An entry buried in a 120-year-old manuscript has confirmed what local historians long have believed: Wheaton College was a stop on the Underground Railroad.
Officials said they knew the college was founded and led by abolitionists. But it was difficult to substantiate the claim that the school - called Illinois Institute at the time - was directly involved with the network of stops and routes that aided escaping slaves.
"We never had the hard evidence that strict historians want to see," said David Malone, the college's head of archives and special collections.
That changed earlier this year when Wheaton College history professor David Maas was doing research for a book.
Following a tip from a friend, Maas found an entry in an 1889 book about the 39th Regiment of the Illinois Volunteer Infantry that refers to Wheaton College as "an Abolition school in an Abolition town."
That one-page entry was written by Ezra Cook, a Wheaton College student who eventually married one of the daughters of college founder Jonathan Blanchard.
In the book, a regimental history that includes remembrances from soldiers, Cook writes about attending Wheaton College at the outbreak of the Civil War in 1861. At the time, Cook notes that runaway slaves were "perfectly safe" in the "College building."
Wheaton College officials say that building is now known as Blanchard Hall.
Cook also went on to write that he, along with "hundreds of others," had seen fugitive slaves before "they soon took a night train well-guarded to the next station on the U.G.R.R. (Underground Railroad)."
Malone said Cook's statement is the first documented evidence that abolitionists at the college helped fugitive slaves.
"We've never been willing to say for ourselves that we were a stop on the Underground Railroad," Malone said. "Others were willing to say it for us. But we wouldn't confirm that. Now we're able to say with full assurance that this was a stop on the Underground Railroad."
Maas said he was "terribly excited" about the discovery. Still, he admits he has some skepticism.
"Why, if there were hundreds of people who observed this, doesn't anybody else - as far as we know at this point in time - make a reference to it?" he said.
Historian Glennette Tilley Turner said it was not unusual for people to maintain secrecy when it came to the Underground Railroad.
"They purposely did not leave paper trails because it was an illegal operation," said Turner, a Wheaton resident who has written several books, including "The Underground Railroad in Illinois."
Turner said she's convinced Cook's entry is an accurate account of Wheaton College's involvement with the Underground Railroad.
"There's no doubt in my mind," she said. "It really substantiates that there were operations here."
Malone said he and other officials will do research to determine where in Blanchard Hall escaped slaves might have been sheltered. They also want to try to acquire a copy of the book containing Cook's account.