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 enslaved people escape to freedom. It was not really a railroad. It was a secret network in the early 1800s that connected slave states in the South to "free" states in the North and Canada.

Indiana: The Hoosier State

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, whose residents are known as Hoosiers.

Not all Hoosiers were in favor of freeing enslaved people. Some would kidnap enslaved people and return them to the South.

The story of the underground railroad was similar in other states. Some people wanted to help escaped enslaved people. Others did not.

Operating the Underground Railroad

The Underground Railroad was not a series of underground tunnels. Most of the network involved individual people. They worked in secret to help enslaved people seeking their freedom however they could.

People in this network used the language of the railroad. Those who went south to find slaves seeking freedom were called "pilots." Those who guided enslaved people to safety were "conductors." The enslaved individuals were "passengers." The homes and businesses where passengers and conductors could safely hide were "stations."

No one knows exactly how the Underground Railroad got its name. One story says it was used by patrolmen looking to kidnap freedom seekers. Another says it was invented by a freedom seeker captured in Washington, D.C. After being tortured, the man said he worked with other people to escape to the North. He said that "the railroad ran underground all the way to Boston." In any case, the term "Underground Railroad" was in common use by the 1840s.

Indiana Territory Becomes a "Free" State

The land that would become Indiana was part of the Northwest Territory. This area was established by the United States government in 1787. Slavery was not allowed north of the Ohio River under the Northwest Ordinance. However, the law did not apply to enslaved people already living there. People who were already enslaved in 1787 remained so.

In 1816, Indiana became a state. Although it was a "free" state, it was not friendly to black people. In 1831, state lawmakers required blacks to register with the county. They had to pay money and promise they would not cause trouble. White people did not have to do this. Indiana's 1851 Constitution did not allow blacks to vote or serve in the army.

Indiana's Underground Railroad

Originally, it was believed there were three main routes of the Underground Railroad in Indiana. All three paths led to Michigan, then to Canada. Canada ended slavery in 1833.

Historians now believe the path to freedom was more complicated. It looked more like a spider's web than three clear routes. People who escaped slavery had to navigate unfamiliar land. Sometimes they had to travel east or double back south before continuing north. Along the way, they had to dodge patrolmen who hunted freedom seekers, and kidnapped them for ransom money.

Levi Coffin, President of the Underground Railroad

The most famous Underground Railroad "station master" in Indiana was Levi Coffin. He is also known as "President of the Underground Railroad." Coffin worked together with his wife to help freedom seekers escape. He claimed that they housed about 2,000 people over 20 years.

The Brave Escape of Eliza Harris

One of the most famous escapes of an enslaved person took place in Indiana.

It happened in the winter of 1830. An enslaved Kentucky woman named Eliza Harris overheard her enslaver say he was going to sell one of her children. Harris decided to take her baby and escape to Canada. She slipped away and ran to the Ohio River. There were no bridges, and no raft could make its way through the ice.

Eliza Harris jumped onto a chunk of ice floating in the river. She crossed the water by moving from one ice chunk to another. Holding her baby, she finally reached the other side.

After escaping, Harris and her baby went to Levi Coffin's home to rest. They continued on north to safety.

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

It was Eliza Harris, who had safely reached 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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