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.

Kansas Territory Elections 1855: Let ’em vote or they’ll tear the house down

Even if there hadn’t been local point men pushing slavery or county captains dashing it, Jefferson County could not have dodged the turmoil of Bleeding Kansas. Its location in Kansas Territory guaranteed it would grapple with the question dividing the nation.

Eastern Kansas Territory was pocked by clashes between free-staters (“no” to slavery in Kansas) and pro-slavers (expand slavery to more states, Kansas in particular). The contestants had been campaigning since late 1854, the year the Kansas-Nebraska Act
handed the slavery decision to settlers in the soon-to-be states.

Partisans on opposing sides of slavery moved in on Kansas Territory, along with settlers  less interested in slavery, and went about staking claims to land they hoped to buy at low government prices. Settlers would do the voting that would decide the slavery question for Kansas.

If you want to know what fraudulent elections look like, consider Jefferson County, Kansas Territory, on March 30, 1855. Continue reading “Kansas Territory Elections 1855: Let ’em vote or they’ll tear the house down”

About This Blog

I was trying to find something out – anything, really – about Jesse Newell, an Ohio-born free-stater who came to Kansas Territory in May 1856.  He and his brother-in-law, Joseph Fitzsimmons, a Pennsylvanian, had settled on the Jefferson County hilltop the two would develop into Oskaloosa.

They landed in Bleeding Kansas, a long couple of years when the territory agitated over whether it would become a state allowing or barring slavery (the latter, 1861). Newell and Fitzsimmons, moving to KT from the free state of Iowa, positioned their town-to-be right next to an already mapped proslavery town site called Jacksonville, which in the end became a farm and not a town.

Sectional Map of the Territory of Kansas. Published by John Halsall in 1857.
Jefferson County, Kansas Territory, as published in 1857. Sectional Map of the Territory of Kansas, published by John Halsall.

From that point in spring 1856, according to our aged town and county history writings, Fitzsimmons set up a store. Newell set up a steam sawmill. There was something about Newell being nearly hung by proslavery Border Ruffians that year, and about Newell telling free-state[1] troops where to find a bevy of armed South Carolinians who had come to Kansas Territory to make it a slave state. There’s one  mention of Newell being a “radical” free-stater. What else did we know?  Not much.

“We are just one generation away from not knowing our own story.”

That is a warning that had every appearance of having come true, in the case of Newell, and maybe for bits of Jefferson County’s early story. Deanell Tacha,[2] founding chair of Freedom’s Frontier National Heritage Area, made that statement in the early years of Freedom’s Frontier, which has helped communities and organizations tell and connect their stories of freedom in Missouri and Kansas border counties, Jefferson County, Kansas, among them. (Jefferson County, one of the original 36 Kansas Territory counties, is one county over, about 15 miles from the Missouri border.) Continue reading “About This Blog”