By Joshua Jefferson
Have you heard of Charley?
I don’t mean this Charlie…
The Charley in question was a husband and father of two, owned by a man living near Hannibal, Mo., a slave ; Charley was educated, and afforded a certain level of autonomy by his master. Under these conditions, while he was aware of his status he had not thought it through critically. That is until Charley attended a gathering with his master were the discussion of the recent number of slave escapes came up. He would later recall,
“The thought suddenly flashed through my mind, What am I? Am I, or I am I not, a human being, with power to feel, and think, and act? Have I a soul, or am I a machine to be set in motion and act in accordance with the will of one made in the same manner as I am, save of different color?” (History of McDonough County, Illinois by S.J. Clarke)
Using his autonomy Charley pretends to be going into Hannibal to a dance, and instead uses the opportunity to escape, using an old skiff he finds to escape across the Mississippi River to Quincy. It is there he makes his first contact with the Underground Railroad (UGRR) and make it first to Round Prairie near Plymouth, IL crossing into McDonough County to the Station run by Mr. Blazer. From this point it is understood that he made it along the rest of the route to Canada.
Not content to remain in Canaan (aka Canada) Charley, returned back down the UGRR, a few months later, to Mr. Blazer with one goal in mind, to free his wife and two children. Charley initially tries to bargain for his families release through intermediaries, but when the negotiations fail because the owner’s refusal to stop raising his asking price, Charley takes action and what follows is an epic.
Charley made 2 unsuccessful attempts to free his family. Each time coming closer, Charley returned to Quincy. He secured a skiff through the local branch of the UGRR, and spent days trying to find an opportunity to get his family. While he was not successful he did manage to guide a few other local slaves on to the Underground Railroad. Failing to secure his family, Charley left and returned again a few months later to make another attempt. Failing again he made a third attempt. It is this third attempt when things got real.
Given the number of failed attempts to save his family, Charley’s former owner had gotten wise to him. Figuring he would return at some point to make another attempt, Charley’s family was held in a room inside the house, above the Master Bedroom, that could only be accessed through the Master’s bedroom. Undeterred, Charley snuck into the house by removing clapboards from the roof and extracted his family (The Underground Railroad in Western Illinois by Owen W. Muelder). The family made for the river, but could not make it to their crossing point that same night so they hid in the woods until the next night. Once they made it to their launch point, they boarded skiff and began to cross the river, as they approached a small island near the main shore, two men armed with guns stepped out.
Charley was ordered to surrender. He drew his revolver instead. It was a standoff. Charley began to argue with the men, even as he consulted his wife on their next move. At her urging he dived into the river,
“She urged him to save himself, stating it would be death or worse for him to be captured, but as to her, they would do nothing save placing a more strict watch over her person,” (History of McDonough County, Illinois by S.J. Clarke)
Shoots rang out as Charley swam for shore, but he made it back onto the Underground Railroad. Charley is captured at some point following the events described above. He was sent to the Tennessee to work on a hemp plantation, which during that time was second only to being sent to make indigo in Florida. On the scale of terrible fates that could befall a captured slave these were solidly at the top of the list. Death was expected within five years. (The Underground Railroad in Western Illinois by Owen W. Muelder). Little did they know that Charley was on a mission; A few months after his arrival, Charley escapes.
From here Charley’s timeline becomes complicated, though not necessarily irreconcilable.
Scenario A: Charley again traveled to Western Illinois in search of his family. Investigating their whereabouts he learned they had been taken to St. Louis. He proceeded to travel to St. Louis, recover his family and return with them to Canada (History of McDonough County, Illinois by S.J. Clarke).
Scenario B: Charley escapes captivity crosses the Ohio River links up with the regional Underground Railroad and returns to Canada. He then remains in Canada, reuniting with his family following emancipation (The Underground Railroad in Western Illinois by Owen W. Muelder). I speculate that the reality is actually a combination of the two scenarios with Charley waiting awhile to return back to the Western Illinois region and then eventually succeeding in the recovery of his family.
Either way this account ends on a positive note which is not always the case with this time period.