The town of Tabor in southwestern Iowa played a significant role in the 1850s as a center for the western antislavery movement. Tabor found itself in a strategic position to impact the future of slavery in the West. The town was officially established in 1858, but was first settled in 1852 by George B. Gaston, a Congregationalist missionary and Reverend John Todd, a graduate of Oberlin Theological Seminary in Ohio. Gaston and Todd sought to create a frontier colony in the image of Oberlin Seminary. They were both adamantly opposed to slavery.
As the United States expanded westward, the important question of whether or not slavery would also be extended to the new territories was confronted by settlers. The passage of the Kansas-Nebraska Act in 1854 pitted "free-soilers,"-- those who advocated free states--against supporters of Popular Sovereignty, who promoted the right to bring slaves into a territory. Framed against the nationwide conflict over the spread of slavery, Kansas was the battleground for the forces of liberty and bondage, and "Bleeding Kansas" was born. Iowa became an important route for free-soilers entering Kansas, as well as the nearest free state to those escaping slavery in Missouri.
Gaston was instrumental in propagating antislavery practices in western Iowa. Referred to as the town’s founder for his activities in creating a settlement in the early 1850s, Gaston was first drawn to Iowa because of a missionary trip to the western prairie. Gaston and his wife Maria Cummings worked among the Pawnee Indians in Nebraska from 1837 to 1842. They were both quite changed by the people they met. Forced to return to Oberlin due to health issues, Gaston had a difficult time forgetting the experiences he had. He strongly believed that a new settlement in the western prairies could extend the good work of Oberlin in the frontier, establishing a community firmly rooted in the values of religion and education. Gaston, after much debate, convinced a young Todd to join in the “frontier colony adventure.” Todd later proved to be crucial in establishing the Underground Railroad in Iowa and helped make the town known, as declared by George Gill, an associate of John Brown, as "the staging point for the free-state movement in Western Iowa."
Central to the activities of Gaston and Rev. Todd were two prominent properties that are included in the Tabor Antislavery Historic District: the Public Square (known today as Tabor City Park) and the Reverend John Todd House. The Public Square (Tabor City Park), ten acres of land once owned by Gaston and given to Tabor upon the town’s official establishment, was as an important community gathering space, serving as an anchor for both the first buildings in the town and for the spread of antislavery convictions. Townspeople met in the square to discuss and reinforce their controversial, yet strongly held beliefs in opposition to the “flagrant sin” of slavery. As a result, they developed strong networks of resistance to slavery and assistance to fugitive slaves. The square was also used for camping and drilling exercises executed by local militiamen and by abolitionist John Brown before his raid on Harper’s Ferry. The square reflects Gaston’s educational and religious vision of the community in the significant location the Public Square occupies in Gaston’s original town layout from 1854. One important building still standing today facing the Public Square is Rev. Todd’s House.
Todd's house, a two-story, clapboard home built in 1853, was an established Underground Railroad stop and perhaps the most significant "hub" on the Underground Railroad in Western Iowa. John Brown himself came through Tabor on many occasions, including during his escape after his celebrated "invasion of Missouri." On this occasion, 14 slaves were rescued, though one slaveholder was killed. Todd decried the violence but still provided aid to the escapees during their northward trek. The basement of the Todd House was also used to store arms later used in Brown's violent raid on the federal arsenal at Harper's Ferry, Virginia, though Todd had no knowledge of Brown's apocalyptic plans.Todd continued to build upon Gaston’s antislavery rhetoric after the official establishment of Tabor and recruited abolitionist Congregationalist ministers, such as George B. Hitchcock of nearby Lewis, Iowa, to come to the Great Plains to aid in the struggle. Many of Todd's sermons focused on slavery's evils, often using sentiments expressed in the Declaration of Independence to address the paradox of slavery in a "free" society. Todd served as a chaplain in the Union Army in 1864 and was instrumental in building progressive Tabor College, founded in 1866 and open to all students regardless of race or gender.
The Tabor Antislavery Historic District is bordered by West, Center, Orange, and Elm Streets in Tabor, Iowa. The Public Square (Tabor City Park) composes a majority of the historic district. The Todd House is located in the historic district on Park Street and is open to the public by appointment. Call (712)629-2675 for more information.
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