Our Iowa Heritage: George D. Woodin & The Lane Trail.

(C-0250) Circa 1852 – This rare stamp-less postal cover is postmarked on September 14 in Volcano, California and is addressed to G.D. Woodin in Iowa City. There is so much history in this one cover. First, it comes from Volcano, CA, which at the time (1849-1857) was located in the center of Gold Rush Country. Many Iowa City residents headed west in the early 1850’s in response to “Gold Fever” that swept the nation. Obviously the writer of our letter was one of those gold-seekers with Iowa City connections. The second piece of history here surrounds G.W. Woodin, Esq. – a prominent Iowa Citian who became very pro-active in the anti-slavery movement that preceded the Civil War.

Without a doubt, the divisive issue of slavery in America played a huge part in Our Iowa Heritage.

Did you know, for example, in 1846, when Iowa became the 29th state in the Union, legislators in Washington DC who wanted slavery to continue insisted that if Iowa was to be admitted as the 29th state, which certainly would become a “free state” based on our state’s constitution, then a “slave state” must be brought in as well. That’s why Florida entered the Union around the same time as Iowa, keeping the balance of power equal in the U.S. Senate.

A number of Iowa’s earliest settlers, often motivated by religious convictions and a marked appreciation of the principles of individual rights and personal liberty, provided shelter, transport, and material support for the travelers on The Underground Railroad, the pathway to freedom for thousand of slaves (1830-1861). Read more on this subject and The Underground Railroad in Iowa.

Many, like Governor Samuel J. Kirkwood, joined the growing political fight opposing the extension of slavery into the ever-expanding west. By 1861, when the Civil War began, the nation was literally torn in half over the issue.

As you can see from the map (above) Iowa, because of its strategic location just north of the slave-state of Missouri, and just west of the free-state of Illinois, became a prominent location for The Underground Railroad. During the 1850’s, the time frame of our letter to G.D. Woodin, the national battle over slavery was raging in the western territories of Kansas and Nebraska. Because this region was still not “officially” under the jurisdiction of the U.S. Government, The Underground Railroad brought many “passengers” west out of Missouri (a slave-state) shuttling them to the north via the “train stations” that extended across Iowa (a free-state). That’s where our friend, G.D. Woodin of Iowa City comes into the picture.

George D. Woodin was born February 27, 1827, near Warren, Pennsylvania. He graduated at Allegheny College in Meadville in 1847, after which he studied law in the office of L. D. Wetmore, of Warren. Coming to Iowa in 1853, he first settled in Iowa City, where he was mayor for a short time before being chosen a state representative in the last legislature (1856) held at the Old Stone Capital. In 1857, he moved to Sigourney in Keokuk County, where he spent the remainder of his days. In 1858 he was elected prosecuting attorney for the sixth judicial district, a position he held for four years. After his term expired he held no public office, but became widely known as one of the ablest criminal lawyers in the State of Iowa.

George D. Woodin and The Lane Trail across lowa.

Named for abolitionist James H. Lane, The Lane Trail was established in 1856 to bypass pro-slavery strongholds in Missouri and provide free-state settlers a safe route into Kansas. The trail also served as part of The Underground Railroad, used by John Brown and others to transport slaves north to freedom.

The trail originated in Iowa City, passing through Tabor, Iowa, crossing the Missouri River at Nebraska City where it turned south before ending in Topeka of Kansas Territory. With Lane at the head of a wagon train heading west from Iowa City, the travelers left markers, sometimes tall poles in the tall prairie grass and other times piles of rocks. These markers would become known as “Lane’s Chimneys.”

Historian William A. Young of Marion County, Iowa, tells the story this way….

June 10, 1856 – An Iowa City Gathering.

As part of this Iowa City-based commitment to moving emigrants safely across Iowa, George D. Woodin took an extended road-trip west from Iowa City, establishing safe-houses of passage throughout the state. One of his first successful stops was in the friendly Iowa County community of Wassonville, near what is today, Wellman, just west of present-day Kalona, original Iowa home of the Bollers.

Young continues The Lane Trail story…

Another historian, this one from Washington County, Iowa, wrote, in 1880, about G.D. Woodin and his tireless effort in organizing The Lane Trail…

Mr. Woodin in particular was active and diligent in transacting the business delegated to him.  He made a complete tour of the counties lying in the proposed route of the “emigrants” and established committees.  He succeeded in enlisting in this enterprise the most active and reliable men in the various towns which he visited who were in sympathy with the movement…It was necessary to observe great caution and secrecy, as the (state) administration was at that time in sympathy with the pro-slavery party and United States Marshals were on the lookout for armed bands on their way to Kansas from the north. The underground railroad having been put into good running order, Superintendent Woodin and his station agents did quite a business in forwarding “emigrants” during the fall, winter and following spring and summer.

George D. Woodin died in Sigourney, Iowa on August 12, 1903 and is buried with his wife, Mary Elizabeth Woodin (1843-1913) in Pleasant Grove Cemetery in Sigourney of Keokuk County. Godspeed George & Mary…Godspeed.


Kudos to the amazing resources below for the many quotes, photographs, etc. used on this page.

Representative George D. Woodin, The Iowa Legislature website

George D. Woodin Obituary, The Daily Times – Davenport, Iowa, August 15, 1903, p 1

George D. Woodin, Find-A-Grave

The Underground Railroad in Iowa, www.arcgis.com

Jim Lane’s Trail, Chapter 10 – Miscellaneous History, William A. Young, The History of Marion County, pp 342-344

The Lane Trail, The Civil War Muse

Underground Railroad at Wassonville, The History of Washington County 1880, Hinkletown.com

Project Wassonville – 2007, Hinkletown.com

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