• Ricki King

Two Underground Railroad sites recognized in Central Iowa

Updated: Oct 2

"Des Moines, Iowa is not one of the places that come to mind when people think of underground railroad activity," says Ricki King, owner and genealogist at Roots to Branches Genealogy." Yet, our residents were active, and freedom seekers escaping enslavement passed through and stayed. It has been a great learning experience and honor to get Woodland cemetery accepted as part of the Network to Freedom."

Woodland_spelled_out_ in_grass_ 10_ April_2021 by Ricki King
Woodland Cemetery entrance

The National Park Service's National Underground Railroad Network to Freedom accepts new listings of Woodland Cemetery in Des Moines and Newton Union Cemetery in Newton into the Network. Joining 18 new listings from the 42nd round of Network to Freedom applications. This new listing, one of over 695 others already in the Network, provides insight into the experiences of freedom seekers who bravely escaped slavery and those who assisted them. The Network to Freedom reviews and accepts applications from sites, facilities, and programs with verified connections to the Underground Railroad twice per calendar year. Diane Miller, the National Program Manager, says, “We are eager to work alongside our new members sharing Underground Railroad history with the public.”


Ricki King, the genealogist and local historian from Windsor Heights, worked on the Woodland cemetery application. In the Spring and Summer of 2021, during COVID, she began mentoring Maddie Cason of Valley high school and Allie Shambaugh-Miller of Drake University, helping to research twenty-two people possibly buried at Woodland Cemetery in Des Moines, Iowa.


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Allie Shambaugh-Miller and Ricki King at Woodland Cemetery

The persons examined were known to have helped or used the underground railroad as freedom seekers who resisted enslavement. Some of the freedom seekers also served in Iowa's 60th Colored infantry during the Civil War. The group worked with local, state, and federal agencies to preserve history and submitted the biography on fifteen individuals to the National Park Service's National Underground Railroad Network to Freedom.


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Woodland Cemetery partial image of Network to Freedom application

Founded in 1848, Woodland Cemetery in Des Moines, Iowa, is the burial site of 15 Underground Railroad operatives and freedom seekers. For example, Isaac Brandt became active in the Underground Railroad after moving to Des Moines from the Ohio River Valley. At one point, Brandt aided Jefferson Logan, a freedom seeker from Missouri, and later employed him. Logan, also laid to rest in the cemetery, remained a resident of Des Moines and became a well-known Underground Railroad operative. Another notable operative buried here is Delia Webster. Active on the Ohio River borderland, she was one of few women to be arrested and imprisoned for involvement in the Underground Railroad.


“Each time we accept new listings, we are reminded of the power Underground Railroad histories hold today,” says National Program Manager, Diane Miller. “The stories of freedom seekers, who risked everything to claim their liberty, inspire us every time we read new Network to Freedom applications.”


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Newton Union Cemetery partial image of Network to Freedom application

Newton Union Cemetery is an urban cemetery in Newton, Iowa. Established in 1854, ten freedom seekers who escaped during the early 1860s are buried here. Some of the freedom seekers escaped enslavement in groups, others escaped by themselves. Eight freedom seekers buried in the cemetery enlisted in the 60th United States Colored Troops and served during the Civil War.


Larry Hurto, the historian from Newton and Brad Ernesti of Nebraska Wesleyan University, worked on the Newton Union cemetery application. While discussing the cemetery with Ricki, she realized she knew the descendants of a few of their research subjects. So she quickly contacted Yvonne Ousley, a former co-worker of hers at John Deere Financial. Ms. Ousley is related to the freedom seekers Anderson Hays, Henderson Hays, and Lewis Mays on her maternal side. She was able to provide pictures to Brad that is now part of the Network application.


Ricki was also able to find relatives of Delia Webster buried at Woodland cemetery. They, too, shared a recently found photograph of Ms. Webster in her younger years, until now none had known to had existed. This photo is part of the Woodland application with permission from John and Joyce Loftus.


Woodland Cemetery is still an active cemetery and is open to the public. For more information, visit their website.


Newton Union Cemetery is still an active cemetery and can be visited from sunrise to sunset. For more information, visit their website.


Iowa History 101 Series: Forever Free: Rediscovering Heroes, Heroines & Helpers on Central Iowa's Underground Railroad


Forever Free and Underground Railroad


Are you a descendant of a passenger or a conductor of the underground railroad?


Forever Free Pilot Mentoring Project was funded through a grant from the Association for the Study of African American Life and History and presented in partnership with the National Underground Railroad Network to Freedom. The objective of this program is to bring community mentors and area high school and college students together to uncover and document the history of the Underground Railroad. Would you please contribute to help fund the next round of applications?


For more information and contributing to Forever Free, don't hesitate to contact Program Manager Barry Jurgensen at (712) 269-5269 or barryjurgensen@hotmail.com or Gale Brubaker, Executive Director of the West Des Moines Historical Society, at (515) 225-1286 or gbrubaker@wdmhs.org.


Updated: 2 October 2021 to include the number of listing added this year and the overall number of listings.



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