Journey to Freedom


Journey to Freedom

Uncovering the Grayson Sisters' Escape from Nebraska Territory

Gail Shaffer Blankenau

280 pages
8 photographs, 4 illustrations, 4 maps, 3 appendixes, index


March 2024


$34.95 Add to Cart
eBook (EPUB)
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March 2024


$34.95 Add to Cart
eBook (PDF)
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March 2024


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About the Book

In late November of 1858 two enslaved Black women—Celia Grayson, age twenty-two, and Eliza Grayson, age twenty—escaped the Stephen F. Nuckolls household in southeastern Nebraska. John Williamson, a man of African American and Cherokee descent from Iowa, guided them through the dark to the Missouri River, where they boarded a skiff and crossed the icy waters, heading for their first stop on the Underground Railroad at Civil Bend, Iowa.

In Journey to Freedom Gail Shaffer Blankenau provides the first detailed history of Black enslavement in Nebraska Territory and the escape of these two enslaved Black women from Nebraska City. Poised on the “frontier,” the Graysons’ escape demonstrated that unique opportunities beckoned at the confluence of Nebraska, Missouri, Iowa, and Kansas, and their actions challenged slavery’s tentative expansion into the West and its eventual demise in an era of territorial fluidity. Their escape and the violence that followed prompted considerable debate across the country and led to the Nebraska legislature’s move to prohibit slavery. Drawing on multiple collections, records, and slave narratives, Journey to Freedom sheds light on the Graysons’ courage and agency as they became high-profile figures in the national debate between proslavery and antislavery factions in the antebellum period.

Author Bio

Gail Shaffer Blankenau is a professional genealogist, historian, speaker, and author. She holds an MA degree in history from the University of Nebraska–Kearney, and in 2023 she received the James L. Sellers prize for her article about the Grayson sisters in a volume of Nebraska History magazine. Blankenau is from Nebraska and currently lives in Lincoln.


"Blankenau paints a remarkable portrait of antebellum turmoil. It's a vital resurfacing of a largely forgotten story."—Publishers Weekly

“Gail Shaffer Blankenau’s remarkable historical detective work transforms the little-known story of Celia and Eliza Grayson’s escape from enslavement in the newly organized Nebraska Territory into a broader story that goes to the heart of the national debate over the westward expansion of slavery on the eve of the Civil War. The experiences of the Grayson sisters, and the Nuckolls family who enslaved them, illuminate the malleability of slavery in borderland locations and the high stakes involved in transplanting it in western soil.”—Diane Mutti Burke, author of On Slavery’s Border: Missouri’s Small Slaveholding Households, 1815–1865

“Today few outside of Nebraska remember its role in the sectional crisis, and even fewer know about slavery’s existence in the territory. Blankenau’s intricate retelling of bondage and freedom in Nebraska City and its environs—through the lens of Celia and Eliza’s lives—corrects that oversight.”—Kristen Epps, author of Slavery on the Periphery: The Kansas-Missouri Border in the Antebellum and Civil War Eras

“A thorough, revelatory account that demolishes the myth of Nebraska as free of slavery. This stirring history shows how Eliza and Celia Grayson’s daring escape from bondage in Nebraska distilled the national debate over slavery to its very essence.”—William G. Thomas III, author of A Question of Freedom: The Families Who Challenged Slavery from the Nation’s Founding to the Civil War

“This deeply researched narrative brings to life the experiences of two courageous women who fled enslavement and gained freedom. With true sympathy and skill, Gail Blankenau tells a very human story about the reach of slavery into Nebraska Territory, and the resistance to it.”—Lauret E. Savoy, author of Trace: Memory, History, Race, and the American Landscape

Table of Contents

List of Illustrations
1. Growing Up in Appalachian Mountain Slavery
2. Adjusting to New Lives in Missouri
3. The Opening of Kansas and Nebraska Territories
4. Life in Nebraska City, a Missouri River Town
5. Politics Running High 
6. Fugitive Slave Excitement in Nebraska
7. The Consequences of “Villainy and Meanness”
8. Slave Hunting and Eliza’s Chicago Rescue
Appendix A. Transcription of the Enslaved Listed in Nuckolls Account Book
Appendix B. Grayson Family Tree
Appendix C. Nuckolls–Bourne–Hail Relationship Chart

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