An Underground Railroad Ambush in Jefferson County, Part I

The gravel roads in southern Jefferson County, Kansas, are silent about where an Underground Railroad catastrophe played out 158 years ago. No roadside signs mark the hill where Dr. John Doy’s attempt to help 13 African-Americans elude slavery rolled to a tragic stop eight miles south of Oskaloosa.

Not that it’s the sort of historic fact a Kansas county would want to celebrate. But the ambush, and the sensational events that followed, attach Jefferson County, Kansas Territory, to the relay of secret links helping brave freedom-seekers move north to free states and Canada.

Doy, a New Yorker, moved to Kansas Territory in 1854 with the Kansas-Nebraska Act and worked to ensure Kansas joined the Union deeming slavery illegal within its borders. Almost five years on, Kansas Territory had emerged from the violent Bleeding Kansas slavery clashes between Missouri border ruffians and their southern friends, and those opposed to slavery in Kansas.

Finally, the slavery opponents, free-staters, pulled ahead with majority sentiment.  More work remained, however, and free-staters did what they could to break slavery’s back.

The dark morning hours of January 25, 1859, found Doy on horseback negotiating a primitive road that connected Doy’s hometown Lawrence to Oskaloosa and points north.

Accompanying Doy in two covered wagons were eight men, three women and two children who hoped to leave behind the threat of enslavement, which was still legal in many states including Missouri.  Doy’s son Charles, and a young wagon driver, Wilbur Clough, completed Doy’s party.  What Doy did not have was outriders or escort guards to watch for slave hunters and other enemies along the way.

The little group was 12 miles into the 20  it needed to cover to reach its first stop, Oskaloosa, and most likely the home of Jesse Newell, a radical free-stater who had come from Iowa and was willing to fight to block slavery in Kansas.  There, Doy would pick up his escort to help continue the trip northwest to Holton, a major taking-off point in Kansas Underground ventures.  Doy had dry-run his proposed route about a week earlier, taking notes on “conductors” who would help along the way.  He listed Jesse Newell’s wooded place on the south edge of Oskaloosa as  the first stop in what he planned would be a five-day journey.[1]

The night of the trip, Doy had departed Lawrence heading north, crossed the Kansas River into Jefferson County and followed Buck Creek up through the Delaware Reserve. [2]

“When about 12 miles from Lawrence, and eight from Oscaloosa [sic], having ascertained, as I supposed, that the road was clear, I requested the men to get into the wagons, as we had quite a long descent before us, and would go down it at a brisk pace.[3]  They did so, and then, excepting myself, all the party were in wagons, which were covered and thus effectually prevented them from seeing what occurred immediately afterwards, and from defending themselves.

“At the bottom of the hill, on the right of the road, is a bluff; from behind this, as we turned it, came out a body of some twenty, or more, armed and mounted men. Eleven of them approached with leveled rifles and ordered us to halt; they keeping, however, at a safe distance from our revolvers.”

doy-from-1862-le-tour-du-monde001
This remarkable image depicting the ambush of Dr. John Doy and his Underground Railroad “train” was published in the French magazine Le Tour du Monde in 1862. The illustration and several others accompanied Doy’s story about ruffian slave hunters who captured Doy and his little party of 15 south of Oskaloosa, Kansas Territory, on Jan. 25, 1859. The illustrations were drawn by the French artist Janet-Lange.

 

 

 

Doy saw that he was overpowered and quickly persuaded his son not to shoot at the assailants. Recognizing several of the men, including “notorious ruffian and kidnapper” Jake Hurd from around proslavery Lecompton,[4] Doy began his arguments.

He knew what could happen to the 13 African-Americans in the wagons if taken by Hurd and his posse. Under the Fugitive Slave Law of 1850 slave owners could pursue runaway slaves to other states and return them to slavery. Slave hunters for hire prowled Kansas Territory, close to free states like Iowa to the north, to capture slaves who had bolted from Missouri and elsewhere.

Worse, some of them kidnapped free black people and sold them into slavery, despicably profiting from human misery. People who engaged in the dangerous work of helping fugitive slaves escape such fates faced fines and  prison (officially) and bodily harm.

Doy asserted that all the African-American adults in his group except two had free papers proving they were not slaves. The other black two men were known to be free men who had been working as cooks at the Eldridge hotel in Lawrence.

To no productive effect, Doy demanded that Hurd and the other attackers show proof that the 13 African-Americans were slaves sought by slave owners and to state whether those owners were in the armed crowd. His questions were met with curses, violent threats and drawn weapons. Doy’s claim that his passengers were free people were ignored.[5]

Somewhere, about eight miles south of Oskaloosa not far from Buck Creek, Doy, his two conductors and 13 African-Americans freedom-seekers were seized, taken to the Missouri River’s edge, put on a ferry to Weston, Mo., the next night, and locked up in Missouri. Jesse Newell and nine others prepared to assist Doy’s planned Underground Railroad venture welcomed no freedom train in late January 1859.

“The sufferings, both physical and mental, of the poor trembling creatures around us, no words can describe,” Doy wrote in his book.  “The chill wintry blast penetrated their thin clothing, and there seemed to be nothing between them and a life-long slavery.  All hope must have been dead in their souls.

“Even now I can hear the sobbing ejaculations of the poor mother, as she tried to hush the wails of her half-clad babes.  In spite of the commands of the ruffians not to stir, I jumped up, tore off the wagon-cover, and gave it to her to wrap around her children.

“The memory of that night will never be effaced from my mind.”[6]

[1] Portions of Doy’s journal, or memorandum book, described the route in some detail.  Transcriptions from the journal were published in the St. Joseph Weekly West (newspaper) on June 26, 1859, page 2, column 6. Microfilm copy held by the State Historical Society of Missouri. The journal was used against Doy in the Missouri court case against him on the charge of helping slaves escape their masters.

[2] “The Kansas Narrative, ‘A Plain, Unvarnished Tale’,” written by John Doy and  published 1860 by Thomas Holman, book and job printer, New  York, p 25.

[3] Ibid.

[4] Ibid, 26.

[5] Ibid, 26, 27.

[6] Ibid, 30.

kirk-webb-doy-route-002
Map showing the Underground Railroad route John Doy planned to take from Lawrence to Oskaloosa in January 1859. Stars marking sites north and west of Oskaloosa depict planned stops on the rest of Doy’s route to move 13 African Americans north to Holton, had his trip not been ambushed by slave hunters (marked as “John Doy Ambush Site”). The map was created by Kirk Webb, Jefferson County Geographic Information Systems Department, using notes John Doy had taken to designate safe stops and escort help for the dangerous trip. 

To be continued.

Upcoming posts will examine where that ambush took place, based on a couple of descriptions from 1859, and look into the people Doy had lined up to help him once he would reach Oskaloosa and continue the journey.

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