The Underground Railroad was a secret network of safe houses that helped enslaved people escape to freedom. It was used starting in the early 1800s, in the years leading up to the United States Civil War. The "railroad" connected states in the South, which supported slavery, to "free" states in the North and Canada.
Sometimes routes were organized by abolitionists, people who opposed slavery. More often, the network was a series of small, individual actions to help enslaved people seeking their freedom.
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 across the river from Kentucky, a slave state, would capture enslaved people and return them to the South.
The story of Indiana is a similar story to all states that played a role in the Underground Railroad.
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 people secretly helping freedom-seekers however they could.
Using the language of the railroad, those who went south to find enslaved people seeking freedom were "pilots." Those who guided enslaved individuals to safety and freedom were "conductors," and the enslaved people were "passengers." People's homes or businesses, where passengers and conductors could safely hide, were "stations."
No one knows precisely how the Underground Railroad got its name. One story says it was used by unsuccessful Pennsylvania 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, where "the railroad ran underground all the way to Boston." In any case, by the mid-1840s, the term "Underground Railroad" was in common use.
Indiana and Slavery: It's Complicated
The land that would become the state of Indiana was part of the Northwest Territory, established by the new United States government in 1787. Slavery was forbidden north of the Ohio River under Article 6 of the Northwest Ordinance. However, the law did not apply to enslaved-people already living there. People who were enslaved in 1787 remained so, although enslaving new pepople was not allowed.
In 1816, Indiana became a state. Although it was technically a "free" state, it was not a state friendly to black people. As late as the 1820 census, there were Hoosiers still listed as "slave." In 1831, state lawmakers required blacks to register with the county and post a bond stating they would not cause trouble. White people, meanwhile, did not have to do this. Indiana's 1851 Constitution did not allow blacks to vote, serve in the army or testify in any trial against a white person.
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. Canada abolished slavery in 1833, many years before the United States. The routes in Indiana went from Posey to South Bend, from Corydon to Porter, and from Madison to DeKalb County, with many stops in between.
Historians now believe the path to freedom looked more like a spider's web than three distinct routes. Freedom-seekers 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 slaves for ransom money.
Levi Coffin, President of the Underground Railroad
The best-known Underground Railroad "station master" in Indiana was Levi Coffin. Coffin, who came to Indiana in 1826, is also known as "President of the Underground Railroad." He 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, Eliza Harris, from Kentucky, overheard her enslaver say he was going to sell one of her children for money. 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. Going from one ice floe 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 reportedly then stayed in nearby Pennville, Indiana, before they continued to move north.
In 1854, Levi and Catherine Coffin and their daughter were on a visit to Canada when a woman came up to Catherine. The woman seized Catherine's hand and exclaimed, "How are you, Aunt Katie? God bless you!"
It was Eliza Harris, who had safely reached Chatham, Ontario, Canada.