|Center for Historical Research
Past is Prologue
The "underground railroad" or "trackless train" may be defined as those individuals and groups who helped slaves escape to freedom, as well as the routes and "safe houses." Its "railroad lines" were the paths from one "safe house" to another. At "stations" runaways ate and rested.
Freedom meant Native American lands, Florida while owned by Spain, Mexico; and, depending upon their treatment of slaves and free African-Americans, northern states, and Canada. "Maroons" were communities of fugitive slaves, usually in remote areas, where swamps, mountains, and other features made it too difficult or costly to capture them. Others stayed in urban areas, even in slave states, sometimes with forged documents certifying that they were free.
"Conductors" escorted the fugitive slaves. Most conductors were slaves or free Africans or African-Americans. Conductors used passwords, signals, signs, and codes to minimize the chances of being discovered. Discovery was likely to mean facing a mob who tortured then killed the conductor.
Owen Lovejoy (1811-1864) was a rare exception, who proclaimed from his pulpit in Princeton, Illinois and from his seat in the United States Congress that he helped fugitive slaves. The "Lovejoy Line" was one of the escape routes used by underground railroad conductor Peter Hudlin.
There is a considerable body of literature on the underground railroad, but to the best of my knowledge few sites have been documented in St. Louis. This study shows how an underground railroad station in City of St. Louis was discovered.
Peter Hudlin & daughter
Peter's mother, Sarah, (on his right),
Peter (standing), &
Peter's Wife (on his left)
I have no picture of Peter's father,
Joseph, nor of Peter's grandfather, Joe
Nancy Jane Rutledge Hudlin
Peter Hudlin was born in Virginia about 1828 and his wife, a Cherokee born Nancy Jane Rutledge in Kentucky about 1833. According to Hudlin Family oral history and other sources, great-grandfather Peter Hudlin was a conductor on the underground railroad. For example, in 1976 Josephine Lockhart wrote:
For many people, it is not easy to understand why Peter and Nancy would risk their lives and the lives and property of their family to help strangers they had never seen before and would never see again. They did not tell the fugitives their name, address, or anything about themselves, lest the fugitive be captured, tortured, and betray them and other conductors. They could not brag about it to friends or relatives lest they be discovered. They accepted nothing from the fugitives, who generally had little or nothing to pay with, and they spent their money feeding and caring for them. Their motivation was not name, fame, fortune, nor the other motives which drive most Americans. This was unselfish love for fellow human beings. It has been written: "Greater love hath no man than this, that a man lay down his life for his friends." Peter and Nancy were willing to lay down their lives for total strangers. Think about it!
Peter could have at any moment been betrayed by fellow underground railroad conductors, by the fugitive slaves they helped, or by others who even suspected that he helped fugitives. The mob who came for him, might not even know themselves how far their blood lust would take them. Would their viciousness be limited to Peter or would it include his family, perhaps even his associates? Peter had to function day in and day out for years never knowing when the mob might come for him. How did he manage to cope with and endure this possibility? This is another thing to think about!
These considerations and others explain why the number of conductors were relatively small compared to the total number of people who felt that the institution of slavery was unjust and inclined to help fugitives and fight against slavery in other ways.
Finding the Site
Since Peter's home was known to be an underground railroad station, then finding his home would mean finding an underground railroad station.
Great-grandfather Peter Hudlin and his wife Nancy Jane Hudlin were the Peter and Nancy Jane Hudlin named in the Deed of Trust which was dated October 8, 1857. This deed was filed and recorded October 10, 1857 with the Recorder's Office of St. Louis County in Book 193, pages 372 and 373. The Deed of Trust was fully paid on August 21, 1858 as noted on the deed by the trustee of the Deed of Trust.
Great-grandfather Peter Hudlin and his wife Nancy Jane Hudlin were also the same Peter and Nancy Jane Hudlin named in the Deed of Trust dated May 7, 1860. This deed was filed and recorded with the Recorder's Office of St. Louis County in Book 237 page 292. The Deed of Trust was fully paid on May 11, 1865 as noted on the deed by the trustee of the Deed of Trust. Both deeds were for the purchase of property located on Thirteenth Street between Cass Avenue and O'Fallon Avenue in the City of St. Louis, Missouri.
Further confirmation of this property as Peter and Nancy Jane Hudlin's residence is found in the St. Louis city directories of that period. However, these city directories had vague descriptions of Peter's residence. For example, the 1859 directory lists Peter's home as "13th b. O'Fallon and Cass av" which I interpret as "on 13th Street between O'Fallon Avenue and Cass Avenue" There were no house numbers or other information which could be used to precisely locate Peter's home. It further appears that when house numbers did come to this block on 13th Street, the numbering system may have changed at least once, perhaps more than once, and I have not been able to find those old street numbering systems so that I could reconcile that information with other information about Peters home.
The deeds describe the property by referencing Survey 3003 Prairie which lies in Township 45 North, Range 7 East. If I could find that Survey, it might lead to the home. However, I could not find this survey in the City of St. Louis Archives Department, the St. Louis Public Library, the Missouri Historical Society, or elsewhere. The breakthrough came when a scholar at a local title company found a map with sufficient details to precisely identify the property: a map of St. Louis City Block 589. Although the exact location of Peter's property is known, the home has been torn down, although it is possible that part of the basement remains.
Wilbur Sieberts 1898 book The Underground Railroad which lists over 3,000 names of underground railroad conductors and agents includes Owen Lovejoy but does not include Peter Hudlin.
Other Aspects of Peters Life
At various times, it was unlawful in St. Louis to teach people of African ancestry to read or write. Peter's eldest daughter, Sarah, attended "prayer meetings" where someone kept watch for strangers. When a stranger headed their way, the reading and writing materials were put out of sight, and the stranger saw only religious instruction.
Banning education was simply one method used to reduce the distinctions between slaves and free African-Americans in order to make freedom less attractive to slaves. In some areas of the country free African-Americans had few if any rights other than the right to travel on public thoroughfares. Free European-American males, in contrast, were born with the rights you might expect American citizens to have.
Peter Hudlin was living in St. Louis when the Supreme Court ruled on the "Dred Scott" case. The ruling by the five slave-owners serving on the Supreme Court and two others who supported them demonstrated that the Supreme Court would do anything it could to protect slavery, including declaring unconstitutional any acts of Congress which might have the effect of limiting and eventually abolishing chattel slavery. Peter was left with no hope that the United States government would play any role in eventually ending slavery as long as slave owners controlled the Supreme Court. The energy of many people with Peter's sense of justice which had previously been used to effect peaceful legal change through national electoral processes went into the underground railroad and into armed efforts to cripple and end the institution of slavery.
Peter Hudlin joined the Knights of Tabor, a secret society which included a separate and even more secretive inner circle which planned, organized, and prepared to end chattel slavery by force of arms. The first battle of the guerilla war was planned for Atlanta, Georgia. John Brown's raid and the subsequent public reaction led to postponement and finally, when the Civil War began, cancellation of this effort in favor of recruiting African-Americans and others opposed to slavery for enlistment in the Union Army. Mr. Hiram Revels (later the first African-American Congressman from Mississippi) organized a regiment in St. Louis when Peter's son, Richard A. Hudlin (1858-1918), was five years old.
Aside from treason, aiding and abetting fugitive slaves, and aiding and abetting African-American literacy, Peter and Nancy were law abiding, ethical, and moral. He took care to admonish his children whenever they engaged in unprincipled behavior.
No one who asked for food was ever turned away. I suspect that hobos placed some mark on his premises so that other hobos would know that the Hudlins would feed anyone.
In Peter's day African-Americans were generally denied public accommodations in St. Louis, so travelers stayed at peoples homes. Many famous people were frequent guests at his home (and his brother Joseph's home in Chicago), including Frederick Douglas, who was the undisputed leader of African-Americans at home and abroad.
Peter Hudlin was kind, loving, unselfish, thoughtful, honest, trustworthy, generous, courageous, determined, spiritual, and had a lifelong zeal for learning and education. (Although I am not sure whether he ever learned to read and write; note that the deeds of trust had the "mark" rather than the signature of Peter and of Nancy). Guests at his home included people who could share their knowledge of the arts and sciences with his family, and his family visited people with knowledge and skills. He would take his family to the educational and cultural events permitted to African-Americans in and near St. Louis. Peter's devotion to education is further revealed by the fact that his son, Richard A. Hudlin, was one of the small number of Americans of African or native American ancestry who graduated from a "white" college in that era.
Peter Hudlin's Brothers
Samuel Hudlin made friends with the captain of a ship, who smuggled him on board in a barrel, and dropped him off in New Brunswick, Canada where he settled, bought land, and raised a family. Canada had abolished slavery before Samuel arrived, so he was safe there. He also earned enough money to send for some of his family members, which had to be done discretely and diplomatically since many Canadians were hostile to people of African descent coming to Canada.
Thanks to the compassion of their owner, Peter Hudlin and a least one of his brothers, Joseph, were allowed to keep some of the money they earned.
Joseph Hudlin left with his earnings, without buying his freedom, and settled in Chicago in 1854. At that time, there were many free African-Americans and its climate of opinion was such that he was relatively safe from capture and return to slavery.
Joseph was also a conductor on the underground railroad and his house was one of the Chicago underground railroad stations where fugitive slaves ate, rested, and prepared for a life in Chicago, a trip to Canada (sometimes on a ship sailing from Chicago), or a trip elsewhere. It is possible that some of the fugitives Peter Hudlin drove into Illinois stopped at Joseph's house in Chicago.
Peter Hudlin used some of his earnings to buy his freedom and left Virginia, met his future wife in Kentucky, visited his brother Joseph in Chicago (where both decided, planned, and prepared to help fugitive slaves as conductors), and eventually settled in St. Louis, hoping that the papers documenting his freedom would save him from being seized, declared (illegally) to be a runaway slave, and enslaved. Were this to happen, the person who seized Peter would be likely to declare such papers forgeries (or simply destroy the papers), and only a contrary statement by an European-American would be likely to be credible confirmation that Peter was free.
Peter Hudlin's Ancestors
According to Hudlin Family History, of Peters descendents, the earliest history of Peter's ancestors began in Morocco. From Morocco, they traveled to Algeria, then back to Morocco, thence to France, then to Germany where they stayed "long enough to change the shape of the skull," thence back to France. At about the time of the American Revolution, they sailed across the Atlantic Ocean, down the St. Lawrence River, through the Great Lakes to the Mississippi River. Some of them eventually settled in Virginia.
According to an 1976 interview with Ralph Hudlin, one of brother Samuels descendants, who was living in Toronto at that time, the earliest history of Peter's ancestors began in Ethiopia. Let us consider that at various times in the past, the term Ethiopia has been used to cover various large areas of Africa not just the land currently known as Ethiopia. Consequently, it is possible that there may not be an unreconcilable difference, since that branch may be using a more general term, while Peters branch retained more specific information but both may be referring to the same geography.
In 1990, I led a group of American scholars who visited libraries, museums, universities, and other institutions in ten cities in Germany. As time permitted, I sought information on Peter's ancestors, but all I have is one person's recollection of Hudlin brothers on a soccer team who played at least once in Hesse about 1965, but there were no details nor documentation.
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January 3, 2003