Underground Railroad in Indiana

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A common image used in runaway slave ads.

The Underground Railroad in Indiana was part of a larger unofficial and loosely connected group of individuals who helped and facilitated the escape of runaway slaves from the Southern United States. Possibly as many as several thousand slaves escaped through Indiana with the help of Quakers, Baptists, and other religious groups including members like Levi Coffin, who operated safe houses, sheltered, fed, and transported the slave.

History[edit]

Early abolitionist leader Dennis Pennington

Background[edit]

As early as 1805, an anti-slavery movement began in Indiana Territory. The early leaders of the movement were Quaker settlers in the eastern part of the territory. As their number grew, and other groups joined them, they soon became the dominant political group. In 1809 the anti-slavery faction took control of the Indiana territorial legislature and enacted laws intended to hinder the operation of slave catchers in the territory. They continued to grow in power, and in dominating the 1816 constitutional convention, they put a ban on slavery. By then, Indiana, like the other territories, had become known as a haven for runaway slaves, and runaways were commonly hunted down and taken home. In response to this, the Indiana General Assembly created and passed a Man Stealing Act, the law prevented any person from being forcibly removed from the state without first having a trial.[1]

The law quickly brought the state into conflict with its neighboring slave state, Kentucky. In 1818 slave catchers tracked down and captured a supposed runaway slave in Corydon, Indiana, forcibly taking her from a family who was sheltering her. Indiana State Senator Dennis Pennington brought the slave catchers up on charges under the Man Stealing Act. When the governor of Indiana sought to have the men extradited, the governor of Kentucky declined on constitutional grounds.[2] Noah Noble was later elected governor and in 1831 supported legislation to prevent runaway slaves from entering the state and protect slave catchers in capturing them. The law was passed, causing much of the assistance to runaway slaves to be conducted more secretly.

Operation[edit]

Quaker abolitionist Levi Coffin

Many of the early members of the Underground Railroad were part of the American Colonization Society and the Quakers from the Society of Friends. Its early state president, Rev. Stephen S. Harding, later the governor of Utah, used his home in Milan as a safehouse.[3] The members maintained numerous safehouses throughout the state, these included barns, private homes, churches, and even caves and coal mines were used.[4] The system gradually evolved in the 1830s and 1840s, and reached it peak use during the 1850s. After the passage of the 1850 Fugitive Slave Act, slave catchers were able to operate much more freely and aggressively. A network of slave catchers grew, mostly in the southern part of the state, offering their services and knowledge of the area to southerners who were tracking runaway slaves. The slave catchers' continued agitation of their neighbors, and the common sight of bound slaves being drug back to the south had a gradual effect among the majority of the population, stirring them from their former indifference to the issue of slavery and leading to more widespread involvement in the underground railroad and the general attempt to hamper the efforts of the slave catchers.[5]

Most runaway slaves entered Indiana by crossing the Ohio River. A smaller number entered from Ohio crossing the river via Cincinnati. The society had agents who operated south of the river and would guide the slaves or give instructions on how get help to cross the river. Abolitionists would hide boats on the south shore of the river so slaves could cross on their own. The few people directly employed by the society spent their days fishing at the river waiting for slaves to make their appearance, and then boating to the south shore to help them cross and then move to the first hiding point in Indiana. The main entry points were Evansville, Rockport, New Albany and Madison.[5]

From the western entry in Evansville, slaves were sent north to Michigan City via Princeton, Bloomingdale. From Rockport, slaves were moved first to Petersburg where they hid in coal mines, and thence to Morgansville and then to Noblesville. The two eastern routes saw the most traffic. In New Albany, slaves were hid in the Town Clock Church before being forwarded to Salem, and then to Bloomington where they were often hid by students and teachers at the state university before again passing north. The route through Madison was the most frequented, and the society operated a ferry on the river to secretly bring slaves across. Slaves from Madison and some from Cincinnati were moved north to Newport, where the primary organizers of the system lived for some time: Levi Coffin. From Newport the slaves passed into Ohio.[5] At each stop the slaves where provided with meals, clothing, and hiding places. They were kept in the safehouses until the slave catchers moved on or gave up on trying to find the runaways. Usually traveling by night, or in covered wagons led by abolitionists, the slaves continued to trip northward being ferried from safe house to safehouse. The final destination of the slaves was usually either Detroit, Michigan or Toledo, Ohio where they could be ferried safely to Canada.[4]

Levi Coffin, one of the most famous abolitionists in Indiana, claimed to have helped hundreds of slaves escape by sheltering them in his homes in Fountain City and Newport. He was included in the book Uncle Tom's Cabin which tells the story of a slave named Eliza Harris who escaped to Canada with Coffin's help. Most slaves eventually made it to the northern part of the state where they only had to travel a short distance to the safety of Canada. There they were beyond the reach of the slave catchers and could live the remainder of their lives in freedom.[6]

Map of some Underground Railroad routes

In addition to helping slaves escape to Canada, the members also helped to protect free blacks in Indiana. The free blacks were often the victim of slave catchers who, when they could not find a runaway slave, would seize free blacks to carry back and sell in their place. In one incident, two free black workers on the Wabash and Erie Canal were seized by two slave catchers in the early 1850s. A party of abolitionists quickly organized and petition for a writ from the sheriff to have the two men released. The slave catchers had documents that described the men and claimed they were runaways. Although all evidence suggested the documents were false, there was no way to prove it and the slave catchers were allowed to continue with their prisoners. Before they could leave the state, the abolitionist party overtook them and freed the blacks by force.[7]

Reprisals[edit]

Abolitionists who participated in the Underground Railroad were often the target of violence, and several in Indiana were murdered by slave catchers for helping slaves escape. Seth Concklin ferried runaway slaves from points in the south by boat to Evansville. After one of his transports, the slaves he had moved north had been captured and held in Vincennes to determine where they should be sent. Concklin moved to intercept the slaves and free them from the slave catchers . He was instead arrested also and taken in chains by the slave catchers. His friends moved quickly to try and get him released, but the slave catchers had already left with him. His body later washed up from the river, he had died after his skull was crushed in an apparent murder.[8] Calvin Fairbank, who had just aided in the escape from Kentucky of a slave named Tamar, was abducted from Jeffersonville by Kentucky marshals on November 9, 1851, and returned for trial in Kentucky, where he was convicted and imprisoned at hard labor until 1864.[9]

Politics[edit]

Although the state was rigidly anti-slavery, numerous laws were enacted intended to curb the activities of the Underground Railroad and put an end to blacks escaping through Indiana. Several governors tightened down on the organization and more rigidly enforced the federal Fugitive Slave Laws. By 1851, popular opinion led to a clause being put into the Indiana Constitution that banned all free blacks from entering the state. Many in the government wanted to prevent all blacks from entering Indiana, and they saw that only solution to keeping the slave catchers out of the state. There were many incidents between the slave catchers and citizens of the state that resulted in violence, and anything that could be done to ease tensions between the free states and slaves states was deemed appropriate.

Effects on Indiana[edit]

The Underground Railroad had a great effect in changing Hoosier opinions towards slavery. Many Hoosiers, especially those in the southern part of the state who were mostly immigrated from the slave states, were tolerant of slavery. The plight of the escaping slaves had profound impact on those opinions. Seeing the poor blacks trying to escape, and the free black being forcibly taken into bondage brought to light many of the horrors of slavery that were unknown to Hoosiers. By the late 1850s public opinion in the state had swung firmly against the continuation of slavery in the United States.[10]

See also[edit]

The Erastus Farnham House, just south of Fremont, Indiana only a few miles south of the Michigan border. Built c. 1849, this home was a stop on the Underground Railroad. Its cupola served as a lookout point and a cistern provided water without having to leave the house.[11]

Notes[edit]

  1. ^ Dunn, p. 343
  2. ^ Dunn, p. 344
  3. ^ Dunn, p. 513
  4. ^ a b Esarey, p. 624
  5. ^ a b c Esarey, p. 627
  6. ^ Dunn, pp. 538 & 541
  7. ^ Esarey, p. 265
  8. ^ Dunn, p. 521–522
  9. ^ Coffin, pp.722-725.
  10. ^ Esarey, p. 628
  11. ^ NcClew, Indiana DNR.

Sources[edit]

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