In the wintry twilight of a January day in 1859, a small caravan of wagons occupied by 30 or 40 escaped slaves approached the log cabin dwelling of Charles Smith in the southwest corner of Brown County. Several outriders escorted the party, whose leader was the notorious abolitionist, John Brown. This was Brown's last adventure in "Bleeding Kansas." A few months later he was captured and executed in an ill-conceived slave insurrection at Harpers Ferry, Virginia: martyred in the cause of emancipation. Sear fields and bare tree branches bracketed the lonely cabin in stark relief, but hot food and shelter from the elements was a welcome prospect for the exhausted little band on their long journey to freedom in Canada on the Underground Railway.
The Underground was necessarily clandestine and occult in Kansas Territory. Slaves were chattels, and those aiding in their escape could be prosecuted for receiving and concealing stolen property. Earlier on this particular day, an armed posse barred their passage at Dr. Albert Fuller's cabin at the crossing of Straight Creek two miles south of present Netawaka, where they had spent the previous night. When no move was made to arrest them, Brown loaded the slaves into wagons and boldly splashed through the ford and up the north bank to find that the posse had fled without firing a shot. By one account, Brown had stolen the slaves, wagons, and draft animals, and it was their owners who barred the road. Retreat was the better part of valor, however. No one doubted Mad John Brown's resolve to shoot it out if challenged. This incident has since been derisively dubbed "The Battle of the Spurs."
Smiths and Fullers were two of the armed stations established in 1856 by James H. Lane. His purpose was to provide protection for free-state settlers when Missouri River ports of entry into Kansas were blockaded by pro-slavery mobs. Lane called for a free state army to assemble in Iowa, cross the Missouri River into Nebraska, and enter Kansas near the mouth of Pony Creek in Brown County. Three hundred armed men under James Redpath and an additional thirty men led by Preston B. Plumb responded to the challenge. They met and established a settlement which they named Plymouth in the southeast corner of S15 T1S R15E. Plymouth became a post office in 1858 with Morgan Willett as postmaster.
Another station named Lexington was planted two or three miles southeast of Sabetha. E. P. Harris is identified as the proprietor. He abandoned his claim in 1863 at the time of the Quantrill raid on Lawrence. At this point, the trail passed due south, paralleling the west boundary of Brown County to Smith's Station and thence to Fullers. A settlement was made in Calhoun County at present Holton, later to become the county seat of Jackson County. The southern terminus of the trail was Rochester, a hamlet on the Ft. Leavenworth and Ft. Riley Military Road north of Topeka.
Lane's Trail saw little or no immigrant traffic after 1856. Lane erected stone cairns on hilltops to serve as guideposts, but it was not sufficiently marked to be recorded by the Territorial Surveys of 1857-60. This isolation made it an ideal route for the Underground, and the existence of free-state settlers along the trail guaranteed their safety.
In 1857 a colony of a dozen or more families, related by blood and affinity, from Painted Post and Castle Creek, New York, settled at the head of Pony Creek, naming their town Albany in honor of the capital of their native state. Albany was two miles north of present Sabetha on the east edge of Nemaha County. Among these pioneers were the families of William and Samuel Slosson, John and William Graham, Noble H. Rising, John Tyler, George Lyons, Edwin Miller and Elihu Whittenhall. These men were destined to exert considerable influence on the civil, military, and economic affairs of the two counties in the next quarter century. Educated, cultured, and possessed of sound business acumen, they were whole-hearted supporters of Free State principles.
The Slossons and Grahams quickly realized the potential of the Lane Trail, and were instrumental in organizing a branch of the Underground Railway known as League No. 40. Many slaves escaped to freedom in the next five years, but no written records exist of names or numbers. Some slaves reaching Albany in 1862 were provided homes and employment in the area. Among these were five Holden siblings, their mother, and two Russell siblings: Daniel and Lena. Fanny Whittenhall, wife of W. G. Sargent, taught Jane Holden to read and write and maintained an extended correspondence with her friend long after Jane married a man named Scott and moved away from Albany. Charles Holden married Lena Russell; Cora Holden married Thomas Frame, and another sister married ex-slave John Masterson. One of the Holden brothers served in the Union Army and was killed in action. His mother eventually received $1800 in back pay and pension. Although most of the freedmen moved elsewhere after the War, E. J. Holden owned a 10 acre tract on the east edge of Albany some 50 years later according to the 1912 Atlas of Nemaha County. John Brown spent his last night in Kansas in the Elihu Whittenhall cabin, which he shared with family members and the only cabinet grand piano in Kansas Territory. The following day William Graham escorted Brown's party to the Missouri River in Nebraska Territory.
Also in 1857, a post office named Powhattan was established on the stage coach route from St. Joseph to Salt Lake City, which has been identified with the Underground Railway. This village was located in the extreme southwest corner of Brown County in the NW1/4 S32 T4S R15E. It should not be confused with the town of the same name south of Hiawatha. Modern Powhattan did not exist until the Chicago Rock Island and Pacific Railroad built through Brown County in the 1880s. Only a pioneer cemetery marks the site of Old Powhattan on the Wetmore quadrangle of the U. S. Geological Survey. Escaped slaves sheltered at Old Powhattan perhaps reached Albany on a trail west of Gregg Creek through Pleasant Spring (Granada) and Capioma. This was a well traveled road as far as Capioma, but after Kansas was admitted as a free state in 1861, the need for secrecy diminished.
By the time the St. Joseph and Grand Island Railroad by-passed Albany in favor of Sabetha in 1870, Albany had faded away. Today only a two story frame house built of native black walnut, and a pioneer cemetery remain from the original settlement. Edwin Miller physically removed his hotel to Sabetha. John Tyler settled on Cedar Creek two miles southwest of Fairview at a crossing which may have been used by emigrant parties as early as 1844. It is logical to assume that it was used by Gen. Lane in 1856, since it aligns north and south with Lexington and Smith's Station at the Gregg Creek crossing. The Tyler family cemetery is a mute testament to the contributions of this pioneer family. Noble H. Rising built the Granada Hotel at Pleasant Spring in 1858, and was a partner with George Lyons in a store at Sabetha in 1859. The following year he built Log Chain Station for the Pony Express on a branch of Muddy (Locknane) Creek.
John Graham, William Miller, and Robert Hale of Albany were killed at the Battle of Chickamagua in 1863 while serving in the 8th KS Vol. Inf. The 8th sustained more than 50% casualties in the fighting. Arthur W. Williams, who founded Sabetha on his farm in 1859, was captain of Company D. He moved to Seneca after the War, where he died in 1886. Graham County, Kansas, is named for John Graham.
After the War some effort was directed to resettle freed slaves in Kansas. The Freedman's Bureau was instrumental in this activity, but "Exodusters" made little impact on the state as a whole. Understandably, many ex-slaves were reluctant to leave their Southern roots for the gift of 40 acres of unimproved land in a harsh climate and little access to capital. Nicodemus in Graham County, Kansas, is a notable exception. This colony achieved a measure of success through hard work and cooperative effort. In many respects, Nicodemus represents the culmination of what the Free State movement in Kansas was all about.