The University of Iowa LibrariesThe Biographical Dictionary of Iowa: Jacket Art - Agriculture - Cresco, Iowa by Richard Haines ca 1934 -  Photo by Scott Christopher courtesy of Gregg Narber

THE BIOGRAPHICAL DICTIONARY OF IOWA

University of Iowa Press Digital Editions
Todd, John
(November 10, 1818–January 31, 1894)

–antislavery minister, Underground Railroad activist, and founder of the town of Tabor and Tabor College—was born in West Hanover, Dauphin County, Pennsylvania, fifth child of Captain James Todd, of Scots-Irish Presbyterian ancestry, and Sally (Ainsworth) Todd. In 1835 John enrolled in Oberlin Collegiate Institute, established just two years earlier, a leading center of antislavery activism. He received his bachelor's degree from Oberlin in 1841 and graduated from Oberlin Theological Seminary three years later. He was ordained as a Congregational minister on August 15, 1844, and married Martha Atkins, also an Oberlin graduate, on September 10, 1844. Six of their children would survive to adulthood.

    After the religious and antislavery intensity of Oberlin, Rev. Todd found the apathy of his first pastorate, at Clarksville, Ohio, disappointing. After six years, he accepted the invitation of George B. Gaston of Oberlin to serve as pastor of a colony that aspired to be an "Oberlin of the West" on the Iowa frontier. Todd accompanied Gaston and his family, together with Samuel H. Adams and his wife, Darius P. Matthews, and Josiah B. Hall, to locate their colony at Civil Bend (later Percival) in Fremont County, Iowa, where Lester and Elvira Platt and Dr. Ira Blanchard and his family had already settled. Todd terminated his pastorate in Clarksville in 1850, and relocated with his family to Civil Bend, where he preached regularly, as well as serving other nearby settlements.

    To escape malaria at low-lying Civil Bend, most of the colony relocated in 1852 to higher ground a few miles to the east. At that settlement, which they named Tabor after the biblical Mount Tabor (Jer. 46:18), Todd organized the Tabor Congregational Church with eight members on October 12, 1852. He would serve as its pastor for the next 30 years, resigning in 1883. He also organized the Congregational Church of Glenwood in 1856, and, after an extended home missionary tour of western Iowa and eastern Nebraska, organized the First Congregational Church of Sioux City in 1857.

    Tabor's location in southwest Iowa made it a major transit point for Free State emigrants bound for "Bleeding Kansas" beginning in the summer of 1856. By that fall Todd, according to his reminiscences, "had one brass cannon on his hay mow, and another in his wagon shed," as well as boxes of clothing, ammunition, muskets, sabers, and Sharps rifles "stored away in the cellar all winter."Todd also recounted the colony's collaboration with other slavery opponents, such as Dr. Ira Blanchard of Percival, the free African American John Williamson, and Rev. George B. Hitchcock of Lewis, in spiriting freedom seekers to safety as part of the Underground Railroad, beginning as early as 1854, and continuing at least until 1860. It has been claimed that John Todd and the people of Tabor helped several hundred escaped slaves.

    Todd no doubt met John Brown when Brown made the first of several visits to Tabor on October 5, 1856. Their most famous encounter occurred after Brown and his men arrived in Tabor on February 5, 1859, with a party of 12 African Americans forcibly freed from slavery in western Missouri. The next day, a Sunday, Brown handed a note to Todd at church asking the church at Tabor to offer public thanksgiving to God for delivering Brown and his company and " their rescued captives in particular... out of the hand of the wicked hitherto."But news of the violence and death that had accompanied Brown's raid in Missouri had reached Tabor, and the request was refused. Upset that his Tabor friends would not support him, Brown and his party left Tabor within the week. Later in their winter journey across Iowa, the Grinnell community would grant them the warm welcome and the material support that Todd and the Taborites had denied.

    In 1887 Josiah B. Grinnell published an article in the Iowa State Register suggesting that Todd and the people of Tabor had acted as they did because they feared provoking retaliation from militant proslavery interests in nearby Missouri. Todd vigorously denied the charge, and Grinnell backed away from his allegation. L. F. Parker, professor of history at Grinnell College and later at the State University of Iowa, who knew both men, endorsed Todd's view of the matter.

    Although Todd was an outspoken supporter of the Union cause during the Civil War, he did not feel called to participate until late in the war. In 1864 he was commissioned chaplain of the 46th Iowa Infantry and served with the regiment in western Tennessee.

    Todd had been president of the board of trustees of the Tabor Literary Institute when it was organized in 1857, and when it was transformed into Tabor College in 1866, he became a trustee, a position he held until his death. He also supported the college financially and served as professor of mathematics and natural philosophy (1866-1869), professor of mental and moral philosophy (1869-1872), librarian (1877), and treasurer (1881-1886).

    Todd's wife, Martha, after several years of failing health, died on July 20, 1888. The widower spent much of 1889 with an unmarried daughter in South Dakota. After his return to Tabor, he married Anna K. Drake on March 26, 1891. In apparent good health to the end of his life, Todd died suddenly of heart failure in 1894 while circulating a petition to the Iowa legislature opposing the repeal of the state's prohibition law.
Sources John Todd, Early Settlement and Growth of Western Iowa or Reminiscences (1906), is still available in reprint from the John Todd House in Tabor. It was a primary source for James Patrick Morgans, John Todd and the Underground Railroad: Biography of an Iowa Abolitionist (2006); Catharine Grace Barbour Farquhar, "Tabor and Tabor College," Iowa Journal of History and Politics 41 (1943), 337–93; and probably-it is not footnoted- Robert W. Handy and Gertrude Handy, "The Remarkable Masters of a First Station on the Underground Railroad," Iowan 22 (Summer 1974), 45–50, a readable popular account.
Contributor: G. Galin Berrier

Cite as: Berrier, G Galin. "Todd, John" The Biographical Dictionary of Iowa. University of Iowa Press, 2009. Web. 16 August 2018