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Uncovered history: Peoria's Underground Railroad was dangerous. But abolitionists persisted

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A stanch abolitionist, Moses Pettengill is credited as the founder of Peoria's Underground Railroad.

You may have heard about Peorian Moses Pettengill's role in the Underground Railroad -- but did you know how dangerous it was to be an abolitionist in the River City?

Peoria Historical Society volunteer Corey Curtis spent the last year and a half researching what the Underground Railroad looked like in Peoria... from the 1830s through the end of the Civil War in 1865.

He uncovered stories of vandalism, violent mobs ... even murder.

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Corey Curtis is a volunteer historian with the Peoria Historical Society.

In this conversation with WCBU's Hannah Alani, Curtis depicts just how dangerous Peoria was for those who aimed to be on the right side of history.

Curtis will give a presentation of his research Sunday at the Pettengill-Morron house, 1212 W. Moss Ave. (Learn more here.)

The following is an extended transcript of an interview that aired during "All Things Peoria" on Friday, Feb. 25. It has been edited for length and clarity.

Corey Curtis: I can tell a story to set the stage. ... So Moses Pettengill, he was a conductor in the Underground Railroad. The runaway slaves would cross the river and he would meet them. There was one instance in the early 1840s, where there was a man on the east side of the river. And we don't know who exactly he is. He just went by the name of ‘Mr. Brown.’ Mr. Brown, he had two males, one female, and three children, runaway slaves, and he was trying to get them to Moses Pettengill, so they could go further north. Usually the next stop was a Long Ridge, which is kind of by Bradford. He was successful in getting the women and children across to Moses Pettengill’s house. But then the word start getting out in Peoria, that this Mr. Brown was doing this. So they actually, in Peoria, started sending fliers around that if Mr. Brown is spotted in Peoria, to ‘shoot him on spot,’ because they know what he's doing. So it was too dangerous for him to even show his face.

So, Moses Pettengill stepped in and said, ‘I will help you get these last runaway slaves across the river.’ So he and his nephew, Josiah Babcock, they had this skiff, which is kind of like a flat boat. And under the cover of darkness these two men, they kind of ferried them across the river, and quickly led them to Moses Pettengill’s house, where he was told that Lucy had a hot meal waiting for them and fresh clothes. But it was still so dangerous in Peoria for them at the time, because people were looking for them, that they couldn't stay. So all this all happened in one night. Once they got to Moses Pettengill’s house, they had to immediately leave and head further north to Long Ridge.

Hannah Alani: Wow. I think when people look back on the history of Illinois, especially people who grew up in Illinois or grew up in the Midwest, it's easy to say, ‘Oh, well, we were on the right side of history. We were a Union state.’ Even the fact that there were slaves in Illinois surprises a lot of people, when they hear that for the first time. Explain to our listeners a bit about the anti-abolitionist culture here in Peoria. And why was it so fervent? Why was it so strong?

Corey Curtis: You're correct. People do have this misconception that, ‘The South, they supported slaves, the North, they were against slaves.’ And for most times, that was really not correct. Peoria was a Democrat-leaning city. In fact, [President] Lincoln, despite visiting Peoria 17 times, he never won the county in a presidential election. Their sentiments were more, ‘We're going to do our thing here in Peoria, and in the North. We're going to allow the South to do their thing, in the South. And we don't have the right to tell them what to do. Just like they don't have the right to tell us what to do.’ And anything outside of that mentality, they thought could promote violence or even sectional, even war. So they really kind of wanted to kind of maintain the peace. And then you do get these early abolitionists who start coming in, and preaching about the evils of slavery. And you get hundreds of people showing up trying to disband the meeting. In fact, they said, ‘You will disband, and we don't want to resort to violence. But if we have to, that's the way it's gonna go.’

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In July 1846 a Peoria newspaper editor named Samuel H. Davis was brutally beaten after locals accused him of authoring an abolitionist column.

Hannah Alani: Your report is so well researched. How much time have you spent looking into this? Or, when did you start researching this history?

Corey Curtis: I started about a year and a half ago. I was and still am a docent at the Pettengill House on Moss. And I started reading about Moses Pettengill and his operations in the Underground Railroad, the abolitionist movement. And I wanted to learn more. But there wasn't much that was easily found. So I started diving in deeper and deeper. And a year and a half later, we get a presentation. It's a pretty concise history of the Underground Railroad and abolitionist movement here in Peoria. This this topic really isn't, wasn't, really well known. People know Peoria for the distilleries, the theaters. But when you talk about the Underground Railroad, abolitionist movement here in Peoria, it's not something that a lot of people know about.

Hannah Alani: It is such amazing history, and your presentation is so well researched, and well detailed. And I'm curious what your sources of information were. You have lots of newspaper clippings, but I'm curious, you know, did you get your hands on any, you know, diaries? Or firsthand written accounts?

Corey Curtis: Well, thank you for that. I appreciate that. It was a compilation of digging through newspaper articles or archives down at the library. It was memoirs, journals, eyewitness accounts, and just putting it all together, and sometimes I would do research on the history of Knox College, and they would have a story about Peoria specifically and Underground Railroad. So I’d include that. So it was pretty much going everywhere and anywhere I could think of. The Underground Railroad was connected. From Peoria to Knox College to Wheaton College.

Hannah Alani: Moses Pettengill, and his wife, Lucy were such foundational figures in the early days, and then certainly throughout the abolitionist movement here, but they were not from Peoria. Tell our listeners a bit about where they were from.

Corey Curtis: Moses Pettengill was originally from New Hampshire. And he was born in the early 1800s. And he married Lucy. And he went on this fact-finding mission to come out West to seek a fortune. And he had heard about the beautiful Illinois River Valley, here in Peoria. So in the early 1830s, he came and checked it out, fell in love with it, went back and brought his wife here and established ties here. … 1834, he set up a hardware business. 1835 he set up, what was called, the Main Street Presbyterian Church.

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A stanch abolitionist, Moses Pettengill is credited as the founder of Peoria's Underground Railroad.

Immediately from the start, he actually brought his convictions with him here, to Peoria. He was not only an abolitionist, but he … interestingly enough, he was an anti-secret society thinker. He didn't like the Freemasons. All those philosophies he brought here. And he not only preached them, but he lived by them.

Hannah Alani: And when he got here, there were other abolitionists here. Tell me a bit about the community that sort of started, it was kind of the 1830s 1840s, right?

Corey Curtis: The Main Street Presbyterian Church was nicknamed, ‘The Abolitionist Church.’ It was a collection of this very small number of abolitionists who lived in Peoria. It never really grew much because of the mentality and what they believe. So it was kind of this, almost like a leper church, then. The abolitionists there, they put a lot on the line for their beliefs, financially. Moses Pettengill was a businessman. That's how he made his money. He could have just as easily said, you know, ‘That's really hurting me financially. So I'm not going to talk about this.’ And he could have made a lot more money, but he chose not to.

Hannah Alani: It seems like a really big turning point for the community … you know, there were a lot of ‘moderates’ out there who were just kind of bystanders, not really taking one position or another … was the violent mob of 200 people that showed up at that church. Would you say that, that's true? It kind of took that big display of conflict, I guess, to kind of bring people out of the woodwork to support the abolitionists?

Corey Curtis: Yeah. By the early 1840s, they had established themselves that, ‘We are the abolitionists. We're here in Peoria. And we're going to organize.’ The event that you speak of was when they tried to hold their first anti-slavery meeting in the city of Peoria. And around 200 plus people showed up to try to shut it down. So there was a lot of violence. A lot of threats being made. In fact, the Rev. Allen who spoke at the meeting, his horse and carriage were vandalized, his wheels thrown into the river.

Hannah Alani: And I want to make sure our listeners understand the gravity of, you know, when we say ‘violence’ … There had been a murder, right? Because that same meeting that was held then, had attempted to be held a year prior? Is that right?

Corey Curtis: So the one in Alton, the state’s first Illinois State Anti-Slavery Society meeting. Shortly after the meeting, the Rev. Lovejoy was murdered. He organized it, had deep abolitionist thoughts. And one night, a mob came and attacked his printing press, because he also ran had abolitionist newspaper. And they told him to stop the print. And they attacked his printing press, and he was shot. When I was doing my research, one author described Peoria as, outside of Alton, Peoria was the most violent city in Illinois, as far as anti-abolitionists opinions. So, mobbings, lynchings of African Americans. One night a group stormed where abolitionists were staying the night, and almost killed three of them. So it was a lot of lawlessness. And it was kind of this wink and a nod where, well, ‘If they wouldn't stir up the public and wouldn’t be saying these things, that wouldn't have happened to them.

Hannah Alani: And it's in the face of all of that. … I mean, that is the context that we're talking about. Despite all of that, Moses Pettengill and others say, ‘We're going to not only talk about anti-slavery ideology. We're going to actually be part of the Underground Railroad. We are going to take people into our homes, and help them get to freedom.’ That … That seems like that must have taken a lot of courage.

Corey Curtis: Yeah, it was very dangerous at that time. There were various anti-fugitive slave laws. The biggest one was the law of 1850. You could be fined upwards of $1,000 if you're caught harboring fugitive slaves. … Back then, the average income was $350 a year.

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In 1864, Moses Pettengill bought the freedom of Eugene Russel, a man formerly enslaved by a Confederate officer. Moses hired Eugene to help out around the 1212 W. Moss Ave. property, where Eugene also lived, ate and received an education.

… You could be jailed. There was one incident where Moses Pettengill actually was arrested for being a conductor in the Underground Railroad. But he was such a well-connected man that he was able to regain his freedom. But yeah, there were a lot of laws that really, really kind of dissuaded this type of activity. Not only federal, but state laws. There's the Black Codes.

And then there were also county laws. One of them being, I think it was in the early 1840s, where they required African Americans entering into the county to post bond. And if they wanted to stay in the city, they had to leave money at the county courthouse. And it was specifically for, what the county officials said, in case they ‘became part of the state welfare system’ … so, ‘the state and the county wouldn’t have to pay their way.’

Hannah Alani: Wow. You know, that just, it's layer upon layer of the true history of this county and this state. … We never learned this stuff growing up in school. Well, for the formerly enslaved Africans living in Peoria, what were their lives like, around this time? I mean, did they have any sort of, any sort of real freedoms?

Corey Curtis: It was dangerous. By 1860, according to the census records, Peoria had a population around 1,500. Around 100 of them were African Americans. As I said, they there were mobs that would go around and attack attacking African Americans in the streets. If you ever heard of the New York draft riots during the Civil War? That occurred here as well. But not only that. Someone could report an African American and tell the authorities that, ‘Hey, I think there's a runaway slave.’ And he could be a longtime resident of Peoria. And the sheriff would come, investigate. And the African American had to show papers to show that he was free in Peoria. And if he didn't have those, he could be sold into slavery, gone and sent back down South, despite being a longtime resident here.

My presentation actually has one account where that actually happened. Despite showing papers, the sheriff said, ‘No, I don’t believe these papers are legit.’ And he was arrested and auctioned off.

Hannah Alani: Wow. And going back to draft rights, I read in your presentation, you refer to the angst, I guess, toward the idea of using freed slaves in the rebellion?

Corey Curtis: Yeah, up until 1863, African Americans could not fight in any kind of combat role. When the Civil War started, they could be cooks. Maybe they could run supply lines. But they weren't trusted to have weapons. They weren't trusted that they would perform in an appropriate manner. If they were out on the battlefield with weapons, it was thought that the whole battle would just fall apart, and the Union would lose. They just didn't trust them. They didn't think they were capable. So it wasn't until 1863 that Abraham Lincoln finally said, ‘Yes, we'll have them in combat roles.’ They were segregated combat roles, though. Here we had the 29th. And it was an all-Black regiment from Illinois. There was actually a lot of people from Peoria, a lot of African Americans from Peoria, that were in the 29th.

Hannah Alani: Yeah, you mentioned a family of four brothers from the Pekin-Peoria area.

Corey Curtis: Yeah, the Ashbys.

Hannah Alani: Going back to the Underground Railroad ... A lot of people know the Pettengill house on Moss Avenue. But that's not actually the house where the Underground Railroad stopped. Tell us a bit about the history of the family's homes here in Peoria, and, a bit more about how many — if we know how many — people they actually helped get to freedom?

Corey Curtis: So his original home was where the Civic Center now stands. There's a Preston Jackson statue there, that promotes this being a stop of the Underground Railroad. What would happen is Moses would generally meet the runaway slaves at the river, and take them as quickly as he could to his home, where they would be fed, clothed, and kind of whisked away to the next stop. This home was built around the latter 1830s. And they lived there until around 1862, when they bought the property on Moss.

As far as how many slaves ever went through there ... we don't really know. We have these stories from kind of oral history. But none of this was really recorded or written down, because of how dangerous it would be to do something like that. So we'll never know how many slaves really went through that house. But it was a main stop on the Underground Railroad. And Moses Pettengill was the organizer of the entire thing. So we can say there probably was a great number that came came through there.

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By 1842, runaway slaves were able to travel more freely through Peoria as abolitionist sentiments grew in fervor.

Hannah Alani: And I want our listeners to understand the impact of Moses Pettengill ... he wasn't just the leader of the Underground Railroad here in Peoria. He, at one time, was the manager of the entire statewide Anti-Slavery Society, is that right?

Corey Curtis: Yeah, he was elected the manager of the the Illinois State Anti-Slavery Society. He joined what was called the Liberty Party. The Liberty Party was an anti-slavery party that thought through legislation, they would slowly change the laws and eventually provide emancipation to the slaves down South.

Hannah Alani: Something else in your research that I thought was really neat … when the women involved with the abolitionist movement kind of broke away, and sort of had their own separate meeting space. Why did that happen?

Corey Curtis: Well, after the failed meeting, where that group kind of disbanded the Peoria Anti-Slavery Society, the women decided that they would give it a try. They actually succeeded. A group of men with weapons probably are less likely to break into a meeting house full of women. There were threats made, and that same reverend who had spoken at the men's one, he spoke at the women's one as well. So the only real violence that occurred there was, again, his carriage was vandalized. This poor man, his carriage just keeps on getting vandalized. The women … kind of played a different role. The men, they wanted to play a more political role, as far as legislation. They wanted to help organize the Underground Railroad. The women, some of their goals was to help educate former slaves. Their goal was to help educate them, because they thought the best path to freedom was education. They would have sewing parties, and send some of the blankets and clothes that they made up north to some of the former slaves who had made it north. So they really did different things than the men. But equally important.

Hannah Alani: You will be giving a presentation covering your research this weekend. Tell our listeners a bit about that, and how they can get tickets.

Corey Curtis: So the presentation is going to take place this Sunday the 27th at the Pettengill house and historical museum, 1212 W. Moss Ave. Tickets are $15 for adults $5 for students and $3 for ages 12 and under. You can buy tickets at the door. You can go on 309tix.com. Or just call the historical society. It's 309-674-1921. We’re having three sets; the first one’s at 1 p.m., then 2 p.m., then 3 p.m. You get a full tour of the home, along with the presentation that I'll give there.

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The Pettengill-Morron house was built during the 1860s at 1212 W. Moss Ave.
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