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Underground Railroad

Free woman in Kansas TerritoryIn the early years of Kansas Territory many slaves came through Kansas on their way to freedom. The informal network that aided these formerly enslaved people in their escape attempts was dubbed the Underground Railroad. While this path was not a railroad, nor underground, it did convey the people from South to North in a secretive manner. Created by abolitionist sympathizers, it is impossible to know how many people escaped through this system. Its success depended on secrecy.

The Underground Railroad was made up of a series of safe houses, which would take in escapees on their journey. These houses offered protection and often covert transportation to African Americans. Those who participated were placing themselves at risk. Fines were levied 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, especially the Society of Friends (Quakers), Congregationalists, Wesleyans, and Reformed Presbyterians; American Indians, former enslaved people, and free blacks.

States pursued their own escapees, although Northern states were required to assist in capturing runaways. Escapees traveled mainly by foot or on wagon, heading northward from station to station. Routes were sometimes indirect to avoid detection. A number of escapees found asylum in Canada. 

William D. Matthews operated a boarding house in Leavenworth, used on the Undergrand RailroadAnn Clark experienced the underground system herself as she worked to escape freedom. One day she escaped from her master and took shelter at another settler’s house. She stayed there five or six weeks, but her protector was unable to provide her safe passage on the Underground Railroad. Proslavery men eventually found her and took her back to Lecompton to collect their reward. When they reached Lecompton, it was evening. Ann went to the kitchen to wash. As it grew darker and darker she studied the situation, trying to plan her escape. The men were busy eating and drinking. Ann noticed that only the women were watching her. Finally she saw her opportunity. She ran out of the kitchen and into a ravine. She hid in thick brush. She could hear the men coming for her, and she lay very still. She lay there until morning. When it was light, Ann crept out of the ravine to the top of the hill. She could see across the prairie. Southwest of Lecompton she came across a man carrying a book under his arm. Ann reasoned he must be an educated man. Perhaps he might help her.  She approached the man with caution and recognized him to be Dr. Barker, a neighbor to her master. He agreed to take her to his home. After a day or two, he hitched up his horses to the wagon to take Ann to a safe house. Ann crawled inside and lay quietly out of sight. Dr. Barker drove Ann to Lawrence. From there she was quietly transported to Topeka, ending at the home of Mr. and Mrs. Scales. In the basement of the Scales’ home was a large barrel used as a shipping crate. He gathered straw and blankets and placed them in the barrel. This gave Ann 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. The cost was great to transport fugitives north. John and Ann proceeded north toward Holton. He knew the houses at which they could stop. It was not an easy journey. 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 and freedom.


Portions from The Kansas Journey.

Entry: Underground Railroad

Author: Kansas Historical Society

Author information: The Kansas Historical Society is a state agency charged with actively safeguarding and sharing the state's history.

Date Created: March 2011

Date Modified: December 2020

The author of this article is solely responsible for its content.