by Nicole Griffetts
Originally written for a class at Ball State in 2012. Nicole is the education coordinator for the History Center.
The Underground Railroad evokes images of selfless individuals persevering against the odds to help strangers obtain the elusive idea of freedom. Popular stories and rhetoric on the subject paints the perfect portrait of good triumphing over evil. On one side of the spectrum, evil masters are subjugating African Americans, inflicting cruelty and denying freedom based upon ethnicity. On the other side, gentle souls are the guardians who have made it their business to help free innocent people from the shackles of tyranny. Such common perceptions are oversimplifications of a complex and divisive event in American memory. The accurate and tangled story of abolition rests in examining the Indiana and Ohio Valley area, where racial tensions within the abolitionist movement reveal the political structures as well as the different roles African Americans and whites played in the national arena.
Before examining Indiana’s role in the Underground Railroad, it is first important to understand the foundations of the movement and its origins. Established long before the outbreak of the Civil War, the railway was not actually a road with tracks laid for trains. Rather, it was an undercover, covert system of roads and pathways run by abolitionists and free blacks. The origins of the term Underground Railroad are vague, but many believe slave catchers from Kentucky coined it. Upon hearing that a man had escaped and having no luck in finding him, the catchers declared that there must be a road underground for blacks to escape.1 The term eventually persisted and many slaves soon began to hear whispers of a community of whites who would be willing to assist them to freedom.
Many individuals commonly associate the Underground Railroad with the Civil War. This mistaken association is understandable, but not entirely accurate. While it is true that the Underground Railroad is a critical component to the Civil War, it was not created spontaneously from Quakers and other whites as the nation prepared to split on the issue of slavery. Rather, the elusive railway can be traced as far back as the late 1780’s. While it was not yet called the Underground Railroad, there existed an underground movement to help slaves run away from plantations. George Washington is reported to have complained loudly and frequently about pesky Quakers interfering in matters of slavery.2
Many slaves were searching for a safe route to Canada, where they could eventually send for enslaved family members and establish themselves within a community. However, they first had to navigate through the nation and periodically stop along the way. Fugitive slaves saw the Ohio River as the critical dividing point between freedom and slavery.3 Because of this important division, many abolitionists settled in the region and began operating, or conducting, on the Underground Railroad. While the Ohio River was symbolically and geographically significant, Indiana ultimately attracted fugitives and abolitionists alike. Larger cities within Indiana, such as Fort Wayne, were sympathetic and welcoming to fugitives. Generally, runaway slaves did not feel ostracized or fear of being betrayed by Fort Wayne residents.4 Other cities, such as Evansville, were stops on the railway for their close proximity to the Ohio River. Slaves passing through Evansville typically crossed into the state above Louisville, Kentucky. They were then sent to Wayne County, then to Lake Michigan, with the eventual goal being to reach Canadian borders.5
The specific routes are often hard to trace, as they were changed often to thwart slave catchers who were searching to retrieve slaves or to cash in on a reward. However, it was important that the slaves were informed of any changes to ensure a smooth transition into free territory. Historians have been able to distinguish three known routes taken by slaves crossing into Ohio and Indiana after reaching the Ohio River.
The first was a continuation of a route that began in Cincinnati and went through several parts of Indiana. This particular route had stations located in Wayne County, Decatur, Winchester, Portland, Fort Wayne, and Auburn. The second route involved three branches that crossed through the Ohio River. This route passed through the central part of the state, including Indianapolis, South Bend, Plymouth, Logansport, and Westfield. The third known route followed the Wabash River through Terre Haute and Lafayette. While other routes certainly existed, the three mentioned routes were frequently traveled and written about by abolitionists and slaves on their journey north.6
The railway in Indiana soon built an impressive base of conductors who became quite skilled at outsmarting authorities and harboring fugitives. It is estimated that by the beginning of the Civil War, there were 244 conductors residing in Indiana.7 The population of African Americans in Indiana began to swell, with some choosing to move on to Canada. The swampy land in southern Indiana made it less risky for fugitives to enter the state undetected. Fountain City, for example, had an estimated population of 100 fugitive slaves from 1826 until the onset of the war.8
As slave catchers and slave owners became aware of the abolitionists’ determination, the conductors had to adapt their methods to outsmart those who may come searching for their missing property. Those individuals, such as the well-known abolitionist Levi Coffin, became accustomed to thinking quickly to avoid conflict with the authorities. Infrastructure was built with abolition in mind, and many developed clever hiding coves for runaways. Bethel Church, located in Indianapolis, is an example of such accomplishments. A known stop along the Underground Railroad, the church was responsible for harboring many African Americans. To accommodate the large flow of human traffic, Bethel Church installed false walls to ensure that the slaves could hide between the false wall and the actual foundation in case authorities came to search. To further confuse anyone who may suspect the church of illicit activity, false staircases were built to hide slaves in small cupboards behind the staircase.9
Fugitive slaves appear to have understood the grave risks, and many emphatically decided that any risk was worth having freedom. Generally, runaways were not naïve or overly optimistic about what the experience on the Underground Railroad would entail. Each knew that the conditions would be treacherous, the risk of recapture great, and the chance of failing in the North loomed above. In 1834, William Wells Brown, a slave from the deep South, decided to test his chances and escape from his master in the middle of winter. After reaching Indiana, Brown realized that reaching free territory did not mean an easy journey was ahead of him. Because Brown did not use the railway and had no outside support, he was forced to take shelter in barns and steal any corn left in the fields that had survived the elements.
To the abolitionists, it seemed absurd that men such as William Brown would not utilize the human resources that the Underground Railroad provided. However, Brown resigned himself to be self-sufficient in his journey, and displayed an untrusting attitude toward anyone attempting to help. Brown later writes, “I had long since made up my mind not to trust myself in the hands of any man, white or colored.”10 Brown is not alone, although more people chose the Underground Railroad for its reputation of transferring people safely and effectively. From the white perspective, Brown was irrational and paranoid, and he put his life in danger. Ironically, Brown was later helped along his journey by Quakers and was so moved by their kindness and selflessness that he adopted the name of the man who assisted him. Although he was adamant about going it alone, Brown realized that the Underground Railroad, while run predominately by whites, was a successful organization.
Brown is not the only fugitive to use the assistance of abolitionists. African Americans encountered white conductors regularly and sought out their help. While there were an array of white citizens aiding fugitives across state lines, the Quakers are perhaps the most notable and famed of these groups. The Quakers, traditionally non-violent and staunch abolitionists, were undoubtedly effective at conducting on the Underground Railroad. They can be credited with the rescue of hundreds of fugitive slaves. However, the organization itself was mired in political differences and shifts in power.
The Quakers were not unanimous in their decision to strongly support abolition and take an active role in freeing slaves. Of the estimated 25,000 Quakers residing in Indiana before the Civil War, only 2,500 of those chose to leave the main Quaker church in favor of an anti-slavery sect of Quakerism.11 That is not to say that the remaining Quakers were pro-slavery, or that they had no sympathy for the plight of African Americans. Rather, they chose not to become active participants in the movement. This division of action and non-action was a departure from orthodox Quakerism, and produced differences in political thinking.12
A popular misconception rests in the definitions of abolition and anti-slavery. It is easy to conflate the two when speaking about the Quaker movement. However, there is a stark difference, and these differences ultimately divided the church. Anti-slavery was merely the belief that slavery should be prohibited. Abolition, on the other hand, was the action component of anti-slavery. This required people to either participate as conductors, support those who were helping African Americans, or encourage others to get involved. The more liberal sect of Quakers were abolitionists, whereas the traditional Quakers remained anti-slavery, choosing not to participate in the social justice aspect.13
The Quakers were also not in agreement over how to think of African Americans. Contrary to popular notions about the gentle Quaker spirit, many were not readily accepting of African Americans. It was not until the 1840’s, with the Indiana Yearly Meeting of Anti-Slavery Friends, that records show a more tolerant view of African Americans.14 Slaves that were fortunate enough to gain freedom often faced the same racial attitudes that they faced in the South. Many Quakers were not comfortable with blacks settling into their communities, and there was strong support for segregating the neighborhoods.15 When put into cultural context, the Quakers are more tolerant of African Americans than their peers, but there still remained obvious racial tensions that are often overlooked.
As previously mentioned, Indiana was attractive to fugitive slaves for its accessibility and tolerance. In an 1850 census, there were 11,262 African Americans registered as living in Indiana.16 This can be compared with the white population at the time, which was 988,416.17Some of that population consisted of free blacks that had always resided in Indiana. However, many came to Indiana after escaping the south and decided to settle in the communities where they were assisted. However, 1850 can be considered a major setback for the national abolitionist movement.
In 1850, the Fugitive Slave Act was announced, creating difficulties for those involved with freeing slaves, as well as fugitive slaves who were already taking grave risks to enter the North. Essentially, the law made it acceptable for masters to reclaim their slaves, even if they had already crossed into free territory. In many cases, there was no accompanying trial to conclusively prove that the slave had ever once belonged to a particular master. The first case involving the Fugitive Slave Act in Indiana, for example, was a free African American who had been residing in Indiana for several years. He had never met the man who claimed to be his master.18
To further complicate matters, Indiana amended its constitution in 1851 to reflect the national attitude toward assisting slaves. The amendment decreed that no African American, fugitive or free, would be permitted to establish residency in the state. The punishment for doing so would be a fine, which would go to the American Colonization Society.19 This was a stark departure from previous attitudes of Indiana natives.
Where African Americans once received a warm welcome, they now faced even more hurdles on the journey to freedom and equality. James Brown, a black businessman from Ohio, traveled to Indiana on business shortly after 1851 to find a hostile people. He was subsequently fined ten dollars for being in the state. Understandably, the population of blacks in cities around the state suffered greatly. In Fort Wayne, for example, the population of African Americans decreased from 101 to 65 after the 1851 amendment.20
The Fugitive Slave Act and Indiana’s changing attitudes attracted attention from other states in the North. The New York Times heavily criticized Indiana for being too slow to prosecute under the Fugitive Slave Act, stating that the state needed to be much more decisive in its stance on African Americans to avoid any confusion.21 However, the nation still perceived Indiana to be a harbor for slaves seeking freedom. Dedicated Quakers, free blacks, and abolitionists still resided within Indiana’s borders who were determined not to let the newest legislative hurdles impede their movement from being successful. The New York Times covered a Lafayette town hall meeting and discovered that most individuals in the state, or so it seemed, still abhorred slavery, and that the amendment to the constitution did not mean that the state had shut its doors entirely to blacks.22
The African Americans that did remain unlawfully in Indiana began to become more involved in the process of the Underground Railroad. Many of them wanted to assist in bringing slaves to freedom. While many of them had always been free residents of Indiana, many were former slaves who had a working understanding of the Underground Railroad. When examining the relationship between white and black conductors, it becomes evident that there are underlying conflicts that are often overlooked. The white conductors were apprehensive about black conductors leading operations and assisting in the process.
The African Americans who worked on the Underground Railroad had something that the white conductors would never possess: They related to the fugitive slaves. Many fugitive slaves approached African Americans first because they felt more comfortable and at ease with them than the whites. However, the African American conductors lacked the resources and protection that the whites had, and they often referred the slaves to Quakers with the assurance that they were trustworthy.23 Levi Coffin, the noted pacifist and Quaker, had his own reservations about African Americans helping on the railroad. Simply put, Coffin did not believe that the free African Americans had the resources to properly assist. In his detailed account of his time on the Underground Railroad, Coffin notes, “The fugitive slaves who took refuge with these people were often pursued and captured, the colored people not being very skillful in concealing them or shrewd in making arrangements to forward them to Canada.”24
While Coffin may have valid frustrations, he spoke from a privileged position that prevented him from realizing the hurdles African Americans faced in the Underground Railroad. For example, authorities would never think of searching Coffin’s home, although there were whispers that he was harboring fugitives. African Americans did not enjoy the same luxury.Their homes were frequently searched if they were suspected of hiding runaways.25 Also, many African Americans could not afford to build elaborate homes that included clever hiding spaces, as Coffin and other Quakers were able to do.
Coffin and other Quakers assumed an almost patronizing role to free blacks in Indiana. In his memoir, Coffin is proud to point out the numerous ways in which he helped fugitive slaves. Coffin often gave the newly free men and women jobs, although it was always something service oriented, such as a personal servant.26 He was also sure to establish to the readers that he was not paid anything for his services as a conductor. He notes, “I devoted much time to looking after the interests of negroes who were brought here and liberated, without receiving any pecuniary compensation for my time and services.”27 While Coffin may appear self-serving and arrogant in his tone toward being a famed conductor, he was able to use his notoriety in the abolitionist community to make life easier for African Americans. For example, a black man named Connelly was thrown in jail for settling in Cincinnati. Coffin, through his connections and wealth, was able to arrange for the man to have an easy stay in jail without abuse.28
The Quakers tend to paint elaborate pictures of their time on the Underground Railroad, but rarely do they often give credit to their African American counterparts. The achievements and contributions of black conductors are not often mentioned in their recollections. When they are discussed, it is presented as clinical, and without the fanfare associated with what the whites were doing. While the fugitive slaves were certainly grateful for what the abolitionists did for them, many of them still had to struggle alone in order to reach freedom. Many slaves had already made the toughest part of their journey through the South before reaching the Underground Railroad. For example, Jacob Cummings fled from his master in Tennessee and made the journey north, not finding the railway until he reached New Albany, Indiana.29
As previously mentioned, many fugitives had difficulty trusting whites once they eventually found the Underground Railroad. Years of slavery had created distrust between whites and blacks, meaning that working together on the issue of abolition would be tenuous. African Americans had justifications for being cautious in Indiana. Horror stories surfaced regarding slave catchers disguised as helpful abolitionists to bring the slave back to the South. For example, one Kentucky master and a free black conspired together to help a man flee to Indiana, only to recapture him for a hefty reward.30 Because of such instances of betrayal, fugitives were wary of accepting assistance. Coffin notes that they were “afraid of every white person they saw, even after they came into the free state, knowing that slaves were often captured and taken back after crossing the Ohio River.” The slaves grew accustomed to hiding their identity by giving false names and lying about where they came from.31
Tensions were further increased when the Quakers and abolitionists assumed a paternalistic role toward the recently freed slaves. Claiming that they needed socialization and education now that they were free, the whites tended to believe that blacks were not suitable for society without their assistance. The whites tended to place heavy emphasis on those who had light skin or white features, as they viewed them to be more civilized than those who had darker skin. Ben Swain, for example, was a black conductor who garnered respect from blacks and whites. Individuals describing Swain are eager to point out that he was “light-skinned,” setting him apart from other blacks.32
Other abolitionists chose to focus on a slave’s sexuality to evoke sympathy and relation. Calvin Fairbank, an abolitionist in the Ohio River Valley, recounted the story of Eliza, a young slave who was being auctioned. He describes her as being “only 1/64 African” and very beautiful. The intention was to make people feel sorry that a woman who was practically white was being forced to unbutton her blouse on the auction platform.33 Fairbank eventually bought her and freed Eliza for $2,200. However, those who did not have the advantage of light skin were often overlooked because they did not offer as much sensationalism as those with lighter skin.
Despite the numerous obstacles they encountered, African American conductors proved to be invaluable on the Underground Railroad. Their motives behind working on the railway differed from whites. Whites such as William Cockrum entered into assisting slaves at age sixteen because he enjoyed the adventure of it. He recalls, “The oldest of our crowd except Sullivan was less than sixteen years old. Just a lot of green country boys and as I recall the scrape with such a leader we would have run headlong into anything regardless of danger.”34 John Parker, on the other hand, was a conductor in Ohio who was once a slave. His motives for becoming involved were a way of coping with his feelings of being enslaved. In his eyes, Parker saw it as his “own little personal war on slavery.”35 Regardless of their resources, African American conductors had personal motivation for assisting others to free lands.
White accounts of the Underground Railroad are abundant and are quick to point out their successes. African American accounts are much more sparse and unrecorded. Levi Coffin’s memoir was originally published in 1879 and quickly sold 280 copies. To the readers, the memoir was a tale of wild adventure and white heroism. They read with rapt attention as Coffin described situations of helping a woman escape who was still chained by one leg, or assisting a group of African Americans by placing them in a funeral procession.36 John Parker’s memoir, on the other hand, did not fare as well. Although he spent twenty years on the railway and completed his writing in the 1880’s, his work was not published until 1996. Black women arerarely represented in a substantial way other than to note their appearance or strength. Although there were a total of sixty- five slave narratives published before the Civil War, they never garnered as much attention as white accounts.
Although narratives are dominated by the white perspective, the evidence of African American successes are still overwhelming. Harrison County is a key example of the success of the railway. The county established land deeds for the freed blacks and many felt comfortable settling there instead of continuing to Canada. Because of the help they received, many took pride in their community and worked to integrate African Americans.
From this established community came successful individuals in business, the medical field, as well as more schools and churches that catered to the needs of African Americans.37 Another example is Sam Johnson, a man assisted by Levi Coffin. After gaining his freedom, Johnson sought out an education and eventually owned his own farm.38 Such successes are numerous and important to note, lest the public forget about the experiences of African Americans on the railway that gets lost in the pages of memoirs.
The Underground Railroad was created during a divisive time in American history. As the nation was quite literally being torn apart, the railway was established with the idea of egalitarianism. However, the movement was not immune to the national sentiments and politics that plagued the country. Simply entering Indiana did not mean that an African American was free. Challenges and traditional notions of race still persisted, even among those who claimed to view them equally. However, the movement can be deemed largely a success due to the efforts of brave African Americans. While whites were great facilitators who gave their time and resources to the cause, it was the slaves who made life-threatening decisions to help themselves and others forge an identity in the North.
1 George and Willene Hendrick, ed., Fleeing for Freedom: Stories of the Underground Railroad
as Told by Levi Coffin and William Still (Chicago: Ivan R. Dee, 2004), 3.
2 Larry Gara, The Liberty Line: The Legend of the Underground Railroad (Lexington, Kentucky:
The University Press of Kentucky, 1961), 8.
3 Keith P. Griffler, Front Line of Freedom: African Americans and the Forging of the
Underground Railroad in the Ohio Valley (Lexington, Kentucky: The University Press of
Kentucky, 2004), 1.
4 Angela Quinn, The Underground Railroad and the Antislavery Movement in Fort Wayne and
Allen County, Indiana (Fort Wayne, Indiana: Arch, Inc., 2001), 23.
5 Charles Blockson, The Underground Railroad (New York: Prentice Hall Press, 1987), 204.
6 Emma Lou Thornbrough, The Negro in Indiana Before 1900: A Study of a Minority
(Bloomington, Indiana: Indiana University Press, 1993), 40-41.
7 Charles Blockson, The Underground Railroad (New York: Prentice Hall Press, 1987), 204.
8 Marlene K. Lu, Walkin’ the Wabash: An Exploration Into the Underground Railroad in West
Central Indiana (Indiana Department of Natural Resources, 2001), 52.
9 Ibid., 54.
10 Gara, The Liberty Line, 45.
11 Ryan P. Jordan, Slavery and the Meetinghouse: The Quakers and the Abolitionist Dilemma,
1820-1865 (Bloomington, Indiana: Indiana University Press, 2007), 79.
12 Thomas D. Hamm, April Beckman, Marissa Florio, Kristi Giles, and Marie Hopper, “’A Great
and Good People’: Midwestern Quakers and the Struggle Against Slavery,” Indiana Magazine of
History 100, no.1 (March 2004), 5-7.
13 Lu, Walkin’ the Wabash, 17.
15 Griffler, Front Line of Freedom, 23.
16 Maxine F. Brown, The Role of Free Blacks in Indiana’s Underground Railroad: The Case of
Floyd, Harrison, and Washington Counties (Department of the Interior, 2001), 2.
17 Morton M. Rosenberg and Dennis V. McClurg, The Politics of Pro-Slavery Sentiment in
Indiana 1816-1861 (Muncie, Indiana: Ball State University, 1968), 3.
18 William M. Cockrum, History of the Underground Railroad: As it was Conducted by the Anti-
Slavery League (New York: Negro University Press, 1969), 11.
19 Quinn, The Underground Railroad and the Antislavery Movement, 29.
20 Ibid, 34.
21 W.L., “The Underground Railroad,” New York Times, June 4, 1899.
22 “The Nebraska Bill in Indiana: Fugitive Slaves,” New York Times, June 6, 1854.
23 Hamm, Beckman, Florio, Giles, and Hopper, “’A Great and Good People’, 18.
24 Griffler, Front Line of Freedom, 9.
25 Ibid., 10.
26 Levi Coffin, Reminiscences of Levi Coffin (New York: Augustus M. Kelley Publishers, 1968),
27 Ibid., 579.
28 Ibid., 587.
29 Gara, The Liberty Line, 59-61.
30 Ibid., 53.
31 Blockson, The Underground Railroad, 211-216.
32 Cockrum, History of the Underground Railroad, 104-105.
33 Julie Roy Jeffrey, Abolitionists Remember: Antislavery Autobiographies and the Unfinished
Work of Emancipation (Chapel Hill, North Carolina: The University of North Carolina Press,
34 William M. Cockrum, History of the Underground Railroad: As it was Conducted by the Anti-
Slavery League (New York: Negro University Press, 1969), 36.
35 Julie Roy Jeffrey, Abolitionists Remember: Antislavery Autobiographies and the Unfinished
Work of Emancipation (Chapel Hill, North Carolina: The University of North Carolina Press,
36 Ibid., 130-131.
37 Brown, The Role of Free Blacks in Indiana’s Underground Railroad, 9-10.
38 Jeffrey, Abolitionists Remember, 25.
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