A very brief review….Come see us to learn more!
In 1832 land west of the Mississippi River opened to settlement with the end of the Blackhawk War.
Members of the Society of Friends, known as Quakers, were early pioneers to this land. The earliest founded the town of Salem in 1835.
In 1837, Henderson and Elizabeth Lewelling, their four children, other family members and fellow Quakers arrived. In 1838 Salem Quakers constructed a log Society of Friends meeting house, the first west of the Mississippi.
Lewelling and his family built this home, established businesses and orchards. The Lewellings were skilled nurseryman having fostered a knowledge of tree grafting while living in North Carolina and Indiana. The Salem business prospered as newly settled pioneer farms needed fruit tree orchards.
During this time, the nation had become increasingly divided over slavery. The Fugitive Slave Act of 1793 held that slaves escaping northward could be captured and returned to southern owners. The Quakers shared the belief of many that slavery in all its forms was evil and should legally be abolished. They were known as abolitionists and many aided southern slaves as they sought their freedom.
When you visit the museum you will hear our docents refer to the slaves as freedom seekers.
The Lewellings and many of their neighbors were intense in their abolitionist beliefs. Slavery was legal in Missouri but twenty-five miles away. Slaves who escaped bondage in Missouri heard they would be helped by Salem Quakers. The earliest recorded bounty for “runaway or stolen slaves near Salem, Henry County, Iowa Territory” was 1839.
As with multiple Iowa locations it is likely this home became a safe house or station on the evolving Underground Railroad and the secretive trek of freedom seekers northward toward Canada. There were six known safe houses in Salem. Only two remain.
The home was built between 1840 and 1842. It is remarkably well preserved. The structure is largely as built when we believe the Lewellings concealed freedom seekers beneath the floors. The stay was brief to avoid bounty hunters. Conductors then served as guides northward to the next station.
Henderson Lewelling had a boundless adventurous spirit and was fascinated by the vast western territory. In April of 1847 he, eight children and Elizabeth expecting a ninth headed west with Salem neighbors on the Oregon Trail arriving in the Williamette Valley of Oregon in November. They had added large planter boxes to a wagon pulled by oxen. 700 young trees and plants were transported in the wagon with about half surviving the journey.
Lewelling and his brothers would be credited with beginning the Pacific Coast fruit industry. His brother Seth invented the Bing cherry. Today, the Lewelling-Gibbs museum grounds include young trees grafted from descendants of the Oregon trees.
With the departure of the Lewellings a young man, about 22, named Nelson Gibbs moved into the home. He had come from New York with enough legal training to be named Salem Justice of the Peace.
In June of 1848 Gibbs ruled bounty hunters could not return freedom seekers captured near Salem to Missouri as they had no proof of ownership. Nine slaves, five adults and four children, had escaped a farm in Clarke County, Missouri. This ruling became a true hornets nest and contest between Salem citizens and Ruel Daggs, the slave owner. A Federal court case resulted.
The court ruling that followed jury trial in the new Federal Court in Burlington, Iowa, Ruel Daggs vs Elihu Frazier, et als, convicted five Salem men of violating the Fugitive Slave Act.
The remarkable aspect to this is how much is known about the nine freedom seekers and what happened to them. To learn this and of the drama of their capture and events that followed you’ll have to visit the Lewelling-Gibbs house.
When the home was built most neighboring Salem structures were log with a dirt floor. Likely due to ingenuity, hard work and a profitable nursery business in Indiana Henderson and Elizabeth Lewelling seemed to have had the means to do more. It is well they did. The very substantial nature of the building has had much to do with its preservation.
The walls at the base are eighteen inch thick sandstone cut from a quarry west of Salem. Pulled to the site by horse and oxen teams and raised with block and tackle the stones are settled on a sound foundation. The basement was designed with fireplace, window light and water access likely to accommodate the propagation of trees. Identical front doors mark the residence and the office. Beveled window jambs in the thick stone promote natural light.
Prehistoric crinoids embedded in the stone are symmetrical to the front door. Is this coincidental or by clever design?
Joel C. and Elizabeth Garretson lived and farmed a few miles southeast of Salem. They were friends of the Lewellings. Joel C. Garretson worked closely with Henderson Lewelling as a conductor on the Underground Railroad.