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Underground Railroad stops in Southwest Michigan

Posted at 8:06 PM, Feb 12, 2024
and last updated 2024-02-13 22:12:48-05

(WXMI) — In honor of Black History Month, FOX 17 toured three Underground Railroad sites in Southwest Michigan.

The tour covered two significant stops in Cass County and Schoolcraft.

The Bonine House in Vandalia was owned by James and Sarah Bonine, both Quakers. Cindy Yawkey, the head docent, highlighted the historical significance of the location. "It's estimated that 1,500 freedom seekers came through this way," she told FOX 17. She emphasized that these individuals were not criminals but rather people seeking their freedom.

The Bonine House served as a stop on the Underground Railroad, but the actual hiding place for the freedom seekers was located across the street in a white three-story carriage house built in 1850. Yawkey explained, "That is where he gave food, shelter and clothing to freedom seekers before they would go on to their next station."

"The freedom seekers would climb in the bottom, and then the station master and a conductor. Then we'll put boards on top and then bags of grain or straw." Yawkey described the cramped conditions inside the wagon. Freedom seekers would have to lie in the wagon for 12 to 15 miles.

Down the road from the Bonine House is the Bogue House — another Underground Railroad stop.

The Bogue House was an essential site on the Underground Railroad, serving as a safe haven for freedom seekers. The Bogue family, consisting of Stephen Bogue and his wife Hannah, helped freedom seekers on their journey.

"This [is] one of the few houses where freedom seekers actually hid in his attic, in his house." Yawkey says the Bogue family was one of the few that would hide escaping slaves in their home. If slave catchers raided your home, you could pay a stiff penalty; the price of a slave was worth and even lose your home."

Cass County was usually a quiet safe haven until the 1847 Kentucky Slave Raid. A group of Kentucky slave catchers arrived in Cass County, broke into smaller parties and proceeded to various Quaker farms, including the Bogue, East, Osborn and Shugart properties, capturing nine fugitives.

After a confrontation at O'Dells Mill in Vandalia and the Kentuckians, they decided to settle the dispute in court. It was ruled that Kentuckians didn't have the correct paperwork, so they left Cass County empty-handed.

Yawkey told FOX 17 that freedom seekers would travel from Kentucky, Ohio, Indiana, Cass County, then to Schoolcraft, where Dr. Nathan Thomas's home is located.

"For 20 years, Pamela estimates between 1,000 and 1,500 escaping slaves came through this house on their way to freedom," said Nancy Rafferty, a member of the Schoolcraft Historical Society.

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According to Historial Society member Dave Laliberte, the Thomas family would only hide the freedom seekers in the eaves when they heard bounty hunters were in the area. Like the Bogue family, they hid them inside their home.

"We don't know, you know, how long they would stay because it depended on the situation." However, Rafferty does know that no one was captured from the Thomases' home.

"In 1847, there was a man on horseback; it came rushing into the Thomases' home and said that there were bounty hunters, slave hunters, over in Cassopolis," she said referring to the Kentucky Slave Raid.

"They were on their way here to Schoolcraft and there was a wagonload of the fugitives, and it would not be safe for them to stay at the Thomases' home." Rafferty said the family had to have food ready for them, and their next stop to Battle Creek lined up.

"It is very important to remember that if we don't learn from history, we're doomed to repeat it," she told FOX 17.

Once freedom seekers left the Thomas home, they would travel to the Erastus Hussey home in Battle Creek, then head to Detroit, cross the river and go to Canada.

For a full list of Underground Railroad sites across the state, click here. A map of the Underground Railroad sites of Cass County can be found on their website.

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