Toulon's location on the Spoon River,
40 miles northwest of Peoria, made it a convenient, major stop on
the Underground Railroad before and during the Civil War.
Spellman was at a loss to explain
why this important piece of Stark County history was never discussed
during her childhood.
The area of Illinois where she grew
up had a strong abolitionist tradition. Knox College in Galesburg
was founded in the early 19th century as an abolitionist
institution, just down the road from Spellman's home in Toulon.
Currently, the college has a large
library of Underground Railroad information and is home of the Knox
College Underground Railroad Freedom Society. Spellman went through
much of this collection to create her presentation.
During the time the Underground
Railroad existed, three important hubs were in Illinois: Quincy,
Galesburg and Princeton. Runaway slaves would come up the
Mississippi River from the south or cross it from the slave-holding
state of Missouri on their quest for freedom. Initially they headed
for the river city of Quincy. Then they would be funneled by
abolitionists through a web of routes to Galesburg and then on to
Princeton. The slaves' ultimate destination was Chicago, with the
hope of boarding a ship to cross into complete freedom in Canada.
Being between Galesburg and
Princeton, Stark County and Toulon were essential stops along the
The runaway slaves traveled at
night to protect themselves and their rescuers in Illinois. Early in
the 19th century, Illinois adhered to the Fugitive Slave Act, which
permitted bounty hunters to track slaves and receive a reward for
their capture and return to slave owners in the south. Those aiding
the slaves were subject to severe financial penalties and jail time
Stark County had three clusters of
homes that provided safe haven for slaves traveling the Underground
Railroad: West Jersey, Toulon and Elmira. The web of routes along
the Underground Railroad provided many options for the slaves. If a
member of an abolitionist family was suffering from an illness or if
the family was under surveillance by authorities, the slaves would
be shuttled along another link in the web of routes through Stark
The Underground Railroad in Stark
County was active from the late 1830s until after the Civil War.
Spellman related the story of the
Rev. Samuel Wright in Stark County. Wright came to Illinois from New
Hampshire, first settling in Canton and then moving to Stark County.
He was a Presbyterian minister but also worked with the
Congregational Church, of which Lynn Spellman was a member while
growing up in Toulon.
Wright was a traveling preacher in
Stark County, going to various places to perform his religious
duties at area congregations that did not have a regular preacher.
He also gave lectures on abolition, abstinence and astronomy. As
such, he met a lot of people in the area and was able to facilitate
the movements of the Underground Railroad. When his house was under
watch by the authorities, he was able to signal his cohorts in the
movement to use another route through Stark County for moving their
[to top of second
A little-known fact is that during the
period before Illinois banned slavery within its borders, there were
slave owners in the state, mostly in southern Illinois. Sometimes
slaves there would escape and travel north toward Chicago, passing
through Stark County.
Spellman related one story of a
southern Illinois abolitionist who took a slave and her children
north to Galesburg from southern Illinois to place them on the route
of the Underground Railroad. The slave owner found out about this
and pursued the runaways. He was able to capture the children and
take them back to servitude in southern Illinois.
He then sued the abolitionist and
won the case, a decision that reduced the abolitionist and his
family to poverty because of the size of the financial judgment
Participation in the Underground
Railroad was a dangerous business for runaway salves and the
abolitionists who helped them flee.
By the late 1840s, runaway slaves
were traveling during the day and on public transportation through
Stark County. This was a strong abolitionist area that was committed
to the anti-slavery movement.
Spellman related that Wright kept a
detailed journal of his travels along his religious circuit, a
meticulous record that he kept for 50 years. The total number of
volumes was 19 handwritten journals that are now at Knox College.
Wright detailed his daily travel and submitted quarterly reports to
his employers in the church. He often referred to his participation
in the Underground Railroad in a type of code that hid his
Spellman ended her presentation
with a quote from Wright's journal of 1858. He attended the
Lincoln-Douglas debate in Galesburg and related his impressions of
the two orators. It was a treat to hear her mimic Wright's
description of Douglas' speaking style, a sort of bombast designed
to reach the farthest edge of the crowd, estimated at 20,000. Wright
said Lincoln spoke plainly as he always did and still had no trouble
being heard by the entire crowd.
With the Underground Railroad a
revered institution in American history and the fact that its web of
safety for runaway slaves led through her hometown, Spellman has
been researching this little-known history of her hometown for the
last few years, sharing her findings with others. It is a
fascinating part of central Illinois history.
[By CURT FOX]