Underground Railroad: James M. West
Besides free African-Americans, white abolitionists also settled in the area of today’s Shawnee National Forest. James M. West resided about three miles south of Miller Grove and much of what is speculated about the community’s involvement in the Underground Railroad comes from a collection of West’s letters. The letters are mostly correspondence between himself and members of the American Missionary Association (AMA). James West was a strident abolitionist and a preacher for the AMA. Along with passing out bibles and antislavery literature, he preached antislavery ideology. He was not naïve about his work - his father, a Methodist preacher who laid the foundation for James’s antislavery fervor, had been killed because of his views. Originally from Kentucky, West eventually moved his wife, Sarah, and their children north to Illinois after he was persecuted and abused in his hometown. In October 1856, the family settled in Pope County, Illinois, where West taught school for a short time. In a letter to the AMA, he recognized the irony of being the only radical abolitionist teacher employed in the region that, although a Free State, held vehement hostility toward African Americans. Despite these hostilities, West continued to preach throughout the county for people to reject slavery and accept Free Blacks into their communities. His letters to the AMA board members mentions his “friends” in the region which most likely refers to the African American community at Miller Grove. Although mentioning specific information about the Underground Railroad could have jeopardized the operation, his letters discuss the region as a good “second depot” and “railroad.” In his letters with Brother Jocelyn of AMA, he explains that the proximity to the river was ideal and requested additional resources and AMA members to help. In 1860, James reported to AMA that “colporteurs” (someone who distributes religious or similar literature) were in danger in the region for aiding fugitive slaves and promoting abolition. West noted in the report that “persecution is raging here to an alarming extent” and those in the area who defied the Fugitive Slave Act were often threatened with tar and feathering. For his views, West received threats of lynching, as did another local AMA colporteur, James Scott Davis. Davis, who arrived in Pope County in 1860, lived near Broad Oak and played a vital role in disseminating antislavery literature to Miller Grove. In 1861, threats eventually drove West and Davis to flee Pope County. Sources: Cheryl LaRoche, Free Black Communities and the Underground Railroad: the Geography of Resistance Vickie Devenport and Mary R. McCorvie, “Dear Brother Tappan: Missionaries in Egypt and the Underground Railroad in the Shawnee Hills of Southern Illinois.” This information about the Underground Railroad is part of a geo-located multi-forest interpretive program. Please contact the U.S. Forest Service Washington Office Recreation, Heritage, and Volunteer Resources program leadership with any questions or to make changes. SGV – Recreation Data and Information Coordinator.