The Underground Railroad in Will County, Illinois
From: History of Will County, Illinois
By: August Maue
Historical Publishing Company
Topeka-Indianapolis 1928

Under-Ground Railroad. - Perhaps the account of "Underground Railroads" in Will County should have come into the chapter on transportation. Be that as it may, it is inserted here as one of the curious doings in our midst, one rarely remembered now.

"On one occasion, there arrived here on one of the night trains, an interesting fugitive of the gentler sex - one who was fleeing from slavery, and something worse. It was usual to wait over until another night, but in this case there was reason to apprehend that the pursuer was close upon the track, impelled by more than one passion. Hence it was thought the safer plan to hasten on. Fortunately it was winter, and the morning was snowy and the sleighing good. So Dr. Adams, who was one of the fanatics of that day, brought out his horse and cutter, and a friend of mine, another fanatic, handed into the sleigh a lady closely veiled, and taking the ribbons, started out on a sleigh ride. He drove boldly through the streets, returning the salutations of all he met, who naturally supposed he was taking a ride with his wife. The sleighing was good, the horse fleet, and although the morning was cold, they were nicely tucked in with plenty of blankets, buffalo robes and hot bricks, while the excitement of the affair helped to render him insensible to the cold. After getting out of town he dismissed all fears of detection, and thoroughly enjoyed the romance of the situation. He felt like some Don Quixote, rescuing a captive maiden from her foes. He listened with rapt attention to the thrilling story of her sufferings and her escape, not refusing to open his heart in tender sympathy, because, forsooth, her skin was tinged with olive. Thus they sped, swiftly and prosperously over the ground, until in passing through the timber. at Van Horde's point, my friend having got a little careless perhaps in his driving, the cutter struck a stump, and presto change in the twinkling of an eye, knight errant, captive maiden, buffalo robes, blankets and hot bricks, were scattered promiscuously in the snow! The horse, loosened from the cutter went on! Here was a situation indeed! But the romance had vanished! To add to his embarrassment, they were near the house of a well known negro hater, and he dare not apply for help, and would be only too glad if not discovered. Fortunately the horse did not go far before he stopped, turned round, and 'smiling, looked upon the wreck he made.' My friend approached him with the most pathetic appeals to him to stay. The horse seemed to be touched with a pity that was more than human, and allowed himself to be caught and brought back, and attached to the cutter. But this could only be done in an imperfect manner, as the whiffle tree attachment was broken. My friend had to send the rescued maiden on ahead, while he followed leading the horse. After a tramp of two miles, which the rescued maiden stood much better than he did, they arrived at the hospitable mansion of Samuel Haven, fortunately without meeting a single soul. A good dinner and plenty of hot coffee restored the spirits both of knight and. maiden, and the cutter being in the meantime repaired, after a tender parting with the rescued maiden, our knight returned to the city, on the whole well satisfied with the adventure. Afterwards, however, when the story leaked out, he was not a little annoyed at times, when the neighbors asked him if he had a pleasant ride with his wife!

"But it was not only the actual fugitive from slavery that was in danger of the man stealer in this State. Our laws presumed every man who had a trace of African blood in his veins to be a slave, and the burden of proof was thrown upon him. If he could not show free papers he could be arrested, thrown into jail, and advertised like a stray pig, and any one who could make out a plausible claim, could take him on payment of jail and printer's fees; and if no one claimed him, he could be sold temporarily to the highest bidder, to pay the charges.

"We had, here in Joliet, a colored boy of the name of Henry Belt. He was a freeman, and had in his possession a paper issued by some clerk, in Pennsylvania, I think, certifying to his freedom. Henry was a barber at the Exchange, and very popular, and had many friends despite the color of his skin. He was thus exposed to the eyes of a couple of professional slave hunters. They saw that he was a nice boy, and would be worth probably two or three thousand dollars in the St. Louis market. While one of them stayed to watch the game, the other went to Missouri and got some trumpt up claim for a runaway slave, answering to Henry's description. They had him arrested, and he was taken before a justice of the peace, known to be a negro hater, and by him he was quickly handed over to the men stealers. But Henry had friends who would not allow this without a struggle to save him, and before they could get away with their prey a writ of habeas corpus was procured, and he was brought before the Circuit Judge for another investigation. All this of course produced great excitement. The feeling of indignation was not confined to Abolitionists. In fact the efforts in his behalf were mainly made by those who would have scorned the name. The trial came off in the old jail, (now demolished). The court room was filled to overflowing with parties for and against the victim. The men stealers produced their proof, and Henry showed his paper. But the judge was of the same stripe as the justice, and while he summed up the matter in a long opinion worthy of "Dogberry," it became apparent how the matter would go; and when he concluded by deciding that the kidnappers should have their victim, there was great rejoicing on their part. They already began to count their chickens, and they turned round to take possession of the prize, when lo! like the Irishman's flea, he was not there! While all eyes had been intent upon the learned Judge, and all ears listening to his profound utterances, Henry's friends had quietly taken possession of the stairway and the space between it, and Henry, in the supposed custody of the sheriff, had been very quietly slipped through the crowd, and was 'non est inventus!' Great was the excitement when the fact was known. The kidnappers were raving. They found great difficulty in getting out of the Court House - everybody seemed to be in their way. When they got out, they and those of the crowd who sympathized, of course made at once for the houses of the dam'd abolitionists,' to search for their victim. Some admitted them - others kept them out, and demanded legal steps before they would submit to have their homes searched, which only made the kidnappers more certain that their prey was there. I remember one humble house which the crowd threatened to pull down - but they didn't. All this delay was favorable to the escape of Henry. Well, all the search was vain. Henry was nowhere to be found - never was found; and after hanging around town for a few days the kidnappers gave up the job, believing that he had escaped by that mysterious means, the 'underground railroad.'

"The fact was, the abolitionists had nothing to do with Henry's escape, and knew nothing about it. It was effected by different parties altogther, and Henry was concealed for a while in the old wooden block on Chicago street, which was not an abolition block! I guess Frank Mitchell could tell something about it.

"I believe that this occurred while Risley was sheriff. It used to be said that that old jail never could hold a negro under his administration. I do not think that this ought to subject his memory to very much obloquy.

Return to [ Illinois History ] [ History at Rays Place ] [ Rays Place ] [ Illinois Biographies ]

Illinois Counties at this web site - Adams - Carroll - Champaign - Cook - De Kalb - Du Page - Edgar - Kane - LaSalle - Lee - Logan - Macoupin - Madison - Mason - McHenry - McLean - Stark - Stephenson - Vermilion - Will

Also see the local histories for [ CT ] [ IA ] [ IL ] [ IN ] [ KS ] [ ME ] [ MO ] [ MI ] [ NE ] [ NJ ] [ NY ] [ PA ] [ OH ] [ PA ] [ WI ]

All pages copyright 2003-2013. All items on this site are copyrighted by their author(s). These pages may be linked to but not used on another web site. Anyone may copy and use the information provided here freely for personal use only. Privacy Policy