The Underground Railroad in Indiana

The Underground Railroad in Indiana

Indiana: Crossroads of Freedom! Find out how Hoosiers played a role in the Underground Railroad in this article.


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Geography, Human Geography, Physical Geography

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The Underground Railroad helped slaves escape to freedom. It was not really a railroad. It was a secret network in the early 1800s. At that time, slavery was legal in the Southern states. It was not allowed in the Northern states. Those who had escaped slavery used the "railroad" to travel from slave states in the South to "free" states in the North.

The Underground Railroad crossed through many states. A lot of activity happened in states along the Ohio River. This river divided slave states from free states. Among the free states was Indiana.

Operating the Underground Railroad

The Underground Railroad was a secret. People worked to help enslaved people seeking their freedom however they could. They had to keep it a secret to stay safe. People who helped people escape slavery could be punished if they got caught.

People in this network used the language of the railroad. Those who guided enslaved people to safety were "conductors." The enslaved individuals were "passengers." The places where passengers and conductors could hide were "stations."

Indiana Territory Becomes a "Free" State

Before it was a state, Indiana was part of the Northwest Territory. This was a large area of land. It was established by the United States government. The territory was created by a law called the Northwest Ordinance. This law did not allow slavery north of the Ohio River. However, it did not apply to enslaved people already living there.

In 1816, Indiana became a state. Although it was a "free" state, it was not friendly to black people. They were not allowed to vote or serve in the army.

Indiana's Underground Railroad

Originally, people thought the Underground Railroad in Indiana was simple. They believed it had three main routes. All three led to Michigan, then to Canada. Canada had already ended slavery in 1833.

Historians now believe the path to freedom was more complicated. It did not have three clear routes. Instead, it looked more like a spider's web. Those who had escaped slavery had to navigate tricky paths. Along the way, they had to avoid patrolmen. These were people who kidnapped enslaved people for money.

Levi Coffin, President of the Underground Railroad

Many people were involved in the Underground Railroad. In Indiana, the most famous was Levi Coffin. His nickname was "President of the Underground Railroad." He worked with his wife to help enslaved people escape. They housed about 2,000 people over 20 years.

The Brave Escape of Eliza Harris

Eliza Harris was an enslaved woman in Kentucky. Her path to freedom took her through Indiana. It is one of the most famous escapes of an enslaved people of all time.

Harris escaped in the winter of 1830. One day, she overheard her enslaver say he was going to sell one of her children. Harris decided to take her baby and run away. She ran to the Ohio River. The water was icy, and there were no bridges to carry her across.

Harris jumped onto a chunk of ice. She moved across by stepping from one piece of ice to another. Holding her baby, she finally reached the other side.

After escaping, they went to Levi Coffin's home to rest. Then they continued on north to safety.

In 1854, Levi and Catherine Coffin were on a visit to Canada. A woman came up to Catherine. She took Catherine's hand and exclaimed, "How are you, Aunt Katie? God bless you!"

It was Eliza Harris. The formerly enslaved woman had made a new home in Canada.

Fast Fact

A Southern Institution
I have always contended that the Underground Railroad, so-called, was a Southern institution; that it had its origin in the slave States. It was, however, conducted on quite a different principle. For the sake of money, people in the South would help the slaves escape and convey across the Line, and by this means women and their children, and young girls, were enabled to reach the North . . . Free colored people who had relatives in slavery were willing to contribute to the utmost of their means, to aid in getting their loved ones out of bondage, just as we would do if any of our loved ones were held in thralldom.
Reminiscences, Levi Coffin, 1880

Fast Fact

All Aboard the Underground Railroad
The National Parks Service has compiled a resource and travel itinerary for sites associated with the Underground Railroad. Review the list of sites and see if there are any in your area.

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Mary Schons
Jeannie Evers, Emdash Editing, Emdash Editing
Kara West
National Geographic Society
Last Updated

January 2, 2024

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