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Sand Ridge Nature Center’s Underground Railroad event explores local history of aiding freedom seekers

By Michelle Ryan

SOUTH HOLLAND, Ill. (March 4, 2023) – The Forest Preserve District of Cook County hosted several events in honor of Black History Month throughout February. Sand Ridge Nature Center, located at 15891 Paxton Avenue in South Holland, participated by presenting the “Underground Railroad Walks” on the weekend of February 24 and 25. Sand Ridge has been offering different variations of the Underground Railroad walks during the last weekend in February since 2014.

Tom Shepherd, Lead Project Organizer of the Little Calumet River Underground Railroad Project, gave a presentation on February 25. This group consists of local leaders, residents, and neighborhood stewards from Chicago’s far south side and Calumet region seeking to highlight their community’s significance in the history of the Underground Railroad and promote local development efforts.

Tom Shepherd, of the Little Calumet River Underground Railroad Project, gave a presentation on February 25 at Sand Ridge Nature Center. (Photo: Michelle Ryan)

The indoor presentation

The indoor presentation commenced with a song from the 1800s by spiritual singer, Lana Lewis. She began the song in the hallway where she was heard but not yet seen, and made her way into the room where she finished the song. Lyrics depicted the hardships and state of mind of enslaved laborers. Shepherd then began his lecture, complete with a slide show and a discussion afterward.

Though images of a railroad track in an underground tunnel might come to mind when the phrase “Underground Railroad” is used, this is misleading. The word “underground” is a metaphor for “covert,” while “railroad” represents a path. Shepherd pointed out how the Underground Railroad was not learned in some school curriculums.

The Little Calumet River was one of many rivers that were part of the Underground Railroad.

Underground Railroad in the local area

“Fugitive slaves used the ‘Riverdale Crossing’ ferry and bridge (the present-day Indiana Avenue bridge) and received help from the Dolton family and other early settlers, and from Dutch immigrants including the Ton family,” Shepherd said.

Many Dutch settled in South Holland after fleeing the Netherlands because of religious persecution.

“The Dutch had an affinity for [helping] slaves,” said Shepherd. The Ton farm was less than two miles from Sand Ridge Nature Center.

Freedom seekers needed a safe passage to travel from Altgeld Gardens to Riverdale. Dutch settlers Jan and Aagje Ton owned a farm roughly at Halsted and 134th Place, currently home to Chicago’s Finest Marina. They worked with fellow Dutch settler Cornelius Kuyper, who lived at 103rd and Michigan Avenue, the Chicago neighborhood of Roseland.

Freedom seekers were provided food, shelter, clothing, and sometimes money, as well as moral support. They would stay at a safe house for a few days or longer depending on their recovery. Some seekers even held temporary jobs before moving on. They were often hidden in compartments of traveling wagons.

Throughout Chicago’s far south suburbs including Crete, Sauk Trail-Park Forest, South Holland, and Riverdale, “an estimated 3,000 to 4,500 freedom seekers came this way,” Shepherd said. Sauk Trail connected the Detroit area to the Mississippi River.

The freedom seekers walked 300–400 miles, usually barefoot, from states including Missouri, Kentucky, and Tennessee through the waterways. 6,000 to 10,000 freedom seekers traveled from Missouri to Illinois between 1830 -1891.

“It was dangerous, harrowing and difficult,” Shepherd said.

Audience interaction

The audience was welcomed to ask questions. One included potential consequences to an abolitionist if caught helping a freedom seeker. Shepherd explained how the Fugitive Slave Act of 1850 rewarded a person with $300–$5,000 for a capture. It was against the law to harbor fugitives and punishment included jail and thousands of dollars in fines. Battles could ensue and lawbreakers could be run out of town.

Another question involved whether any freedom seekers escaped back to Africa. Shepherd couldn’t offer any concrete examples but said he wouldn’t be surprised since it was secret. Many went to Mexico, the Caribbean, and southwest, where they lived with Native Americans.

The Underground Railroad flourished after Canada phased out and abolished slavery between 1791–1833, according to pbs.org: “For those who endured the long journey and all its hardships, Canada was the Promised Land.”

Lewis closed the presentation with a couple more songs where attendees clapped and sang along.

Outdoor exhibit

The outdoor exhibit consisted of two self-guided trails. The Redwing Trail is a half-mile long and displayed numerous signs with information about the dangerous journey and survival. Living off the land included consuming walnuts, acorns, crab apples, pawpaw (mango-banana), cattails, and tree bark, which has an edible layer. Blackberries and raspberries were easily identifiable compared to pokeweed berries, which were poisonous to humans. Small game included rabbits, turtles, ducks, catfish, walleye, and bass. Leftover bones and feathers had to be hidden, so no trace of a fugitive was found.

An information sign along the Pines Trail at Sand Ridge Nature Center. (Photo: Michelle Ryan)

Reading nature was crucial. Moss growing on the north side of a tree or knowing what direction a river flowed offered direction. Waterways are all connected including streams, ponds, marshes, and lakes. Other geographical knowledge and landmarks of a region, such as trails, railroads and other roads, rock formations, and mountains could be secretly spread to other freedom seekers. The night sky was navigated the same as mariners traveled the sea before maps existed.

underground railroad
Harriet Tubman is a well-known Underground Railroad “conductor.” (Photo: Michelle Ryan)

Also featured along the Redwing Trail was Harriet Tubman, one of the most well-known of all the Underground Railroad’s conductors. Tubman imitated sounds of birds to secretly communicate to other freedom seekers. The barred owl, in particular, blended right in during nighttime.

The Pines Trail is about a quarter-mile long and displayed signs of conductors in Illinois who supported freedom seekers. Priscilla Baltimore, led 11 families from St. Louis to Illinois. She later founded Brooklyn, Illinois, the first town settled by African Americans in the United States. Other conductors included Professor Jonathan Baldwin Turner, of the Illinois College and Congregational Church; James Jenkins, who spread contradictory stories to newspapers to create confusion allowing fugitives a safer passage; and Reverend Owen Lovejoy, whose homestead was one the best documented Underground Railroad “stations” in Illinois.

To learn more about presentations on the Underground Railroad and the Little Calumet River Project, visit www.illinoisundergroundrailroad.info/little-calumet-river-ugrr. To learn more about Sand Ridge Nature Center’s events, check their website: fpdcc.com/places/locations/sand-ridge-nature-center.

The Lansing Journal
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The Lansing Journal publishes news releases from state, county, and local officials who provide information that impacts local community life. The particular contributor of each post is indicated in the byline.