The Lane Trail was an established route to aid escaped slaves

This historical marker sits north of Sabetha, just off of U.S. Highway 75 to reference the Lane Trail that was used by emigrants and escaped slaves during Kansas Territorial days.

The Lane Trail, which ran along U.S. Highway 75 east of Sabetha, was an established route that was used to assist escaped slaves in their route to freedom.

When the Kansas Territory opened for settlement in 1854, people from the north and south alike rushed to Kansas to establish residency and make their voices heard on the practice of slavery. James Lane — who was among those northern movers and shakers in the Free State movement — left his indelible mark on the history of the nation and of Kansas.

Lane, the Jayhawker

James Henry Lane was born in Indiana in 1814 and became a lawyer who ultimately served in the Indiana Volunteers during the Mexican War. He also served as the Indiana State Lieutenant Governor and was a member of the U.S. Congress. While in Congress, Lane voted in favor of the Kansas-Nebraska Act of 1854, which contrasted with his political party affiliation.

Then in 1855, he moved to Lawrence, Kan., joining the “Free-State” movement, but was not actually an abolitionist. He has been described as “an unbalanced, pugnacious jayhawker.”

Lane was nominated and served as the president of the Leavenworth and Topeka constitutional conventions — before Kansas was ratified as a new state — and had to have a constitution approved by Congress. He was instrumental in organizing and commanding a militia that became known as “Lane’s Brigade.” Eventually, Lane’s Brigade became the Third, Fourth and Fifth Kansas Volunteers to protect free state settlers coming to Kansas and repel pro-slavery violence in the territory. He also organized the First Kansas Colored Volunteers, which became the first division of African-American troops to serve in active duty in the Union army during the Civil War.

Interestingly, Lane also was one of the founders of Falls City, Neb., as he worked to allow unimpeded traffic into Kansas for free-staters. He was elected to Congress as one of the first two senators of Kansas in 1861 and was re-elected in 1865. He died in 1866 of a self-inflicted gunshot wound and is buried in Lawrence’s Oak Hill Cemetery.

Lane became one of the most notable leaders in the Free State Party and forged his name — and convictions — into to the early history of Kansas. A network of safe-houses — along a route he originally established as a means for safe passage for migrants — evolved into a beacon of secret navigation for escaped slaves making their way to Kansas as they searched for a path to freedom in the north.

Illuminating the way, sort of

The passing of the Kansas-Nebraska Act initiated his plans to assist abolitionist migrants initially, and ultimately escaped slaves, and The Lane Trail was formed. The Lane Trail began in Iowa City, Iowa, passing through the bulk of the state, before crossing the Missouri River near Nebraska City, Neb., and then turning sharply south, roughly following U.S. Highway 75,

This pile of stones in rural Brown County, initially considered to be one of “Lane’s Chimneys” but later dismissed, sits as a testament of man’s alteration of the environment as a means of marking a location, boundary or trail.

where the trail terminated at Topeka.

Lane established the trail to aid migrants — anti-slavery voters — and to help smuggle in weapons and farm equipment into the Kansas Territory without being stopped by pro-slavery blockades. While in Chicago, Lane gave a fiery speech — to an estimated 10,000 in attendance — against the pro-slavery government and encouraged several hundred people to travel to Kansas to vote and to fight. This group became known as “Lane’s Army of the North.”

When the early routes for free-state settlers through Missouri became mostly impassable, Lane pinned a route around the pro-slavery Show-Me state. The route included safe houses and was crudely marked with piles of limestone for migrants to use as signposts to get to the heart of the free-soil movement. These subtle signposts, known as “Lane’s Chimneys,” served as vague markers on the rolling hills of the prairie.

Once reaching Nebraska City, Neb., travelers would navigate along the Missouri River, and pass west of Brownville, through the future site of Falls City, Neb., before fording the Nemaha River and heading southwesterly towards the future site of Sabetha. When use of the trail mostly dissipated for migrants towards the end of 1856, the trail would serve as a passage to freedom for escaped slaves.

Kansas, the western flank of the Underground Railroad

This plaque was placed at the site of the former Dorrington family home and barn in Falls City, Neb., in September 2022.

David and Ann Dorrington were residents of the newly founded settlement of Falls City, Neb. There, David established a contract as a carrier of the U.S. mail from Rulo, Neb., to his home in Falls City, Neb., and south to Topeka and back. Enslaved people were escaping from Missouri, Arkansas and Texas, and crossing the river at Quindaro in Wyandotte County, Kan. Then, they would move on to Lawrence and eventually Topeka, where the Lane Trail was the established route to aid in their escape to the north.

Since tampering or detaining the delivery of the U.S. mail was illegal, Dorrington’s mail route — and his abolitionist sentiment — made him a prime candidate to carry out this mission of mercy. The Dorringtons would host abolitionists with their fugitive freight, as well as unaccompanied freedom seekers in their barn in Falls City, Neb.

Dorrington fashioned a false bottom to his spring wagon to transport fugitive slaves back to Falls City, Neb., where they would take the next line of the Underground Railroad into Iowa and eventually farther north, even to Canada. Stories swirl about John Brown himself stopping in Falls City, Neb., with escaped slaves, possibly even after spending the night in Albany on his last night in Kansas. The Dorrington’s house and barn, which served as a way station on the Underground Railroad, have faded into history along with the whisperings of the conductors and engineers from the covert caravans on the route to freedom.

However, the site was recognized and accepted into the National Underground Railroad Network to Freedom in 2022.

Kansas has 21 confirmed sites of the Underground Railroad Network to Freedom, and other places may be added once reliable documentation and evidence can be found. From Topeka northward, fugitives and their escorts could find refuge in places like Holton in the late 1850s, where travelers on the Lane Trail could be welcomed to a hot meal and a place to rest.

North of Holton — near a cabin of Dr. Albert Fuller — at a fording location on the Straight Creek, which is a few miles south of Netawaka in Jackson County, was a spot where abolitionists, along with their secret passengers, crossed the creek on their way north. This site was dubbed “Battle of the Spurs” with the story of John Brown taking 30 to 40 escaped slaves north in January 1859.

Other stations along Lane’s Trail included a settlement that had a post office named Powhattan, not to be confused with the town of Powhattan. This post office would have been located in the farthest reaches of southwest Brown County, closer to Wetmore. This office was on an established stage route that served as a mail courier from St. Joseph, Mo., to Salt Lake City, Utah.

A pioneer cemetery is all that is left as a reminder of Old Powhattan today. From there, the potential route may have been to follow Gregg Creek, past Granada and Capioma and further north towards Sabetha, which had a few settlers by 1854 before its official establishment in 1857.

One of the stories about how Sabetha got its name comes from one of the earliest settlers of Albany who wrote to the Secretary of the Kansas Historical Society, which says, “General Jim Lane had dug a well in the edge of Brown County close to the Nemaha County line, had stuck a stake and marked it ‘Sabetha,’ presumably because he camped there over Sunday.”

A settler named Charles Smith had built a cabin on his claim in extreme southwest Brown County that was used on the Lane Trail. Perhaps both Fuller’s and Smith’s home sites were instrumental in the ferrying of escaped slaves farther north. A settlement named Lexington — which no longer exists — which was built two to three miles southeast of Sabetha, and was established by a man identified as E.P. Harris, was also on Lane’s Trail.

Continuing north, one of the final established points of the trail, and potentially the Underground Railroad, is a place named Plymouth. Plymouth, which was northeast of Sabetha in Brown County, lies possibly east of Sycamore Springs and is described as “near the mouth of Pony Creek,” and was a site frequently used by Lane’s free-soilers coming to the territory. Potentially, this location could have been used on the secret network before statehood came to be, as it was a documented spot that Lane used.

Often times, we think that all history is written and that is that, but history holds some of its secrets close and they can only be found in whispers and murmurings passed down through family lineages. Sometimes, the secrets are hidden in trunks that have become family heirlooms, in letters and journals. Sometimes, if we can dust off the memories, reach a little farther in the dimly lit folds and dig a little deeper, history enlightens new details and happenings to strengthen our understanding of the past. Our little slice of heaven in northeast Kansas is full of such stories, and some are yet to be discovered.

This story about James Lane is the second installment of a three-part series addressing the local history of slavery. The third part of this series will continue on with a story about White Banks in the Wednesday, Feb. 28, issue of The Sabetha Herald. The first installment of this series was about John Brown in the Wednesday, Feb. 14, issue of The Sabetha Herald.

Editor’s Note: The sources for this story are listed below.





Bob Nelson, a Falls City native and former columnist for the Omaha World-Herald, now a freelance writer based in Virginia, researched the history of a local couple who sheltered escaping slaves during the “bleeding Kansas” period prior to the Civil War.

Pete Schuetz175 Posts

Pete Schuetz is a reporter for The Sabetha Herald, where he has been on staff since 2022. Pete is a retired teacher from the USD 113 Prairie Hills School district. He lives in Sabetha with his wife and one of his two sons.


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