Journey to Freedom – Celia and Eliza Grayson’s escape from Nebraska slavery

Editor’s note: Below is the first part of “Journey to Freedom from Nebraska Territory,” from the Summer 2022 issue of Nebraska History Magazine. Read the complete article (PDF). The author received the 2023 James L. Sellers Memorial Award, given annually to the author of the best article in the previous year’s issues of Nebraska History Magazine; faculty from the history department at Wayne State College served as judges.

By Gail Shaffer Blankenau

The night was wintry and cold in late November of 1858 when two enslaved women, Celia Grayson, age twenty-two, and Eliza Grayson, age twenty, slipped out of a house in the frontier river town of Nebraska City, Nebraska Territory. Afro-Cherokee abolitionist John Williamson, described as a “mulatto of considerable shrewdness and deal of experience in the world for one of his years,” guided the women north to a small Missouri River ferry landing called Wyoming Station. Williamson was a familiar figure who engaged in small trading back and forth between Iowa and Nebraska—well positioned to help enslaved people to cross the river. Once the group reached the landing, they boarded a skiff to cross frigid waters running with ice. The sisters were headed for their first stop on the Underground Railroad at Civil Bend, Iowa.

The next morning, Celia and Eliza’s enslaver, Virginia native and Nebraska City founder Stephen Friel Nuckolls, known as “Friel” to his friends, discovered their absence and sprang into action. He sent messages to Iowa, with relatives in Glenwood and Sidney, to get the word out and to post lookouts at river crossings. He turned to family and friends to organize a search party. The next issue of the Nebraska City News declared that his female “servants” had been “enticed” away by “some vile, white-livered Abolitionist,” and “will doubtless be found in some Abolition hole.” Nuckolls offered a $200 reward for their return.

While history has not been silent on the existence of slavery in Nebraska Territory, it has taken a small view of it. Historians have framed slavery in Nebraska as an interesting item of curiosity, because the numbers of enslaved people in the Territory remained small. Yet, when Celia and Eliza left bondage in 1858, newspapers across the country carried the story, recognizing that these Nebraska freedom seekers raised unsettled questions about the legitimacy of slavery in the territories.

Nebraska City, located in the southeastern corner of the territory, lay in a “four corners” situation. Although not as geographically tidy as the later four corners of New Mexico, Arizona, Colorado, and Utah, the area shared a border to the south with “Bleeding Kansas,” where the tensions between proslavery and abolition forces were playing out in violence. To the south and east was the slave state of Missouri, while east across the Missouri River lay Iowa, a free state with a minority abolitionist movement. Nebraska’s southeastern corner was a strategic location where the worlds of popular sovereignty, slavery, and abolition intersected and clashed between territorial and state systems.

In contrast to Nebraska City’s celebrated history of John Brown’s Cave and the Underground Railroad, the town also served as the nexus of Nebraska slavery and its potential expansion in the antebellum period. One writer reported in 1855 great “excitement” in Nebraska City about slavery, “in way of street debates, door-step discussions; and the question is, ‘Shall Nebraska south of the Platte river be a slave state?’”

Among the thousands of bondspeople who sought their freedom each year, why did Celia and Eliza’s story rise to the top? Part of the reason was their location. Another reason was that their enslaver’s hot pursuit shattered the peace in free states. Mainly, Celia and Eliza embodied all the political and moral questions that dominated the 1850s, challenging assumptions about the potential for and nature of enslavement in the West. Keep reading (PDF).

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