In the early to mid-1800s, the Underground Railroad, an informal network of secret routes and safe houses, was created to help slaves escape from the South. This network was like an "underground" resistance and used "rail" terminology. Abolitionists-people who were opposed to slavery-organized this effort in Lake County and elsewhere. Generally, people worked in small, independent groups to maintain secrecy.
Approximately 200 slaves per year were guided to freedom in northern states and Canada. Most of the escapees were probably male field workers younger than 40 years old, since the journey was often considered too dangerous and long for women and children.
Under the Fugitive Slave Act of 1793, it was illegal to aid runaway slaves. When the act was strengthened in 1850, underground activity increased despite the new law granting slave catchers immunity to do their job in free states. Areas in Lake County noted as abolitionist hot spots or safe houses included Millburn, Ivanhoe, Gurnee, Waukegan, and Deerfield. Since the network had to be kept secret, it is rare to find primary documents of these activities. The only known example is from the Millburn Congregational Church where the congregation agreed in writing to assist escaped slaves.
One of the few detailed stories of an escaped slave coming to Lake County was passed down through the Ott family of Deerfield. In the winter of 1858, Andrew Jackson, a 28-year old escaped slave, arrived from Mississippi at the Deerfield safe house of Lyman Wilmot. Because it was winter and travel was difficult, Wilmot found a more permanent residence for Jackson at the Lorenz Ott home where Jackson assisted with chores.
When the roads became passable in the spring of 1859, Ott, a tailor by trade, made the young man a new suit and gave him the boat fare to Canada. Wilmot then took Jackson to Chicago to board a ship to freedom. The Ott Cabin is preserved as part of the Deerfield Historical Society's historic village.
A historical display about Lake County's role in the Underground Railroad will be one of the exhibits and activities featured at the 5th Annual Juneteenth Celebration and Conference to be held from 9 a.m. to 6:30 p.m. on June 21 at the College of Lake County Lakeshore Campus in Waukegan. Juneteenth represents the joy of freedom and is the oldest known celebration that commemorates the ending of slavery. For more information, call the CLC Lakeshore Campus at (847) 543-2191.
Diana Dretske, author of "Lake County, Illinois: An Illustrated History" is the collections coordinator for the Lake County Discovery Museum. The Lake County Discovery Museum, a department of the Lake County Forest Preserves, is an award-winning regional history museum on Route 176, west of Fairfield Road near Wauconda. The museum is open from 11 a.m. to 4:30 p.m. Monday through Saturday and 1 to 4:30 p.m. Sunday. Call (847) 968-3400 for information.