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Was the Taylor Home a Stop on the Underground Railroad?

The Stephenson County Historical Society in Freeport, Illinois, is housed in the former home of pioneer businessman Oscar Taylor, built in 1857.

Family legend says that the Taylor Home was used as a station on the Underground Railroad, and we are often asked if this is really true.  This question is best answered by Harriett Gustason's article on page six of the Saturday, February 28, 1998 Freeport Journal Standard, titled "Was the Taylor Home a Stop on the Underground Railroad?"  The article is copied here in its entirety.  (Additional information and sources are contained in endnotes and were not part of the original article.)

It was dangerous to harbor slaves when Oscar and Malvina Taylor lived in their new big house at the outskirts of a young and sprawling Freeport.

There were state and federal laws against those actions.

In March 1848 Illinois voters overwhelmingly approved the new state constitution, which prohibited "free persons of color" from immigrating to the state and prevented owners from bringing slaves here for the purpose of setting them free.

In 1853 the Illinois State Legislature made it a crime to bring a free black person into the state.

Roger Taney, chief justice of the U.S. Supreme Court, ruled in the Dred Scott case of 1857 that blacks had "no rights under which any white man is bound to respect."

It has long been debated in this community whether the Taylors, noted Freeport settlers, violated these laws by aiding in the escape of runaway slaves on the underground railroad.

Let us examine the evidence:

The stately home that was once the Taylors' is now the site of the Stephenson County Historical Museum, 1440 S. Carroll Ave.  It was entered into the National Register of Historic Places on May 11, 1984, after research and preparation by members of the Stephenson County Historical Society.  Those who worked on securing this designation were Glenn Schwendiman, then president of the Society; Fern Ditzler; Frances Woodhouse; and the late Ann Lathrop.  The application documents included the case concerning the Taylors' possible anti-slavery efforts.

There were other factors, of course, in the not-lightly-handed-out designation.  Also of historical significance was that the Taylor family members often saw friendly Indians ride through their grounds.  They could see a long way from the house's cupola. 

In 1995 the Illinois Humanities Council and the National Endowment for the Humanities funded, through a grant, an exhibition at the museum titled "The Underground Railroad, Taking the Train to Freedom." 

The house was built in 1857 by the Taylors as the slavery issue raged throughout the nation.  The house sat on a vast expanse of wooded prairie, with the beds of Yellow Creek and the Pecatonica River only minutes away by foot.  Stealth by night was feasible.

Oscar Taylor was practicing law in Freeport after he was admitted to the bar in 1850.  He also had an abstract and title business and a lightning rod factory.  Taylor had to be aware of the riskiness of such controversial actions as harboring fugitive slaves.  This was of necessity a hush-hush business.  There would not be any written records.  The Taylors were, afterall, law-abiding citizens.  They knew not everyone saw things as they did. 

That the Taylors were abolitionists is indisputable.  County histories document their responsibility for bringing abolitionist speakers here on numerous occasions and having them as guests in their home.  Oscar Taylor was one of the promoters of the important Freeport Lincoln-Douglas debate of 1858.

The Taylors were also known as progressive thinkers.  They were social and cultural leaders in the community and had a hand in bringing here such well-known personalities as Horace Mann, Ralph Waldo Emerson and Horace Greeley.

The Taylors entertained these men in their home, which was at first on South Adams Avenue.  In 1854, Frederick Dogulass, the nationally known black abolitionist orator, spoke in Freeport.  The 1970 "History of Stephenson County" says he stayed with the D.A. Knowlton family.

There was, conclusively, widespread anti-slavery sentiment abroad in Freeport.

The 1970 history tells of the Taylors' engaging the "famous abolitionist Singing Hutchinsons of New Hampshire" to come for the dedication of their mansion as well as for various other civic engagements.

The Taylors also, social and cultural pace-setters as they were, were a bit revolutionary in their philosophies.  They prided themselves in their "house of hospitality."  The elaborate and distinguished "Taylor-Snow Genealogy," compiled and published by the Taylors' daughter, Charissa Taylor Bass, and her husband, Frank Nelson Bass, tells us the Taylors' "latchstring was always out."  Oscar was known here as a kind, genial and genteel man.  The story of Malvina's 1909 death in the Freeport Daily Journal stated, "The Taylor home on Carroll Street…radiated hospitality" and "the visitor - beggar or magnate - was made welcome."

Oscar Taylor was raised in an abolitionist family.  His father, John Taylor, served in the U.S. House of Representatives and was Speaker of the House.  The Taylor genealogy tells us he was the first man to speak out against slavery before the House.[1]

Oscar had come west from his native New York in 1838, living first in Joliet, then in Rockford.  After coming to Freeport in 1842, he served as Freeport's first town clerk and, for a time, as a justice of the peace.  He met and married Martha Malvina Snow, also a native of New York, within a year of his arrival.

Malvina had come to join her family here after completing her Eastern schooling.  The two brought with them the sophistication of the East.

The Taylors tried things that must have raised the eyebrows and perhaps the envy of other early settlers.  Their home was said to be the first of the big houses in Freeport.  Oscar and Malvina brought in new species of trees and rose bushes for the arboretum and gardens they started around their home.  They called the place Bohemiana.

The Taylors were, in a way, stylish revolutionaries.  The women of the family, a bit non-conforming and unconventional, were go-getters, individualists and artists.

When the cholera epidemics struck the community in 1850 and 1854, Malvina Taylor rolled up her sleeves and worked in stricken homes.  Her hand-painted china was featured at the 1893 Columbian Exposition in Chicago.  Some of that collection and an illuminated book of poetry done by her daughter Charissa may be seen today at the Museum.

Another daughter, Winnifred, is credited with founding Freeport Public Library.  She also achieved national recognition in the country's 19th century wave of prison reform for her series of articles on the subject, published in Scribner's Magazine, and for her book, "The Man Behind the Bars."  Local histories tell us the Taylors even sheltered people in their home who had been sentenced to probation.

Social reformer Jane Addams was one of the regular guests in the Taylor home.  Her father, who served as an Illinois state senator for 16 years, was a known abolitionist and a personal friend of Abraham Lincoln.  The anti-slavery sentiment was there.  No doubt about it. 

We also learn from the 1970 history that during the last year of the Civil War, Oscar Taylor's oldest brother, Col. John W. Taylor, sent 13 emancipated slaves to Freeport and asked Oscar to find employment for them.  This, the history states, was "a charge which was faithfully fulfilled."[2]

But where is the proof that runaway slaves were actually sheltered there at Bohemiana?  There is no longer anyone living who could have witnesses those activities.  There are also no hard facts to prove specific runaway slaves were sheltered there.

But there are a couple of additional significant factors in the case.

The following was handed down by word of mouth to the late Mary X. Barrett, editor of the 1970 county history: "A separately walled small basement room in the house of Oscar Taylor…had a door which was hidden by shelves for fruit jars attached to it, and was said by his daughter, Mrs. Frank Bass, to have been used to hide runaway slaves."[3]

Mrs. Barrett told this writer personally of her friendship with and deep admiration for Charissa Bass.  Barrett said Charissa Bass was one of her mentors when she, Barrett, came to town as a young single teacher.  Bass, born in 1863, was too young to have remembered incidents of harboring slaves, but in later years she may have heard stories from her parents.[4]

So there you have the known evidence.

We can't say definitively how many, or even whether, runaway slaves stayed at the stone house on South Carroll Avenue.

It is certain the Taylors had the sympathy for helping in the flight of runaway slaves.  It would follow that those progressive reformist types had the intent. 

I believe that the room in the cellar of the house was put there to hide people escaping from the human servitude that the Taylors and others found so abominable.

So it is up to you to reach your own conclusions.  Somewhere out there may be other corroborating evidence.  We know there are diaries and letters from that era stored away in various households.  Anyone with any such valuable relics ought to scour them for anything that might pertain to this piece of local history.  Wouldn't it be thrilling if something turned up?

To date, no one has turned in any diaries and/or letters confirming the rumor to Harriett Guastson. 

Transcribing done by the Stephenson County Historical Society.  Endnotes were added by the Historical Society and were not part of the original article. 

[1] In "The Taylor-Snow Genealogy," printed by the Taylor's daughter Charissa Taylor Bass in 1935, Charissa says "I am proud to say, my Grandfather John W. Taylor was the first man who ever stood on the floor on Congress and directly opposed slavery."  Charissa Taylor Bass quotes from a 1920 copy of the New York State Historical Society quarterly magazine in an article on John W. Taylor  "In endeavoring to halt slavery where it was, he revealed the transforming vision and noble temper that possessed him.  With none of the shiftiness of the ordinary politician, he strove to build for the future, being conscious of the mastery of laws and institutions over the character and happiness of men.  Thus he became the prototype of the Anti-Slavery Reform; work that Pres. John Quincy Adams and Joshua Giffings carried on; and Abraham Lincoln finished."

[2] The 1970 History quotes the 1910 History of Stephenson County.  The 1910 quote is "The household servants during the last year of the war were colored people, fresh from slavery; for Mr. Taylor's oldest brother, Colonel John W. Taylor of General Rosecran's staff had sent thirteen emancipated slaves to find employment in Freeport under the guidance of Mr. Taylor, a charge which was faithfully fulfilled" (Volume II, page 28).  Mr. and Mrs. Taylor had both died a year before the 1910 History was published.  

[3] This underground room is now open to the public, and can be toured on your visit to the Historical Society. 

[4] Letters from the files of the late Mrs. Mary X. Barrett show that in the years she was researching for the 1970 history she contacted many friends of Charissa Taylor Bass to see if Mrs. Bass had told anyone else of runaway slaves hidden in her home.  Mrs. Bass had died in 1939, so the people Mrs. Barrett was contacting in the late 1960s were mostly people who had known the adult Mrs. Bass while they themselves were children.  The Historical Society has the letters that Mrs. Barrett received in response to her requests.  They all attest to Charissa Bass' credibility, stating that if Mrs. Bass said it then it was true, but none could add any additional evidence.