Washington Evening Journal
111 North Marion Avenue
Washington, IA 52353
“For 180 years this house has stood as a testament to freedom.“ — David Helman, president of the Lewelling Quaker Museum
Built by Henderson and Elizabeth Lewelling in 1840 to 1842, the Lewelling-Gibbs House is a marker for the Quaker foundations west of the Mississippi, and a center for understanding the abolition of slavery and the Underground Railroad here in southeast Iowa.
Salem’s Quakers were among the first Iowans to help escaping slaves from Missouri, and soon had a notorious reputation among slave owners in northeast Missouri. The Lewelling Quaker Museum documents the undertakings and lifestyles of these early pioneers of freedom.
“Most Underground Railroad stations are gone,” said David Helman, president of the Lewelling Quaker Museum. “This home has stayed intact, and we are a National Park Service Network to Freedom site. For 180 years this house has stood as a testament to freedom.”
The structure of the home contains original spaces beneath the floors where freedom seekers were hidden away from bounty hunters. Although a stay for the freedom seekers was brief, it was an opportunity for refuge from the cold and hunger that often marked a slave’s progress to freedom as they awaited a conductor to take them to the next shelter.
Henderson and Elizabeth Lewelling had nine children, they made Salem home for many years as purveyors of fruit trees. It was after living many years in Salem that the Lewellings in 1847 pulled up stakes and went west on the Oregon Trail with children and fruit trees in tow to make a new life in the wilderness of the Willamette Valley of Oregon. Included with their household goods were 700 fruit trees that were transported by oxen to Oregon. These trees are the foundation of many orchards that exist today in the Northwest. There are trees on the museum grounds that are grafted from descendants of the Oregon trees.
By 1847 the home was then in the hands of Nelson Gibbs, a young man from New York that became a Justice of the Peace in Salem. In 1848 Gibbs had a case where nine slaves went to Salem to seek refuge from their owner, Ruel Daggs. Gibbs, who had a law office in the Lewelling home, was sought out to provide proof that the slaves belonged to Daggs. No proof of ownership was found, and Gibbs ruled that the bounty hunters could not return the freedom seekers captured near Salem. A federal court case resulted.
“Justice of the Peace was the rural law,” said Helman. “Back in those days that was all that there was available. We have descriptions and names of those nine individuals. That is incredibly unusual information. For the most part, in the process of the Underground Railroad, nothing was ever written down, it was all held secret.”
The Lewelling-Gibbs home has a long documented history of providing protection to freedom seekers, and this documentation is one of the reasons it is such a gem as a Network to Freedom site.
The home serves as a reminder of the tragedy of slavery and the courage of those ordinary people who stood for what they believed as right and just.
Contact Michelle Hillestad at email@example.com