Slave grave: Researchers find evidence behind 150-year-old tale by Gregory R. Norfleet · News · August 27, 2008
There’s a story that persists from the North Liberty Cemetery, just north and east of Springdale, that 17 escaped slaves died and were buried along this stop in the Underground Railroad.
Lending credence to the 150-year-old tale is that the west half of the three-acre, fenced-in parcel of land has not a single headstone or marker anywhere on it. Cemetery caretakers seemed to have deliberately kept this section undisturbed.
“It’s the most unusual cemetery I’ve ever seen,” archeologist Steve De Vore said.
These clues got state and local historical agencies thinking this might be a legitimate place to scan for signs of underground, man-made disturbances.
And they’ve found some.
De Vore, who works for the National Park Service’s Midwest Archeological Center in Lincoln, Neb., said his ground-penetrating instruments show evidence that there were once rectangular holes, measuring roughly 3 feet by 6 feet, dug around the northwest section of the cemetery. De Vore’s experience tells him they are burial sites. In fact, the rectangular holes probably reach outside the fence as well.
“We will want to check outside the grid, too,” Sandy Harmel, Cedar County Historical Society secretary, said. However, outside the fence line is a corn field, so it is unknown how deep soil disturbance reached there.
Springdale was once heavily populated by Quakers, so Harmel said historians think the Friends, which abhorred the idea of slavery, took great care in burying the “freedom seekers.”
But opposing slavery was one thing, serving as a “conductor” on the Underground Railroad was something much more serious.
To protect themselves from angry slaveowners on the trail of missing slaves, conductors left gravesites unmarked, Doug Jones, archeologist with the State Historical Society of Iowa, said. And rarely did anyone record the burials.
That’s why possible burial sites such as is suspected in North Liberty Cemetery carries on only by word of mouth.
But more than 100 years after the height of the Underground Railroad, author Gordon Smith would write in a 1959 article about cemeteries in Cedar County that there is a story that 17 “negroes” were buried at the site.
“That’s part of the reason why we’re here,” Jones said. “To investigate whether it’s true. If we do find evidence, it would lend credence to other activities in this area.”
The search is part of the Iowa State Underground Railroad Project, and nearby houses and sites of former houses are known to be stops on the route fugitive slaves took to escape to the north.
The William Maxson home, which is nearby the cemetery and now only depicted by a Daughters of the American Revolution marker, hosted the famous abolitionist John Brown and served as a military training ground for Brown’s men before the Harper’s Ferry Raid in Virginia (now West Virginia) in 1859. Jones adds that the 150th anniversary of Brown’s last visit is this December.
Harmel noted that the Quakers also shunned violence, so even though Brown felt his mission to free slaves was God-given, the Quakers would not have offered their homes or property for raid preparations.
But both Quaker and Maxson’s home are near North Liberty Cemetery, so it is unclear who dug the burial sites.
De Vore said his instruments would not be able to detect a body after 150 years. But archeologists know about some of the burial practices of the time, and excavation of the site could reveal more clues.
Harmel said the county historical society does not have the resources to conduct an excavation now, but it could set up a new marker and possibly plan digging in the future.