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Caroline Quarlls' Escape to Freedom

Caroline Quarlls: First Known Fugitive Slave on Wisconsin’s Underground Railroad

“Yes i have been whipped yes i had to do the house work for i was kept for that purpose. I told my grandmother that i was going to Canada but i was so young that she did not pay any attention to me nor any the rest of them.”

Letter from Caroline Quarlls in Canada to Lyman Goodnow in Waukesha, April 23, 1880

Caroline Quarlls

Caroline Quarlls

Recognized as the first fugitive slave on Wisconsin’s Underground Railroad, 16-year-old Caroline Quarlls began her escape to freedom in 1842 from Missouri. She escaped to the Mississippi River’s banks in St. Louis where she boarded a northbound ship that carried her to Alton in the free state of Illinois.

Physically, Caroline’s complexion was so fair that she had been described as a “white girl but a slave” (Mrs. A.H. Woodruff); this enabled her to blend into crowds. She made her way to Milwaukee via stagecoach with a ticket she purchased for herself where she befriended a former slave named Titball.

Much of what is known about Caroline’s escape came from the writings of one of her conductors, Lyman Goodnow, years after the Civil War. According to Goodnow, Titball betrayed Caroline, hoping to get money for returning her to her master. Due to a series of legal inquiries by her master’s St. Louis attorney, Milwaukee attorney Asahel Finch heard of Caroline’s plight and rushed to help her.

Goodnow’s writings track Caroline’s journey throughout southeastern Wisconsin, including Walworth County, as St. Louis attorneys and reward seekers followed close behind.

“Although there was so much excitement among the pro-slavery people at the time, who were all stirred up and rushing from one place to another, trying to stir up the people and find Caroline, the Abolitionists were as quiet as might be, seeming to take no interest whatever in the matter, and the pro-slaveryites could gain nothing from them.” (Goodnow) Goodnow goes into detail of the escape, even describing one of Quarll’s hiding places as a “sugar hogshead or crockery cask [barrel].”

The decision was made to get Caroline to the Underground Railroad which began Goodnow’s and Caroline’s 500-600 mile journey by horse and buggy. Receiving help from abolitionists along the way, Goodnow and Caroline made their way to Detroit, and were then taken across the Detroit River to freedom in Sandwich, Canada.

In 1880, Goodnow wrote Caroline and received two letters in return.

“Dearest Friend—Pen and ink can hardly express my joy when I heard from you once more…. Just as soon as the postmaster read the name to me—your name—my heart filled with joy and gladness.”

Letter from Caroline, April 18, 1880