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 the network used by enslaved black Americans to obtain their freedom in the 30 years before the United States Civil War (1861-1865). The "railroad" used many routes from states in the South, which supported slavery, to "free" states in the North and Canada.

Sometimes, routes of the Underground Railroad were organized by abolitionists, people who opposed slavery. More often, the network was a series of small, individual actions to help enslaved people who were considered fugitives.

A lot of activity on the Underground Railroad happened in states that bordered the Ohio River, which 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 individuals and return them to the South.

The story of Indiana is the story of 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. While some people did have secret rooms in their houses or carriages, the vast majority of the Underground Railroad involved people secretly helping people who had run away from being enslaved however they could.

Using the terminology of the railroad, those who went south to find those who had been enslaved seeking freedom were called "pilots." Those who guided enslaved people to safety and freedom were "conductors." The enslaved individual were "passengers." People's homes or businesses, where freedom-seeking passengers and conductors could safely hide, were "stations."

Stations were added or removed from the Underground Railroad as ownership of the house changed. If a new owner supported slavery, or if the home was discovered to be a station on the Underground Railroad, passengers and conductors were forced to find a new station.

Establishing stations was done quietly, by word-of-mouth. Very few people kept records about this secret activity, to protect homeowners and freedom-seekers who needed help. If caught, those escaping bondage would be forced to return to slavery. People caught aiding escaped freedom-seekers faced arrest and jail. This applied to people living in states that supported slavery as well as those living in free states.

No one knows precisely how the Underground Railroad got its name. One story says it was used by unsuccessful Pennsylvania patrolmen who looked to kidnap freedom-seekers. Another story attributes the name to 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."

A third story traces the name to an enslaved man named Tice Davids, who decided to seek his freedom in 1831. Davids fled his Kentucky enslaver and reached the Ohio River. Unfortunately, there was no boat by which to cross. Desperate, and very near capture, Davids swam the river, made it to the opposite shore, and slipped out of sight. His enslaver went back to Kentucky without him, saying Davids must have disappeared on an "underground railroad."

In any case, by the mid-1840s, the term "Underground Railroad" was in common use.

Indiana: From Territory to State

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, but the law didn't apply to enslaved individuals already living there. People who were slaves in 1787 remained enslaved, although no new enslaved individuals were allowed.

Slavery was a familiar part of life in the Northwest Territory. In Indiana, evidence of slavery is recorded in Vincennes and Floyd County in the south, and as far north as La Porte.

Indiana became a territory in 1800, with future United States President William Henry Harrison its first territorial governor. Harrison encouraged slavery, thinking it would be a good way for the economy to grow. Harrison and his supporters also thought that allowing slavery would boost Indiana's population. In 1802, Indiana's politicians and business leaders petitioned Congress for 10 years to repeal Article 6. Congress denied their petition.

In 1805, the Indiana Territory House of Representatives passed a new law allowing people to keep enslaved people who were acquired in the United States. The "contract holder" could determine however long the person must remain enslaved. The enslaved person's children were also considered property. When Indiana achieved statehood in 1816, its state Constitution contained language similar to Article 6 of the Northwest Ordinance—no new enslaved people were allowed, but currently enslaved people remained so.

So, by 1816, Indiana was a free state, but it was not a state friendly to black people. As late as the 1820 census, there were Hoosiers still listed as "slave." In 1831, the state Legislature required blacks to register with the county and post a bond stating they would not cause trouble. (White people did not have to do this.) Indiana's 1851 Constitution did not allow blacks to vote, serve in the militia, 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.) 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.

In a 1915 history of Decatur County, Indiana, Lewis Harding describes the county as a place where three routes came together after crossing the Ohio River in different places. From the junction, he writes, "prominent farmers ... helped the fugitive slaves in every means possible." One farmer was convicted by a local court for helping enslaved people, but the Supreme Court overturned that ruling. "The sympathies of most of the citizens of the country were with the fugitive slave and his helper," Harding writes.

Historians now believe the path to freedom looked more like a spider's web than three distinct routes. Those who had escaped slavery had to navigate unfamiliar terrain, going east or doubling back south before continuing north. Along the way, they had to dodge organized networks of patrolmen who kidnapped freedom-seekers for ransom money.

Levi Coffin, President of the Underground Railroad

The best-known Underground Railroad "station master" in Indiana was Levi Coffin of Newport (now called Fountain City). Coffin, who came to Indiana in 1826, is also known as "President of the Underground Railroad." He claimed he and his wife housed about 2,000 people over 20 years, laying out bedrolls on their kitchen floor to accommodate as many people as they could.

In his Reminiscences, Coffin recounts the story of two girls who fled Tennessee and found shelter with their grandparents in Randolph County, Indiana. "There the girls stayed, after their long perilous journey of enjoying their newly gained liberty, and hoping their master would never learn of their whereabouts. But they were not destined to dwell in safety. Their master had come to Richmond, ostensibly to look about the neighborhood and buy cattle, but really to gain some trace of his slave property."

The enslaver and a band of men from Richmond and Winchester were roused. In response, an alarm was sounded, which brought together most of the settlement's black residents. In all, over 200 people quickly surrounded and protected the grandparents' cabin.

As the enslaver was being held at bay by the grandmother's corn knife, an uncle of the two girls rode up on his horse. Levi writes, "He demanded to see the writ, and it was handed to him by the officer. He read it over carefully and tried to pick flaws in it. He denied that it gave them any authority to enter the house and search for property." At the doorway, the uncle carried out the debate with the enslaver as long as he could.

Inside the house, an escape plan was being planned for the two girls.

According to the story, the girls were dressed in boys' clothes and smuggled through the crowd to where two horses awaited them. When the would-be kidnappers were permitted to enter the house, they were completely baffled because the girls were nowhere to be found.

The girls made it safely to Coffin's house. "We kept the girls for several weeks then sent them on to Canada and safety," he writes.

Eliza Harris' Brave Escape

Indiana is the site of one of the most famous escapes from 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.

Harris' daring escape was retold in Harriet Beecher Stowe's abolitionist novel Uncle Tom's Cabin. The character who crosses the icy Ohio is even named Eliza. Uncle Tom's Cabin went on to become one of the most influential novels in history, causing many Americans to sympathize with enslaved people and abolitionists.

After escaping, Harris and her baby went to Levi Coffin's Fountain City home to recuperate. They then reportedly 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 relocated safely to Chatham, Ontario, 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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