Lewelling Quaker Museum – Salem, Iowa

Lewelling Quaker Museum – Salem, Iowa. The underground railroad had as many as 5 homes in the Salem area for the safety of slaves escaping their “owners.” This home is now a museum dedicated to that search for freedom.

The Lewelling Quaker Museum sits in the quite farming community of Salem, Iowa, 10 miles south of Mt. Pleasant. This community is known for it’s nice square, active Quaker church, safe living environment and fabulous history.

Once known as the main ticket office of the underground railroad, the Lewelling Quaker House contains grim reminders of the anti-slavery movement. There were two trap doors:  One in the kitchen and one in the small room off of the dining room.  The original trap door in the kitchen leads to the crawl space under the kitchen, dining room and small room off the dining room.  The remains of the second trap door was found in this small room.  When you tour the home you will find leg shackles on a chair by the fireplace.  Several slaves would be linked together with similar shackles and forced to walk in them.

The first recorded incident of slaves through Salem was in 1839 when an advertisement with a reward appeared in the Iowa Territorial Gazette, for runaway slaves lost or stolen near Salem.

The word “underground” makes people think freedom seekers on the run must have been hidden in basements or cellars. There are five underground railroad stops in Iowa that have been preserved (Lewelling House in Salem, Pearson House in Keosauqua, Jordan House in West Des Moines, Hitchcock House in Lewis, and the John Todd House in Tabor). They all have cellars, but there’s not much proof that freedom seekers were actually hidden in them—except possibly at the Hitchock House. Instead, favorite hiding places seem to have been in the attics of houses, or in outbuildings like the haylofts of barns. Sometimes freedom seekers were hidden outside in the woods along creeks or rivers, or even in tall prairie grass.

People often think freedom seekers were families or women with children. In fact, traveling with children slowed freedom seekers down. Parties traveling with young children were more likely to be recaptured. Nearly 75 percent of the freedom seekers who were successful were young men. Most of the rest were young women in their teens, who did not yet have children.

Most runaway slaves didn’t get very far and were soon recaptured. Only a few made it to the free states of the North or to Canada. One guess is that about 35,000 from 1830 to the end of the Civil War in 1865 made it to freedom. There were 4 million slaves in the South in 1860. The underground railroad was a serious annoyance to slaveholders, but it didn’t make much of a difference in the number of slaves held.

It’s harder to guess how many freedom seekers passed through Iowa on the underground railroad. Most came from Missouri. Some came from Arkansas or Indian Territory (Oklahoma). A few came from Kentucky, Tennessee or Mississippi. Most likely not more than a few hundred passed through Iowa on the underground railroad.

It’s important to remember that black freedom seekers were not just waiting for help from sympathetic whites. Many ran away and traveled on their own. If they were successful in reaching the free states, they often became station agents and conductors helping other passengers on the underground railroad. The railroad analogy was enhanced, because those who assisted the movement were called by railroad terms. Conductors arranged the routes called tracks and travel times. Engineers moved the fugitive slaves from place to place. Agents hid them during the daytime until the former slaves were off to the next station.

The Lewelling Quaker Museum was added in 1982 to the National Register of Historic Places and has been nominated for National Historic Landmark designation, which is the highest recognition accorded by our nation to historic properties.  On August 31, 2007 they were approved and changed from a “locally significant” Historical Site to “nationally significant” Historic Site listing on the National Register of Historic Places. This is the completion of the first step to Landmark status.

Today, about 2,500 historic places bear this distinction. The National Historic Landmark designation is an official recognition by the federal government of a historic property’s national significance. These special places embody the actual sites where significant historical events occurred, or where prominent Americans worked or lived, and represent the ideas that shaped our nation.

Location: Salem, Iowa south side of the square across, one block south of the Friends (Quaker) Church.


Weekdays by appointment, call, the wonderful volunteers will certainly help you set a time to touch this piece of history.

Phone: (319) 258-4341

Email: fheartsill@iowatelecom.net

Fee: $1.00 students $2.00 adults


  1. Veronique Shoemaker says:

    I would like to set up a tour of of Lewelling house and museum for a homeschool group in Ottumwa. Could you please contact me 641-777-3697

  2. Good morning,
    Here are the hours for the museum and the contact information for you to reach someone to set up your tour. Thank you for contacting http://www.iowabeautiful.com.

    (319) 385-2460 or Email – Lewelling House
    $1.00 STUDENTS $2.00 ADULTS

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