TOPEKA, Kan. (AP) - Escaped slave Ann Clarke hunkered down in the dead of night in a ravine near Lecompton. She could hear her trackers approaching as she lay still in the thick brush, waiting for the sun to rise and illuminate the landscape so she could creep out and continue on her path to freedom.
Clarke - about 40 years old - saw a man with a book under his arm walking along a nearby road, heading east toward Lawrence. A book? He must be an educated man or maybe an abolitionist, she thought.
Clarke had a choice: She could stay on the run or take a chance the man would hide her from the proslavery posse hunting her down to get the reward money offered by her masters, The Topeka Capital-Journal (https://bit.ly/1KeCnZ1 ) reported.
A few weeks earlier, Clarke had made her first escape attempt from her owners, only to be captured by the posse and taken to Lecompton, where they hoped to collect the reward, according to “Angels of Freedom” by Martha Parker, director of the Wakarusa River Valley Heritage Museum in Clinton.
While her captors ate and drank that evening, Clarke went to the kitchen to clean herself up. She studied her surroundings, and when the other women in the kitchen let their guard down, she ran into the night, ending up in the brushy ravine, where she emerged to see the man with the book.
Clarke approached the traveler and recognized him as Dr. Barker, a neighbor of her owner, George W. Clarke. After hearing her plea for help, Barker told her to follow the ravine south to the back of his house, where she could find refuge.
Clarke stayed at Barker’s property for one or two days, before being taken in a wagon - hidden under a layer of several comforters - to Lawrence and then to the home of Caroline Scales, at 429 Quincy St. in Topeka. The stone house in Topeka was a station on the Underground Railroad, a series of hiding places established across the nation by white and black abolitionists to help fugitive slaves reach freedom.
When the house was built in 1856, an enormous hogshead that was shipped to Topeka from New Orleans was placed inside its cellar. The hogshead - a cask that could hold several hundred gallons - was used as a hiding place for runaway slaves on their way to the Canadian border.
“When Ann came, we put some straw, clothes and blankets into the hogshead and had her stay in it,” John Armstrong, an abolitionist and “conductor” on the Underground Railroad, wrote in “Reminiscences of Slave Days in Kansas” in 1895. “Mrs. Scales kept boarders, and during the day, while they were out, Ann used to come up in the kitchen and do a great deal of housework.”
Clarke remained at the Scales home for six weeks while Armstrong raised $70, borrowed a closed carriage and team of mules and made arrangements to take her to Iowa, where she would be turned over to Quakers and guided to Canada, according to the Kansas Historical Society.
As many as a dozen slaves crowded into the Scales cellar until it was safe for them to venture out, cross the river and head north on the Jim Lane Trail to the next Underground Railroad station near Holton. The trail - laid out by free-state politician James Lane - ran from Topeka to the Kansas-Nebraska border.
The trip from Topeka to Iowa took about three weeks. The conductors and freedom seekers - known as “passengers” or “cargo” - often traveled on foot, stopping at designated safe houses along the route that offered protection, food and transportation.
“I suppose I have kept three hundred slaves in the house at 429 Quincy St., all told, and every one of them was taken North and eventually reached Canada,” The Topeka Daily Capital reported Armstrong saying in January 1910.
Armstrong, a prominent figure in establishing the Underground Railroad in 1857 from Topeka to Civil Bend, Iowa, worked hand in hand with Scales and several other Topeka residents to help slaves reach freedom. The network was headquartered in the basement of Constitution Hall, 429 S. Kansas Ave.
It was a dangerous, clandestine endeavor.
The Fugitive Slave Act of 1850 made aiding fugitive slaves a federal crime punishable by six months in prison and a $1,000 fine.
Five years later, the proslavery Kansas territorial government enacted legislation saying any person who spoke, wrote or printed materials for the purpose of assisting escaped slaves would be found guilty of a felony and sentenced to death. Additionally, those who helped slaves escape their masters would be committing grand larceny and face death or imprisonment with hard labor.
Pro-slavery spies and slave hunters kept tabs on those suspected of aiding slaves. Topekan John Ritchie, who operated a limestone quarry and participated in two Kansas constitutional conventions, and his wife, Mary Jane, were among their targets.
Mary Jane carried food in a water pail to a spring at the back of their house where escaped slaves would hide, while John helped fugitives traveling the Jim Lane Trail, said Melinda Abitz, who develops education programs at the Historic Ritchie House and Cox Communications Heritage Education Center.
“What the Ritchies were doing was a very dangerous thing,” Abitz said. “It took dedication and conviction.”
One night, soldiers advanced on the Ritchie home in the hope of capturing fugitive slaves, she said. A deputy tried to enter the home by breaking open the door with an ax. But the intruders stopped dead in their tracks - and then left - when they heard the click of sharpshooters on the other side of the door.
Northeast of Topeka, Clarina Nichols, a women’s rights advocate and associate editor of the Quindaro Chindowan, an abolitionist newspaper, sheltered escaping slaves at her home in Quindaro, near the Missouri River in Wyandotte County.
“My cistern - every brick of it rebuilt in the chimney of my late Wyandotte home - played its part in the drama of freedom,” Nichols recalled. “One beautiful evening late in October ‘61, as twilight was fading from the bluff, a hurried message came to me from our neighbor - Fielding Johnson - ‘You must hide Caroline. Fourteen slave hunters are camped on the Park - her master among them.’ . Into this cistern Caroline was lowered with comforters, pillow and chair. A washtub over the trap with the usual appliances of a washroom standing around, completing the hiding.”
The 13th Amendment of the U.S. Constitution abolished slavery in 1865, and the operations of the Underground Railroad - once so secretive - were revealed. Today, more than 80 sites in Kansas - homes, churches, forts, cemeteries, museums - help tell the story of the Underground Railroad.
Although it is impossible to know exact figures, the National Park Services’ National Underground Railroad Network to Freedom Program estimates as many as 2,000 people escaped slavery or the threat of the return into slavery from 1854 to 1865 because of the Underground Railroad in Kansas.
Nationally, the number of runaway slaves who used the Underground Railroad is estimated to be more than 100,000.
But the stories of the courage and determination of the network’s conductors, station masters and passengers were seldom documented because those involved were breaking the law.
“We know about it through testimony or bits of information left by people. We can’t document a lot,” said Kim Warren, associate professor of history at the University of Kansas. “Historians think there were hundreds of depots and conductors, thousands of enslaved people who moved through the network. But only the people involved knew the accurate account.”
Little is known about the whereabouts of the Underground Railroad passengers once the Civil War ended, Warren said.
“Abolitionists sometimes learned of former slaves marrying after their escape or joining the Union Army,” she said. “A few passengers returned to Kansas after making their escape to other free states.”
According to the Kansas Historical Society, Armstrong and Clarke kept in touch after their journey together on the Underground Railroad: “Armstrong recorded that Ann wrote him several times in the years to follow.”
Information from: The Topeka (Kan.) Capital-Journal, https://www.cjonline.com
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