The Illinois Underground Railroad was a makeshift method for helping fugitive slaves. As many as 300 people at perhaps 500 locations throughout Illinois assisted fugitive slaves in their attempts to reach freedom. Some hid escaped slaves in their homes; some transported slaves to safer places or guided them to other sympathetic collaborators farther north. Some towns became hubs of the Underground Railroad.
Activities of Underground Railroad sympathizers involved more than helping slaves escape from slave states. Sometimes they aided freedom seekers within Illinois or even rescued kidnapped free blacks. As early as 1816, the Rocky Fork area of Godfrey was one of the first stops in Illinois for slaves from Missouri. Rocky Fork was established by four free black families who bought five adjacent parcels of land, where they built homes and a church. In the 1830s, a more organized Underground Railroad route was established through the African Methodist Episcopal Church.
In 1842, indentured servant Susan Richardson, known as "Sukey," and her children fled north from Randolph County after her owner beat her son. The Richardsons made it to Knox County, but were arrested. Local abolitionists helped Sukey Richardson escape. William Hayes, a neighbor of Sukey Richardson's owner in Randolph County, worked with a local committee to free the fugitives, looking for any documents that would prove their indentures were not valid and even trying to raise money to buy them. Despite these attempts, Sukey never saw her children again.
One of Abraham Lincoln's neighbors was Underground Railroad conductor Jameson Jenkins, who helped several slaves escape through Springfield in January 1850. The Jan. 25, 1850 edition of the Springfield Daily Journal reported the following:
A person arrived in St. Louis from Springfield, Illinois, having in custody a colored woman and her two children, who were part of (a group of 14 fugitive slaves). The remainder of the number escaped, with the exception of one, after a severe fight, in which he, together with one of the capturing party, were badly wounded. The three brought here were owned by Mr. Stickney, of the Planter's House, and ran away about six weeks since.
The injured fugitive, Hempstead Thornton, was taken before the Illinois Supreme Court and was released because no proof could be provided that he was a slave.