increasingly at odds, including in Iowa, which was trending steadily Republican. The state’s antislavery activists continued to help as many fugitives from slavery as they could even as national tensions tightened to a breaking point. By this time, runaways had...

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9. War and Rebirth

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pp. 200-217

...Six of what would eventually be eleven Southern states had seceded from the Union by the end of January 1861, following the election of Illinois Republican Abraham Lincoln to the presidency. Everyone in Iowa and throughout the country was talking about secession and wondering what it meant for the nation. A traveler on the...

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10. Remembering and Forgetting the Underground Railroad

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pp. 218-228

...In Davenport, four months after Gen. Robert E. Lee’s surrender at Appomattox on April 9, 1865, William H. Hildreth— a founder of what would become East Davenport— turned out of the family home the servant known as Old Aunty. In 1843 he had bought her as a slave and about 1850 moved her from the South to Davenport...

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pp. 229-232

...I came to this book not intentionally, but as an outgrowth of a related project. In 1999 the Iowa General Assembly directed that the State Historical Society of Iowa prepare a proposal for them on how best to commemorate places associated with the underground railroad in Iowa. Ultimately, the Iowa Department of Transportation kindly...


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pp. 233-288

Suggested Readings

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pp. 289-292


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pp. 293-309

E-ISBN-13: 9781609382223
E-ISBN-10: 1609382226
Print-ISBN-13: 9781609381936
Print-ISBN-10: 1609381939

Page Count: 319
Illustrations: 32 illustrations, 5 maps
Publication Year: 2013

Edition: 1st ed.

OCLC Number: 858764795
MUSE Marc Record: Download for Necessary Courage

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Subject Headings

  • Underground Railroad -- Iowa.
  • Fugitive slaves -- Iowa -- History -- 19th century.
  • Antislavery movements -- Iowa -- History -- 19th century.
  • Abolitionists -- Iowa -- History -- 19th century.
  • Iowa -- History -- 19th century.
  • Iowa -- Politics and government -- 19th century.
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