GALESBURG, Ill. (KWQC) – The Underground Railroad was a path to freedom for thousands of runaway slaves and it wound its way right through Western Illinois. Slaves would cross into Illinois from Missouri and made their way north.
One of the stops was in Galesburg. Galesburg was founded by a man named George Washington Gale and a group of abolitionists. They made it known the city would provide refuge to any slave that needed help. The city was the home of the first anti-slavery society in Illinois. There were eight to ten homes in the city that offered shelter to former slaves.
Another stop along the road to freedom was in Princeton, Illinois. Owen Lovejoy and his family were outspoken abolitionists, calling for an end to slavery. But Lovejoy did more than just talk, he opened his home to runaway slaves. The Owen Lovejoy House is open for tours to show people today how and where slaves would hide. There’s a secret space behind the staircase where runaways could hide from slave hunters. In addition to providing shelter, the Lovejoy’s also gave slaves food and clothing to get them ready for the long journey to Canada.
Owen Lovejoy eventually took his fight against slavery to Washington D.C. He was elected to congress in 1856, where he continued to campaign against it.
Other towns in Western Illinois also served as stops on the Underground Railroad. They include Roseville, New Windsor, Cambridge, and Lamoille. Runaways would typically travel ten to fifteen miles a night. Some families would hang lanterns or patterned quilts outside so slaves would know a stop was safe. The goal was to move them through this area, to Chicago, Detroit and then on the Canada where they would be free. Although no official records were kept on the exact numbers of people, it’s safe to say hundreds of people were helped to freedom by people in Western Illinois.
If you would like to learn more about the role Owen Lovejoy played, his former home is open for tours from May through September. The home is open Friday, Saturday, and Sunday from 1 to 4 p.m.