National Underground Railroad Network to Freedom

Grinnell, Iowa, has a well documented history as a stop on the network used by enslaved persons seeking freedom, referred to as the Underground Railroad.  There are 37 documented cases of freedom seekers passing through Grinnell between 1854 and 1860 (per David Connon). There were likely more.  Town founder, J.B. Grinnell, was a passionate abolitionist and an active participant in the Underground Railroad. He regularly sheltered freedom seekers in his home and barn, and even welcomed John Brown on his flight through Iowa in 1859. His significance is marked by inclusion in the National Underground Railroad Network to Freedom.  As his home is no longer standing, this sign stands at his gravesite in Grinnell’s Hazelwood Cemetery.

Grinnell was also home to a former slave who, by his own account, traveled with John Brown on that trip. George Craig, grandfather of Edith Renfrow Smith, stated in an 1895 newspaper article that he came through Grinnell in 1859 while travelling with John Brown as he escaped slavery.

Josiah B. Grinnell – Town founder and avid abolitionist

J.B. Grinnell home, circa 1870. The arrow in indicated the room where John Brown was said to have stayed. Image from the library archives and credited to photographer Arthur Child.

J. B. Grinnell and the Iowa Underground Railroad

Former Grinnell resident David Connon has spent several years researching J.B. Grinnell and the underground railroad activities by him and other Grinnell residents. During his research, he created a comprehensive timeline of Grinnell’s early history and has asked Drake Community Library to make his timeline available online.

The timeline covers the history of Grinnell and key Grinnell residents from the years 1806 – 1911, primarily focused on 1854 – 1864. The 600-page timeline is arranged chronologically by date and includes citations for further research. You can search this timeline for keywords or names using the Ctrl + F (Control Find) keyboard shortcut.

The DCL Local History Archives is grateful for David Connon’s research and his invaluable role in documenting this important history. A great-great-grandson of two Union veterans, his Facebook page is Confederates from Iowa: Not to defend, but to understand.  You can check out David Connon’s latest book, Iowa Confederates in the Civil War, available online and at Drake Community Library.

David Connon Presentation

As a Humanities Iowa speaker, David Connon gives a lecture about J.B Grinnell’s role in the Underground Railroad. The presentation to the Ames History Museum on March 29, 2022 was recorded and can be watched on YouTube.

John Brown’s stop in Grinnell

In February 1859, John Brown traveled across Iowa with 12 freedom seekers. The journey took him along the well worn network of safe harbors known as the Underground Railroad. One of the notable stops was in Grinnell where he was hosted by town founder Josiah B. Grinnell. According to this 1895 account in the Grinnell paper, one of the freedom seekers with him was George Craig, grandfather of Edith Renfrow Smith.

  • John Brown from Grinnell’s centennial publication “A century of progress” (Grinnell Herald Register 1954)
  • How Grinnell’s Liberty Room Got it’s name by F.H. Polk (Part 4 of a 6 part series in 1927 in the Des Moines Register. More info below.)
  • George Craig’s Slavery History, including reference to traveling with John Brown through Grinnell (Grinnell Herald, March 29, 1895)
  • Joanna Harris Haines: Recollections of 70 years This memoir of an early resident includes her memories of John Brown’s visit in Grinnell

Including George Craig, a freedom seeker who travelled with John Brown in 1859 and later settled in Grinnell.

Biographies of area residents

Read biographical sketches of Poweshiek County residents who are known to have been involved in the Underground Railroad in some way.

* James Bailey * Amos and Sarah Bixby * Harvey Bliss * Nathaniel Clark * John Conaway * Samuel F. Cooper * “Scotch” Cooper * George Craig * Josiah B. Grinnell * Homer Hamlin * Harris Haines family * Shipman Newkirk * Frances Overton * Leonard F. Parker *

Des Moines Sunday Register 1927 Series

In 1927, the Des Moines Register ran a series of articles recounting the 1859 journey of John Brown through Iowa. The second of the six part series focused on the stop in Grinnell. We have transcribed the text of all of the articles to make their easier to read in their entirety.

In 1927 the Des Moines Sunday Register Magazine Section ran a six part series of the 1859 journey of John Brown across Iowa. Written by F. H. Polk, the series ran weekly from February 20 through March 27. The fourth in the series focused on the stop in Grinnell and was entitled “How Grinnell’s Liberty Room got it’s name.” The articles are based on the information that was known at the time and written in a dramatized fashion to engage readers. Some things stated have since been shown to be incorrect.

Works from 1927 are now in the public domain. Drake Community Library staff have transcribed the entirety of the series for easier reading.  

Iowa and the Underground Railroad


Iowa Freedom Trail Project: Website from the State Historical Society of Iowa. Includes links to documents that provide county specific information of those known to have been involved, help with research, and other resources.

Iowa and the Underground Railroad. Provides an overview and a detailed account of the 1859 journey of John Brown. [State Historical Society of Iowa]