More than three million African-Americans lived as slaves in the Southern United States in the mid-1800s. They had few human rights and were regularly bought and sold at auction. Whole families were torn apart, never to be reunited. This bleak future gave birth to thousands of slaves who fled north to escape bondage. They moved secretly to freedom along what came to be known as the Underground Railroad.
This 'railroad' was not composed of tracks or steam engines. It was an informal network of homes, barns and hiding places where those escaping to freedom could find a meal and a safe night's sleep. Between these way stations, the fugitives moved cautiously, usually at night, by foot, wagon and even boat. Their final destination was Canada or a northern U. S. state where ex-slaves could live freely.
The early history of Kalamazoo County reflects clearly the advanced thought and liberality of New England as represented by the number of men who came here from that section of the country and earned the despised name of abolitionists. While the early history of most of Kalamazoo's churches shows a deep hatred of and opposition to slavery, there were still factions of our early settlers who were vocal champions of slavery. Our area reflected the differing views that eventually plunged our nation into the Civil War.
The Underground Railroad was never the continuous procession that many imagine it to have been. It existed over a period of 20 years and during this time the number of slaves accommodated here is placed between 1,000 and 1,500 - an average of scarcely one a week. But that meant those numbers of people were able to find freedom through Kalamazoo County, and the railroad would have been worth the effort for just one of them.
Two men stand out as early enablers of the railroad. In 1830, Dr. Nathan M. Thomas, the first practicing physician in this area settled in Prairie Ronde. He was the first active vocal abolitionist in the county. Henry Montague was another. He started his career as an abolitionist in Massachusetts and came here in 1836 to continue his fight. He settled in Oshtemo and was a delegate to the first abolitionist convention in the state, which was held in Ann Arbor.
As far as can be known, the first fugitives from slavery came to Kalamazoo County in 1837. They were a man and wife who had escaped in Alabama and worked their way north. Henry Montague provided them with a warm meal, then hitched up a team and drove them to Galesburg. There they were turned over to Hugh M. Shafter. That was the beginning of the Underground Railroad in Kalamazoo County.
The 'underground railroad' had several stations in Michigan, one of the most prominent being Dr. Thomas' home in Schoolcraft. The route usually taken to this stopping point passed through Schoolcraft, Battle Creek, Marshall, Jackson and Detroit. Other routes crisscrossed Michigan. There were seven routes most commonly used. They were: Toledo to Detroit; Toledo to Adrian to Detroit; St. Joseph to Detroit; Chicago to Detroit; Muskegon to Grand Rapids; Detroit to Saginaw Bay; Chicago to the Upper Peninsula.
Nathan ThomasTypically, in this area, about dawn a wagon would arrive and the black fugitives would be hustled inside Dr. Thomas' home for a meal prepared by Mrs. Thomas. Then they were escorted to the attic to wait for nightfall. After being fed again, they climbed aboard Thomas' wagon, were covered with straw and driven to another 'station,' most often to Battle Creek. It was dangerous work since the fugitives were often sought by slave hunters hired to return them to the south. Once a group of Kentuckians came as far as Cass County to search for runaways.
These slave hunters provided some tense moments, such as the time a slave was hidden in the bottom of a crate and then covered with apples. When the slave hunters combed the house and found no one, they ended up near the crate and commented on the apples and how good they were. The owner of the house acknowledged they were, indeed, good apples and the slave hunters each took a few and left.
Notable Mention, Michigan and Beyond
Another notable name in the 'underground railroad' was Erastus Hussey of Battle Creek, Michigan. He served in positions of leadership as a Michigan state senator, Battle Creek mayor, and Calhoun County clerk, to name a few. He helped found the Republican Party, nominate Abraham Lincoln for president, and guide the passage of Michigan's revolutionary Personal Liberty Bill, which granted runaway slaves the right to habeas corpus, a jury trial, and possible high court appeals. Hussey's 'station' was a building approximately where the Kellogg Foundation parking ramp now stands.
Any mention of the Underground Railroad cannot be made without an acknowledgement of Harriet Tubman. Called the Black Moses, Tubman was born a slave in 1820 in Dorchester County, Maryland, near Chesapeake Bay. Like Moses, it was said she talked daily with God and seemed ordained to lead slaves to a promised land, usually Canada or the northern states. In 1849, Tubman fled her Maryland plantation successfully and ended up in Pennsylvania. It would be the first of many journeys. She made many journeys back to the south. While helping 300 fellow slaves escape, she made up to 19 trips on the Underground Railroad and even rescued her aged parents and took them to Canada. Her prowess became legendary. By 1860, the bounties offered for her capture were more than $60,000. She was never caught and, during the Civil War, became a Union scout, spy, and nurse. After the war, Tubman lived the remainder of her life modestly in Auburn, New York.