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  • Dale C. Maley

Story of the Underground RR

The Underground Railroad was a network of secret routes and safe houses established in the United States during the early to mid-19th century.

Enslaved African Americans used it primarily to escape into free states and from there to Canada. The network, mainly the work of free African Americans, was assisted by abolitionists and others sympathetic to the cause of the escapees. The enslaved people who risked capture and those who aided them are also collectively referred to as the passengers and conductors of the "Underground Railroad."

The Underground Railroad began in about 1840. It ran north and grew steadily until President Abraham Lincoln signed the Emancipation Proclamation on January 1, 1863. The proclamation declared "that all persons held as slaves" within the rebellious states "are, and henceforward shall be free." One estimate suggests that, by 1850, approximately 100,000 enslaved people had escaped to freedom via the network.


One of the best references on the Underground Railroad was written by Professor Wilbur H. Siebert in 1898. The title of the book was The Underground Railroad from Slavery to Freedom. In this book, Professor Siebert created a map of the eastern United States showing all the known routes on the Underground Railroad. This map reveals that most of the routes on the Underground Railroad were in Ohio. Enslaved people in the Deep South traveled up through Kentucky and West Virginia into Ohio and then on to Canada for freedom.


Most of the Underground Railroad routes in Illinois were in the western half of Illinois and followed the Mississippi River. There was only one major route in east-central Illinois, many miles east of Livingston County.


The first settler family in Livingston County was Valentine Darnall in 1830. Livingston County was not formed until 1837. Livingston County was one of the last counties in Illinois to be settled. The land was swampy, and no railroads existed to ship agricultural supplies or products. In 1850, Congress passed a new Script Act law, which gave free land to primarily veterans of the War of 1812. This new law created a rush of settlers into Livingston County between 1853 and 1860. By 1860, all the farmland in the county was claimed by settlers.


Because there were almost no farmers living in Livingston County between 1830 and 1853, it is not surprising there were no major Underground Railroad routes in the county. Alma Lewis James was a Fairbury Historian who wrote the book Stuffed Clubs & Antimaccassars. In her book, she claimed there was an underground railroad route from Strawn to Odell. The path included a stop-over at a cabin on the Fugate farm northeast of Fairbury on the Vermilion River. Alma reported there was one enslaved person known to be buried by the river bank. She said no other information about this route was available because all the activities were secret and done at night. Unfortunately, Alma cited no reference material sources for her story.


Dr. C. B. Ostrander was one of the first doctors in Livingston County. He lived between Fairbury and McDowell. The 1888 Livingston County history book recounts that Dr. Ostrander was also a staunch Abolitionist. One day, he came into Fairbury and found a fugitive slave chained to the floor of a two-story building. This fugitive slave was going to be returned to his master in Virginia. The Doctor cut the shackles from the fugitive using a crowbar, sledgehammer, and chisel. He loaded the fugitive into a horse-drawn buggy and delivered him to Dr. C. V. Dyer in Chicago. Ostrander also gave the fugitive $10 in cash. The fugitive was placed on Captain Blake's steamer "Illinois." The steamer transported him to freedom in Maiden, Canada.


The 1878 Livingston County history book contains a lot of information about several men in Pontiac who were strong Abolitionists and participated in the Underground Railroad route that ran from Eppards Point Township west of Fairbury to Pontiac and then on to Ottawa. These men included Owen Lovejoy, James H. Collins, Ichabod Codling, Chauncey Cook, Otis Richardson, John Hossack, William B. Fyfe, William Strawn, Otis Whaley, George and Xenophon Richards, Moses Rumery, C. P. Pagent, and Dr. H. H. Hinman.


One of the Abolitionist leaders in the Pontiac area was William B. Fyfe (1822-1910). He was born and raised in Scotland. He came to Canada in 1844 and worked in the mercantile business. In 1849, he moved to Ottawa, Illinois. While in Ottawa, he was a Conductor and operated a safe house "Depot" for the Underground Railroad. Mr. Fyfe became a lawyer.


In 1856, Mr. Fyfe moved to Livingston County and set up a store in New Michigan for two years. New Michigan was north of Pontiac. The new railroads did not go through New Michigan, so it became a ghost town. Mr. Fyfe became a farmer. In 1862, he moved to Pontiac and entered the law firm of E. A. Harding. That same year, he enlisted in the Union Army and fought in the Civil War.


Mr. Fyfe's experience as a conductor and depot operator in Ottawa likely led to the formation of an underground railroad line originating west of Fairbury at the Otis Richardson Farm. The line ran north to Pontiac and then to Ottawa in LaSalle County.


For his 1898 book on the Underground Railroad, Professor Siebert obtained a hand-drawn map of the stretch of the Underground Railroad from west of Fairbury up to Ottawa from William B. Fyfe. Mr. Fyfe died in 1910, so he likely provided the map to Professor Siebert for his 1898 book.


Unfortunately, Mr. Fyfe's map extends only as far south as Otis Richardson's farm. South of Otis Richardson's farm would mark the end of Livingston County and the start of McLean County.


The 1879 McLean County history book references the Underground Railroad having a station in Mount Hope Township. This township is southwest of Bloomington. Mr. John Moss had a secret compartment in his house for hiding slave fugitives. Mr. Moss or one of his friends would guide the fugitives to one of two destinations. The first destination was Aunt Polly's Mahan's station at Lexington. If the weather was excellent, the more extended alternative destination was the Abolitionists in New Michigan, operated by Charles Pagent and his supporters in Livingston County.


The issue of whether or not to return fugitive enslaved people to their owners in the South in the 1840 to 1863 era did have an impact on Fairbury and Livingston County citizens. A branch of the Underground Railroad running from west of Fairbury and through Pontiac on to Ottawa did help many fugitive enslaved people obtain their freedom in Canada.

(Dale Maley's local history article is sponsored each week on Fairbury News by Dr. Charlene Aaron and Antiques & Uniques of Fairbury)




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Dale Maley
Dale Maley
Feb 05

Here is a link to the map of the Underground Railroad that ran from west of Fairbury, through Pontiac, and on to Ottawa. An image is also shown below.

Dale Maley
Dale Maley
Feb 05
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