Jordan House and The Underground Railroad

Research done by Ann and Gene Erb
Written by Gene Erb
May 2002

The seeds of James Cunningham Jordan’s anti-slavery sentiments were sown in slave territory in what is now West Virginia. Born March 4, 1813, he grew up on a farm in an area where slavery was ingrained in the economy and culture. So it was only natural, when Jordan was in his teens, that he would join a party hunting for escaped slaves from a neighboring plantation. They hunted for several days as the slaves hid in bushes and caves by day and ran at night, “enduring untold hardships to make a few miles toward the great free west, of which they had but a vague idea, from hearsay only,” according to History of Des Moines and Polk County, Iowa published in 1911. “These people, men, women and children, with hungry, pinched faces, sad, longing eyes, bleeding feet, and scanty, ragged clothing were quietly caught while most of them were trying to pray for deliverance, and, despite their pitiful pleadings and remonstrances, were marched back to their masters’ home and to their lowly life of servitude….”

With the unpleasant experience fresh in his mind, Jordan moved west when he was 19, first to Michigan for several years, then to western Missouri, where he learned the cattle business. He moved to Iowa in 1846, when the territory was opened to settlement, and quickly rose in prominence as a farmer and livestock businessman. He also gained prominence in state and local politics, first as a Whig and later as a Republican, serving several terms in the Iowa Legislature and on the Polk County Board of Supervisors. He was elected to the Iowa Senate in 1854, representing a district that stretched from Polk County to southwest Iowa. He was reelected in 1856, his senatorial terms spanning the first four years of the Underground Railroad in Iowa.

Jordan’s political activities and religious beliefs as a zealous Methodist led him into an active role in Iowa’s abolitionist movement. Many early histories of Polk County mention his Underground Railroad activities. The History of Polk County, published in 1880, says “Jordan has been a life-long enemy of slavery; his devotion to the political life as a staunch and stalwart Republican is the outgrowth of deep-seated conviction; it is among the pleasant things to remember, that under his protecting roof John Brown and his associates, with more than a score of recently liberated slaves, have offered their prayers and sung their first jubilee hymns on their way to Canada….”The Portrait and Biographical Album of Polk County, Iowa, published in 1890, says Jordan’s home “was often a haven for fugitive slaves while escaping to Canada.” Iowa: Its History and Its Foremost Citizens, published in 1915, says, “John Brown, the noted abolitionist, was a guest at his home and more than once received assistance in different ways from Mr. Jordan.” Jordan is described as the “chief conductor on the Polk County branch of the Underground Railroad,” in an article published in Annals of Iowa, Vol. XL, No. 5.
He offered shelter and assistance to runaway slaves, and to John Brown and his men, at a time when such activities were still illegal, even in Iowa. Abolitionists were in the minority in Iowa in the 1850s, and aiding the escape of slaves was fraught with danger and the risk of prosecution and loss of wealth and property. During those pre-war years, “there was a strong pro-slavery sentiment” in Polk County, according to a county history by L.F. Andrews published in 1908. A local newspaper, the Statesman, frequently published editorials, “denouncing the opposition to the Fugitive Slave Law, with special anathemas against the Methodists.” In the winter of 1858-59, John Brown’s raiders attacked Fort Scott near the Missouri border in southeast Kansas, “the seat of proslavery hostility,” and then raided several Missouri farms. A detailed account of the raids, and the raiders’ flight from Missouri through Kansas, Nebraska and Iowa, is included in John Brown and his Men, by Richard J. Hinton, an abolitionist who rode with John Brown.

Underground Railroad Article from "The Iowan"

According to Hinton’s book, the raiders killed a deputy United States marshal during their fight to free an abolitionist farmer being held prisoner at Fort Scott. The farmer had been charged with murder, but his “real offense was giving, as alleged, information” to John Brown’s men, the book says. The abolitionists freed 11 slaves, including one who was pregnant, during their farm raids in Missouri. They also took cattle, horses, oxen, wagons, clothing, beds, bedding, and other possessions that they deemed were rightful possessions of the slaves. A farmer was killed in one of the raids, when he attempted to draw a revolver, according to Hinton’s book. Hotly pursued by Missouri posses, the raiders fled through Kansas and Nebraska. The pregnant slave gave birth to a boy, christened John Brown Daniels, before the party gathered at Tabor, Iowa, where they stayed from Feb. 5 to Feb. 11, 1859.

Hinton did not take part in the raids. He quotes letters written to him by George B. Gill, “one of the principal actors therein.” The letters provide a first-person account of the raids, and the party’s flight through Kansas, Nebraska and Iowa. Beginning the day they left Tabor, Gills’ letters say:

“Leaving that place on the 11th, we took up our line of march for Springdale, stopping at Toole’s the night of the 12th, Lewis’s Mills the 13th, Porter’s tavern, Grove City, the 14th, Dalmanutha, the 15th, at Murray’s, Aurora, on the 16th, Jordan’s on the 17th, and, about noon on the 18th, passed through Des Moines City….”

The party spent some time in Des Moines, looking up Editor Teasdale of the Register, an acquaintance of Brown and friend of one of the other raiders. From there, they continued east. They reached Grinnell on Feb. 20, where J.B. Grinnell held a reception for Brown and the rest of the party. They arrived in Sprindale on Feb. 25 amid rumors that an attempt would be made to capture Brown and the Negroes. The “whole community was alert, and any attempt to invade Springdale would have most likely proven very disastrous to the intruders,” Hinton’s book says.

From Springdale, the party traveled to Detroit, and then to Windsor, Canada. On the 12th day of March, 1859, he [Brown] saw his band of freed people, augmented to 12 by the birth of a boy…carried in safety from Detroit to Windsor,” Hinton’s book says.

From Detroit, John Brown and his raiders went to Cleveland, Ohio, and then to Harper’s Ferry where they “finally went down into the valley of shadows.”


Andrews, L.F.; Pioneers of Polk County, Iowa; Des Moines, 1908

Annals of Iowa, Vol. XL, No. 5. P-352

Birdsall, William & Co.; The History of Polk County, Iowa; Des Moines, 1880

Clarke Publishing Company; History of Des Moines and Polk County; Chicago, 1911

Clarke, S.J., Publishing Company; Iowa: Its History and Its Foremost Citizens; Chicago, 1915

Hinton, Richard J.; John Brown and His Men; London, 1894

Lake City Publishing Company; Portrait and Biographical Album of Polk County, Iowa;; Chicago, 1890

Miller, Geo. A., Printers and Publisher; Annals of Polk County, Iowa, and City of Des Moines; Des Moines, 1896