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Walking to freedom: Sharing the local Underground Railroad history

One of the most famous Freedom Trails in the United States takes visitors in and around Boston to sites where revolutionaries worked to establish a new nation.

Here in Chicago, about six miles from the northern border of Homewood, is a Freedom Trail, one established for a very different reason – freedom for escaped slaves.

Volunteers with the Little Calumet River Underground Railroad Project have found evidence that a home site along the Calumet River settled by Dutch immigrants was part of the Underground Railroad helping escaped slaves get to Canada. The volunteers’ efforts over more than two decades led to the formation of the organization, and have gained recognition from the State of Illinois and the National Park Service.

Volunteers Larry McClellan, a retired Governors State University professor, and Tom Shepherd, a local historian and project coordinator, host tours of the sites that were instrumental for the Underground Railroad. Using a grant from the Forest Preserves of Cook County, the two rent a bus to shuttle guests from a site at Beaubien Woods to sseveral locations along the southern border of Chicago explaining how important the region was to helping desperate people win their freedom.

McClellan knows the Underground Railroad was helping slaves, but he prefers to call them freedom seekers. He intersperses their clandestine stories as he explains the history from the mid-1800s.

“It’s taking the basic humanity of these individuals, families and small groups of people who declared they’d be free human beings,” McClellan says. “And what their intention was was to seize their freedom, and so today it is far more powerful to talk about people on these journeys as freedom seekers.”

The Waterways
In the 1800s, dirt roads and former Indian paths were travel routes. Freedom seekers often followed rivers and streams. McClellan stands at Beaubien Woods telling his listeners how freedom seekers got to Chicago by any means possible. Chicago represented the great Continental Divide, McClellan said, with the Great Lakes in the North and New Orleans at the southern tip of the Mississippi River. People traveled the country’s water systems.

Chicago was founded in March 1837 and recognized as a major city in the North. It was mostly farmland with pockets of settlements.

McClellan said from the South the freedom seekers would come up the Tennessee River to the Ohio River which got them to the border of Illinois. It was approximately another 370 miles to walk to Chicago.

McClellan, who has authored several books on the Illinois Freedom Trail, shared the story of John and Eliza Little, enslaved in eastern Tennessee, who in 1841 followed the Tennessee River to the Ohio.

McClellan relates: “Years later they talked about it, and John remembered so clearly: ‘We got to the Ohio River, and there was a great swamp, and I put Eliza on a log and all that we had on a log behind her, and I pushed those logs through the swamp, and I knew that all I loved would be lost if I misstepped.’ And he made it through the swamp.”

The Littles made it to Illinois and walked to Chicago.

“Once they got here they met abolitionists and got on a ship to Detroit and into Canada, and they had a full and rich life in Canada. But I’m so struck by their story and … I want you all to carry with you the remarkable reality that’s traveling through country just like this,” McClellan says looking out to the Calumet River. “Hundreds and hundreds of people left their enslavement and found their way to freedom. And for that we can all be grateful.”

Indiana Avenue Bridge
Few going over the Indiana Avenue bridge at the southern end of Chicago’s city limits know its historic significance. While McClellan is anxious to have repairs done to the dilapidated bridge, he hopes someone will put a historical marker there.

“To me, this is about as close to holy ground as we can get. From 1837, there’s been a bridge right here,” he said. Freedom seekers crossed “this precise spot” as they traveled another 15-plus miles to Chicago.

“Chicago in the 1840s and ‘50s was the size of the Loop, just a small town, and there were about 2,000 freedom seekers who made their way to Chicago and of those a lot traveled by ship to get to Detroit. My research says 500 to 800 freedom seekers, most of them walking, walked from Chicago right to here,” he says while standing on the bridge.

A few blocks from the bridge is Michigan City Road, a diagonal that crosses from Riverdale into Calumet City and east to Michigan City, Indiana. The road served as a route for freedom seekers heading to Detroit.

The Ton Farm
Jan and Aagje Ton met when they sailed from the Netherlands to America in 1849, and married soon after. They acquired a 40-acre homestead along the Calumet River in 1853 at what today is 134th Place at St. Lawrence Avenue in Chicago. They and fellow settlers Cornelius and Maartje Kuyper were among the Dutch settlers who founded South Holland and farms in what today is Chicago’s Roseland neighborhood.

Ton and Kuyper spoke English. They were leaders in the community and offered help to the freedom seekers. McClellan said it’s unknown why the settlers agreed to offer refuge.

“My guess is, they had come out of forms of religious and political persecution in the Netherlands and they came to America for a new start and perhaps they were particularly sensitized to people that were reaching for their freedom,” McClellan speculated.

He tells the story of how in 1858, two slave catchers from Chicago learned Cornelius Kuyper was an abolitionist.

“In the laws of the day, especially the Fugitive Slave Act of 1850, if you lived in the North, you were mandated to help. If you failed, you could be fined as much as $1,000. Today that’s like $15,000-$20,000,” McClellan said. A slave catcher could earn today’s equivalent of $45,000 for each captured slave.

The slave catchers went all over the territory and into Hammond, Indiana, but came up empty. They went back to Kuyper’s homestead in Roseland. McClellan said the story is that Kuyper apologized but said he’d not seen any slaves.

“He wished them well and sent them off, and then invited the fugitive freedom seekers in the barn to share dinner with him,” McClellan said.

Being an abolitionist in this area was “pretty much an open secret,” McClellan said. “Underground Railroad people were willing to break the law, and they’d break the law regularly. People had to be discrete, but freedom seekers knew they could travel by daylight (most were walking) and the thing that I’m always struck by is the amount of things that people did.”

The Ton family owned the farm for a number of years before moving to South Holland where Jan Ton was a leader in the community.

Today there is a State of Illinois marker at the Ton farm site recognizing the outstanding efforts of the family to help freedom seekers. The site was authenticated as an official Underground Railroad station in 2019 by the National Park Service and today is part of the NPS Network to Freedom.

Sharing the stories
Volunteers with the Little Calumet River Underground Railroad Project have been spreading the word about the history of the area through speaking engagements at historical societies, schools, churches and community meetings. The bus tours led by McClellan and Shepherd are given about every quarter, weather permitting.

Catherine and Gregory Dixon of Homewood were on a fall 2022 tour. It was their third time.

“What we love about it – we are born and raised in Chicago. We never knew any of this existed, and so it’s so fascinating to come back and see and hear the stories, but as we read different stories about African American history we can see, like standing here and you visualize what (McClellan) he’s talking about,” Catherine said. “I come because I can visualize even more than just what he’s saying.”

Gregory said residents of South Holland probably “don’t know the rich historical value of what happened in South Holland. You can drive through somewhere and you don’t know the historical value of that. Now when I drive through there and know what happened there and why we’re here, what we have here has a different meaning to it.”

Presenting history
McClellan is publishing his third book on the Underground Railroad in Illinois. He sprinkles his presentations with historical notes and insights drawn from the 50 or so stories he’s collected about freedom seekers and abolitionists.

He has had his share of questions about his interest in African American history. He says he’s not offended.

“I was involved in Civil Rights in the 1960s, and I said: ‘We need to figure out this Black and white stuff.’

“I spent a year of my life at the University of Ghana in West Africa, and I think really struggled about what it means to be a white person in a black environment and coming out of that I said part of what I’m going to do with my life is deal with racism.

“I know it’s a little weird sometimes to be the old white guy telling the stories, but Black history matters for all of us. And Black history matters so that we get American history right. We’ve got to reclaim this story so that the story is whole and rich and that means all of us.

“Part of that is for me when we talk about fugitive slaves, it ends up being objectified. No, no, these are human beings. These were people who were terrified and running for their lives and collectively we have got to say ‘yes’ to that humanity. So that’s why I do it: because I think it’s important for all of us.”

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