Kansas Underground Railroad – Establishment

John Armstrong

The above photo contains the famous house and first Kansas Underground Railroad station operated by Caroline Scales. Many Freedom Seekers were hidden in a large sugar barrel in the basement. The people are Mrs. Scales, John Armstrong and an unidentified woman (picture is courtesy Kansas State Historical Society). This house was at 429 Quincy. It no longer exists and was in the area of the current U.S. Post Office.

I find it ironic that Missouri slaves learned freedom was available on the Kansas Underground Railroad because they heard their slave masters complain about those evil “Kansas Jayhawkers” and some mystical Kansas devil named john Brown who hated the institution of slavery. The abolitionist who settled Kansas and made it a free state soon established an informal network to aid these formerly enslaved people in their escape attempts. Based on the eastern network set up by William Still and Harriet Tubman, they established a Western Underground Railroad. As we know this was not a real railroad, nor was it underground, but like the eastern network out of Kentucky, Virginia and Maryland, it did convey the people from South to North in a secretive manner. Because of the need for secrecy, it is impossible to know how many people escaped through this system.

Just like back east, the Kansas Underground Railroad was made up of a series of safe houses. The many Kansas settlers volunteered to risk their lives and property to hide escapees take them on north to the next safe house or cabin or even cave. These valiant settlers gave protection, food, shelter and secret transportation to many former Missouri, Oklahoma and  Arkansas African American slaves. Because of the Federal Fugitive Slave Act, the government could arrest and levy fines when participants were discovered. The black people who participated, whether free or escapee, risked being sent back to slavery. Despite these risks many Kansans chose to offer aid. Many abolitionist groups and churches such as churches, especially the Society of Friends (Quakers), Congregationalists, Wesleyans, and Reformed Presbyterians; American Indians, former enslaved people, and free blacks.

John Armstrong Account

A Topeka resident named John Armstrong wrote about his participation in this Kansas Underground Railroad after the Civil War. He stated the first documented slave he assisted was a woman named Ann Clark. She was owned by a slave master who lived in Kansas. She left her slave master’s farm on foot and took shelter at another settler’s house. She stayed there for several weeks until her protector was able to find someone to take her farther away. He was unable to figure out how to get her away and eventually he was spotted by pro-slavery men. They took her to the pro-slave territorial capitol at Lecompton, Kansas. They knew they could locate her master and get a reward. When they reached Lecompton, the men left her to work in their kitchen as they were busy eating and drinking. They became drunk and soon she saw her chance and escaped. She hid in thick brush in a ravine as she heard the men searching for her. She lay there until it was light and crept out of the ravine to a road. She started walking west and came across a man carrying a book under his arm. Ann figured this was an educated man so he must be against slavery and may help her.  She was right and a neighbor to her master, Dr. Barker, agreed to take her to his home. After a day or two, he hitched up his horses to a wagon and transported Ann to Lawrence, Kansas. At Lawrence, another abolitionist settler volunteered to take her farther west to Topeka. At Topeka, she found herself at the home of Mr. and Mrs. Scales. In the basement of the Scales’ home was a large sugar barrel used as a shipping crate. The Scales put some straw and blankets inside the barrel and deposited Ann into a cramped, but more secure hiding place. During the day, Ann came out of the barrel and helped Mrs. Scales with the housework. After six weeks, John Armstrong, a “conductor” on the Underground Railroad came for Ann. He had raised nearly $70 and borrowed a closed carriage and a team of mules. John put Ann in the back and drove to Holton, Kansas where he found a friendly cabin to give them shelter. Armstrong knew many people on the Kansas frontier and as he drove north toward Iowa he found other sympathizers who agreed to give them shelter and hide Ann or other slaves, if necessary. John Armstrong wrote that at one point the carriage became stuck in a creek. John had to ask Ann to leave the safety of the carriage to help him push it out of the mud. After three long weeks on the road, they finally made it to Iowa. In Iowa, Armstrong knew an Iowan named Dr. Ira Blanchard who had many contacts across the state. He agreed to take Ann and future escapees and get them across Iowa to find shelter either in Chicago or across the Great Lakes into Canada.

 

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