The Underground Railroad in Kansas worked to deliver slaves to freedom from bondage by utilizing the common strategy and tactics of the Underground Railroad in the rest of the nation.

Slaves were often freed by abolitionist guerillas during raids on pro-slavery communities in Missouri, and slaves in western Missouri also escaped from their owners and traveled to Kansas Territory in search of freedom in abolitionist communities in Kansas Territory such as Osawatomie and Lawrence.

The escaping slaves that were freed by abolitionist guerillas were brought to Osawatomie, where they were taken to safe houses, and there were multiple safe houses in Osawatomie, but never for too long, for slave holders, seeking to reclaim their lost property were fast to send slave hunters chasing after their former slaves to return them to bondage.

To prevent the slaves from being returned to slavery, the families that operated safe houses for the slaves were not told where the slaves were taken next in Kansas Territory. That way, if threatened with violence by slave holders if they did not tell them where the slaves had been taken, they could truthfully state that they had no idea where the slaves had been taken.

Osawatomie was one of the first stops for slaves in the Underground Railroad in Kansas, and from Osawatomie, slaves were taken to Anderson and Franklin counties, then north to Lawrence, leaving Kansas at Nebraska City, Neb., and eventually to freedom in Windsor, Canada across the border from Detroit, Mich.

The path to freedom for escaping slaves was fraught with danger every step of the way, not only for the escaping slaves, but for the abolitionists who were helping them escape.

What abolitionists thought of as freeing slaves, slaveholders and their allies viewed as grand theft of personal property, and in the 1850s the Fugitive Slave Act of 1850 backed them up with federal imprisonment and fines for helping slaves escape.

Realistically, some slaveholders and slave hunters sometimes used instant justice by shooting or hanging abolitionists on the spot, viewing abolitionists who helped slaves escape as mere brigands and thieves that were on a par with horse thieves, not deserving of the dignity of a legal trial.

Thus, it took great courage and dedication to the abolitionist cause for a person to literally risk imprisonment and death to help slaves escape by providing a safe house for escaping slaves on the Underground Railroad.

Slaves who chose to escape slavery also had great courage as well, for if they were caught after an attempt to escape slavery, they would often be punished severely in front of the other slaves owned by a slaveholder to serve as an example of what horrid fate awaited any slave who tried to escape bondage.

Slaves who tried to escape were often whipped in front of their fellow slaves as a warning, with other more barbaric punishments meted out as well. Osawatomie’s abolitionist founders were willing to risk their own freedom to help slaves find freedom, and they did so with great courage.

Grady Atwater is site administrator of the John Brown Museum and State Historic Site.

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