Freedom Trail

Iowa Culture
11 min readFeb 4, 2015

The Freedom Trail is the path taken by abolitionist John Brown on his last trip across Iowa. Brown, who made several trips across Iowa to aid slaves on their journey to freedom, was a radical abolitionist who led attacks against pro-slavery residents during the Bleeding Kansas conflicts. Many extremists began to follow Brown in his quest to incite a rebellion among the slaves. John Brown’s final trip across Iowa began on February 4, 1859 and the same year on October 16 he led the unsuccessful attack on the federal arsenal at Harper’s Ferry, Virginia. He was tried, convicted of treason and was hanged on December 2, 1859.

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Stop 1: Civil Bend

February 4, 1859

On February 4, 1859, abolitionist John Brown and a group of escaped slaves crossed the Missouri River at Nebraska City and made their way to the former settlement of Civil Bend in Fremont County.

At Civil Bend, the group stayed at the home of Dr. Ira Blanchard (pictured). The Blanchard House was a stop on the Underground Railroad and Brown often found shelter there during his trips to and from Kansas helping escaped slaves to freedom.

He and his group took refuge there for the night, after laying low in southeast Kansas for several days. Brown’s final journey across Iowa had begun.

Today, the only physical reminder of this stop on the Underground Railroad is the Blanchard Cemetery, which stood adjacent to the Blanchard Home.

Stop 2: Tabor

February 5, 1859

After overnighting at the Blanchard House in Civil Bend, John Brown and his group traveled to Tabor, Iowa — arriving on February 5, 1859. Tabor was an antislavery stronghold and a stop on the Underground Railroad. It was known as a staging area for Kansas-bound Free Soil settlers and the Reverend John Todd House (pictured) was used as a place to store arms and provisions d uring the Bleeding Kansas conflict.

Brown had spent a good deal of time in Tabor prior to 1859. This time, Brown received a cool welcome when he arrived in Tabor. Local residents were displeased with Brown and his recent actions. He had gone beyond his regular actions of assisting freedom seekers and had begun to actively free slaves and kill slave owners. Because of this cold reception, the Brown entourage only stayed at Tabor a week.

Stop 3: Charles Tolles Cabin

February 12, 1859

After spending a week in Tabor, Iowa, on February 12, 1859, the John Brown party travelled to the Charles and Sylvia Tolles Cabin, in rural Mills County, 1.5 miles northwest of present day Malvern, Iowa.

Tolles (pictured) was born in February 1823 and sought adventure on the western frontier. Tolles arrived in Mills County, Iowa, in 1846 and became active in the Underground Railroad due to his previous association with Ira Blanchard.

The three wagon caravan left early the next morning, February 13, and headed northeasterly towards Lewis, Iowa, in a bad snow storm. Years later, Tolles recollected about Brown: “I did not see a savage but a determined countenance, an eye that looked straight down in to your very soul.”

Stop 4: Oliver Mills Farm

February 13, 1859

The John Brown entourage left the Tolles Cabin and headed northeast in to a snow storm on February 13, 1859. They travelled toward Lewis, Iowa, and the farm of Brown’s cousin: Oliver Mills (pictured).

Mills lived just south of Lewis, then the county seat of Cass County. Reverend George B. Hitchcock, a Congregationalist, resided about a mile due west of the Mills place (see map). Mills and Hitchcock worked together in the antislavery movement. The Hitchcock House (pictured) is a National Historic Landmark and one of the few physical reminders of the Underground Railroad remaining in the state.

Oliver Mills was born in Trumbull County, Ohio in 1821. At 29, he removed to Iowa and by 1857 he had settled near Lewis. After his involvement with the Underground Railroad, Mills continued to be active in civic life. He was elected to the Iowa General Assembly in 1872 and served twenty years with the state agricultural society. Notably, he promoted the establishment of the state agricultural college (now Iowa State University) at Ames, Iowa.

Stop 5: Grove City

February 14, 1859

John Brown, with twelve men, women, and children escaping slavery from Missouri, plus ten of his own men, stopped near Grove City in Atlantic Township in Cass County on February 14, 1859. They stayed at the Grove City House, operated by David A. Barnett. Barnett, a large farm owner, local town promoter, and husband of Grove City’s postmistress, worked with Oliver Mills and Rev. George Hitchcock of nearby Lewis to assist those escaping slavery. Brown’s party rested overnight at Grove City on their three month trek toward freedom.

The then new, but now bygone, town of Grove City briefly boomed in hopes of becoming the county seat with the railroad’s arrival. Unfortunately, the railroad tracks skirted the edge of Grove City and the train barreled by the settlement at full speed on the way to Atlantic, Iowa. Grove City, the size of a quarter-section of land and a 24 block town (see historic maps) dried up and is now denoted only by a historic marker.

Stop 6: Dalmanutha

February 15, 1859

On February 15, 1859, the John Brown party stopped at Dalmanutha, a settlement on the Middle River. They stopped at the tavern hotel, operated by John Porter, a 49 year old farmer and hotel operator. At that time, Dalmanutha was still a hamlet, with only ten dwellings. The Brown entourage stayed only one night before continuing eastward.

Dalmanutha was laid out in 1855 i n Thompson Township in southern Guthrie County. The Western Stage Company was operating stage coaches between Des Moines, Iowa and Council Bluffs, Iowa, that stopped at Dalmanutha. The community supported a post office from 1863 to 1875. It is now a ghost town approximately five miles northwest of Casey, Iowa, marked by only a few buildings, historic markers and the Dalmanutha Cemetery. Porter, the abolitionist, is buried at the western edge of the cemetery.

Stop 7: Jonathan Murray Farm

February 16, 1859

On February 16, 1859 the John Brown entourage stopped near Redfield, Iowa, at the farm of Jonathan M. Murray. The three-wagon caravan traveled approximately 25 miles that day. They rested overnight at Murray’s place before continuing on.

Murray, a fifty-five year old abolitionist from Maine, lived just over a mile east of the eventual town of Redfield on the road to Adel, Iowa, Murray’s grave is located at the Redfield Cemetery. The Murray farm is private property. The Freedom Trail marker about the farm is located at the Redfield Depot.

Stop 8: The Jordan House

February 17, 1859

On February 17, 1859 John Brown’s group, made up of 12 escaped slaves and Brown’s 10 men (all heavily armed) arrived at the farm of James C. Jordan and rested overnight in the timber. The Jordan House was built in phases beginning in 1850. It is located in West Des Moines, Iowa, and is a West Des Moines Historical Society museum.

Jordan was born a southerner, but turned a gainst slavery as a young man in Virginia after helping chase down fleeing slaves from a neighboring plantation. In 1846, James Jordan migrated to Iowa and settled in Walnut Township, along with his wife and children. Jordan was a successful businessman, farmer and banker. He also served in the Iowa Legislature and led the charge to move Iowa’s State Capitol from Iowa City to Des Moines, Iowa. He platted Valley Junction and established a railhead there, later, in 1938, the community became West Des Moines. James Jordan died in 1893 and is buried at the Jordan Cemetery.

Stop 9: Yellow Banks Park

February 18, 1859

After resting overnight the John Brown party continued eastward across Polk County. On February 18, 1859, the group arrived at Brian Hawley’s farm, near present day Runnells, Iowa. They stayed there one night before continuing the journey to freedom. Hawley was a 49 year old saw mill owner and carpenter. He lived just west of Yellow Banks Park, a Polk County Conservation site.

Stop 10: Cornwall Dickinson Farm

February 19, 1859

On February 19, 1859, John Brown’s group stopped at the Cornwall Dickinson Farm on the far eastern edge of Jasper County (see map). The Dickinson Farm was located at the site of the Interstate Highway 80 Eastbound Mile Post 181 Rest Area.

With mild winter weather, John Brown and his entourage stayed only one night at the Dickinson’s before continuing on to Grinnell, Iowa. Dickinson was a 45 year old farmer, originally from Ashtabula County, Ohio — an antislavery stronghold. He and his wife Rebecca had six children. Based on research at the State Historical Research Center, we know that Dickinson purchased two parcels of land in Poweshiek County and moved his family there in 1864 (see map).

Stop 11: Grinnell

February 20, 1859

Favored by mild winter weather, John Brown and his crew continued east to Grinnell, Iowa, on February 20, 1859. They stayed two days, and Brown developed his plan to attack the US Arsenal at Harpers Ferry during his time with town founder Josiah B. Grinnell (pictured). Grinnell was a Vermont native, a Congregationalist minister and part of the strong anti-slavery movement in town. Grinnellians gave John Brown $25 and provisions for several days.

Grinnell later served in the Iowa Senate and US House of Representatives (where he was physically assaulted by Congressman Lovell Rosseau for insulting his home state of Kentucky). He was a benefactor for Grinnell College and later become the Director of the Rock Island Railroad. Grinnell passed away in 1891 and is buried at Hazelwood Cemetery in Grinnell. The Grinnell House (pictured) stood across from Grinnell Central Park until 1914, when it was moved. The home was demolished in 1984.

Stop 12: Draper Reynolds Farm

February 20, 1859

On February 20, 1859 John Brown’s group, made up of 12 escaped slaves and Brown’s 10 men overnighted at the Draper B. Reynolds Farm 1.5 miles south of Marengo, Iowa (see map). By the time they arrived in Marengo, the Brown entourage had been travelling for nearly two months. After rescuing slaves in southwest Missouri, they moved north through Kansas and Nebraska and arr ived in Iowa on February 4.

Draper, a Pennsylvania native, homesteaded south of Marengo in 1855 (see map). He was 49 years old when he sheltered Brown’s entourage of abolitionists and freedom seekers. Draper passed away in 1875 at the age of 68 is buried at the Old Marengo Cemetery.

Stop 13: Iowa City

February 24, 1859

On February 24, 1859, John Brown and his crew of escaping slaves and abolitionists passed through Iowa City on their way to Springdale, Iowa. Iowa City was the westernmost point on the railroad and the community was hotly divided over slavery.

One night during his time in Springdale, Brown and a companion snuck in to Iowa City to meet local abolitionists Dr. Jesse Bowen and William Penn Clark. Brown was seeking railroad car arrangements to move his group further east. Word got out about Brown being in town and soon others were on the lookout for this so-called antislavery “fanatic.” Dr. Bowen harbored Brown at his house on 914 Iowa Avenue until, during early hours of the morning, Col. S. C. Trowbridge guided them out of town via back roads.

Dr. Jesse Bowen, a pioneer physician, early editor of a temperance newspaper and later a state senator, actively opposed slavery and befriended those who took direct action against it. He took delivery of revolvers from Massachusetts shipped to Brown in care of Jesse Bowen. In March 1859, Brown also entrusted Bowen with disposing of arms remaining in Tabor, IA.

W. Penn Clarke, an active member of the Kansas national committee for Iowa, a prominent man in Republican party circles, and an energetic successful lawyer, applied his intensely partisan views to aiding men such as John Brown in Underground Railroad efforts.

Stop 14: Springdale

February 25, 1859

After sneaking through Iowa City, the John Brown entourage arrived in Springdale on February 25, 1859. Springdale was a Quaker hamlet established in 1854 and Brown and his men had spent the previous winter there, staying with William Maxon and conducting military drill. This time, the group would stay in Springdale for two weeks before boarding trains to Chicago.

After Brown’s raid in Missouri was published in newspapers a reward was offered for his capture. This concerned residents of Springdale and the posted sentries in case a mob from Iowa City might try to intercept him at Springdale.

Two men from Springdale, brothers Barclay and Edwin Coppoc, joined Brown’s force. They continued with Brown until the failed raid on the US Federal Arsenal at Harpers Ferry, West Virginia. Edwin was captured and hung after the attack, while Barclay escaped. He went on to serve as a Lieutenant in the US Army and died in a train crash over the Platte River in 1861.

Stop 15: West Liberty

March 9, 1859

On the evening of March 9, 1859, John Brown, with twelve men, women, and children that had escaped slavery from three southwest Missouri farms, plus his own men, arrived in West Liberty, Iowa. The party had spent the last two weeks at Springdale, awaiting rail transportation arrangements.

Upon arriving at their West Liberty rail connection, Brown’s group stayed overnight at nearby Keith’s Mill. An engineer operating the first morning’s eastbound train from Iowa City dropped off an empty box-car near the mill. Soon — as friendly residents looked on — the liberated slaves boarded the boxcar. The train left West Liberty the next morning. It was bound for Chicago, with the boxcar placed between the engine and express car.

Stop 16: Mississippi River

March 10, 1859

On the afternoon of March 10, 1859, John Brown (pictured) and his entourage passed through Davenport in the empty box car they had boarded that morning. They crossed a five year old railroad bridge (pictured) on a train bound for Chicago, Illinois.

Crossing the Mississippi River at Davenport was the final stop on Brown’s Iowa Freedom Trail. Within two days, the group would pass through Chicago and Detroit, where the escaped slaves would take a ferry to freedom in Windsor, Ontario, Canada. Only seven months later, Brown and his men would attempt to seize the Federal Armory and Arsenal at Harpers Ferry, Virginia (now West Virginia). Nine months later, Brown would be dead — hung for treason.

Originally published at on February 4, 2015.



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