Fugitive Slave Law, Last Straw

Brenda Wilbee's sketch of John Denny
"Pa" John Denny

I DIDN’T KNOW when I wrote Sweetbriar that the Boren, Latimer, and Denny families of Cherry Grove, IL, were part of the Underground Railroad and that passage of the Fugitive Slave Law in 1850 was a determining factor in their decision to leave. For everyone in Cherry Grove, three miles south of the main station in Galesburg, IL, this was something of a problem. I’ve added this new information, and even though I might be a little foot loose with the dates, the truth remains...

It was the weather that provoked Arthur Denny into decision. An unexpected October blizzard caught him far from home. As Knox County's head surveyor, he and his team were hard pressed to find their way back. Head bowed to the blowing snowfall, he finally arrived with icicles in his beard, hands frozen. “Mary, will you go?” he asked, kicking the snow off his boots and hurrying into the parlor to warm by the fire.

She would. So would Arthur’s brothers.

Pa hesitated. At 58 years old, life was behind John Denny. Not long after his sons' decision to go West, however, came passage of the controversial Fugitive Slave Law. Illinois’ underground railroad was centered in Galesburg, three miles north; and in Cherry Grove and on surrounding farms quilts hung off backyard clotheslines and front porch railings, signal of sanctuary in plain sight. Very few in the county were uninvolved, all travel never discussed. When 24-year-old Sam Denny, apprenticing for law in Galesburg, brought home the Gazette, Pa didn’t speak for a long time after reading about the galling details of the North’s new compromise with the South. Louisa watched nervously as she set the table.

“I won’t stand for this!” he finally exploded, startling her so badly she dropped the forks and knives in an awful clatter. Ma came running. “This onerous bill,” he told her, fury in every line of his body, “allows Southern slave catchers to enter our homes, without a warrant! Worse,” he raged, “they’ve been given the power to forcibly deputize us into their unholy crusade!”

“It’s worse than that, Pa,” said Sam, taking the paper from him and turning to an inside page, handing it back. “There are people in Boston already snatching free men and women to sell South for a stinging profit.”

“Sam! Don’t say so!” burst out Louisa. A week later Reverend Gordon over in Monmouth County was arrested for refusing to cooperate.

“That’s it. Ill not serve the devil in his business,” said Pa. “I won’t. I will not, Sally. We’re going to Oregon with the boys. Best break the news to your mother in the morning.”
John and Sally Denny's IL House
John and Sally Denny's home in Cherry Grove, IL - prior to moving to Oregon