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Travels in the Heartland: Reliving the Underground Railroad in Iowa

Posted at 1:50 PM, Feb 18, 2023
and last updated 2023-02-18 14:50:53-05

Imagine traveling under the cover of darkness, trying to sleep during the day while hiding from bounty hunters, in hopes of finding a safe harbor. This was life for escaped slaves who fled the South, following rivers and other routes northward in hopes of finding freedom. Two Heartland communities provided stops along the Underground Railroad during the mid-1850s.

The Hitchcock House in Lewis and the Todd House in Tabor are among five Iowa sites preserved as part of the history of the Underground Railroad. The others are the Jordan House in West Des Moines (2 hours east of Omaha), Lewelling House in Salem (4 hours east), and Pearson House in Keosauqua (4 ½ hours east).

Using language similar to railroad jargon, the Underground Railroad was a network of safe houses, which provided support and sanctuary for escaped slaves. Several freed Black people would find their way to Canada, with the American system assisting in the movement.

Hitchcock House – Lewis, Iowa

It took three years to build the Hitchcock House on the outskirts of Lewis, Iowa. Photo by Tim Trudell

The Hitchcock House, about an hour east of Omaha, offered safety to escaped slaves traveling along the Nishnabotna River. People would wait until nightfall before approaching the house. A lit candle in an upstairs bedroom warned people to stay away. It’s likely household guests weren’t abolition supporters.

A lit candle at the Hitchcock House signaled escaped slaves not to approach the house for their safety. Photo by Tim Trudell

Once inside, the escaped slaves stayed in a secret room in the cellar. Its entrance was covered with a black curtain and shelves, keeping light out and preventing others from seeing inside the room.

About 200 former slaves found their way to the Hitchcock House – designated a National Historic Landmark - located on the outskirts of Lewis, a town of about 400. The stone house was owned by the Rev. George B. Hitchcock and was completed in about three years.

Tours of the property are offered seasonally. Walking the grounds, it’s easy to travel back in time and imagine what life must have been like for people traveling along the Underground Railroad. Walk toward the wooded area along the river, close your eyes and transport yourself to the late 1850s. It will offer a new perspective on what people went through for their freedom.

The parlor at the Hitchcock House hosted church services. Photo by Tim Trudell

Inside the Hitchcock House, the family hosted church services in the main room, while enjoying meals in the dining room, with a kitchen to the side of it. The second floor has the bedrooms that the Hitchcock family and guests used. Some African American escapees were believed to also have slept in the rooms when the opportunity allowed.

Todd House – Tabor, Iowa

The Todd House was the third building constructed in Tabor, and housed hundreds of escaped slaves as part of the Underground Railroad. Photo by Tim Trudell

A devoted follower of famed abolitionist John Brown, the Rev. John Todd opened his home in Tabor to travelers along the Underground Railroad. The two-floor Todd House was known for storing about 200 rifles and ammunition in the basement, to be used during a battle for slaves’ freedom.

Tabor was founded by graduates of Oberlin College in Ohio, known for being one of the first post-secondary schools in the country to accept women of color as students. Early residents of Tabor were supportive of abolition and the Underground Railroad.

Named to the National Register of Historic Places, the Todd House was the third building constructed n Tabor. As the Todd family supported the Underground Railroad, the movement changed through the years, from aiding a few people at a time to helping larger groups of refugees after the Civil War started in 1861, driving large groups of escaped slaves northward.

Tours of the Todd House are offered by appointment, with information found here.

Escaped slaves often spent only hours or a day or two at the Hitchcock House and Todd House because bounty hunters were often nearby, as well as sheriffs and marshals looking to arrest them.

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