A drawing based on a circa 1850 engraving
October 28, 1798|
Guilford County, North Carolina
|Died||September 16, 1877
|Resting place||Spring Grove Cemetery|
|Residence||Levi Coffin House|
|Known for||his work with Underground Railroad|
|Home town||Fountain City, Indiana
|Board member of||Western Freedman's Society
Bank of Indiana Board of Directors
|Parents||Levi Coffin Sr.|
|Relatives||Vestal Coffin (cousin)
Lucretia Coffin Mott (cousin)
Levi Coffin (October 28, 1798 – September 16, 1877) was an American Quaker, abolitionist, and businessman. Coffin was deeply involved in the Underground Railroad in Indiana and Ohio and his home is often called "Grand Central Station of the Underground Railroad". He was nicknamed "President of the Underground Railroad" because of the thousands of slaves that are reported to have passed through his care while escaping their masters.
Born in the Southern United States, Coffin was exposed to and developed an opposition to slavery as a child. He followed his family and immigrated to Indiana from North Carolina in 1826 following a persecution of the Quakers by the slave-holders. In Indiana he quickly became a local business leader as a merchant and farmer. The wealth he accumulated allowed him to become a major investor in the Richmond branch of the Bank of Indiana where he served as director during the 1830s. His position in the community allowed him to provide most of the funds necessary to supply food, clothing, and transportation for the Underground Railroad operations in his region.
At the urging of friends in the anti-slavery movement, he moved to Cincinnati in 1847 to operate a warehouse selling only goods produced by free labor. Despite making considerable progress with the business, the venture was unprofitable and he was forced to abandon the enterprise in 1857. Throughout the period, he continued to assist hundreds of runaway slaves by lodging them in his Ohio home. After slavery was abolished following the American Civil War, Coffin traveled around the Midwestern United States and abroad to France and Great Britain where he was instrumental in forming aid societies to provide food, clothing, funds, and education to the freed slaves. He retired during the 1870s and wrote an autobiography that was published a year before his death.
Family and background
Coffin was born on a farm near New Garden in Guilford County, North Carolina on October 28, 1798, the son of Mary and Levi Coffin Sr. He was the family's only son and had six sisters. Coffin's grandfather had immigrated to New England from Leicestershire, England with his parents around 1740. Coffin's father was born in Massachusetts during the 1760s and emigrated from Nantucket to North Carolina where he farmed land among a community of Quakers. The family was greatly influenced by the teachings of John Woolman who believed that slaveholding was not compatible with Quaker beliefs, and advocated the emancipation of slaves. Coffin's parents probably met Woolman in 1767 during religious meetings near their New Garden home with other non-slaveholding Quaker families. Coffin's cousin, Vestal Coffin, also probably attended the meeting. Vestel was one of the earliest Quakers to help slaves escape North Carolina, beginning as early as 1819.
Coffin grew up working on his father's farm and received little, if any, formal education. He was frequently exposed to slaves throughout his childhood and sympathized with their condition. According to his own account, he became an abolitionist at age seven when he asked a slave who was in a chain gang why he was bound. The man replied that it was to prevent him from escaping and returning to his wife and children. The event disturbed Coffin who often considered the possibility of his own father being taken from him in a similar fashion. By age fifteen, Coffin was helping his family assist escaping slaves by taking food to those hiding on his farm. As the repressive Fugitive Slave Act became more rigorously enforced, the family began conducting their assistance to slaves with greater secrecy and doing most of their illegal activities at night. Scrutiny of the abolitionists only worsened with the passage of the 1804 Black Laws. By the early 1820s, Quakers in North Carolina were being openly persecuted for the assistance they were suspected of providing to runaway slaves.
Move to Indiana
In 1821, Coffin and his cousin started a Sunday School to teach slaves to read the Bible. The plan was short-lived though, as slaveholders soon forced the two to close the school. As the persecution worsened, thousands of Quakers began to leave the North Carolina for the Northwest Territories where slavery was illegal and land was cheap. There was already a large Quaker community there and they had been influential in the passing of constitutional bans on slavery in Ohio and Indiana. In 1822 Coffin accompanied his brother-in-law Benjamin White on his move to Indiana. He stayed in Indiana with the Whites for about a year before returning to North Carolina. He carried back with him reports of Indiana and its prosperity. He was convinced that Quakers and slavery could not coexist and decided that he himself would move to Indiana.
On October 28, 1824, Coffin married long-time friend Catherine White, the sister of his brother-in-law. The ceremony was held in the Hopewell Friends Meetinghouse in North Carolina. Catherine's family is believed to have been involved in helping slaves escape, and it is likely she met Coffin in this activity. The couple postponed their move to Indiana after Catherine became pregnant with Jesse, the first of six children, who was born in 1825. Coffin's parents moved to Indiana in that year. He and his new wife and son followed them and moved to Newport (now called Fountain City, Indiana) in 1826.
After moving to Indiana, Coffin began to farm a tract of land. Within a year of his move he opened a general store. In his later years, he credited his business success with granting him the ability to become heavily involved in the costly enterprise of the Underground Railroad. Although the term "Underground Railroad" did not come into use until the 1830s, the organization was operating in Indiana by the early 1820s. According to Coffin's own account, not long after moving he discovered that his home was on a line of Underground Railroad stops. There was a large community of free blacks near Newport where fugitive slaves would hide before continuing north. Often, they were recaptured because their hiding place there was well known. Coffin made contact with the black community and made it known to them that he would be willing to hide runaways in his nearby home to better protect them.
He first took fugitive slaves into his new home in the winter of 1826–1827. Word of his activity quickly spread throughout the community. Although many had previously been afraid to take part, upon seeing his success at avoiding problems they soon joined him. The group formed a more formal route whereby the fugitives could be moved from stop to stop until they reached Canada. Coffin referred to the system as the "mysterious road". As time progressed the number of escaping slaves increased. Coffin estimated that on average he helped one hundred escape annually. Coffin's home became the convergence point of three major escape routes from Madison, New Albany, and Cincinnati. The runaways gathered at his home and at times two wagons were required to transport the escapees further north. Coffin would move them from his home to the next stops during the night. His home saw so many fugitives pass through, it became known as the "Grand Central Station of the Underground Railroad."
Coffin's life was frequently threatened by slave-hunters and many of his friends feared for his safety. They tried to dissuade him from his activities by warning him of the danger to his family and business. Coffin, however, was deeply moved by his religious convictions and wrote of these fears later in life saying:
After listening quietly to these counselors, I told them that I felt no condemnation for anything that I had ever done for the fugitive slaves. If by doing my duty and endeavoring to fulfill the injunctions of the Bible, I injured my business, then let my business go. As to my safety, my life was in the hands of my Divine Master, and I felt that I had his approval. I had no fear of the danger that seemed to threaten my life or my business. If I was faithful to duty, and honest and industrious, I felt that I would be preserved, and that I could make enough to support my family.
His business had a period of poor performance. Neighbors who were opposed to his activity boycotted his store. The population of Indiana was quickly growing however, and the majority of the new immigrants supported the anti-slavery movement and Coffin's business began to grow. His prosperity continued and he made a substantial investment in the Bank of Indiana when it was first established in 1833. He soon became the director of the Richmond branch of the bank. In 1836 he built a mill and began to produce linseed oil from flax he grew on his farm. Coffin built a new two-story brick home in 1838 and had several modifications made to his house to create better hiding places for the slaves. A secret door was created in his maids' quarters where up to fourteen people could hide in a narrow crawlspace between the walls. The space was often used when slave hunters came to Coffin's home in search of runaways.
During the 1840s pressure was brought to bear on the Quaker communities that helped escaping slaves. In 1842 leaders of the Religious Society of Friends, the Quaker Meeting to which Coffin belonged, advised all their members to cease membership in abolitionist societies and end activities assisting runaway slaves. They insisted that legal emancipation was the best course of action. The following year they disowned Coffin and expelled him from their group because he continued to take an active role in assisting escaping slaves. Coffin and other Quakers who supported his activities separated and formed the Antislavery Friends. The two groups remained separate until a reunification in 1851.
Despite the opposition, his desire to help the runaway slaves only increased. Catherine organized a sewing society who met at the Coffins' home to produce clothing to give to the runaways. Other aid was sought from neighbors and those sympathetic, but unwilling take the fugitives into their homes. Through these activities he was able to procure a steady supply of goods to assist in the operations efforts. Over the years he came to realize that many of the goods he sold in his business were the product of slave labor. Through traveling he learned of organizations in Philadelphia and New York City that only sold goods produced by free labor. He began to purchase stock from the organizations and marketed them to his fellow abolitionists, though the products were sold for almost no profit.
The free labor proponents in the eastern United States wanted to create a similar organization in the west. The members of the Salem Free Produce Association approached Coffin to see if he would be interested in managing the proposed Western Free Produce Association. At first he declined, saying he lacked the money required to fund the venture, and that he did not want to move into the city. In 1845 a group of abolitionist businessmen opened a wholesale mercantile business in Cincinnati. The Free Produce Association raised $3,000 to help stock the new warehouse with goods. Different groups continued to pressure him to accept a position as the new business's director, claiming there were no other western abolitionists qualified to manage the enterprise. Reluctantly, he finally accepted, but agreed to only oversee the warehouse for five years, in which time he could train someone else to run it.
Coffin moved to the Cincinnati area in 1847, where he took over the management of the venture. He rented out his Newport business before leaving and made arrangements for his home to continue serving as an Underground Railroad stop; he intended to return to Newport after fulfilling his obligation in Cincinnati. His first task was working with the eastern organizations to set up a steady supply of goods for the business. The most constant problem to plague the enterprise was the poor quality of its goods. Coffin had frequent difficulty procuring free goods that were produced with the same quality as those produced by slave labor. Because the goods were inferior in quality to his competition, he had a difficult time finding purchasers for the goods. The problem plagued the business for years, and as a result the enterprise was in a constant financial struggle.
The problem caused Coffin to begin to travel into the south to seek out plantations that did not use slave labor, but he met with only limited success. He located a cotton plantation in Mississippi where the owner had freed all his slaves and operated by paying them as free laborers. The plantation was struggling financially because they had no equipment to automate the cotton production. Coffin helped the owner purchase a cotton gin that greatly increased their productivity and provided a steady supply of cotton for his association. The cotton was shipped to Cincinnati where it was spun into cloth and sold. Other trips to Tennessee and Virginia were less successful, although he did succeed in spreading the word about the movement. Despite his constant attention to the business, the poor supply of cheap and quality free labor products proved insurmountable, making it impossible for Coffin to return to Indiana or locate a replacement to run the company. The company had stayed in business primarily through the financial support of wealthy benefactors. Coffin sold the business in 1857 after deciding it would be impossible for the business to remain profitable.
Cincinnati already had a large anti-slavery movement who had violent conflicts with slavery proponents in the years before Coffin moved to the city. He purchased a new home at the corner of Elm and Sixth streets. He continued to be active in the Underground Railroad, setting up a new safe house in the city and helping organize a larger network in the area. At first he was very cautious about helping slaves until he was able to find people he could trust in the community, and the community came to trust him. Coffin moved several times during his life in the city, and finally came to reside on Wehrman Street. It was a large home and rooms were rented out for boarding. With the many guests coming and going, the home was an excellent place to operate an Underground Railroad stop without arousing much suspicion. Catherine created costumes and when fugitives arrived they would be dressed as butlers, cooks, and other workers. Some of the mulattoes were even able to pass as white guests. The most frequently used disguise was a that of a Quaker woman. The high collar, long sleeves, gloves, veil, and large brimmed hat could completely hide its wearer when their head was tilted slightly downward.
One of the many slaves Coffin helped to escape was Eliza Harris. The girl had escaped the south and crossed the Ohio River on a winter night when it was frozen over. Barefooted and carrying her baby, she was exhausted and nearly dead when she reached Coffin's home. He provided her with food, clothing, new shoes, and shelter before helping her to continue on her journey to freedom in Canada. Harriet Beecher Stowe was living in the city at the time and was well acquainted with the Coffins. The story so moved she retold it in part in her book Uncle Tom's Cabin. Levi and Catherine Coffin may have been the Quaker couple she refers to in her book.
Coffin's role began to change as the American Civil War approached. He made a trip to Canada in 1854 to visit the community of escaped slaves that was living there and offer assistance and he helped found an orphanage in Cincinnati for blacks. As soon as the war broke out in 1861, he and his group began to prepare to help the war's wounded. Although as a Quaker, he was opposed to war, he did support their cause. He and his wife spent almost every day at Cincinnati's war hospital helping to care for the wounded. They prepared large buckets of coffee and distributed it freely to the soldiers and took many into their home.
Coffin helped form the Western Freedman's Aid Society in 1863 to offer assistance to the slaves freed during the war. As Union soldiers moved into the South, some slaveholders shot their slaves, while others abandoned them, leaving them without food or shelter. Coffin's group began collecting food and goods to be distributed to the former slaves. Coffin petitioned the government to create the Freedmen's Bureau to offer assistance to freed slaves. Coffin was also involved in helping freed slaves after the war in establishing businesses and getting educations. As leader of the society, he traveled to Great Britain in 1864 to seek aid. His advocacy there led to the formation of the Englishman's Freedmen's Aid Society.
Death and legacy
After the war ended, Coffin raised over $100,000 for the Western Freedman's Aid Society to provide aid to the free blacks. The society provided food, clothing, money, and other aid to the newly freed slave population in the United States. In 1867 he attended the International Anti-Slavery Conference in Paris. Coffin did not enjoy being in the public eye and considered his job as begging for money, which he thought to be demeaning. He recorded in his book that he gladly gave up the position once a new leader for the organization was found. He was concerned about giving money freely to all blacks, some of whom he was believed would never be able to care for themselves unless adequate education and farms were provided to them. He believed the society should only be giving their limited resources to those who were best able to benefit from them. The society continued to operate until 1870, the same year blacks were guaranteed equality in constitutional amendment.
With the war over, the passage of the Fifteenth Amendment, and slavery illegal, Coffin lived the rest of his life in retirement. He later recorded in his book that "...I resign my office and declare the operations of the Underground Railroad at an end." He spent his final year writing a book about the activities of the Underground Railroad and his life. The book, Reminiscences of Levi Coffin, was published in 1876 and is considered by historians to be one of the best firsthand accounts of the activities of the Underground Railroad. He died on September 16, 1877 at around 2:30pm in his Avondale, Ohio home. His funeral ceremony was held in the Friends Meeting House of Cincinnati. The Daily Gazette recorded that the crowd was too large to be accommodated and hundreds had to remain outside. Four of his eight pallbearers were free blacks who had worked with Coffin on the Underground Railroad. He was interred in the Spring Grove Cemetery in an unmarked grave. On July 11, 1902, African Americans in Cincinnati erected a 6 feet (1.8 m) tall monument over Coffin's grave in his honor.
Coffin's home in Fountain City, Indiana was purchased by the state of Indiana in 1967 and restored to its original condition. It is now a National Historic Landmark and is open to the public for tours.
Coffin was first referred to as the "President of the Underground Railroad" by a slavecatcher who said, "There's an underground railroad going on here, and Levi's the president of it." The title became commonly used among other abolitionists. Modern historians estimate that Coffin helped more than 2,000 slaves escape, although Coffin himself estimated the number to be around 3,000. Once questioned about why he aided slaves, Coffin said "The Bible, in bidding us to feed the hungry and clothe the naked, said nothing about color, and I should try to follow out the teachings of that good book." Another time he simply said, "I thought it was always safe to do right."
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- Klein, Martin A. (2002). Historical Dictionary of Slavery and Abolition. Rowman & Littlefield. ISBN 0-8108-4102-9.
- Landau, Elaine (2006). Fleeing to Freedom on the Underground Railroad: The Courageous Slaves, Agents, and Conductors. Twenty-First Century Books. ISBN 0-8225-3490-8.
- Loderhose (2001). Legendary Hoosiers: Famous Folks from the State of Indiana. Emmis Books. ISBN 1-57860-097-9.
- Yannessa, Mary Ann (2001). Levi Coffin, Quaker: Breaking the bonds of slavery in Ohio and Indiana. Friends United Press. ISBN 0-944350-54-2.
- Claus Bernet (2010). "Levi Coffin". In Bautz, Traugott. Biographisch-Bibliographisches Kirchenlexikon (BBKL) (in German) 31. Nordhausen: Bautz. cols. 271–274. ISBN 978-3-88309-544-8.
- Coffin, Levi (1880). Reminiscences of Levi Coffin. R. Clarke & Co. Retrieved 2009-04-30.
- Swain, Gwenyth (2001). President of the Underground Railroad: A Story about Levi Coffin. Millbrook Press. ISBN 1-57505-551-1.
|Wikimedia Commons has media related to Levi Coffin.|
- "Levi Coffin's handwritten will". University of Cincinnati. Retrieved 2009-04-30.
- "Levi Coffin". Ohio History Central. Retrieved 2009-04-30.
- "Levi Coffin's Underground Railroad Station". Public Broadcasting Service. Retrieved 2009-04-30.
- "Levi Coffin House". US Department of the Interior. Retrieved 2009-04-30.
- "Indiana's popular history: Levi Coffin". Indiana Historical Society. Archived from the original on February 28, 2008. Retrieved 2009-04-30.
- "Coffin, Levi". Appletons' Cyclopædia of American Biography. 1900