Iowa History
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Iowa History

The original Madison County Courthouse was built in 1849, two years before the Old Log Jail. Seen here in the 1890s, the courthouse was built of logs and was also used as a church, school house, hotel and tavern.

Search for Underground Railroad Passengers Takes on New Focus

The story of former slave Charlotta Pyles came full circle in 2016 when workers put the last piece of marble back onto her 1880 tombstone in Keokuk’s Oakland Cemetery.

“I make a lot of trips to the cemetery for research, but I just about fell over when I found out a woman of her stature was buried out there,” local historian Terry Altheide said. “Her tombstone was falling to one side and was in pretty bad shape, so we raised some money to clean it up and get it fixed.”

Charlotta Pyles was born a slave in Kentucky in 1804 and was freed by her owner. She moved to Keokuk in 1853 and became an outspoken abolitionist who worked with Frederick Douglass and Susan B. Anthony.

Born in Kentucky in 1804, Pyles and her children were owned by Hugh and Sarah Gordon of Bardstown, Kentucky. When Hugh Gordon died, in 1834, he left Pyles and some of her children to his only daughter, Frances, and expected her to grant them their freedom.

But Frances’ brothers did not want to honor their father’s wishes and she had to fight for Pyles’ freedom.

In 1853, Frances took all 17 members of the Pyles family — Charlotta and her husband, Harry MacHenry Pyles, and their 11 children and four grandchildren — by covered wagon and steamboat to Keokuk, where they resettled.

In the years that followed, Charlotta became an outspoken and prominent anti-slavery activist who raised $3,000 on a speaking tour to buy freedom for her two sons-in-law.

Along the way, she befriended the likes of abolitionist Frederick Douglass and women’s rights activist Susan B. Anthony. Pyles died on Jan. 19, 1880, in Burlington as a notable member of her community.

Her inspiring story re-emerged like many others from Iowa’s past — with a pinch of luck, a dash of know-how, and a cup of persistence.

Keokuk historian Gerri Lawson discovered Pyles’ story more than a year ago while looking into a different topic at the Keokuk Public Library.

“During that time, I met one of her relatives and started digging for more information,” Lawson said. “I gave what we had to him, and he found her burial site. That’s when we decided to raise the money and get her tombstone fixed.”

The tombstone of Charlotta Pyles in Keokuk’s Oakland Cemetery was recently repaired by local historians.

While Pyles’ life as a slave and outspoken abolitionist was relatively easy to document, other researchers have taken on a more daunting prospect in recent years — documenting the experiences of fugitive slaves who took the harrowing and secretive path to freedom on the Underground Railroad.

“It’s been a very popular topic in the last few years,” said Krystal Gladden, a museum educator at the African-American Museum of Iowa in Cedar Rapids. “Thankfully, because of the sites and locations that have been uncovered and identified, it’s made it easier to discover the stories of slaves who traveled through Iowa.”

She said historians are researching evidence left behind by fugitive slaves at different sites, hoping to map their movements and document people from nearby communities who helped them.

“Today, we’re getting more details into the stories,” she said. “And not just about the abolitionists, but the people from other communities who were assisting them.”

But the new road to discovery can be full of speed bumps and dead ends, said Dave Holmgren, a State Historical Society of Iowa volunteer who leads the Iowa Freedom Trail Project.

“You have to remember, fugitive slaves were considered property and their names reflected their owners,” he said. “So a Willie Smith could have been sold to a Mr. Jones, so Willie Smith becomes Willie Jones and so forth. That can make it very difficult to trace their travels and lives.”

Holmgren also said the secretive nature of the Underground Railroad means documentation about fugitive slaves is scarce.

“The people helping the runaway slaves wouldn’t know their names, and most of them were illiterate, so they couldn’t write a letter of thanks to their helpers nor would they want to, since it could tip off slave hunters about their route and destination,” he said. “Researching the experiences of fugitive slaves from their perspective is a much heavier lift. Unfortunately, the vast majority of those stories are probably lost forever. But you find what you can.”

That’s what six honor students of Nebraska high school history teacher Barry Jurgensen have been doing in Iowa in recent months. The students have been researching the following people and locations for nomination to the National Park Service’s Network to Freedom, a registry of sites associated with the Underground Railroad:

  • The Newton Union Cemetery is the final resting place of three freedom seekers and 10 abolitionists. Students located biographical information about each of the individuals.
  • The “Old Log Jail” in Madison County was torn down long ago and another building stands in its place. During their research, the students found information about its location.

“Harmon Cook actually wrote a chapter in a book (‘History of the Quaker Divide’) about his Underground Railroad activities,” Jurgensen said. “He brought freedom seekers to the Jordan House (in West Des Moines) but was reckless. He got in trouble with John Brown about it and learned how to more appropriately conduct Underground Railroad business.”

As part of their nomination research, Jurgensen and his students have gone to local libraries, courthouses and historical societies, and traveled to see each location in person.

“It’s been an amazing trip with these students,” the teacher said. “But it is really tricky to write a complete history of the freedom seekers. A lot more stories out there need to be uncovered.”

Some tips for Underground Railroad research

There are many websites, message boards and community research pages that may have helpful information.

You can also visit local libraries, county historical societies, the Iowa Genealogical Society in Des Moines, and the State Historical Society of Iowa Research Centers in Des Moines and Iowa City.

What to look for: historical news accounts, obituaries, military enlistment records, slaveholder tax records, slaveholder census information, county history books, church and society meetings records, family records, and certificates of birth, marriage and death.

— Jeff Morgan, Iowa Department of Cultural Affairs



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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.