The Robert Miller home: Lawrence’s ground zero for The Underground Railroad, Ad Astra Per Aspera, a
In 1840, Robert and Susannah Miller faced a dilemma. Their new minister at the Scotch Presbyterian Church in Chester, South Carolina, had been tarred and feathered by townspeople after preaching against slavery. The Millers risked their standing in the community, their livelihood and the safety of their family of ten when they decided to press charges against the perpetrators. As a result, Robert was beaten severely. He took two months to recuperate.
This incident forever changed their 12-year-old son, Josiah, and was instrumental in his decision to leave the South six years later and pursue his education in Indiana. Josiah came to Lawrence in 1854 to seek opportunities in land acquisition and to work politically to bring Kansas into the Union as a Free State.
In 1858 Robert and Susannah and their four youngest children built this brick home on five acres and took up farming. Motivated by their religious beliefs they offered their farmstead as a stop on the Underground Railroad, using their smokehouse at the back of the property to shelter liberated slaves. This was dangerous as only two miles away, right by what is now the entrance to the Lawrence Industrial Park, was the pro-slavery town of Franklin. Discovery of escaped slaves would have led to prosecution under the Fugitive Slave Act of 1850 and, possibly, death.
The Georgian-style brick house and grounds, even the glass in some of the front windows, remain largely the same as they were in 1858, but the smokehouse has been torn down. The wing at the rear of the home was added in 1863.
While this home was under construction, Robert and Josiah Miller also built a downtown commercial building known as Miller’s Hall. An upstairs room served as a meeting location for the Kansas Territorial Legislature as well as the Presbyterian Church, the Masons, and the German Turnverein immigrant social organization. It survived Quantrill’s Raid and still is in use at 723-25 Massachusetts.
Josiah Miller was a politician and newspaper editor. He helped found the Free State Party. He was a member of the first state Senate of Kansas and has been credited with creating the state motto Ad Astra Per Aspera by adapting the words of the Roman philosopher Virgil.
With a sharp knock on the front door of the house before dawn on August 21, 1863, William Quantrill and 400 men initiated their plan to destroy Lawrence. The Millers’ daughter Margaret, age 27, answered the door. Quantrill pretended to be a soldier on a forced march and asked if there were any soldiers in Lawrence. Margaret told Quantrill she recognized him, as Quantrill had been a dinner guest of the Millers a few weeks before, and that he was not a soldier. The raiders left at that point, admonishing the Millers at gunpoint not to follow. They rode west toward town, shot and killed the commander of the Second Colored Regiment, Rev. S.S. Snyder, then rode into town and massacred approximately 170 men and boys. On their way out of town they came back by the Millers’ house and stole a horse.
The Miller House is a wonderful place to contemplate the dangers and fears of liberated slaves and their Underground Railroad conductors, the political and commercial aspirations of white settlers like the Millers, and the terror of political violence during the Border Wars.
Robert C. Dinsdale | LawrenceHistoryTours.com