All of this happened just about the same time as Dominie Hendrick Scholte led 850 men, women, and children out of the Netherlands to central Iowa, an area (and a name--Pella) they'd chosen already before the left Holland. They weren't poor, thanks to Scholte's own personal fortune. In fact, they'd contracted to have log houses built before they got to the Iowa prairie--only to find they weren't.
The Community of True Inspiration came to Iowa just a few years later and chose another name, Amana, for their society's colony of pietists. They'd settled near Buffalo, NY, about 1500 of them, a band of German folks, deeply religious, who grew so large they needed more land and found it, promisingly priced, in central Iowa, rich soils and abundant resources.
Religious visions were everywhere on the frontier in the wake of the Second Great Awakening. Boom towns may well have been hell holes--Deadwood was quite possibly exactly that. But the sagas we far more rarely hear stars men and women whose determination to live on the prairie was inspired by the unfailing belief that they were carrying out marching orders from on high.
Tabor, Iowa, is one of those places, one of those stories. It's sits on a bluff far above the Missouri river, the highest point of Fremont County, Iowa's southwestern-most corner. Whether or not the town will make it is a question locals need to answer, not someone like me, just driving through and looking around. My opinion?--barring some wildcat discovery of something as hot as natural gas, I'd be wary of putting any money whatsoever on Tabor.
But it's a town with a past that's epic, created when a group of abolitionist Congregationalists determined that successive flooding at their original location, closer to the Missouri, was going to get them nowhere. They climbed to higher ground. They were visionaries too, like Scholte and the Amana colonists.
That picture up top is the Reverend John Ross House, in the 1850s a well-marked stop on the Underground Railroad, often the port of entry to runaway slaves who'd left their shackles behind when they left Missouri, but weren't free until they could be protected from vigilante slave-holders and northerners looking to make some quick cash by way of substantial bounties. Slaves were property. When they'd walk away from cotton fields, the economic effects on landowners were worse than what he might suffer losing horses or cattle.
And there was a slippery slope--if Ben runs away, then why not Margaret and Seth and Samson and Billy? What people called "the peculiar institution," slavery, was under attack in America, and Southerners didn't take kindly to losing their fortunes or their rights.
When he came up the Missouri River to found the town, Rev. Ross got into a discussion about slavery that soon became, well, heated. Once the other passengers on the river vessel detected an abolitionist in their midst, he wanted Ross's scalp. "Shoot him," someone yelled. "Kill him." One of them entered his cabin door and called Ross a "damned abolitionist" and said if had any right to him, he'd trade him for a dog, then shoot the dog. Ross says he learned later that the man was "a minister of the gospel from Missouri."
What separated Iowa Congregationalists from Iowa Quakers was not a deep-seeded hatred for "the peculiar institution"; both Quakers and Congregationalists despised slavery, thought it an abomination, a mortal sin, maybe even America's "original sin." What separated the two abolitionist believers was a commitment that included violence. The Quakers said no. Rev. John Ross and his Congregationalists said yes.
Behind this doorway is a stairway to the basement of the old house, a stairway made for a man like John Ross, who was just about five and a half feet tall and wore maybe size six shoes.The stairway is not for me. But I had to go downstairs.
Because, as the sign out front of the house boldly witnesses, the Reverend John Moss had, once upon a time, a basement full of Sharpes rifles, not to mention a canon in his barn, armaments for war he thought about to begin in "Bleeding Kansas."
Both sides of the slavery question had mobilized support when the Congress had passed the Kansas-Nebraska Act, throwing the new state's decision about slavery into the hands of the voters. Hundreds--even thousands--of pro and anti-slavery people poured into eastern Kansas igniting violence that some historians claim marks the true beginning of the Civil War.
Today, what's in the basement of the Reverend John Ross House in Tabor, Iowa? Nothing really. No cement floor, just piles of dirt, a humming dehumidifier, random stones, bricks. That basement was never meant wasn't to be lived in. It was a root cellar, maybe a place to hide when the prairie sky started to look fierce or foreboding.
At the request of none other than John Brown, who stayed across the square in the home of Deacon George B. Gascon, a friend and member of Ross's church, a man who was also among the "Concert of Prayer for the Enslaved," the Reverend John Ross took on a house full of guns because he was a man of the cloth who could not abide that "peculiar institution," who argued that slaves had a more righteous reason for rebellion than did New England colonists a century before.
If you look up in that basement mess, what you see is original timbers put there in 1853, when the Reverend John Ross built this home just west of the green in Tabor, Iowa.
They're supported now, as you can see. All these years later, it's a wonder they're still there.
But once upon a time, they looked down at instruments of war, lots of them. Once upon a time they were the ceiling of armory in a pastor's home.
In his own memoir of that era, the Reverend John Ross, who became a prototype for an abolitionist preacher in Marilynne Robinson's Gilead, described himself and what happened back then in this way:
The parson had one brass canon on his hay mow, and another on wheels in his wagon shed. He had also boxes of clothing, boxes of ammunition, boxes of muskets, boxes of sabres, and twenty boxes of Sharps rifles stowed away in the cellar all winter.The Reverend John Ross was ready to fight in what he clearly envisioned as the War of the Lord.
Was he righteous man or a sinner? a madman or just pure of heart? a true patriot or a fundamentalist terrorist more than willing to die gloriously for a just cause?
You'll have to get off the beaten track to find Tabor, Iowa, but it's still there. Call ahead. You can get into the Ross House only by appointment because not many Americans stop there anymore, if they ever did.
But the Ross House is still there, the basement steps still beckon, and the memory of that time and place and the war it begat somehow seems more real when you stand there beneath those ancient beams on a dirt floor, where once a preacher readied himself for a war God meant to happen, a war to free the slaves.