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 was a secret network that helped slaves escape to freedom. It was used in the early 1800s in the years leading up to the Civil War. It was not really a railroad. It got that name because it was a route that connected slave states in the South to "free" states in the North and to Canada.

Indiana: The Hoosier State

A lot of activity on the Underground Railroad happened in states that bordered the Ohio River. This boundary 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 who lived near the border with Kentucky would capture enslaved people and return them to the South.

The story of Indiana is similar to the story of all states involved in the Underground Railroad. While some people worked to support people escaping slavery, others were against it.

Operating the Underground Railroad

Contrary to popular belief, the Underground Railroad was not a series of underground tunnels. The vast majority of the network involved individual people. They worked in secret to help those seeking their freedom however they could.

Using the language of the railroad, those who went south to find enslaved people seeking freedom were called "pilots." Those who guided enslaved individuals to safety and freedom were "conductors." The enslaved people 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 unsuccessful patrolmen looking to kidnap freedom seekers. Another story claims the name was invented by a freedom-seeker captured in Washington, D.C., in 1839. 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 the state of Indiana was part of the Northwest Territory. This area was established by the new United States government in 1787. Slavery was forbidden north of the Ohio River under the Northwest Ordinance. However, the law did not apply to enslaved people already living there. People who were enslaved in 1787 remained so, although no new people were allowed to be enslaved.

In 1816, Indiana became a state. Although it was technically a "free" state, it was not a state friendly to black people. In 1831, state lawmakers required blacks to register with the county and even pay bond money stating 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 eventually led to Michigan, then to Canada. Slavery ended in Canada in 1833. That was many years before slavery ended in the United States.

Historians now believe the path to freedom was more complicated. It looked more like a spider's web than three distinct routes. People escaping 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 kidnapped freedom seekers 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 claimed that he and his wife housed about 2,000 people over 20 years.

The Brave Escape of Eliza Harris

Indiana is the site of one of the most famous escapes of an enslaved person in history.

In the winter of 1830, an enslaved woman from Kentucky named Eliza Harris overheard her enslaver say he was going to sell one of her children. Harris decided at once 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.

Hearing her enslaver's horse, 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 then continued on north to safety.

In 1854, Levi and Catherine Coffin and their daughter were on a visit to Canada when a woman came up to Catherine. The woman grabbed 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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