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The Underground Railroad in our back yards

Local experts to present stories and photos—Monday, February 25, 6:00pm

by Ashlee De Wit

LANSING, Ill (February 1, 2019) — In 1843, Caroline Quarlls was a 16-year-old who left Missouri with a bounty on her head. She spent some time in Crete, Illinois, and other local areas before becoming the first enslaved person to reach Canada by way of Wisconsin.

Seven years later, Henry Stevenson was being used by his owners to track other runaway slaves, appearing to be fully cooperative all the way—right up until he reached Chicago and escaped.

These are just a couple of the stories of the remarkable freedom seekers who traveled through Chicago’s south suburbs on the Underground Railroad—and more information is still being discovered.

“There are amazing stories,” said Dr. Larry McClellan, a founding member of Governors State University and an Underground Railroad researcher. “What’s most exciting is being able to uncover stories of individual freedom seekers who came right through our back yards.”

Presenting the stories

On February 25 at the Lansing Public Library, McClellan and Tom Shepherd, a former Lansing resident and a new member of the Lansing Historical Society, will present information on the Underground Railroad in Illinois, and on their efforts to get a monument installed at the site of abolitionist Jan Ton’s farm on the Little Calumet River.

The presentation, hosted by the Lansing Historical Society, starts at 6:00pm in the Community Room.

“It happened right here”

“I want people to see the importance of the Underground Railroad in American history, and to see that it happened right here,” McClellan said.

Local residents may be surprised to hear the extent of Underground Railroad activity that happened locally, as many people associate it with places farther east.

“When most people in Illinois think of the Underground Railroad, they think of Harriet Tubman and Frederick Douglass,” McClellan said. “But my research shows that anywhere from 3,600-4,500 people came through the Chicago area.”

Up to 3,000 people crossed over the Little Calumet River on the Dolton Bridge—just blocks from the Jan Ton farm, which served as a station on the Underground Railroad.

Up to 3,000 people crossed over the Little Calumet River on the Indiana Avenue Bridge in Dolton. Today’s bridge is in the same location that it was in those days. (Photo: Melanie Jongsma)

(Photo: Melanie Jongsma)
Some freedom seekers settled in this area, but most were passing through on their way to Canada.

Uncovering new stories

McClellan—who is set to publish a book on Caroline Quarlls, and another entitled Freedom Seekers and the Underground Railroad in Northeastern Illinois—recently expanded his area of interest, and he continues to uncover new stories.

“My research has been really focused on Illinois, but I’m now starting to look at Northwest Indiana and the whole Calumet region,” he said. “It’s really exciting, finding things that no one has found before.”

The stories that McClellan has uncovered—and continues to find—will impact the presentation in Lansing later this month.

“I’ll have a PowerPoint; there are so many powerful visual images—maps and pictures,” he said. “I believe in understanding history through the telling of stories.”

Spreading the word

Both McClellan and Shepherd would like to see the stories of the Underground Railroad told to many more local residents. They are a part of the Little Calumet River Underground Railroad Project, which seeks to recognize the freedom seekers who passed through and the local residents who helped them.

Goal 1

“We have three goals in our efforts to memorialize the Underground Railroad in the Calumet region,” Shepherd said. “First of all, we want to establish something—monument is not the right word, but something to memorialize the fact that hundreds, perhaps even thousands, of people came through the Chicago area on their trek eastward, many to Detroit and then Canada.”

This is not a new effort; it started around the year 2000, when Shepherd and others organized into a group then called Chicago/Calumet Underground Railroad Effort (C/CURE). They picked it up again in late 2017, and renamed the group with its current moniker.

At the end of January, McClellan submitted paperwork to the National Park Service to get the Jan Ton Farm listed on the Network to Freedom register. McClellan has worked to get other sites listed on the register—such as Crete Cemetery and Crete Congregational Church, which became an official member of the network earlier this year.

On a November 2018 tour of the Freedom Trail, Larry McClellan leads the group through the area where the Jan Ton farm was located. The farm was a stop on the Underground Railroad. (Photo: Melanie Jongsma)

“If they [the National Park Service] approve it, and I think they will, it will be listed on the national register. [The Little Calumet Underground Railroad Project] is developing plans for memorials and signage.”
Being part of the network could help them obtain grant money or other funding for their memorial.

On a November 2018 Freedom Trail tour, Dr. Larry McClellan points to a spot along the Little Calumet River where Jan and Aagje Ton built their farmhouse in the 1800s. This location is near the Beaubien Woods boat launch—less than 10 miles from Lansing. McClellan and others would like to have some kind of commemorative marker installed there. (Photo: Melanie Jongsma)

Goals 2 and 3

Along with installing a physical marker at the site of the Jan Ton farm, the project would also like to establish a trail that would allow visitors to walk through the area, experiencing what it was like for the freedom seekers who came through on foot. And they will continue their efforts to spread the word by making presentations to school groups and historical societies across south Chicagoland.

To learn more about the local Underground Railroad activity, attend the February 25 presentation at the library. More information is also available at

Ashlee De Wit
Ashlee De Wit
Ashlee De Wit is a freelance writer and a Lansing native. After starting her career covering high school sports in Iowa, she's excited to be back in her hometown, reporting the stories of her local community — such as the opening of Troost, the informal Lansing pickleball club, a TF South Homecoming game, and Common Ground, Lansing's experiment with healthy race relations.


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