The Ton Farm: A Celebration of This Chicago Underground Railroad Site

Illinois is a state of various things. The word itself is a derivative of the French language from an Indian version meaning “man” or “warrior.”

Aurora’s nickname is “City of Lights” after being one of the first in the country to install streetlights in 1881. While Former President Barack Obama was elected while residing here, late President Ronald Reagan was the only US President born here. While there are many historical facts about Illinois, who would have thought that the Underground Railroad ran through our backyard here in Chicago?

This significant tidbit is essential because certain parties want to erase an accurate history of African-American slavery by pushing a “gentle narrative” around it.

Retired historian and founding Governors State University professor Larry McClellan is actively revealing the truth around the actual narrative of slavery. He is the president and founder of Illinois Underground Railroad, a nonprofit that assists with continuing education and connecting communities with accurate information and knowledge.

On Saturday, McClellan was one of the individuals on hand at the Beaubien Woods Boat Launch to celebrate five years of educational tours at the historic Jan and Aagje Ton Farm and other sites where freedom seekers came to escape slavery as part of the Underground Railroad. Forest Preserves of Cook County General Superintendent Arnold Randall joined the Little Calumet Underground Railroad Project for the event as well.

According to McClellan’s research, 3,000 to 4,500 Freedom Seekers passed through northeastern Illinois from the 1820s through 1861, from La Salle and Livingston Counties to the southwest into Will and Cook Counties. In the 1970s, McClellan realized a teaching shift about African-American History and Culture. One of his missions affirms that African American History matters and must be told.

The Ton Family Farm and the Underground Railroad

While Blacks, Whites and Native Americans assisted, foreign Dutch settlers also helped to secure freedom from people fleeing slavery. One such family was The Tons. The Ton Farm Underground Railroad Site sits on the Little Calumet River near the Beaubien Woods Boat Launch at the southern edge of Chicago.

In 2022, the National Park Service recognized the Ton Farm as part of the Network to Freedom listing of nationally significant Underground Railroad sites.

In the years before the Civil War, this site was on a major overland route for freedom seekers walking or riding by coach or wagon from Chicago on their way to Detroit and Canada. Along the way, they were supplied with food, water and other essentials. The Tons created vast resources and secret societies that one could rely upon for their journey.

Cook County Commissioner Donna Miller has been at the forefront these past few years supporting the Illinois Underground Railroad. She is passionate about her constituents learning more about historical events in their backyard.

Her office works with McClellan and Illinois Underground Railroad coordinator Tom Shepherd to ensure national landmark historic status for Underground Railroad sites within Cook County.

At-Large Little Calumet UGRR Board member Mari Barnes believes this enriching endeavor provides a unique learning opportunity, especially for youth. With a bleak educational outlook in states like Florida and across the board, Saturday’s event (along with others) will help them understand what these Freedom Seekers experienced, from the raw truth of what they endured to the triumphant success most of them shared.

These lessons are something that a true Illinoisan would be proud to claim, that this very soil created a path of light as its citizens lived up to being “warriors” in the freedom fight for all.

For more information on the Illinois Underground Railroad, please visit

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