For slaves in the 1800s, the trek to freedom was a difficult and dangerous railroad.
It didn’t feature cars or miles and miles of iron rails. The Underground Railroad’s track led fugitive slaves to freedom in Canada and in free states and territories using a secret network of people who helped slaves move to freedom.
Oral traditions suggest that several of the stops on the railroad’s tracks were Kansas sites — especially for slaves escaping from Missouri. Quindaro, in Wyandotte County served as a likely first stop for Missouri slaves. From there, they headed to free state Lawrence taking The Liberty Line to Topeka before turning north on the Lane Trail along a path where US Highway 75 sits today.
Although written records documenting slaves’ run for freedom weren’t often kept, historians estimate that more than 1,000 fugitive slaves passed through Kansas on their way to freedom. Between 1810 and 1850, an estimated 100,000 slaves escaped the south using the “tracks” of the Underground Railroad.
Lawrence’s rich history as a free state strong-hold likely made it a popular destination, but Helen Krische, archivist for the Watkins Community Museum of History in Lawrence said documentation of Underground Railroad activities in the city are scarce.
Helping slaves escape to freedom carried heavy penalties. The Fugitive Slave Law of 1850 even forced northerners to return slaves to their southern owners. Those caught assisting slaves faced jail, fines and even death.
John Doy, a doctor from Lawrence, aided about a dozen slaves via the Underground Railroad. He was caught 12 miles north of Lawrence and charged with slave stealing. For more than five months, Doy was held in jails in Weston, Mo., and St. Joseph, Mo.
According to oral history, there were several Lawrence stations on the Underground Railroad including Doy’s home, Grover Barn and The Miller House.
“There are people who say there were slaves kept at the Miller House in their smokehouse until it was safe for (the slaves) to move again,” Krische said.
When Kansas was admitted to the Union as a free state, underground network in Kansas almost ceased to be necessary. The start of The Civil War and The Emancipation Proclamation only added to its extinction. Little was left in the way of written documentation to prove the existence of the purportedly many Kansas stations.
“Of course, it was a secretive pathway, so there’s not going to be anything in writing to confirm that these places were indeed stops on the Underground Railroad,” Krische said. “You’re not going to have documents to prove it.”