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Odd Wisconsin Archive

The Underground Railroad in Wisconsin

Every year for several decades, students have approached the Society's staff to learn about the Underground Railroad in Wisconsin. Slavery itself can be an awkward topic, especially for younger students. White kids often wonder how their ancestors could have owned other people as slaves and feel guilty or embarrassed, and black kids wonder how their ancestors could have put up with it — and feel much the same way. Investigating fugitive slaves who escaped to freedom allows all of them to imagine their ancestors as heroes.

Evidence Hard to Find

Oddly enough, although more than 100 slaves appear to have escaped through Wisconsin between 1842 and 1861 via the Underground Railroad, information about them is scarce. Both ex-slaves and their abolitionist helpers faced severe consequences if they were caught, so they deliberately generated very little evidence about their illegal activities. For decades after the Civil War, violent racism so permeated American society that many participants feared to speak up about their activities long before.

To address this situation, we've digitized all the most important original documents about the Underground Railroad in Wisconsin. These can be found in Turning Points in Wisconsin History by entering "fugitive slave" or "underground railroad" (without quotations) in its search box.

This article briefly describes and links to primary sources on the two most famous incidents connected with Wisconsin's Underground Railroad -- the narrow escape of teenager Caroline Quarlls in the summer of 1842 and the dramatic liberation of Joshua Glover from the Milwaukee jail in March of 1854.

Caroline Quarlls

The earliest escape through Wisconsin's Underground Railroad for which we have evidence is that of 16-year-old Caroline Quarlls, who ran away from her owner in St. Louis on July 4, 1842, after being beaten. She came up the Mississippi River by steamboat to Alton, Illinois, and crossed by stage to Milwaukee, where she arrived in early August. Quarlls was hidden there briefly by sympathetic allies, but when authorities tracked her down she was spirited away to Waukesha, a town known for its anti-slavery radicals. In late summer she moved at night from farm to farm through Walworth and Racine counties until she was ultimately driven by a Waukesha man around Chicago, through Indiana, and across Michigan, where she escaped from Detroit into Canada.

Waukesha editor Chauncey Olin recalled the whole episode in a memoir, and Mrs. A.H. Woodruff, with whom Quarlls hid for two weeks near Pewaukee, offered her recollections in a letter many years later. So did the Rev. S.A. Dwinnell, who hid her for a time in Walworth County. The longest and most detailed memoir is that by Lyman Goodnow, who actually drove the wagon by night from Wisconsin to Detroit. Olin's 75-page memoir includes the only known photograph of Quarlls as well as letters from her and a printed version of Goodnow's recollections.

Joshua Glover

Wisconsin's best known fugitive slave incident was the rescue of Joshua Glover on March 11, 1854, from the Milwaukee jail. Glover had escaped from his owner in Missouri in 1852 and made his way to Racine, where his master found him two years later. Arrested under the federal Fugitive Slave Act, Glover was taken to the Milwaukee jail but a crowd of anti-slavery demonstrators smashed down the doors and rescued him the next day. Glover, like Quarlls, was initially hidden in Waukesha until he secretly boarded a steamer in Racine and escaped to Canada.

Waukesha editor Chauncey Olin was also involved in the Glover incident, and recalls the events in his memoir. Also available in Turning Points is the advertisement that Glover's owner placed after he ran away in 1852, and an article that his pursuers published in 1854 that explains why they think it's justifiable to capture him. Other documents from the Glover case include a picture of him, a poster advertising an anti-slavery rally, and the memoir of the immigrant bricklayer who actually seized a nearby beam and helped smash in the doors of the jail.

Other Escapes

Quarlls and Glover are only the most famous escapes along Wisconsin's Underground Railroad. Several others were documented in the 1890s by historian John N. Davidson, and Underground Railroad "conductors" A.P. Dutton and Maximillian Heck offered manuscript reminiscences during the same decade. Research showed that the Milton House, near Janesville, had been used extensively to harbor escaping slaves, as well. In 1854, an unnamed father and his two children passed through Chilton to find safety among the Stockbridge Indians; after repulsing their pursuers, the Stockbridge got them safely to Green Bay and thence by ship to Canada.

About 1855, the Rev. R.L. Cheney of Janesville assisted a family escaping northward on the road from Beloit; he saw them to Racine, where they embarked safely by steamer for Canada. At the outbreak of the Civil War, three escaping families were harbored in Beloit, and remained there after the war. In early 1861 Janesville citizens rallied to drive away a slave catcher who had tracked down one of their city's residents. For documents relating to these and other Underground Railroad cases, search Turning Points in Wisconsin History as described above.

Learn More

For more documents on African-American History in Wisconsin, visit our black history page.

The following museum objects related to Wisconsin's black heritage are also available on our site:

:: Posted in Curiosities on February 21, 2013
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