January 25, 1859
Somewhere on the Delaware Reserve, Jefferson County, Kansas Territory
We left John Doy and his Underground Railroad train deep in trouble on the Missouri side of the river. But since my task is unearthing Jefferson County history, let’s head back to the place where Dr. Doy and friends were ambushed, wherever that was.
Doy, a Lawrence abolitionist, two helpers and 13 African-American passengers had been snared by armed slave catchers as they travelled from Lawrence north toward Holton, a rough wagon ride of about 50 miles. By Doy’s description, the calamity happened about 12 miles north of Lawrence in Douglas County and 8 miles south of Oskaloosa in Jefferson County on the Delaware (Indian) Reserve.
Two wagons carried the passengers. Doy rode a horse, his son Charles drove Doy’s wagon and young Wilbur Clough drove a second wagon. Well on their way to Oskaloosa, the travelers advanced down a long decline. At the bottom of the hill, on the right, sat a bluff. As Doy’s party turned at the bluff about 20 armed, mounted men emerged and captured the group.
A second description, with only the tiniest bit more information, comes from the Rev. Ephraim Nute, a Lawrence minister strong for abolishing slavery. Nute wrote a letter detailing the ambush and lamenting the high cost of the failed effort, both in the tragedy of the 13 freedom-seekers and in the money it took to put the effort on, and now the money it would take to pay for the imprisoned Doy’s legal bills. It’s possible that Nute obtained the information from a jail visit or from Clough, whom the Missourians didn’t imprison.
“… they took the road toward Oscaloosa [sic] & about an hour after entering a sort of defile between the bluffs & ‘the timber’ found themselves surrounded by a party of armed & mounted men,” Rev. Nute wrote.
Rev. Nute did refer to a road in his letter. Because roads and passable trails were few in the county a road might show up on an old map . But it wasn’t enough to find the spot.
Hilly, timbered landscapes are not a rarity in southern Jefferson County, and if we wanted to find the location of this disaster — and I had never known of the place being identified — we would need more information.
Stunningly, our best location clues ended up being clues that never should have been revealed at all, and they came from John Doy.
Riding in the Underground Railroad was secretive and dangerous work for all involved. Brave enslaved people and free African Americans had everything to lose if they were caught fleeing slavery or its threat. Escaped slaves could be pursued and caught in other states and returned to slavery; free black people were not safe from kidnappers who would ignore their free status and sell them into slavery. Those who assisted in UGRR efforts faced jail and fines. Missouri was a state that allowed slavery and a good share of Missourians wanted to extend slavery to Kansas when it would become a state.
Names of Underground Railroad conductors and agents, and their “stations” for hiding freedom-seekers along the route, naturally, were strictly secret. But Dr. Doy had made a dry run of his planned UGRR route from Lawrence to Holton. He had jotted down the names and places he had arranged to hide his passengers and obtain escorts for each leg of the slow trip north.
Doy apparently carried a journal containing those names and places with him when he was ambushed Jan. 25, 1859. Worse, an excerpt was published in a Missouri newspaper, the St. Joseph Weekly West in its June 26, 1859 edition. Here’s how the transcript opened:
“Bought bread and cheese, 20 cents, before starting. Paid 25 cents Monday ferried over Kaw river [Kansas River] at Lawrence; took the road west up the river, crossing Buck creek, keeping the left-hand road till the creek is crossed, then the right-hand; arrived at Oscaloosa [Oskaloosa] that night, opened my subject to Mr. Newall [Newell], who laid out town. He accepts at dark; went to Mr. Barnes, from Ohio; also accepts the appointment of conductor; will feed and assist them.…”
And on he went to name three people who would help at Grasshopper Falls (now Valley Falls, Jefferson County) and another half dozen people in or near Holton in Calhoun County (now Jackson County).
Colossal mistake aside, Doy did probably take that same route on January 25. For his dry run, he crossed the Kansas River at downtown Lawrence and followed the river to the north and west. He turned off to go north around the point where Buck Creek meets the Kaw. If he followed a trail or road like the Lawrence-to-Oskaloosa road, it wasn’t long until he was about 12 miles north of Lawrence and about 8 miles south of Oskaloosa.
Still not enough information, however, to find the spot, so we will continue our quest in the next post.
To view this plat map and several others, follow this link.
Plat map by the U.S. Surveyor General of Kansas and Nebraska for Township 11 south, Range 19 east of the Sixth Principal Meridian, in southern Jefferson County. Buck Creek and the road to Oskaloosa are visible on this map, with survey dates, from Kansas Memory, the Kansas State Historical Society. Item No. 223914, page 7. Copy and reuse restrictions apply.
 Doy, John, The Kansas Narrative, A Plain, Unvarnished Tale, (Thomas Holman, book and job printer, New York, 1860), 24. Doy reported eight men, three women and two children as his cargo. Two men were free persons of color, coming from Ohio and Pennsylvania, and the rest had shown Doy’s son, Charles, their free papers before the trip, according to Doy’s book. Other accounts dispute the free status of the 11, contending they were runaway enslaved persons.
 Holton, in Jackson County, was an Underground Railroad hub. From Holton, the UGRR travelers would go north into Iowa and often on to Canada..
 Doy, John, The Kansas Narrative, 25.
 Nute, Ephraim, Letter, [E. Nute] to [Unidentified recipient], February 14, 1859; Kansas State Historical Society Item No. 102720, John Brown Collection, #299, Box 2, Folder 1.
 Jesse Newell and Joseph Fitzsimmons were co-founders of Oskaloosa, arriving there in May 1856 and later naming the town for Oskaloosa, Iowa.
 St. Joseph Weekly West (newspaper); 26 June, 1859, 2. Microfilm, State Historical Society of Missouri. Knowledge of the existence of this extraordinary newspaper clipping — vital to tracking Jefferson County history — was generously shared with me by a Lawrence author and researcher of the Underground Railroad in Kansas, Judy Sweets.
1 thought on “An Underground Railroad Ambush in Jefferson County, Kansas Territory, Part II”
Very impressive work, Liz!