IOWA AND THE SLAVERY
Iowans, between the years 1832 and 1860, had
much to do to develop the new state. But, busy as they were,
they could not keep out the slavery issue, a question which
was soon to divide the entire nation into two great, bitter,
fighting armies, each of which was sure it was right.
IN TERRITORIAL DAYS
Soon after the first white settlers came to
Iowa the slavery question came up here as it did in all new
territories. A few Negroes were actually held as slaves in
southern Iowa in early territorial days. With Missouri, just
south of Iowa, a slave state, there was often trouble over
slaves and slavery along the southern boundary.
The Iowa Territorial Supreme Court made an
important decision in a slave case as early as 1839. A Negro
named Ralph came to Dubuque from Missouri. He had the written
consent of his master to come but was supposed to send money
to his owner to win his freedom. Ralph did not earn and send
back as much money in a certain length of time as he had
promised to do. His master then hired two kidnapers to bring
him back. The two men captured Ralph while he was working in
a field and rushed him off to Bellevue where they put him on a
steamboat bound for Saint Louis.
A man named Butterworth had seen what happened
to Ralph. He hurried to Dubuque, where he got the help of an
officer to stop Ralph and his captors at Bellevue. The Negro
was taken back to Dubuque and given a trial. The Supreme
Court said that since Ralph had come into a free state with
the consent of his master, he could not be seized for return
to slavery so long as he lived here.
People living in the North who wanted to do
away with slavery, by settling the slaves free, were called
"abolitionists." There were many such people in Iowa. Some
of them believed that it was right for them to help slaves to
become free, even if such actions were forbidden by law. If
slaves could run away and get to Canada they became free,
because their masters could not claim them there.
Abolitionists, therefore, helped many slaves to run away from
their owners and get to Canada.
In order to help runaway slaves get through
Iowa on their way to Canada, the abolitionists organized what
they called an "underground railroad." It was not a railroad
at all but just a number of places, called stations, scattered
across the state where the slaves could be given shelter and
helped along as they made their way toward Canada. The slaves
had to be hidden carefully. If "slave catchers," as men were
called who came from the South, could find the Negroes, they
took them back with them. The runaway slaves were usually
taken from one station to another at night. They would hide
in loads of straw or in wagons which looked as if loaded with
sacks of grain.
There were several "underground railroad"
routes in southern Iowa. They are hard to trace now because
they were secret routes at the time of their use. One route
started at Tabor and ran through Des Moines and Iowa City to
Clinton. Another ran across Lee County. Mr. J. B. Grinnell,
of Grinnell, and other prominent men in Iowa took part in
helping Negroes along the "underground railroad."
IOWA ON THE ANTI-SLAVERY SIDE
So great a question as that of slavery could
not be kept out of politics. It was the important issue in
the election of 1859. The Republicans nominated Samuel J.
Kirkwood for governor. He had become famous in the state
legislature as an abolitionist. He declared that Iowa would
not permit slavery in any form or for any time within its
borders. He was thinking of the Dred Scott decision which the
United States Supreme Court made in regard to the
Constitution. The Court said that a slave owner could take
his slaves into free territory and then back South again to
sell them because slaves were property just as horses and
cattle were property.
People who opposed slavery said that the Dred
Scott decision would throw all the territories of the United
States open to slavery. Kirkwood declared that Iowa did not
need to pay any attention to this decision.
The Democrats nominated Augustus C. Dodge for
governor. Mr. Dodge had been a leader in state and national
affairs. As Ambassador to Spain, he had just returned from
The two candidates held a series of joint
debates. Mr. Dodge said he would enforce any law of the land,
but Mr. Kirkwood said he would violate any law that would help
to enforce slavery. The campaign was exciting and produced
many interesting incidents. Mr. Dodge, it is said, "probably
looked and acted the part of a distinguished gentleman of the
old school." Kirkwood, on the other hand, "was careless of
personal appearance, somewhat uncouth in dress and manner."
The difference in the two men is well
illustrated in the following account: "The last joint debate
between the candidates was held at Washington September 2, and
again the Republicans found a way to emphasize the contrast
between their candidate as a a man of the people and Dodge as
a man of aristocratic associations. The local Democratic
committee brought Dodge into town riding in the best carriage
that could be found and drawn by four white horses, but the
crowd had already exhausted their enthusiasm in cheering the
appearance of Kirkwood riding to the scene of the meeting on a
hayrack drawn by a team of oxen."
Mr. Kirkwood was elected by a majority of
3,170 votes. Soon after the election Senator Grimes wrote to
Kirkwood; "You have got a difficult task before you for two
years to navigate the Ship of State without a cent of money.
There is now due to the state from several counties between
three and four hundred thousand dollars, and no taxes will be
paid this year, for there is no money in the country to pay
with. The government has got to be carried on principally
The next year, 1860, Iowa voted for Lincoln