By Robert M. Gordon
The Underground Railroad as it has been called because of the dark mysterious nature of its operations was organized and carried on by a few hundred or perhaps thousands of earnest philanthropists scattered
throughout Ohio, Indiana, Illinois, and Michigan. Its founders were men who entertained a firm conviction that human slavery is a sin.
The Railroad that was affordable transportation to the slaves had many routes that led to freedom. Two routes that formed a junction in Cass County Michigan were from the Ohio and Mississippi Rivers.
The "Quaker Line" that went through Cass County was named that because the "conductors" along the route were Quakers. These Quakers knew that by helping these slaves escape that they could not only lose their land but also their lives. But because of their strong conviction of about slavery they still took that chance.
The Underground Railroad conductors were courageous European American who would clothe and feed the runaways. They treated the runaways as human beings and a lot of runaways were frightened because they had not been treated as equals before. With the help of the Quakers the freedom seekers were able to gain just that, their freedom.
The Abolition Movement of the early 1800’s set goals on elimination of slavery. The Abolitionist worked out of an well-organized system for the route to freedom. The use of secret codes, "station conductors" and railways to prevent capture of the runaways moved not to use standard routes. The Underground Railroad route were waterways, back roads, swamps, forests and mountains. They hid in barns, cellars, caves and even boxes in wagons.
In Cass County, the houses of Ismeal Lee, Stephan Bogue, Zechariah Shugart and Josiah Osborn (all Quakers) were stations of much importance. W.S. Elliot, conductor, brought fugitive slaves through to William Jones in Vandalia, Michigan in Cass County. They then traveled to L.B. Alexander, an agent at Niles and were sent onward toward Canada by way of Flowership Township in St. Joseph County and Schoolcraft in Kalamazoo County with William Wheeler as the agent. William Jones a Quaker resident of Cass County resided in Calvin
Township had a nickname of "Nigger Bill" because of his activity in helping free the slaves. The most famous act was when he kept the raiders from Kentucky to capture the freed slaves that were living in Cass County, Michigan.
Two years ago I was in Vandalia (Cass County) Michigan doing research on the Underground Railroad and I had the opportunity to see the house of William Jones. The occupants of the home knew its history and
showed me the hiding places. There were many homes that were stations of the Underground Railroad in and around Vandalia, Michigan. Their signs for letting slaves know it was safe were to have a candle was lit in a window or if a certain door was closed.
Even though Harriet Tubman and Sojourner Truth were the ones that lead people to freedom, we cannot for the Quakers were the ones who helped the slaves stay free. If they had not opened their hearts and gave
runaways shelter and food, they would have died or been captured and put back into slavery. We can say thank you to the Quakers of Cass County because of their strong convictions.
This article was originally printed in our May 5, 2002 – May 18, 2002 edition (Vol.1 No.7). Mr. Gordon was an early supporter of The New Citizens Press. Even though he is longer with us, we will continue to educate our readers in the same fashion that he would have.