The area that is now the American state of Iowa was part of New France when first settled by Europeans. As such, it was governed by its slavery laws. French settlers first brought African slaves into Upper Louisiana from Saint-Domingue around 1720 under the legal terms of the Code Noir, which defined the conditions of slavery in the French empire and restricted the activities of free Black persons.
At the time, nine hundred slaves lived in Upper Louisiana, as well as at least three hundred slaves the French took with them as they left for the lands west of the Mississippi River, including modern-day Iowa. The institution of slavery continued after Britain acquired the Illinois Country in 1763 following the French and Indian War.
In the 1840 United States census 16 enslaved people were recorded in Iowa Territory, all living in Dubuque County. Other sporadic accounts of slavery occurred in Iowa Territory; the only recorded slave sale occurred in 1841, when O. H. W. Stull, the Iowa territorial secretary, purchased an enslaved boy in Iowa City.
Slavery was outlawed in Iowa when it obtained statehood in 1846. In the years leading up to the Civil War, many Iowans became involved in the Underground Railroad, and famed abolitionist John Brown used Iowa as a base for his anti-slavery campaigns, 1856-1859.
The state of Iowa played a significant role during the American Civil War in providing food, supplies, troops and officers for the Union army. It’s still surprising to many Iowans to learn that the state's earliest settlers played in important role in antislavery and Underground Railroad efforts in the years leading up to the Civil War.
Though slaves were escaping and being helped to freedom from the early days of slavery in the United States, the phenomena known as the Underground Railroad lasted from about 1830 to 1861. Neither underground or an actual railroad, the term alluded to a loose network of sympathetic individuals and groups that were willing to risk life and liberty to help these fugitive slaves as they headed for the free states of the North and Canada.
Antislavery and underground railroad participants who operated north-of-the-border states knew Iowa as their westernmost free-state link. The risks of this already dangerous activity of helping escapees increased on September 18, 1850 when the United States Congress passed the Fugitive Slave Act of 1850. It required the United States government to aid in returning escaped slaves and punish those who hindered it.
Nevertheless, a number of Iowa's earliest settlers, often motivated by religious convictions and a marked appreciation of the principles of individual rights and personal liberty, provided shelter, transport, and material support for the travelers on this trail to freedom. The State Historical Society of Iowa conducted historical research and fieldwork through the Iowa Freedom Trail Project. This project sought to document Underground Railroad activities throughout Iowa by identifying individuals and groups who were involved with these activities and the places where these events occurred in Iowa.
The project continues to uncover new information, sometimes obtained from local sources and descendants of individuals involved in Underground Railroad activities.
Slave Records By State
Freedmen's Bureau Records
American Slavery Records
American Slavery: Slave Narratives
American Slavery: Slave Owners
American Slavery: Slave Records By County
American Slavery: Underground Railroad