Hidden History: Rare artifact recounts Central Illinois’ place in Underground Railroad

Black History Month

While much of the history of the Underground Railroad is well known, detailed and original artifacts from its participants are rare. So historian Owen Muelder of Knox College knows he’s lucky.

“That’s the expression I always use. It is like a piece of gold,” he said.

The piece of gold is in the form of a journal written by Samuel G. Wright, and it has become one of only a few written records of the Underground Railroad housed in the Knox College Library in Galesburg, Illinois.

“Look. ‘January 5, 1848: Arrived home Friday evening and learned that two fugitives had been along. Pursuers had gotten a search warrant,’ ” Muelder said while reading one of Wright’s journal entries.

Wright moved from New Hampshire to Canton in the mid-1800s. He planted his roots in central Illinois connecting with the anti-slavery movement in Galesburg and some other neighboring towns.

The movement was large as runaways slaves were making their way from Missouri and the river boats of the Mississippi River bringing people from the southern states of Louisiana and Mississippi.

To get more people on board, Wright started to spread the abolitionist platform entangled with a Christian platform.

“That message was not received very well by most people when he first started preaching,” Muelder said.

But Wright didn’t stop preaching or illegally helping runaway slaves find freedom.

“Many of these people developed their anti-slavery ideas because of their Christian beliefs. They said there was a higher law, and the higher law was Christ’s law; not the government’s law, and were willing to take the consequences,” Muelder said.

Slowly, he said the message started to pick up steam, and through his help and others like the founder of Knox College, George Washington Gale from upstate New York, central Illinois became a hub for the anti-slavery movement.

“It’s the first time in American history that we see a socially integrated movement where both black and whites are helping each other in a common cause, and in that sense, I think it’s one of the great water sheds in American history,” Muelder said.

Through Wright’s diary, you can tell he had his hand in the Underground Railroad from 1840 up to and during the Civil War. And while there is no specific number, historians believe he housed dozens of slaves.

“This is an example of how things can change and how one person can have a fundamental impact on people that way,” Muedler added.

One person can leave their mark, but that mark grew when people started coming together. “You can go from people like Wright who were involved for years to someone who might only on one or two occasions in the course of their life make the decision to help a freedom seeker.”

But we wouldn’t have known the half of it if it weren’t for Wright’s notes. “He didn’t just talk about it. He actually took direct action to help these people escape. Samuel G. Wright is a hero of mine,” Muelder said.

Because many people kept quiet about their help in the Underground Railroad, historians are hesitant to quantify just how many runaway slaves benefited from these efforts.

But even after the Civil War, Wright couldn’t sit still.

He started focusing on the Temperance Movement, an effort to limit the consumption of alcohol.

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