In the decades before the Civil War an untold number of fugitive slaves journeyed northward to freedom on the Underground Railroad, making the story of this movement one of the more dramatic chapters in American history.
While there are many myths and stories concerning the Underground Railroad, it was very real in McLean County. Mount Hope, a vanished town in southwest McLean County, was settled by Congregationalists from Rhode Island and Massachusetts. "They were, with scarcely an exception, rank Abolitionists," noted the 1879 history of McLean County. "Indeed, if tradition is to be relied on, a regular station of the underground railroad, with agent and conductor, existed in the neighborhood."
Late in his life, former Mount Hope resident Albert Robinson Greene recounted that in January 1848 his father Elisha escorted two escaped slaves to the Tazewell County community of Tremont.
In September 1853, John Anderson, a Missouri field hand around 22 years old, passed through Bloomington on his six-week journey to Canada. The Toronto Weekly Globe published a lengthy account of Anderson's escape in 1861, making it the only known narrative of a runaway slave coming through McLean County.
According to Anderson, it took him about two weeks to reach the Mississippi River, and though Illinois was a free state, "from the attempts made to capture him . . . he was convinced that he was almost in as much danger there as he had been in Missouri." Once in Bloomington "he obtained some provisions" (though this account doesn't say how or from whom) and then "availed himself of the railway track for a short distance north." Once out of Bloomington, he took a circuitous route to Chicago before making passage to Windsor, Ontario.
What Anderson doesn't say is that he had been accused of killing a slave owner-turned-slave tracker in Missouri. In a case that drew international attention, Canadian courts first found Anderson guilty of murder and liable for extradition. The appeal, however, was in his favor and he continued to live as a free man north of the border.
Perhaps the best account of Underground Railroad activity in McLean County comes from an 1899 history written by Erastus Mahan, whose father William Mahan was part of a family of anti-slavery activists who settled in Pleasant Hill, a community southeast of Lexington.
In the summer of 1854, Erastus Mahan recalled a runaway husband and wife from Missouri who found themselves in Lexington. They were mixed race (Mahan used the term "mulatto") and "were fairly well dressed and attracted no unusual attention." Mahan brought them to S.S. Wright's home outside of Lexington, and after a week or so, led them to a man named Richardson, who lived nine miles south of Pontiac. From there the fugitive slave couple traveled to Chicago and then Canada.
During the Civil War, the local Underground Railroad was no longer "underground." In March 1862, The Pantagraph excoriated a "miserable, low-lived" slave catcher from Missouri who appeared in Bloomington to track down a "little mulatto boy" around 12 years old. "To the 'Southern gent' we would say, the sooner you make tracks from Bloomington the better," The Pantagraph warned.