Iowa History
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Iowa History

An Underground Railroad Agent in Iowa

Americans of all political and religious beliefs value freedom, although they may define it differently. In the years of the early republic, many Americans viewed slavery as a direct contradiction of the principles stated in the Declaration of Independence and fought for during the American Revolution.

To address this issue, the Underground Railroad formed as a network of people who assisted fugitive slaves in their attempts to escape. It existed in one form or another in many states from the 1790s to the end of the Civil War, growing in size and intensity of effort especially after the passage of the Fugitive Slave Act of 1850, which required all citizens to help return escaped slaves to their masters, and the Kansas-Nebraska Act of 1854, which asked residents of those two new territories to determine for themselves whether or not to allow slavery there — and inadvertently sparked widespread violence. Those involved with the Underground Railroad were idealists who persisted in their activities despite threats of steep fines or even jail time if they were caught by the federal agents who were deployed nationwide to enforce the Fugitive Slave Act.

Underground Railroad agents were motivated by a variety of values. Many held religious convictions against slavery, especially among the mainline and evangelical Protestant churches. Americans who did not hold orthodox religious views, such as the Freethinkers, who believed that truth should be based in logic and reason rather than a divine authority, thought slavery contradicted American values.

Despite their conviction, however, many Underground Railroad agents never admitted their participation. One such example from Iowa was Jerome Dutton, a well-known farmer, real estate broker, auctioneer, and insurance and collection agent in Olive Township in the southern part of Clinton County.

Jerome Dutton, circa 1860 in Clinton County, Iowa. Copied from a tintype taken by Dutton’s brother-in-law, David J. Gue. (State Historical Society of Iowa)

Dutton also owned and operated a ferry service on the Wapsipinicon River, which forms the county line between Clinton and Scott Counties. He had purchased the ferry early in 1859 and operated it continuously until 1864, when a bridge was built nearby and rendered the ferry obsolete.

During the six years that Dutton operated the service, it is believed that he ferried fugitive slaves across the river. At that time, he owned a farm on the south bank of the river, in Scott County, and also a store on the north bank of the river, in Clinton County, about a hundred feet from the ferry dock.

Jerome and Celinda Dutton lived in this log cabin at the Natoma Farm near Buena Vista in Scott County, Iowa, for about eight years after their wedding in 1856. Photo circa 1900. (State Historical Society of Iowa)

Although Dutton never talked or wrote about his involvement with the Underground Railroad, many facts suggest that he was indeed involved. Most members of his extended family were either Unitarians or Universalists or characterized as “liberal,” and Jerome and his three brothers were also well-known Freethinkers. Instead of viewing slavery as a sin as a religious person might, they pointed to famous Americans, such as Thomas Paine, who railed against all forms of oppression in the name of liberty.

Additionally, Dutton’s brother-in-law Benjamin Gue was a prominent abolitionist leader in Iowa as well as a leading Iowa Republican and politician. Dutton’s diaries from the 1850s indicate strong support for the newly formed Republican Party and his direct political connection to Gue.

Dutton also subscribed to both the Davenport Gazette and the New York Tribune, two papers that promoted abolitionist views. He also had many other connections to people who were known to be extremely hostile to slavery, including his brother Leroy Dutton, a known abolitionist and station master who used his home to hide fugitive slaves.

Celinda (Parker) Dutton, circa 1861 in Clinton County, Iowa. Tintype photograph by David J. Gue. (State Historical Society of Iowa)

Though the direct evidence of Jerome Dutton’s involvement with the Underground Railroad is circumstantial, it is compelling. The position of his farm on the south bank of the Wapsipinicon River and the location of his store on the north bank would have made the transport of fugitive slaves relatively easy. Many locals were aware that most or all of the ferries across the river were involved in transporting fugitive slaves and that Dutton often hid fugitives in the basement of his store.

But despite his extremely liberal Freethinking views and Underground Railroad activity, Dutton was an active and popular leader in the general community. Besides farming, he ran a successful real estate and insurance business. He also served in many elected and appointed local offices in Scott County and the town of Wheatland, where he lived after the Civil War, serving as alderman, postmaster, notary public, justice of the peace, and secretary of the school board.

Family records suggest that Jerome and Celinda Dutton moved to this home in Wheatland, Iowa, in 1865. This is a photo postcard from 1909. (State Historical Society of Iowa)

Dutton kept a diary for many years of his life, but it is interesting to note that he stopped writing during the years that he operated the ferry, perhaps out of fear that his Underground Railroad activities might be discovered. He may have wanted to leave that chapter of his life off the record.

— Dave Holmgren, volunteer, State Historical Society of Iowa



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Iowa Culture

Iowa Culture

The Iowa Department of Cultural Affairs empowers Iowa to build and sustain culturally vibrant communities by connecting Iowans to resources.