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Cool Things - Underground Railroad Chair

Underground Railroad chair

Abolitionist John Brown rested in this chair while escorting a group of escaping slaves to safety on the Underground Railroad in Kansas.

The Underground Railroad was a network of trails with safe houses where runaway slaves could stay and receive food and shelter. It reached its height of operation after the passage of the Fugitive Slave Act of 1850, making it a federal crime to aid escaping slaves.

Fugitives chose from several different routes through Kansas, depending on their location within the territory. Many escaping from Missouri made their first stop at Quindaro in Wyandotte County. This town became an Underground Railroad station about 1857 and remained so until the start of the Civil War. The next stop on the route often was the free-state town of Lawrence. Slaves then made their way to Topeka and turned north. The last leg of the route through Kansas, and the best known, was the Lane Trail.

The Lane Trail

James Lane originally laid out this trail so free-state immigrants coming to Kansas Territory could avoid proslavery settlements along the Missouri River. Marked with rock piles that became known as Lane's chimneys, the trail began in Topeka and continued north through Jackson and Brown counties (along today's US Highway 75), ending at the Kansas-Nebraska border. By 1856 its use as an immigrant trail had fallen off, but its runaway slave traffic had increased. Because of the secretive nature of the Underground Railroad, it is unclear how many slaves used this route through northeast Kansas.

But it is known that on at least one occasion the Lane Trail was used by famous abolitionist John Brown.  He arrived at the home of Charles Smith very late on a cold January night in 1859.  Accompanying him were nearly 30 people--among them ten slaves liberated on a raid into Missouri just a few weeks earlier.

Close-up of chair's splint seat

Smith Station

Not everyone would have answered a knock on the door late at night, but Charles Smith was different.  His home on the Lane Trail was a safe haven known to a select few as a stop on the Underground Railroad.  The farmer had settled in Brown County, Kansas, in 1856 with his wife and three children.  He was willing to put himself and his family in jeopardy to help the abolitionist cause.  According to an account written later by one of Smith's sons, Charles provided Brown and his party with food and shelter that cold winter night. This "station" on the Underground Railroad was actually only a one-room cabin with few places to sleep, including the bare floor. Brown, being a famous abolitionist, was offered this chair for the night.  Smith later recollected, "The captain dozed in one of our two chairs by the stove in which he kept a slow fire going."  The following morning, the party continued on its way north, probably passing into Nebraska and then Iowa.

The demand for an Underground Railroad route in Kansas lessened with its admittance to the Union as a free state in 1861. James Lane became one of the first U.S. Senators from Kansas, but died by his own hands in 1866. John Brown was hanged after an aborted attempt to take over the U.S. arsenal at Harper's Ferry later that year. Charles Smith lived the rest of his life quietly in Brown County.

This chair is the only artifact in the Kansas Museum of History's collections associated with the Underground Railroad.

Entry: Cool Things - Underground Railroad Chair

Author: Kansas Historical Society

Author information: The Kansas Historical Society is a state agency charged with actively safeguarding and sharing the state's history.

Date Created: March 2004

Date Modified: December 2014

The author of this article is solely responsible for its content.