Pioneer Days in Kansas

Chapter 7

Lizzie and the Underground Railway

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DURING the summer of 1859 we were living in a stone house just south of the city limits of Lawrence, before we had a home of our own. As the town then was, we were fully half a mile from any other house. There was in my church a family named Monteith. They were from McIndoe's Falls, Vermont, and the gentleman was a descendant of one of the Scotch families who early settled in northern New England. One of these Scotch colonies was near McIndoe's Falls. Mr. Monteith, by his sturdy independence and brusque and energetic ways would be known as a Scotchman anywhere, although American born. He was a man of education, large intelligence and considerable travel. He was quite prominent and influential in the councils of the Free State men. Like most of the early settlers he came to make Kansas a free state, and he proposed to stay and see it done. We soon became fast friends and our families were quite intimate.


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He lived on a farm, or "claim " some two miles southwest of the town, in the Wakarusa bottom.

One day Monteith came to my house and said he wanted to talk over a little matter with me. "There is at my house a runaway slave, who has been here several months. She is a very likely young woman and has a great horror of being taken back to slavery. At the same time we do not like to send her to Canada until arrangements can be made for her. She would be entirely alone. So we have been keeping her here in Lawrence. She has been at my house for several weeks, and it is thought wise to find another home for her. It is not best for her to be too long in one place. Would you take her into your house for a few weeks until other arrangements can be made?"

In my college days I had discussed the "Fugitive Slave Law" in Lyceum and elsewhere. I bad denounced it as the outrage of outrages, as a natural outgrowth of the "sum of all villainies." I had burned with indignation when the law was passed in 1850. I had declared that if a poor wanderer ever came to my house, I should take him in and never ask whether he were a slave or not. It is easy to be brave a thousand miles


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away. But now I must face the question at short range. I had been quite familiar with the law and its penalties came to mind very vividly just then. "For harboring a slave, six months imprisonment and $1,000 fine." All this passed through my mind in rapid succession. It was the first time I had ever confronted the question except in theory. Theory and practice affect one very differently in a case like this. But I felt there was only one thing to do. So we told our friend to bring his charge to our house, and we would care for her as best we could.

The next day, therefore, "Lizzie" became an inmate of our house. She was about twenty-two years old, slightly built, and graceful in form and motion. She was quite dark, but the form of her features indicated some white blood. She was very quiet and modest and never obtruded herself upon any one. She had been thoroughly trained as a house servant, and we never have had more competent help than Lizzie proved to be. She insisted on doing the larger portion of the housework, and said the work of our little family was like play to her. She was a good cook and often surprised us by some dainty dish of her own. Our means did not allow a very


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elaborate table, but she knew how to make the most of everything. A simple but delicious cake which she made was known in our family and among our friends for years as "Lizzie cake." We did not wonder that her master set a high price on her, or that he was anxious to recover his "property." She did not complain of cruel treatment from her owners, but she had a great horror of going back. She would live anywhere or anyhow, and would work for anything, rather than go back to slavery. She fully understood the situation and the danger of being taken back if her whereabouts became known. She kept herself out of sight as much as possible, and never showed herself out-of-doors or in the front part when there was travel going by on the road. We became deeply interested in her and learned more and more to prize her. Our housework was never done more quietly or more efficiently. We came to look forward with dismay to the time when Lizzie must leave us.

In the autumn of the same year, 1859, the Monteiths moved into town, and it was thought best for Lizzie to return to them. We were reluctant to let her go, but we had no claim. Besides, she had been with us as long as it was wise


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for her to stay. We were in a lonely place, and it would not be difficult to kidnap her and take her off. By this time her being with us was very generally known. She went home with the Monteiths, therefore, and remained with them until a change was made necessary by "circum- stances over which they had no control."

About this time a young man called upon me and reported himself as a graduate of the last class in Andover Theological Seminary. He had come to Kansas in search of a field of labor. He was not particular as to the kind of a field. He only wanted a place where he could preach Christ and do good. His name was William Hayes Ward. His father was a Massachusetts pastor distinguished for his familiarity with the language of Scripture. It was said that in his father's house the Scriptures were read at morning worship in "seven different languages." They read in turn, and each member of the family read in a different tongue. However this may be, this son was one of the best scholars Andover ever sent out. For many years he has been the well-known editor of the New York Independent, and one of the best editors in the land. He had devoted himself to the foreign field,


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but his wife's health was so delicate that it was not deemed wise for them to go abroad. So he had come to find a home missionary field in Kansas. After some investigation and consultation he had selected Oskaloosa as his field. There was no church yet formed at that place, but a number of people were anxious to have one, and he had consented to help them in the enterprise. He remained there as long as the failing health of his wife would permit. He was a man of infinite energy. On one occasion, needing some delicacies for his sick wife, he walked to Lawrence, twenty-four miles, to procure them. He took dinner with us, and then announced his intention of returning home the same afternoon. About three o'clock he started back and reached home about midnight, having walked forty-eight miles since morning.

It was late in the autumn when he went to his field, and he and Mrs. Ward were making a final visit at our house before leaving town. We were enjoying very much a day or two with them. One very cold afternoon during this time, there came a sharp rap at the door. I opened it and two gentlemen stood there, wrapped in heavy fur overcoats. They were so


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bundled up that I did not recognize them, but I bade them enter. When they had come in and thrown back their wraps a little, we saw that one was our old friend Monteith and the other was Lizzie. We knew their coming in this way was not for a joke, so we waited in silence for an explanation. Monteith then told us: "Lizzie's master has found out where she is. He is determined to take her back at any cost. He proposes to make a test case of it and show that a slave can be taken out of Lawrence, and returned to slavery. A large sum of money is offered for her recovery, and the United States marshal is here with his posse to take her at all hazards. They found where Lizzie was this morning and have been shadowing my house all day. Not a movement could be made about our house without their knowledge. Lizzie could not get away without being seen. Their plan seems to be to watch the house all day and be sure she does not leave it, and then at night come and take her, and rush her away, before any alarm can be given. We determined to foil them. So Lizzie put on that overcoat of mine and drew the cap down over her bead, and we walked out together as two gentlemen. We went to town, and then


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we turned south and came down here. When I go back they will think my companion stayed over in town. Now, we want Lizzie to stay here till night. About ten o'clock a team will come for her and take her into the country to a place of safety."

After answering a few questions, Monteith left us. We looked at each other in silence for a moment, and then came the thought, "What shall we do?" I had little hope that her new hiding-place would not be known. The United States marshal was a man of experience and of determined purpose. He knew what he had come for, and every motive prompted him to persevere. He had assistants with him who understood their business. It was not likely that they would be deceived by the ruse we were attempting to practice. As night came on we were confronted by the probability that Lizzie's pursuers would come before her rescuers arrived. If they did, then what should we do? What could we do? To give her up to them was not to be thought of, but how to prevent their taking her was a serious question. It would be folly to resist by force. There were no arms in the house, and if there had been we should not have


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used them. These were officers of the law and resistance would be madness. Could we in any way save Lizzie from them if they should come? Of course, they would search the house. The ladies, Mrs. Ward and Mrs. Cordley, hit upon a plan to which we all assented. As has been said, Mrs. Ward was an invalid, very slight of figure and pale of feature. She was to retire immediately after tea. Her room was the front chamber. The bed consisted of a mattress with a light feather bed spread over it. Mrs. Ward was to play the sick lady. She was so pale and slight that this was not a difficult part for her. Mrs. Cordley was to play the part of nurse, and was to be sitting by the bed. A stand at the bedside with bottles and spoons and glasses completed the picture of the sick-room. In case of alarm Lizzie was to crawl in between the mattress and the feather bed and remain quiet there till the danger was passed. Lizzie assented to the plan with great readiness. "I will make myself just as small as ever I can, and I will lie as still as still can be." Then she turned to Mrs. Ward and said: "You need not be afraid of lying right on me with all your might. You are such a little body you could not hurt


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any one." If the officers came they were to be told to look for themselves. The house would be thrown open to them. The illusion of the sick-room was so complete and natural that we felt a perfect assurance that they would not disturb a lady as sick as Mrs. Ward would be by that time.

The women remained up-stairs during the evening. Mrs. Ward retired according to program, and the bed was made ready for the "second act." Lizzie kept herself in the shade, so that her form might not be observed through the windows. Ward and I sat in the parlor, talking of everything on earth and elsewhere, but thinking of just one thing, and listening for the sound of wheels. The night was dark and cloudy and biting cold. We never realized before how long the evenings were at this season of the year. The question which puzzled us was "Which will come first, friend or foe? "Every noise we heard we fancied was one or the other. About ten o'clock, the time set for the rescue, we heard a carriage coming up the road. It might be simply going by. As it came to the gate it turned in and drove up to the door and stopped. We waited in silence, expecting a


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knock at the door. We wondered which it was and how many there were. There was dead silence. No one seemed to be coming to the house. What were they doing? What were they going to do ? Who were they ? After a few moments of absolute silence, the carriage moved on, drove by the house, and turned around. It then passed out of the gate and down the road the way it came. It was a greater mystery than ever. What did they come for and why did they go away? After a while we came to the conclusion that it must have been a part of the marshal's posse and that they had come to take Lizzie. Seeing the house lighted up-stairs and down, they supposed we were prepared for them and did not dare come in. We felt sure they would come again soon with a larger force. Where were Monteith and his friends all this while? It was now nearly eleven o'clock and they were to come at ten. Had the officers intercepted them? We could only wait and see. The moments dragged very slowly, as they always do when you want them to hurry. Eleven o'clock passed and then twelve, and still no relief and no sound. About half past twelve we again heard the sound of wheels coming up the


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road. It was not likely that any travelers would be going by at this time of night. Again the question came, which will it be, friend or foe? It was a wagon this time. This was favorable. The rescuers expected to come with a large immigrant wagon. Still, the pursuers might do the same. The wagon turned in at the gate as the carriage had done before. It came to the door and stopped. There was a moment of silence and painful suspense. Then there was a soft tap at the door. I opened it and a whisper came out of the darkness "All ready." It was Monteith. The word was passed upstairs, and in a very few minutes Lizzie came down warmly wrapped up for the cold night's journey. It was very dark and we could scarcely see the team and could not at all distinguish the faces of our friends. Monteith's voice was sufficient to assure us of their genuineness. We could see that they had a large covered wagon and that the ride would be made as comfortable as possible. Lizzie was only too glad to escape the terrible doom which had threatened her. There were no parting ceremonies and no long farewells. The wagon was in motion almost before we realized that it had come. All the while we


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were listening for the sound of wheels or hoofs. A few minutes' delay might defeat the whole plan. I presume it was not more than ten minutes from the time they stopped till they were all on their way and moving off into the night. We stood at the door and listened until the sound of the wheels died away in the distance, and then we went in with a wonderful sense of relief after the strain and excitement of the day and the night. Sometime in the "small hours " we retired to enjoy "the sleep of the just" for a little while. In the morning we were all glad to see that Mrs. Ward had so far recovered from her sudden illness as to be down to breakfast.

We never knew where Lizzie's rescuers went, and did not inquire. It is often just as well not to know too much. We did not know where they took her that night, only that she was safe. We were told afterwards that the wagon was followed by a number of armed horsemen for several miles; but they made no attack. They were wise enough to practice the "better part of valor." The wagon and its company were not molested and reached their destination in safety.

We learned still later that Lizzie, after being


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cared for in Kansas for a few months, was taken to Canada, where she found friends and a comfortable home. Beyond this we never heard. The war soon after broke out and other stirring events occupied our attention.

This was the first and only time I ever came in personal contact with the Underground Railroad. It is the only time I ever had any personal knowledge of its operations. I have sometimes wondered how it was I did not oftener know something of movements of this kind, but I presume those engaged in them never cared to have any more persons in the secret than was necessary. So far as I know very few Kansas people ever enticed slaves away or incited them to escape. But when one did escape and came to their door, there were not many who would refuse him a meal or a helping hand. A slave escaping across the line was sure to find friends, and was sure not to be betrayed into the hands of his pursuers. It was said that the line of the Underground Railroad ran directly through Lawrence and Topeka, then on through Nebraska and Iowa. This roundabout way was the shortest cut to the north pole. Every slave for a hundred miles knew the way, knew the stations and knew


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their friends. I have been told by those who ought to know, that not less than one hundred thousand dollars' worth of slaves passed through a Lawrence on their way to liberty during the territorial period. Most of this travel passed over the line so quietly that very few people knew anything about it.