Part Two: Plainfield Abolitionists
Decades before the outbreak of the Civil War 150 years ago, the battle to end slavery had been waged by abolitionists, typically under a cloak of secrecy. But what visible reminders of the abolitionist cause and the Civil War remain here in ?
Most — but not all — of the physical sites associated with local abolitionists have disappeared over time.
Some historians suggest that those families whose sons and husbands first rushed to the call of Union service in April 1861, when the Civil War erupted, were associated, most often, with the decades-long abolitionist movement.
Besides local Congregationalists, the German Evangelical, Baptist and Methodist congregations counted abolitionists among their members. Because of their illegal activities, many families did not leave a record of their anti-slavery involvement.
With few records, only a handful of Plainfield abolitionists are known definitively, including Jacob J. Fouser and Dennison and Otilla Green. Plainfield College’s founders were adamant in their opposition to slavery. Names such as Elijah and Sarah Baker or Robert and Louisa Bartlett continue to surface as potentially involved in the effort to harbor escaped slaves on their journeys to freedom.
Among the most outspoken was George Randolph Dyer.
The Dyer Family Story
Plainfield’s first resident physician played a key role in local anti-slavery efforts. Born in 1803, Dr. Charles Volney Dyer came to Plainfield from Vermont in the autumn of 1835. Dyer practiced medicine here that winter, but because of Plainfield’s small population, he relocated the following spring to Chicago, where he became the acting surgeon at Fort Dearborn.
Dyer gained a favorable reputation for his medical abilities, including notable care during the 1854 outbreak of cholera. However, Dyer was better known for his brazen actions to aid more than 1,000 fugitive slaves, which earned him the unofficial designation of “President of the Illinois Underground Railroad.”
In 1841, Dyer’s younger brother, George Randolph Dyer, came to Plainfield after helping to organize the Wisconsin Territory.
Born in Vermont in 1813, George Dyer purchased government land northwest of Plainfield in DuPage Township. There, he engaged in crop farming and stock-raising.
On that parcel, he erected a one-and-a-half story home for his family. Dyer’s farmhouse was strategically located halfway between the Dennison Green home in Plainfield and the isolated Elijah Baker farmstead (along present-day Weber Road).
Described as “a little eccentric,” George Dyer was a “jolly and witty companion,” according to documents from his day. His abolitionist sentiments were well-known and as a “defender of the rights of man,” Dyer was always “distinguished.” Furthermore, Dyer “considered it no disgrace to be called an abolitionist” and demonstrated “bold activity and uncompromising devotion” to the cause.
Dyer was elected Will County sheriff in 1856 and moved to Joliet for the next five years while his two sons operated the Plainfield farm.
At the outbreak of the Civil War in 1861, Dyer and his two sons immediately enlisted. George Dyer served as a captain until the end of the conflict. His eldest son died in 1863 of disease contracted in the southern swamps.
By the close of the 1870s, Dyer was recognized as “the pioneer” of the Will County anti-slavery efforts. Within the region, only the Samuel Haven family of New Lenox may have rivaled his open devotion to securing freedom for slaves.
Did Lincoln Sleep Here?
Charles and George Dyer were quite close, according to all accounts. So it is likely that Charles visited his brother here at Plainfield often. Also, the Dyer families were close acquaintances of President Abraham Lincoln. Therefore, it is likely that — if Lincoln visited the Plainfield area between 1841 and 1856 — he was entertained in the Dyer farmhouse, then 3.5 miles northwest of downtown Plainfield.
Honoring Charles Dyer’s “sterling integrity and the great service he had rendered the cause of anti-slavery,” Lincoln appointed him in 1863 to be a judge for the mixed court in Sierra Leone (Africa). The purposes of the court included the suppression of the slave trade.
Upon word of Lincoln’s assassination, Dyer — at age 57 — presented the only official eulogy for the slain 16th president spoken on the African continent. Following the end of his court term, he traveled across Europe with his family for two years before returning to Chicago, where he died in 1878.
George Dyer sold the Plainfield farm in 1868 and moved to Joliet, where he lived until his death in 1893.
Few Remnants of Heroics
Saxon R. Rathbun bought the Dyer farm and remodeled the farmhouse after 1873. The altered house was relocated in 1998 to a site along Essington Road in present-day Bolingbrook. The Dyer-Rathbun farmland is now occupied by non-de-script warehouses along Interstate 55.
Charles Dyer’s service to the city of Chicago was rewarded with the naming of a street in his honor; today, that thoroughfare is Halsted Street. After breaking his walking cane while securing the release of an escaped slave, Dyer was presented a gold-topped, hickory cane which is, today, in the collections of the Chicago Historical Society.