Experience History: The Underground Railroad in Wisconsin

Wisconsin’s extraordinary landscapes, cities and towns are connected with a rich history of visionary leadership. From artists and architects, to political pioneers and social activists, hundreds of our country’s historically notable people and events can trace their roots back to Wisconsin.

In the 1800s, Wisconsin played an important role in ushering enslaved people to freedom. Today, there are many sites throughout the state commemorating the extraordinary people and communities who fought for what was right during this crucial time in American history. Read on to learn some of the stories of brave Wisconsinites and discover new meaningful locations to visit on your next trip to the state.

The Milton House Museum – Milton


Several locations in southern Wisconsin served as stops on the Underground Railroad, with some still offering tours, commemorative displays and other opportunities to learn about this significant time in history.

The Milton House Museum, once a stagecoach stop, is the only remaining certified stop on the Underground Railroad in Wisconsin that can still be toured today. Known for its hexagonal shape, the historic 1844 structure can be experienced by guided tour, and you and your group can even climb through the original tunnel and the 1837 settlers’ cabin. Milton House was a popular stop for travelers due to its location near prominent roadways (one running between Chicago and Madison, another between Janesville and Fort Atkinson) and its proximity to the Rock River, which freedom seekers would follow on their way to Racine. From there, they could board a ship to Canada.

Prominent abolitionist Sojourner Truth stayed at Milton House in the early 1860’s, and the building was declared a National Historic Landmark in 1998. Explore The Milton House Museum’s archival material and a vast historical object collection that tells the story of this community’s eventful past. Call to schedule a tour before visiting. The museum is wheelchair accessible except for the tunnel portion.

Rescue of Joshua Glover Historical Marker – Milwaukee

Joshua Glover, a freedom seeker from St. Louis, Missouri, escaped from his owner Benammi S. Garland in the spring of 1852. He made his way to Racine, where he worked at a sawmill for almost two years. On March 10, 1854, Garland found out about his whereabouts and, accompanied by a federal marshal and others, broke into his cabin, struck him on the head, shackled him and took him to a jail in Milwaukee in order to reclaim him according to the Fugitive Slave ActWhen word reached the citizens of Racine, the courthouse bell was rung, and the largest group ever to gather in the city assembled at Haymarket Square (now Monument Square, and a Network to Freedom site).

From the square, a committee of 100 men with strong abolitionist sentiments accompanied the Racine sheriff to Milwaukee to bring the kidnappers back to Racine to face charges. Upon their arrival at the Milwaukee jail, they encountered a crowd of protesters estimated to number between 3,000 and 5,000, demanding Glover's release. Shortly thereafter, a number of those assembled used a battering ram to free Glover from jail, before he was shuttled on a several weeks journey on the Underground Railroad though three additional counties of southeastern Wisconsin, finally boarding a ship in Racine, and eventually landing in Canada where he spent the next 34 years in freedom, until his death in 1888. Eventually, through the state Supreme Court, Wisconsin declared that the Fugitive Slave Act was unconstitutional, the only state to do so.

In Racine, stop and see the historical marker in Racine's Monument Square, at the intersection of Main Street and 6th Street, that commemorates Glover and the Racine Citizens who helped him to freedom.

In Milwaukee, travelers can visit another historical marker commemorating Glover’s liberation in Milwaukee’s Cathedral Square Park, at the corner of East Kilbourn Avenue and North Jackson Street. While in town, stop by Harriet Tubman Park, formerly Wahl Park, honoring one of the most successful conductors of the Underground Railroad and her time passing through Milwaukee.

Samuel Brown Farm Site

In August 1842, the Samuel Brown Farm in Milwaukee served as a stop on the Underground Railroad during the escape of 16-year-old Caroline Quarlls from Missouri, the first documented case of a freedom seeker traveling through Wisconsin. Despite the danger of being caught and prosecuted, Deacon Samuel Brownhoused Quarlls overnight at his farm and brought her twenty miles by wagon and horseback to another safe haven as they were pursued by bounty hunters.

A Wisconsin Historical Marker at the site of the former farm, is located on northbound North 17th Street, just south of its intersection with West Fond du Lac Avenue / Wisconsin Highway 145 in Milwaukee. Be sure to stop at the nearby Highway 43 underpass where you can take in two powerful murals honoring Joshua Glover and Caroline Quarlls.

Racine's Underground Railroad Maritime Link 

Racine County's involvement in the Underground Railroad is documented from 1842 with Caroline Quarlls' passage, through the Civil War with Racine's Colonel Utley and his Abolitionist Regiment. One major Racine Underground Railroad conductor was Achas P. Dutton, who helped Joshua Glover and an estimated one hundred others escape to safety. His warehouses were concealment and embarkation sites, where Dutton could transfer freedom seekers to the vessels of abolition-friendly lake captains who then took them to Canadian ports and their freedom.

Although the warehouses themselves are no longer standing, you and your group can visit the historical marker at Gaslight Point on Racine’s scenic Lake Michigan Pathway and take a moment to remember the extraordinary bravery of these individuals. 

The Roots of Freedom Underground Heritage Trail - Racine

Racine County is known for a history of abolitionist activity. Over two dozen sites around the county are rumored to have connections to the movement, with one prominent location being the First Presbyterian Church of Racine. According to oral history, the church contained a crawlspace where freedom seekers were concealed on their journey.

The Roots of Freedom Underground Heritage Trail is a self-guided walking/driving tour of the county's significant abolitionist sites. A pamphlet outlining the sites on the self-guided Trail is available at the Racine Heritage Museum or you can view it online. Follow the trail that includes 27 sites across the county, 10 of which are in the Downtown Racine areaand discover the rich history of this area. 

Discover more African American cultural sites to enrich your Wisconsin vacation.

This entry was posted in Museums & History