Spotlight: The Underground Railroad on the Shawnee National Forest
“I had heard that if I could get into Ohio, and manage to stay there one year, I would, after that, be a free man.” ~John Little, in A North-Side View of Slavery by Benjamin Drew, 1812-1903
What You’ll Find
The Underground Railroad was not an actual railroad, but a network of secret routes and safe places to freedom extending from the southern to northern United States and into Canada. The goal of many enslaved African Americans in the South during the early 1800’s was to reach refuge in southern Illinois, where they would find shelter along these Ohio River borderlands. Underground Railroad routes skirted cities, where a greater population meant a greater chance of being captured. Many first-hand accounts of the Underground Railroad mention topographical features within the Shawnee National Forest, rock shelters and bluff tops that hold nooks and crannies like Ox-Lot, Sand Cave, Crow Knob, Brasher Cave and Fat Man’s Squeeze (alternatively, Fat Man’s Misery) where African Americans reportedly passed through on their escape to freedom.
The Shawnee National Forest in southern Illinois is bordered by the Ohio River on the east and the Mississippi River on the west in southernmost Illinois. Check the Shawnee National Forest Recreation Map to get a picture of the forest’s location, but to get to the Underground Railorad sites you may need the help of Forest Service staff.
Make Sure You
Visit the Miller Grove area near the town of Glendale. This is the site of a freed slave community that was founded in the years leading up to the Civil War. The community exists only as an archaeological site, but was the former home of over 100 farmers and their families at the turn of the century. People like those living at Miller Grove would certainly have aided fugitive slaves traveling on the Underground Railroad. Not far from Miller Grove, you’ll find Crow Knob, a high sandstone bluff allegedly used as a “look-out” and Sand Cave, thought to have been a hiding place.
Near the town of Jonesboro, stop at the Lincoln Memorial, site of the third in a series of seven Lincoln-Douglas debates. Here Abraham Lincoln, then candidate for the Illinois Senate, spoke out against slavery.
Hike one of the many trails of the Shawnee National Forest. Walk through meadows edged with blackberries in June, or overhung with hickory nuts in October, for an idea of the wild foods the fugitives might have eaten as they fled. Pause to hear the sounds of nature. While you hear only the sounds of rustling leaves or a startled deer, imagine how those who traveled before might have paused to listen for dogs or hoof beats. Imagine this is the first time you experience what it is like to be free.
Reflect on the history of the area in the Garden of the Gods Recreation Area, where you'll experience sandstone rock formations as well as panoramic views, or the Bell Smith Springs Recreation Area, one of the most beautiful areas on the Shawnee. Freedom meant making your own choices for the first time: choosing simple things like the clothes you would wear or the foods you would eat, or more complex choices like who to marry, where to live or how to support your family.
The Shawnee is located at the junction of five geographic regions and at the southern margin of the area glaciated during the Great Ice Age. This results in unique geologic features as well as diverse flora and fauna in one of the richest “ecotones” (ecological transition areas) in the nation. To experience some of this spectacular scenery and wildlife, consider a drive on the Illinois section of the Ohio River Scenic Byway.
Visit the Shawnee National Forest website to start planning your trip. Many vestiges of these routes and places are not signed or marked, and you may need assistance to find them. Contact the Shawnee National Forest at 800-My Wood (800-699-6637) or stop at the Vienna Ranger Station near the town of Vienna for directions.
To learn more about the Underground Railroad visit the National Underground Railroad Freedom Center website. To learn about other Underground Railroad sites, visit the National Park Service Network to Freedom website.