The Underground Railroad in Southern Illinois

A Ride for Liberty -- The Fugitive Slaves, painted by Eastman Johnson, circa 1860s

By the 1830s, the system of routes used to help enslaved people escape from the southern states became known as the Underground Railroad, though it was neither underground nor a railroad. Fugitive slaves traveled largely on foot, stopping to rest at the homes of abolitionists and others who provided safe havens, known as stations. Operators and conductors helped runaways reach the next station.

The success of the Underground Railroad led to greater legal restrictions on both enslaved people and free Black people. Southern states employed patrols and bounty hunters to recapture enslaved people, advertising rewards for runaways in northern newspapers.

Particularly because Illinois dipped farther south than the other free states and was bordered by enslavement states Missouri and Kentucky, it was an important part of the Underground Railroad system. Two routes began in southern Illinois at Cairo in Alexander County and at Chester in Randolph County. These two lines merged at Centralia and extended north through Vandalia, Pena, Decatur, Bloomington, Joliet, and Chicago. Another route followed the Illinois River from Alton to Chicago. At Chicago, runaways could take a boat to Canada.

In addition to assisting runaways, the Underground Railroad focused attention on the horror of enslavement and demonstrated that Black people could take care of themselves. It also discouraged assumptions and encouraged people of all races to work together toward a humanitarian goal.