On July 4, 1842, Caroline Quarlls, a 16-year-old St. Louis slave, made her escape to freedom and lived to write about it 38 years later.
She had thought about running away for more than a year,had managed to acquire $100, but had yet to make her move. Then, in a rage, her St. Louis, Missouri, mistress cruelly cut off the 16-year-old slave girl’s long hair.The young woman knew the time had come for her to leave, and she began planning.
The year was 1842, and Caroline Quarlls would soon set out on a journey that would make her the first runaway slave to escape through Wisconsin to Canada on the so-called Underground Railroad. Decades later, as an old married, woman, she and her husband corresponded with one of her benefactors in letters that had been lost until recently, when they were found among other Civil War letters.
“Dearest friend, pen and ink could hardly express my joy when I heard from you once more. I am living and have to work very hard but I have never forgotten you nor your kindness. I am still in Sandwich [modern Windsor, Ontario] the same place where you left me.”
Caroline Quarlls wrote this letter to Lyman Goodnow in 1880,some 38 years after Goodnow, as one of the Underground Railroad’s “conductors,” had escorted her for 700 miles of her journey, hiding her in a wagon he drove from southern Wisconsin to Detroit,where she crossed the Detroit River to Canada.
Quarlls’ story became famous around Wisconsin both before and after the Civil War, in particular through the account published in 1893 in the memoirs of Chauncey C. Olin, a Wisconsin pioneer and historian who was the editor of the Waukesha Freeman newspaper. Olin’s book includes the text of Quarlls’ letters and the only known photograph of Quarlls, which he received from her son William.The book also includes an account written in 1880 by Lyman Goodnow.
The story of Quarlls’ escape and clandestine travels began soon after her owner’s wife chopped off Caroline’s hair. The opportunity to pay a visit to a sick friend provided Quarlls with the window she needed.After obtaining permission for the visit, she threw a bundle of clothes out the window, called on her friend and kissed her goodbye,went back,picked up her clothes and walked down to the ferry that crossed the Mississippi River from St. Louis, Mo., to Alton, Ill.The light-skinned girl, whose genealogy would suggest she was an Octoroon, dressed as a young lady, bought a ticket, and boldly boarded the steamboat, pretending that she planned to attend a seminary for young ladies.
“She thus excited no suspicion,being no darker-skinned than many of the other young ladies who attended the seminary,” Olin wrote. But apparently her disguise wasn’t foolproof.At Alton a black man at the wharf asked her whether she was an escaping slave and said, if so, that he wanted to help her. He warned that Alton wasn’t safe and urged her to take the stage for Milwaukee, which she did.As she got off the stage at the Milwaukee House hotel, she encountered another black man, a barber by the name of Titball,who would prove to be treacherous.Titball told Quarlls he wanted to help her and offered lodging, which she accepted.
But about a week later,when Titball learned that a group of officials and lawyers had arrived from St.Louis offering a goodsized reward so they could return Quarlls to her owners,Titball told them the girl was staying at his house.He sent another exslave, a boy who worked with him, with instructions to move her to a place where she could safely hide. But the boy sensed Titball’s motives and took the girl to a different hiding place. Meanwhile, one of the St. Louis lawyers, a man named Spencer,decided it would be better to use the law rather than invite the wrath of the abolitionists around Milwaukee by seizing the girl without due process.He asked Milwaukee lawyer H.N.Wells for help, but Wells wanted nothing to do with Spencer. Instead,Wells alerted friends in another law office,that of Finch & Lynda, and they searched out Quarlls and hid her until dark.
Spencer finally did find a Milwaukee lawyer who would help him, but when they got to Titball’s house, the girl was gone.That night Asahel Finch snuck her across the Milwaukee River and hid her inside a large sugar cask that stood between the road and sidewalk in front of a small house.The next night Underground Railroad conductor Samuel Brown took Quarlls to his farmhouse south of Milwaukee, and the following night he hid her in a rickety wagon and started driving toward Pewaukee.Just before reaching the main road,Brown heard voices and stopped until a group of men on horseback passed by.It was Spencer and several other men,who had been to Waukesha, which they called the “Abolition Hole,” searching for Quarlls.After they passed,Brown’s wagon broke down, but he’d had the foresight to bring along a saddle.He unhitched the wagon,saddled the horse,and Brown and Quarlls rode to a house north of Pewaukee where she hid for another few days.
The slave hunters were now offering a reward of $300 and gaining support from some of the locals greedy for the money. The hunters posted watchers on all of the bridges and roads leading to Milwaukee and Prairieville, as Waukesha then was known. One Milwaukee lawyer, J.E.Arnold, thundered that those hiding the girl were breaking the law. He accused Ezra Mendall, a deacon of the First Congregational Church and an outspoken abolitionist, of harboring her.Arnold and his group confronted Mendall as he was cultivating potatoes,accusing the deacon of breaking the law.“Well,a bad law is sometimes better broken than obeyed,” replied Mendall, a 45-year-old combat veteran of the War of 1812,as he looked toward his rifle that lay in the grass nearby.Those in the unarmed group also noticed the gun, and when Mendall denied them permission to search his house, they went back to Prairieville.
At this point, Olin wrote,“We will now introduce Mr. Lyman Goodnow,who had been chosen a conductor for Caroline Quarlls.Mr.Goodnow proved himself to be a good and safe conductor, and took good care of the slave girl under his charge.”
Goodnow, a bachelor, had been given the assignment through his church, and he chose Mendall to ride along with him—with Quarlls curled up in straw at the bottom of the wagon.They drove 30 miles to Spring Prairie, where they left her with an abolitionist family and turned to go back.As he climbed into the wagon,Goodnow stepped on an object in the straw—a long butcher knife. He looked at Mendall, who had once been a butcher, and said,“Deacon, what’s this?” Mendall replied,“Oh, it’s something I brought along to pick my teeth with.”The two men drove back to Prairieville,where they found things quiet, but after a few days they began to worry about Quarlls’ safety.
Goodnow was nominated to go back and take her farther along the Underground Railroad.When he reached the house where he had left her, he was surprised to find her gone. She had been moved to another house,at Gardner’s Prairie,two miles from Burlington,Wis.As Goodnow stopped at the homes of abolitionists along the way, several insisted on coming along— including Dr. Edward G. Dyer of Burlington, who provided a pillowcase full of cakes, pies and cheese. Dyer also asked Goodnow how much money he had and appealed to all present to open their wallets—gathering $20.As the group stood in the yard, two men came up the nearby road.
“While at this place, just before night, who should we see coming up the hill but Arnold and Spencer, still wearily but doggedly pursuing the fugitive girl,” Goodnow wrote.“Caroline and myself, as well as the balance, were unfortunately out in the yard, and the road was in plain sight, but we were not seen.”
With Quarlls wrapped in a buffalo robe in the bottom of a buggy, Goodnow drove on, stopping near Dundee, Ill., at the home of a man named Russell who, while not known as an abolitionist, was a Methodist.
“Mr. Russell said he never had been an Abolitionist, but he was more than willing to assist any human being to freedom,” Goodnow wrote.“If that was being an Abolitionist,he was one. He never knew before what Abolitionism was. I made him a station-keeper on the underground railroad,which I established along the route.”
At Naperville, Ill., Goodnow stopped at the home of a Deacon Fowler, where some young women approximately Quarlls’ size provided her with fresh clothing. They drove on, eventually reaching Beebe’s Grove (now Crete,Ill.),where they heard that advertisements had been posted on the Chicago docks offering $300 for the return of the runaway slave girl.They also learned that the clerk of the steamboat on which Quarlls had traveled from St. Louis was searching for her because the steamboat company would be legally liable for $800 if she could not be found.Indeed,the company eventually did pay the money to her master. At a schoolhouse in Beebe’s Grove, several Sunday school teachers came out to talk with her.
“Near by stood one of the ‘liberty poles,’ so called, which were common to northern villages,” Goodnow wrote. Quarlls asked what the pole was for and was told it was to commemorate the birth of liberty in America.
“How can it commemorate liberty in a country where there is no liberty; where more than one-fifth of the inhabitants are in bondage?”she asked.Goodnow wrote that the runaway slave girl so confused her visitors,who all were abolitionists,that they could not answer her.The next day Goodnow and Quarlls were traveling again, stopping to stay at a shanty with a German farmer and his wife, then traveling for three days among Quaker families.
“The men were all absent from home attending a Quaker meeting in Ohio,” Goodnow wrote. “The women refused everywhere to say anything about the underground railroad, though they usually said,‘Thee can have what thee wants.’”They traveled on into Michigan, where the Underground Railroad had been in operation for some time. Finally, three weeks into the journey, they reached Detroit. Goodnow paid an acquaintance 12 shillings to ferry them to Canada.
“After crossing the Detroit River,Caroline began crying,and clutching me by the arm, asking if it was possible that she was being taken back to St. Louis,” Goodnow wrote.“I talked and explained, but it took some time to make her understand that I had not betrayed her back to St. Louis. She declared that everything appeared to her as if she were on the banks of the Mississippi River opposite St. Louis.” Goodnow finally convinced her that she was safe,left her at the house of a missionary in Sandwich and turned back.
In 1880, when Goodnow wrote to find out how Caroline Quarlls had fared,she responded with joy at hearing from him. Delighted at hearing from her, Goodnow wrote her another letter. She replied again, sketching out her life, her marriage to Allen Watkins and their six children. But while thankful to Goodnow for his kindness, she admitted that her life had been tough and was not all she had hoped for:“I got a pretty good living but by working pretty hard for it,but I am not very happy.”
Originally published in the March 2008 issue of America’s Civil War. To subscribe, click here.