Keota and Keokuk County Roots in the Underground

Gary and Judy Huxford gave a presentation to at least 127 people crowded into the North English History Center, Sunday August 26th. The retired music teachers presented their self-taught knowledge about the Underground Railroad in Iowa, including ties to former Keokuk County residents.

Thanks to the Huxford’s, and their recent visit to The North English History Center, a thirst for history seems to have awakened in Keokuk County. That would be the indication, considering at least 127 people crowded into the History Center to listen to the retired music teachers present their self-taught knowledge about the Underground Railroad in Iowa, including ties to former Keokuk County residents.

            As they set the scene for their audience, the couple shared some facts about history to help explain how the controversy of slavery affected even those residents living in the free states. Both the 1793 Fugitive Slave Law and the 1851 Fugitive Slave Act protected slave owners and made any assistance of a fugitive slave a criminal offense. As Mr. Huxford explained, if a slave escaped, bounty hunters were hired, and since slaves were considered “property,” the federal marshals within the free-states were bound by federal law to help them pursue and capture any fugitives. At that time, a person found harboring a fugitive could be fined up to $1000 and up to 6 months in jail. For many Iowans, this didn’t make much difference, and according to the Huxford’s, “Slave catchers were not welcome in many places in Iowa. They were not welcome at all.”

            Mrs. Judy Huxford shared some facts about how the Underground Railroad worked. Often a letter would come warning of the arrival of a certain book, “bound in black.” Hand signals were used to communicate. For example, lifting a right hand to your ear meant you understood; while waving your hand indicated you did not. Sometimes, birdcalls were used. In some places, one lamp lit meant safety, two lit indicated danger, or sometimes a cloth or flag was hung.

            The Huxfords, came to their extensive knowledge through tenuous research and multiple visits to Historical Societies, libraries, court houses, and of course, the homes or buildings left to tour that were once part of the Underground Railroad. But, as Mr. Gary Huxford explained, “most of the structures once used have been torn down, and unless a structure predates 1863, it can’t have been involved.”

            There are some places with the documented proof, however, and The Huxfords have visited every Iowa location available, and several in other states as well. As they researched, they began to find several Iowa connections to abolitionist John Brown, who became most well known for the incident at Harper’s Ferry.

            The first house they spoke about still stands in Tabor, Iowa and is called the Todd House, built by Rev. John Todd. John Brown used this as a headquarters along the Underground Railroad, and for storing 200 Sharps rifles in the cellar.  Brown often spoke at this church, until the Pottawattamie Massacre where several slave catchers were killed. After that event, Brown would still frequent Todd House, but would no longer speak in the church.

            Brown also stayed at The Jordan House, in West Des Moines, built by the Senator James C. Jordan, the town’s first white settler. Reportedly, Brown hid out here once while Federal Marshals were searching for him in Tabor.

            Lewelley Quaker House in Salem Iowa, built by Henderson Lewelly, is one of five original structures left on the property. Inside there is a trap door that hid access to a tunnel, where a rug would be laid down and often a chair placed on top. A second trap door was found years later. Sojourner Truth spoke at a college in Salem, where it was common for slave catchers to be forced out of town at gunpoint. Mrs. Huxford read “Ain’t I a Woman,” a poem written by Truth, who was both an evangelist and a suffragette.  

            Two other Iowa towns have buildings still standing with roots in the Underground Railroad. Pearson House in Keosaqua, Iowa, built by Benjamin Pearson had one large room used for Methodist Church Services. Another Underground Railroad structure still standing is the Hitchcock House, in Lewis Iowa. This home had a hidden room in the basement disguised as a fruit cupboard, and would mark safety with a large lighted candle in an upstairs window. 

            In addition to locations, the Huxfords also spoke about other influential people of the time. Josiah Bushnell Grinnell was a close friend to John Brown. Its said Brown had his own room in Grinnell’s house called the “Liberty Room.” When Brown was hung, he had a letter from Grinnell on his person.

            They also shared information about Harriet Tubman, who was born a slave in 1820, and escaped from Maryland at age 30. She became an abolitionist and by using ‘bird calls,’ made 19 trips on the Underground Railroad, helping 200-300 slaves escape, never losing one. They called her “Moses” because she led so many people to “the Promised Land;” Canada.  By the Civil War, there was a $40,000 reward for her.


            According to 1880 History of Keokuk County: “It is not generally known that the line of communication between Kansas and the free States of the East lay through Keokuk county; that men living in this county were members of the Free Kansas Emigrant Aid Society; that one of the leading citizens of the county organized branch societies or committees all along the line; and that it was Sigourney where John Brown and Gen. Jim Lane first met.”

            As local historian Dave Jackson explained at the Huxford presentation, the Underground Railroad was already in place for transporting emigrants and guns to Kansas, even before the fugitive slaves began using the ‘trail’ for access to freedom. What was so significant about Kansas? Well, because of the “Missouri Compromise Bill” in 1820, slavery was prohibited in all territory bought from France, North of Missouri, (Missouri excepted.) But in 1854 the “Kansas Nebraska Bill” was passed, which repealed the earlier prohibition, and the territories of Kansas and Nebraska opened up for settlement. Jackson, writer of the 670 page book on local history, “Won’t You Take Me to Hinkletown,” shares pieces of the ‘1880 History of Keokuk County’ that relates the excitement of the time.

            “Its is estimated that before nightfall of May 1, 1843, there were nearly one thousand of such claims occupies by pioneers, and including in the count the families and attendants of these, in so short a time an aggregate population of about four thousand souls, had crossed the old limits to find homes in the new possessions, and converted the Indian’s hunting grounds into the white man’s earthly Eden.”

            Jackson also recounts pieces of history he uncovered involving local residents and their contribution to abolition, one in particular, Isaac, ‘Ike’ Farley, who was one of the gentleman responsible for establishing, at first the town of  ‘Foote,” aka Hinkletown, and then Keota after the residents relocated to be on the route of the railroad. Jackson and his brother Bill traveled to Farley’s birth residence in Colrain, MA, where the abolitionist in him was born, and he first began to “denounce the wickedness of slavery and to proclaim the right of universal liberty.” As Jackson states, when he settled near what was then Wassonville, Iowa in 1854, “he built a hotel on the English River, that became the first step west of Iowa City on the Underground Railroad. Ike Farley was the Station Agent, and made warm friendships with John Brown and General Jim Lane.” Farley is quoted as saying the following of John Brown in regards to his sanity/insanity: “If a willingness and determination to do whatever he considered to be right, regardless of consequences to himself, is an indication of insanity, Brown might have been; otherwise, he was the clearest-headed man I ever saw.”

            In his book, Jackson shares ample information on Ike Farley and his commitment to building and maintaining local communities. “Isaac Farley’s life story demonstrates his resolute commitment to the abolition of slavery and the free-state cause. During the two peak years, 1856-57, hundreds of Free-State emigrants passed through his safe house location on the Jim Lane Trail.”

            Sigourney may also boast roots on the Underground Railroad. In fact, according to the ‘1880 History of Keokuk County,’ it was in the town of Sigourney where Brown and Jim Lane first met.


For the rest of this article, check out the September 5th issue of The Keota Eagle of The News Review.