Joseph Orlando Morse and the Underground Railroad

The Underground Railroad. What part, if any, did Joseph Orlando Morse have? His entire family, his father, Parker (Jr) and his three uncles, Mark, Levi, and Joseph (for whom we think he was named), along his grandfather, Parker (Sr), were main players of the Underground Railroad in Woodford County, Illinois.

The family’s involvement is well documented. But why did they get involved? It starts with Joseph’s grandfather, Parker Sr. The family moved from Vermont and in 1835, settled in what would become Woodford County in 1841. According to the book, Records of Olden Times, “About 1839 a poor negro slave, who had been captured by his master, chained by wrists and legs was driven past his place, on his way back to bondage. The sight made his blood boil, and Mr. [Parker Sr] Morse resolved from that time forward to be an active worker in the cause for freedom.”

His views, his morals, were also passed on to and shared by his sons. His son Joseph T. Morse was jailed for a time in the Tazewell County jail (there was no jail in Woodford County at the time) for aiding and abetting a fugitive (runaway slave). We’ve never found if someone turned him into the authorities or what might have caused his apprehension but we do know he was acquitted by trial . And this seems to be the only time one of the Morse men were pursued by authorities.

Even the method of transportation of the human contraband  has been recorded. History of Lake County, describes method of transportation attributed to Levi Morse but we think all the family used the same. It reads, “Deacon Levi Morse, of Woodford County, near Metamora, had a route towards Magnolia, Putnam County; and his favorite “car” was a farm wagon in which there was a double bottom. The passengers were snugly placed below, and grain sacks, filled with bran or other light material, were laid over, so that the whole presented the appearance of an ordinary load of grain on its way to market.”

This family, related to us by marriage, continues to amaze us.   Joseph is my third great uncle by marriage. He married my third great aunt, Amelia (Frink) Morse in 1855. They were married in Vermont even though both families were at the time living in Illinois. We feel the families may have known each other at an earlier time.

Not only were the Morse family members staunch advocates of disregarding the Fugitive Slavery Act, they also believed in religious equality and educational equality. Joseph’s own father and Uncle Mark were church deacons. Joseph’s Aunt, Love Morse, was the first teacher at the school. This school was the first free school in Woodford County and some say the first free school in the state of Illinois.

At one time we wondered why our great-great grandfather, S. William Frink (Amelia’s brother) did not serve in the Civil War. And we know for a fact he was a firm believer in the United States, so much so that later on he was a Justice of the Peace. But why did he not serve? Then it dawned on us. How could he pledge his allegiance to the government when he was well aware of what his sisters- in-law were actually doing? They were breaking the law.

Our family, our ancestors, are just amazing. But the families they married into are equally so.

[Story contributed by Distant Cousin Sue F]