Ceremony honors Dutch families who worked the Underground Railroad along the Little Calumet River

Jan Ton and Cornelis Kuyper, leaders of Dutch communities from present day South Holland to Chicago’s Roseland neighborhood, encouraged residents to help enslaved people in the 1850s along the Underground Railroad.

To honor that history, a sign unveiled Thursday at the Ton Farm Underground Railroad site along the Little Calumet River commemorates the Dutch families that helped enslaved people escape through Chicago toward Detroit.

Birgitta Tazelaar, the ambassador of the Netherlands to the United States, said her country has made a commitment in recent years to acknowledge its “ugly, painful and downright shameful” role in slavery.

“Being here … is an encouraging reminder that even amidst that painful history, there are examples of inspiring moral conviction, the resilience of human spirit and humanity shared by the people of our two nations,” Tazelaar said.

Ton and Kuyper were among the founding trustees of the First Reformed Church of South Holland in 1855, the sign states, and they encouraged other Dutch families to help enslaved people travel along the Underground Railroad.

Larry McClellan, historian and president of the Little Calumet River Underground Railroad Project, said one night in 1857 men came to Kuyper for help locating three refugee slaves in the Chicago area. Under the law, Kuyper had to help look for refugee slaves when asked, McClennan said.

Kuyper and the men rode around looking for the three refugee slaves, from Chicago’s South Side to present day Hammond, Indiana, but they couldn’t find them, McClellan said. They returned to Kuyper’s house empty handed before deciding to head back to Chicago, he said.

Kuyper rode with them halfway to Chicago before turning around to head home, McClellan said. When he got home, Kuyper went to his barn and invited the three refugees into his home to have dinner, he said.

The Ton and Kuyper families saw freedom seekers as people who needed help, Tazelaar said.

“They knew that providing a place to stay or a ride across the river was the right thing to do despite the risk. They were breaking the law, but they held the higher moral high ground to do so,” she said.

The story of the Dutch settlers and the enslaved people along the Underground Railroad near the Little Calumet River highlights America’s history, Tazelaar said.

“A story of bravery and danger, a drama that touches many of the overarching themes of American history. Themes like slavery, immigration and civil disobedience,” Tazelaar said. “At the same time, it’s … a deeply normal story. A story of regular people helping other people purely because it was the right thing to do so.”

Jeff Ton, a descendant of the Jon and Aagje Ton, said the Ton Family farm is hallowed ground.

“It’s hugely important for the South Side of Chicago area to know and understand what happened in this area back in the 1850s,” Ton said. “We honor Jan and Aagje … who really needs to be honored are the freedom seekers themselves, who came through this area sometimes on journeys of several hundred miles on foot to seek freedom.”

Teronda Gaines, whose family owns Chicago’s Finest Marina near the Ton Farm, said the stories of courage and resilience deserve to be heard.

“I hope today discussion sparks a deeper appreciation for the bravery of those who sought liberty and the bravery of those who helped them in the journey,” Gaines said. “Let’s carry these lessons forward and continue to advocate for equality and justice.”