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FIRST PASSENGERS ON THE U.G.R.R. VIA TABOR
ON THEevening of the 4th of July, 1854, there came into our quiet village a traveler with his family and several colored people, three covered wagons and a carriage. The father, mother and daughter rode in the carriage. They were on their way from Mississippi to Salt Lake and would have crossed the river at Nebraska City, as their most direct route, but, on account of the rush of emigration, and the freighting across the plains, the ferry at that point was crowded, and to avoid the crowd the crowd this company had passed on, intending to cross higher up. They camped for the night on the west side of Main street, and about midway between Elm and Orange streets. There were six slaves and two of them got water from Jesse West's well,near which the first hotel in Tabor was then in process of building. Whether stimulated excessively on America's natal day by large draughts of freedom and independence, or whether the circumstances conspired to such a result, or both prompted the deed, certain it is that the builders found an interview with the darkies and learned that they were slaves; that five of the six, a father, mother, and two children, with another man, were anxious to escape from slavery, but that the other slave woman didn't want to leave her master and couldn't safely be trusted with their plans. Arrangements were then made, the five desirous to go were met at the corner by the hotel in the night and conducted to and across the Nishnabotna and concealed in the bushes. All this was effected by the first faint glimmering of daylight in the eastern sky. S. H. Adams, John Hallam, Jas. K. Gaston and Irish Henry were the conductors on this train. Mr. G. B. Gaston, to avoid the appearance of evil, took some ladies in a buggy and made a visit at C. W. Tolles', on Silver Creek, where arrangements were made to care for the fugitives; and in a day or two, with Cephas Case and Wm. L. Clark for conductors, and an old horse to carry such as could not walk, they made their way to a settlement of Quakers in the vicinity of Des Moines river, and there leaving them in safe hands they returned to Tabor. On their way out they had some narrow escapes, but were delivered from all their foes.
The fugitives reached the Queen's dominions in safety, but their master, who we were credibly informed was a Mormon elder, on his way from Mississippi to Salt Lake, was not willing to let his slave property escape, without at least an effort to recover it. On rising in the morning after the exodus, there was an unusual stillness about the camp. No one was astir. Fires were not lighted. The teams were uncared for, nor was breakfast being prepared. All seemed at a standstill. He stepped out, and looked in all directions, but saw no trace of the missing slaves. The reputation of the people of Tabor, as being in sympathy with fleeing fugitives, was too well known to admit of his taking counsel with them in this emergency. But in a neighborhood a few miles south of Tabor sympathizing friends were found. The news was soon heralded abroad. The dastardly deed was denounced, and the Taborites anathematized. A goodly number of pro-slavery sympathizers came together. A general slave hunt was planned and the groves, and thickets, and tall grass, and timber bordering both sides of the Nishnabotna river - everyplace where they might possibly be concealed was carefully searched. But one of those, who aided in the search, was at heart a friend of the fugitives, and was careful himself to do the searching around where he knew they were hid, and just as careful to not find them. As I have already state, new conductors, both of whom passed to their rewards many years ago, took charge of the train. When they had proceeded some distance on their way they met a man on horseback of whom they inquired the way to Quincy. He answered them civilly, but eyed them closely and passed on, and, as was afterward ascertained, went and reported what he had heard and seen to the master, who at once hastened forward to Quincy and, when failing to find them there, posted printed handbills in every direction to intercept them if possible, but without success. The fact was, the conductors suspecting the man they had met to be untrustworthy, switched off to Lewis instead of going to Quincy, and thus foiled their pursuers. At Lewis they had some trouble from pro-slavery men, but out of it all the Lord delivered them. They ran the gauntlet of pro-slavery servility through Iowa, Illinois, Indiana and Michigan, and found freedom in Queen Victoria's land.
Of all the thousands of Oberlin students, I never knew one who studied there long, who did not go out from there a thorough abolitionist. John H. Byrd, a classmate at Oberlin of the pastor's wife, a native of Vermont, reared in the freedom-loving principles of the Friends, was pastor of a little Congregational church in Atchison, Kansas, during the troubles there. A slave woman, who longed for freedom, applied to him for counsel and aid, as she had set out to obtain it. She was directed to Tabor, and arrived here in the early part of April, 1857. Conductors on the Underground R.R. very soon learned, that it was conducive to safety and success to forward all passengers with promptness and despatch. As this colored woman made her appearance just before the annual meeting of the Council Bluffs Association, which met this year at Council Bluffs, it was arranged that the parson should take the woman along, as he went to the Association, as far as Deacon D. Briggs' and get Brother Geo. B. Hitchcock, of Lewis, to come by Deacon Briggs', and take her home with him, as he returned from the Association. But Brother Hitchcock could not return by Dea. Briggs' and so the parson returned home from the Association and with his buggy took the fugitive, cloaked, veiled, and gloved, out to Lewis, no one mistrusting that she was other than his wife. Other conductors passed her on from Lewis to the next station.
When Kansas and Nebraska were opened for settlement in 1854, and the strife for the former was hot, the "ruffians" were wont to say to the free state men: "Why don't you go to Nebraska? We want Kansas, and you may have Nebraska." But slave holders went also into Nebraska with their slaves, and seemed quite willing to seize and hold that, too, for slavery.
Among the slave holders in Nebraska was a Mr. Nuckolls, a prominent merchant in Nebraska City, who owned and held in that place two female slaves. While abolitionists were not accustomed to entice or coax slaves to leave their masters, yet when they had sense enough to want freedom, and grit enough to strike out, and attempt to get it, abolitionists always stood ready to help the slave, rather than the master.
A mulatto of considerable shrewdness and a deal of experience in the world for one of his years, by the name of John Williamson, about that time did some trading back and forth across the Missouri river, in a small way, buying butter and eggs, etc., of the farmers and selling cheap jewelry, and trinkets of one kind and another. It was through him, as I have always understood, that Mr. Nuckolls' slaves were brought across the river. When once on this side there were plenty ready to help them on their way. One morning in December, 1858, about daylight, Dr. Ira D. Blanchard brought them into Tabor from the west. Consultation was had with a few of the friends and they were placed at Mr. Ladds' for the day. As it was considered unsafe to travel by daylight, and no less so to hold them, preparation was made through the day to start them on their way at evening. When it was known at Nebraska City that the girls were gone, there was a stir in Mr. Nuckolls' household. Telegraphs and telephones were not in operation then as now. But Mr. Nuckolls had a brother, a merchant, in Glenwood and two brothers-in-law, who sold goods in Sidney. Messengers were accordingly despatched to them and their aid solicited. Detectives were placed at the bridges across Silver Creek, and the Nishnabotna river, but somehow, as a good Providence would have it, they failed to intercept the train. It was a dismal, dark night - moonless, cloudy and misty. A covered wagon was provided, but the driver could neither see the road, nor his horses. There were no fences to keep travelers in the way Deacon O. Cummings led the way with a lantern through the Egyptian darkness. Silver Creek was crossed near its mouth and the river at White Cloud without any obstruction or opposition, which fact can only be accounted for on the supposition that the detectives failed to reach the bridges until after the train had passed.
The slaves escaped, and were never captured. They stopped for a time in Chicago among their colored friends, and were pursued to that point. But, they had timely warning, and hastily took refuge to the Queen's dominions. To resume our narrative: Having searched in Tabor and vicinity and watched the crossings of Silver Creek and the Nishnabotna in vain, Mr. Nuckolls returned to Percival to make a more thorough search, declaring that he knew they had not gone beyond there. Accordingly a company of men from Nebraska City took it upon themselves to search the homes of the people without authority. They went into houses and around the premises, prying into things and places that were private and doing things which they had no right to do. The citizens remonstrated, protested, and warmly denounced such conduct. Reuben Williams being very bold, decided and outspoken, was set upon by Mr. Nuckolls who rode up to him and stuck him a heavy blow over the head, which stunned and disabled him, producing deafness from which he never recovered. Complaints was made before the proper officers, and Nuckolls was arrested. The preliminaries having been taken, the next day was set for trial and the parties retired for the night to prepare for the same. Mr. Nuckolls and his followers crossed over to Nebraska City. The people of Percival, fearing the return of a larger party from that place on the morrow, despatched E. Avery, then a resident of Percival, to Tabor for help. A military company had been organized in Tabor, July 29, 1856, which was equipped by the state. The citizens of Tabor were called to gether to hear the statement of Mr. Avery, when it was unanimously agreed that we go to the aid of our friends at Percival, and that we set out early next morning, in order to be present at the opening of the trial. Accordingly there was a stir in Tabor bright and early next day. The parson mounted his steed, and set out in advance, going by way of Father Rector's to inform him of passing events, and suggest the propriety of his being present, and aiding in keeping the peace. It was a cold morning in December. The wind blew strong. Gray clouds obscured the sky, and stray flakes of snow were falling, and by daylight the parson wrapped in his blue blanket had reached Thurman on his way. A load of men armed with muskets went directly from Tabor, to see that our friends had fair play. But the ice was running so thick in the river that crossing was considered unsafe, and the defendants in the case did not appear, and so no trial was had, and we all returned to our homes. The case of Williams v. Nuckolls formed a suit in the county court for several terms, and finally Mr. Williams was awarded several thousand dollars damages, which enabled him to build the good house and barn, where Sturgis Williams, his nephew, now resides.
Years fled apace. Mr. Nuckolls removed to Denver. Mr. Williams was quietly enjoying his declining years, when Mr. Nuckolls found occasion to return from Denver, and stop for a short time among his friends in Nebraska City. One night during this short time, Mr. Williams was aroused from his slumbers, to find his barn in flames, and a brisk breeze blowing directly toward the house, so it was with difficulty that it was saved from burning too. Mr. Nuckolls' presence at Nebraska City and the burning of the barn may have had no causal connection, but it was not easy for Mr. Williams to avoid the conviction that the former sustained to the latter the relation of cause.
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