Intro to Quincy’s AntiSlavery Crusade
The earliest citizens of Quincy helped carve out the expanding nation at a controversial frontier location. With the slave state of Missouri just across the Mississippi River, this strand of the waterway attracted outspoken Americans committed to fighting human bondage. Breaking federal laws did not deter these progressive citizens, and they were organized enough to establish an abolitionist stronghold in western Illinois in the 1830’s and 40’s.
Historian Fergus Bordewich describes the covert operations of the Underground Railroad as “the country’s first racially integrated civil rights movement” in his book Bound for Canaan. What is now downtown Quincy was a unique atmosphere where radically antislavery Underground RR conductors, free black citizens, several of Abe Lincoln’s best friends, and even proslavery expansionists all walked the same neighborhood.
Also, the son and grandsons of a native African bought land from the U.S. government on the north side of the square, now Washington Park. Pike County town founder and former slave Free Frank McWorter and his sons, Squire, Commodore, and slave-born Solomon purchased hundreds of acres of Pike Co. land in the 1830’s, atop Quincy’s bluff, with slavery and Missouri literally in sight.
A leader of Quincy’s Underground RR movement was the Rev. David Nelson, M.D. He was run out of Northeast Missouri in 1836 for boldly denouncing slavery; he fled to Quincy and was rescued by the town’s founder John Wood and Nelson’s antislavery friends. He soon established a missionary training school, the Mission Institute, which also operated Underground RR Station #1 on the way to Chicago and Canada.
The following year Institute teacher Dr. Richard Eells attempted to shuttle a runaway slave, Charley, to freedom but was caught at the school’s 24th and Maine campus and soon arrested; and later convicted. Barryman Barnett, a free black whitewasher who moonlighted as anUnderground RR agent, brought Charley to Eells. Barnett and other black underground helpers faced the most intense danger, as they had no rights and slavery loomed just across the river.
Dr. Eells house is now on the National Register of Historic Places, and is available for tours at 415 Jersey St.
(There are still many homes and buildings today that were built when Quincy was still a young town.)
In the summer of 1841, two students and a worker (Alanson Work, George Thompson, James Burr) from Nelson’s Institute made a “tour of mercy” to Missouri to convince more slaves to follow them back to Illinois and flee north. They were also caught and arrested, spending a total of 12 years in the Missouri State Penitentiary. This and the Eells case brought national attention to Quincy regarding the slavery issue.
Other key operators were Moses Hunter, Asa Turner, founder of the Congregational church, John van Doorn and many more. Van Doorn owned a saw mill near the river and he rescued hundreds of enslaved people during his life. He employed several free black laborers and even engineers, who undoubtedly assisted in the Underground RR.
Quincy was founded on antislavery principles and her early days witnessed unique historic moments and alliances in the fight to preserve liberty for all.
For additional Information on the The local regions abolitionist history visit the Free Frank New Philadelphia Illinois website at http://freefrank.org/.