Freedom Seekers

Freedom Seekers, also known as fugitive slaves or runaway slaves, who crossed Madison County were usually only here overnight before moving on to their next stop in Dallas or Warren County. Stories tell of one or more unnamed Freedom Seekers being moved through or rescued from slave hunters in Madison County.  Only a few have been identified by name:

  • Aaron
  • Chloe
  • John Ross Miller
  • Anderson Hayes
  • Henderson Hayes
  • Alexander Nichol
  • Charlie Moore

Here is a sampling of their stories. (Note: Original texts are quoted and include some phrases we no longer use.)

Charlie Moore

Little is known of the beginning of Charlie’s life. Much more is known of his last 50 years as a resident of Winterset. We know that he was a Freedom Seeker who found shelter in Madison County at the home of farmer Matthew McGee in Douglas Township. We know Charlie now rests in the Winterset Cemetery without a grave marker. To contribute to the purchase and placement of his gravestone plus learn about Charlie’s journey to freedom and his life in Winterset, visit A Gravestone for Charlie Moore.


A female slave was briefly in the home of James Johnson of Scott Township in the early 1860’s. Cal Ogburn, a neighbor boy, gave her the name of “Chloe.” He later recounted their meeting.

Chloe! Maybe that wasn’t her name, but it was no more than that – just ‘Chloe’, or ‘Peggy’, or ‘Sookey.’ Perhaps there were those who spoke of her as ‘Abe Smith’s Chloe’, or ‘Dave Turner’s Sookey’. Somewhere ‘down South’ they did that – probably in Missouri, which was not far away, and there was but little doubt that Chloe came from there. She was of middle age, rather above than under medium height and weight. The first negro I ever saw. No wonder it made a lasting impression.

Source: Winterset Madisonian, April 24, 1930, page 4

The Coats Began to Fly

Four young Freedom Seekers came through Winterset in October, 1861: John Graves, Alec Nichol, Henderson Hays and Anderson Hays. John Graves later changed his last name from his slave master’s surname to his given name of John Ross Miller. He later recounted his experiences to C.C. Stiles, a St. Charles native and co-worker at the State Historical Building, who published the story in the Annals of Iowa in 1934. Here is an excerpt.

The subject of this sketch was born in slavery in the state of Kentucky, November 8, 1841, and died December 29, 1923, being over eighty-two years of age at the time of his death, which occurred suddenly, being stricken with heart failure just as he was boarding a street car on his way to work at the Historical, Memorial and Art Building of Iowa, at which place he had been employed as janitor for a great many years. Funeral services were held in Des Moines, and the burial was at Newton, Iowa, his former home. The writer of this article knew him intimately as he always came to me to do his writing for him and to ask my advice in business deals. He was frugal and saving in his expenses and had accumulated considerable property, owning property both in Des Moines and in Newton. He was of a jolly disposition and got a great deal of pleasure out of life. He was honest, faithful and true to his friends and respected by all who knew him.

John Graves gave me the story of their flight from Missouri. He said : ‘They were making preparations to send us all down to Texas, so us boys just borrowed two horses and two mules from our masters and lit out for Canada. We thought that it was just a little ways up there. We traveled after night and hid in the brush in the daytime. The second day we traveled during the day and landed in Winterset, Madison County, Iowa, about one o’clock. It was on Saturday in the latter part of October, 1861. I wanted to get some shoes put on my horse, but the blacksmith told me I would have to wait about two hours. There was a great crowd in, and a company of militia was drilling, so we done got scared and left. We had gone about two or three miles and was in a long lane when a crowd of men on horseback come on the run down the lane after us. They had shotguns and rifles and was raising an awful dust and making a lot of noise. We was shore some scared and thought that our time had come to go to Texas, but it wouldn’t do any good for us to run, on account of them mules, they couldn’t run as fast as horses. One of the men after us was riding a big white horse and had a gun on the saddle in front of him. He run past us and then turned and headed us off. They surrounded us and took us back to town, but they couldn’t find any officers to put us in jail and while they were lookin’ for the officers they formed a ring around us boys to keep the crowd back. They got to talking pretty loud and someone dared any one to try to come inside that ring, and they hadn’t more than said it than the coats began to fly and there wasn’t any ring at all. The men that took us out of the ring gave us something to eat and told us which way to go, and we wasn’t long in getting out of there. We started east and at the top of a long hill we hid in the brush till night. Then we traveled by the north star and landed in Indianola the next morning.

Source: C. C. Stiles, “John Ross Miller”, Annals of Iowa, July, 1934

In this story, five unnamed Freedom Seekers crossed Madison County and were apprehended. Consider the three perspectives of slavery represented: the five slaves escaping who were lost, hungry, and afraid; southern sympathizers who were frustrated in their cause and taking risky action to further their beliefs; and abolitionists who were ignoring the possibility of fines and imprisonment to assist those running away.. They were all risking their lives and the livelihoods.

One time a party of five slaves came through the northern part of Madison County on foot, without a guide. They fell in the hands of some pro-slavery residents of the county, and were captured. That night they were placed in a covered wagon, to which four strong horses were attached, and started under guard to Missouri.

But meantime some of the Madison County Abolitionists had heard of the circumstance and started in pursuit. About daylight, they overhauled the wagon, rode in front of it, and seizing the horses, ordered a halt.

The driver got out his shotgun and threatened to shoot. For fear that he might do so foolish a thing, one of the heard-hearted Abolitionists punched him behind the ear, and he retired from the discussion. By the time he again began to take an interest in this world’s affairs, the blacks and their liberators had disappeared, nor was there any further track of them visible.

Source: Iowa State Register newspaper, December, 1872

Return to The Underground Railroad in Madison County

error: Content is protected !!