Underground Railroad Society of Cass County honors Black History Month

Published 1:56 pm Wednesday, February 2, 2022

CASSOPOLIS — One local nonprofit is recognizing Black History Month by remembering Cass County’s history with the Underground Railroad.

From 1830 to 1860, two lines of the Underground Railroad terminated in Cass County. The Quaker Line started at the Ohio River in Cincinnati, west to Wayne County, Indiana, north to Bristol, Indiana and into Michigan to “stations” in Porter, Penn and Calvin townships, known as “Young’s Prairie” at that time.  The Illinois Line came north from St. Louis to Niles, Michigan and west to Young’s Prairie.

UGRR stations were homes, barns and other buildings where fugitive slaves, now known as freedom seekers, were given shelter until taken to the next station by “conductors.”  Freedom seekers were taken to Schoolcraft, then Battle Creek and to other stations roughly following I-94 to Detroit and Canada.  It is estimated that more than 1,500 freedom seekers were helped on their journey to Canada. Most freedom seekers who came here were from Kentucky and came upon the Quaker Trail.  Most UGRR stations in Young’s Prairie were on Quaker farms–the names Bogue, Bonine, Shugart, Osborn, East and Lee are well-known stationmasters, some of them targets in the infamous 1847 Kentucky Slave Raid. Henry Shepard was a self- manumitted (freed) freedom seeker who settled in Vandalia, became a stationmaster and conductor on the UGRR, and also was part of the Kentucky Raid.

Free black families and black churches, primarily in Calvin Township, were also active in anti-slavery activities and helping freedom seekers on their journey.  In the mid-1840 to early 1850s, free Black families came here, primarily from Virginia, North Carolina and Tennessee.  Stewart, Allen, Ash, Wilson, Hawks, Byrd, Lawson, Anderson, Vaughn and Sanders are among several families who settled here during that time.  They came here with money and skills.  They purchased land and established prosperous farms, becoming valued members of the community.  There are several sections owned by African Americans on the 1862 Cass County plat map.  Chain Lake Baptist and Mt. Zion AME churches were founded and involved in helping freedom seekers and those wanting to settle here in this safe haven.

“The story of the Underground Railroad in Cass County is one of cooperation, respect and mutual trust to combat the hated institution of slavery,” said one historian. “The interdependency of these groups created a unique environment that helped minimize racism, promote cooperation between the races and create an African American community unique to the North.”

The mission of the Underground Railroad Society of Cass County is to research and educate about the Underground Railroad in Cass County and to restore three buildings as focal points for telling this compelling story.

The Bonine House, Bonine Carriage House and the Stephen Bogue House are open for tours June through October, or whenever open signs are posted.

More can be learned about the Underground Railroad in Cass County on URSCC website.urscc.org.

The Bonine House Research Library and a 20 site UGRR driving tour can be accessed online as well.  Driving tour maps are also available in Milo Barnes Park in Vandalia.