In United States history, a person became a member of the “Underground Railroad” if he or she assisted slaves from the Southern states to escape to free areas where slavery was illegal (often the Northern states or Canada). Nobody had to formally join an organization called the Underground Railroad to become a member. The phrase was more of an allegorical term for the many people who assisted runaway slaves until 1863. Members of the Underground Railroad did not solely consist of white abolitionists, but also included former slaves. For example, the most famous “conductor” of the Underground Railroad was runaway slave Harriet Tubman, who in ten years, repeatedly returned South to help bring approximately 300 slaves to freedom. (The new 2019 film Harriet is about this, and is worth watching.)
In 1998, the United States National Park Service began the National Underground Railroad Network to Freedom program, which requires them to identify and preserve sites throughout the United States that were involved in the Underground Railroad. However, since participation in the Underground Railroad was a clandestine activity, it is not easy to find documentation of who was involved. This was especially the case after the Fugitive Slave Acts were passed in 1793, and then further enforced in 1850. These laws punished those who assisted runaway slaves, and allowed Southerners to search for and recapture their runaway slaves in the free North.
The National Underground Railroad Network to Freedom has documented 626 Underground Railroad sites in the United States so far (as of the end of 2019). A map depicting how many sites are currently documented in each state can be found here: https://www.nps.gov/subjects/undergroundrailroad/about-the-network-to-freedom.htm
Ohio and Maryland currently tie for the most sites: 83. Next comes New York with 66, Pennsylvania with 54, and Virginia with 41. Illinois ranks at number 9 with 24 sites. I have visited two Illinois sites so far, the Sheldon Peck Homestead and Wheaton College. Both are in the western suburbs of Chicago in Du Page County, which also has a few other sites.
Sheldon Peck was a farmer and folk artist. He built his home in rural Lombard, Illinois in 1839, and eventually opened up his home to be used as the first school in the area. He was also a radical abolitionist (meaning that he wanted the immediate rather than gradual cessation of slavery) and worked as a “conductor” of the Underground Railroad. The evidence of his involvement comes from his son’s oral testimony and diary. Historians currently believe that the runaway slaves hid in his barn, which no longer stands, and not in his home, which does still stand. This home is currently owned by the Lombard Historical Society. It is open on Tuesdays and Thursdays from 1-4 and Saturdays from 10-2 (however, it is closed in December and January). Admission is free.
Wheaton College in Wheaton, Illinois was founded by Wesleyan Methodist abolitionists in 1860. Its first president was a staunch abolitionist named Jonathan Blanchard, who was also the College’s first president. According to a sign about Wheaton College’s involvement in the Underground Railroad, located in the campus’ oldest building, Blanchard Hall, Wheaton became the first college in Illinois to graduate African Americans. Blanchard Hall was a stop on the Underground Railroad.
Sources and Further Reading
“About the Network to Freedom.” National Park Service. https://www.nps.gov/subjects/undergroundrailroad/about-the-network-to-freedom.htm (accessed November 28, 2019).
“Blanchard Hall.” Wheaton College. https://www.wheaton.edu/about-wheaton/visit-wheaton/campus-buildings/blanchard-hall/ (accessed November 28, 2019).
“Harriet Tubman.” PBS. https://www.pbs.org/wgbh/aia/part4/4p1535.html (accessed November 28, 2019).
“Path to Freedom on Illinois’ Underground Railroad.” Enjoy Illinois. https://www.enjoyillinois.com/travel-illinois/illinois-underground-railroad/ (accessed November 28, 2019).
“The Pinkertons.” Library of Congress. https://www.loc.gov/item/today-in-history/august-25/ (accessed November 28, 2019).
“Underground Railroad.” Encyclopedia of Chicago. http://www.encyclopedia.chicagohistory.org/pages/1281.html (accessed November 28, 2019).
“Underground Railroad.” Lombard Historical Society. https://www.lombardhistory.org/ugrr (accessed November 28, 2019).
“Underground Railroad.” Merriam-Webster. https://www.merriam-webster.com/dictionary/Underground%20Railroad (accessed November 28, 2019).
“Underground Railroad.” Wheaton College. http://a2z.my.wheaton.edu/underground-railroad (accessed November 28, 2019).