Busy in the Cause: Iowa, the Free-State Struggle in the West, and the Prelude to the Civil War by Lowell J. Soike (review)
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Iowa, Slavery, Bleeding Kansas, Underground Railroad, Border wars

Busy in the Cause: Iowa, the Free-State Struggle in the West, and the Prelude to the Civil War. By Lowell J. Soike. (Lincoln: University of Nebraska Press, 2014. Pp. 306. Paper, $30.00.)

Busy in the Cause documents the involvement of Iowa and individual Iowans in events related to the struggle over slavery in Kansas Territory in the 1850s, events generally known as ‘‘Bleeding Kansas.’’ The work seeks to recover the story of Iowa as ‘‘a forgotten friend’’ in antislavery struggles related to Bleeding Kansas (209). Soike recounts the stories of Iowans who moved to Kansas as well as those of individuals who made [End Page 192] a name for themselves in Kansas but also spent time in Iowa. Occasionally Soike also touches on Iowans’ broad reactions to events in Kansas and the way Iowa shifted from being a solidly Democratic state to a staunchly Republican one in the wake of events in Kansas. In Iowa, as in other northern places, Bleeding Kansas altered whites’ attitudes about slavery and its expansion.

Drawing on coverage of Kansas events in 1850s newspapers, local histories published in the late nineteenth century, and recent scholarship on Bleeding Kansas, Soike presents a narrative account of Iowa’s involvement in the turmoil and violence of the Kansas-Missouri border wars of the 1850s, the emigration of free-state settlers to Kansas, and the Underground Railroad. The book begins by detailing events in Bleeding Kansas and by offering sketches of individual Iowans who moved to Kansas and participated in free-state struggles, notably John Wakefield, Charles Lenhart, and Pardee Butler. In fact, Iowa contributed more Kansas settlers than almost any other state (16). Though New Englanders have gotten most of the credit for shaping antislavery struggles in Kansas, Midwesterners constituted the most significant portion of Kansas settlers and played important roles in the territorial struggles over slavery. As the free state closest to Kansas, Iowa helped to funnel antislavery emigrants and arms into the new territory. Guns from the Iowa state armory were secretly sent to Kansas; free-soil emigrant trains resupplied in Iowa; and an overland route to Kansas through Iowa was developed to help free-staters safely move into the embattled territory. This overland route became the major free-state emigration path to Kansas after the traditional steamboat route up the Missouri River—and through the slave state of Missouri—was closed following repeated harassment of free-state migrants by proslavery ‘‘border ruffians.’’ The overland route was specifically developed in collaboration with Kansas aid societies in Chicago, New York, and New England. The advent of ‘‘this alternative route made [Kansas’s] Free-State success achievable to settlers at a time when they most needed the help’’ (214).

Though the river route reopened in short order, the overland route morphed into a primary path out of slavery for Missouri slaves. At this point in the book, ‘‘stories of Iowa’s part in the Kansas struggle’’ shift toward ‘‘events of Iowans and Kansans cooperating to help enslaved people flee western Missouri via Kansas and Nebraska’’ (90). In his role as historian for the State Historical Society of Iowa, director of the Iowa Freedom Trail project, and author of another recent book titled Necessary [End Page 193] Courage: Iowa’s Underground Railroad in the Struggle against Slavery (Iowa City, IA, 2013), Soike has significantly contributed to recovering and documenting Iowa’s involvement in the Underground Railroad. Underground Railroad activities also figure prominently in Busy in the Cause, though only when they explicitly connect to Kansas. For example, Soike details John Brown’s dramatic 1859 liberation of a dozen Missouri slaves—an event that took the group from Missouri to Kansas, across Iowa (including stops in Tabor, Des Moines, Grinnell, Iowa City, Springdale, and Davenport), and then on to Chicago, Detroit, and ultimately Windsor, Ontario. Soike next turns to the stories of individual Iowans who became radicalized following their encounters with Brown and other Kansas players like James Henry Lane. Both Brown and Lane spent significant time in Iowa; Brown, in particular, recruited Iowans to participate in his Harpers Ferry raid. Soike finds...