The Underground Railroad was the network used by enslaved black Americans to obtain their freedom in the 30 years before the 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 fugitive slaves.
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 slaves. Some who lived across the river from Kentucky, a slave state, would capture slaves 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 runaway slaves however they could.
Using the terminology of the railroad, those who went south to find slaves seeking freedom were called “pilots.” Those who guided slaves to safety and freedom were “conductors.” The slaves were “passengers.” People’s homes or businesses, where fugitive 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 the fugitives who needed help. If caught, fugitive slaves would be forced to return to slavery. People caught aiding escaped slaves 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 slave hunters. Another story attributes the name to a fugitive slave 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 a slave named Tice Davids, who decided to seek his freedom in 1831. Davids fled his Kentucky slave owner 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 owner 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 slaves already living there. People who were slaves in 1787 remained slaves, although no new slaves 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 to repeal Article 6 for 10 years. Congress denied their petition.
In 1805, the Indiana Territory House of Representatives passed a new law allowing people to keep slaves who were bought in the United States. The “contract holder” could determine however long the person must remain a slave. The slave’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 slaves were allowed, but current slaves remained enslaved.
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 slaves, 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. Escaped slaves had to navigate unfamiliar terrain, going east or doubling back south before continuing north. Along the way, they had to dodge organized networks of slave hunters 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 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 slave 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 master 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 slave owner 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 slave owner 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 slave hunters 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 slave escapes in history.
In the winter of 1830, Eliza Harris, a Kentucky slave, overheard her master 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 master’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. Eliza’s story and 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.
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.
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
to help, usually in the commission of a crime.
to wipe out or get rid of.
person who opposes slavery.
to provide or satisfy.
to release a person from blame or legal responsibility.
supposed or presumed.
generally or near an exact figure.
person or organization responsible for making decisions.
to confuse and frustrate.
legal agreement to pay a fine or to perform a contract if the terms of the agreement are not met.
line separating geographical areas.
cows and oxen.
program of a nation, state, or other region that counts the population and usually gives its characteristics, such as age and gender.
(1860-1865) American conflict between the Union (north) and Confederacy (south).
in the Underground Railroad, a person who guided slaves to safety and freedom.
legislative branch of the government, responsible for making laws. The U.S. Congress has two bodies, the House of Representatives and the Senate.
system of ideas and general laws that guide a nation, state, or other organization.
to find someone guilty of an illegal act.
large straight or curved blade used for cutting tall stalks of corn.
political unit smaller than a state or province, but typically larger than a city, town, or other municipality.
to argue or disagree in a formal setting.
person or organization accused of a crime or other wrongdoing.
to live in a certain place.
system of production, distribution, and consumption of goods and services.
to inspire or support a person or idea.
to totally control.
person who cultivates land and raises crops.
to disallow or prohibit.
nation or country that outlaws slavery.
escaped from the law or another restriction.
system or order of a nation, state, or other political unit.
Harriet Beecher Stowe
(1811-1896) American writer and abolitionist leader.
nickname for a person from Indiana, or having to do with Indiana.
large, flat sheet of ice floating on a body of water.
important; having the ability to lead the opinions or attitudes of others.
point where objects or lines intersect.
work or employment.
(1798-1877) American abolitionist leader and "President of the Underground Railroad."
group of armed, ordinary citizens who are called up for emergencies and are not full-time soldiers.
to plan and direct the course of a journey.
throughout the 19th and early 20th centuries, a common word for people of African ancestry.
series of links along which movement or communication can take place.
states that supported the United States (Union) during the Civil War.
(1787-1803) area of the United States between the Mississippi River and the western border of Pennsylvania, and north of the Ohio River. The Northwest Territory included the modern-day states of Illinois, Indiana, Ohio, Michigan, Wisconsin, and part of Minnesota.
fictional narrative or story.
(1,580 kilometers/981 miles) largest tributary of the Mississippi River.
pretending or appearing.
in the Underground Railroad, a runaway slave seeking freedom.
to request, often by a form signed by the requestors.
in the Underground Railroad, a person who went to slave states to find slaves seeking freedom and willing to risk their lives to achieve it.
total number of people or organisms in a particular area.
important or standing out.
fee associated with the release or return of property.
to recover from an injury or strenuous activity.
to overturn or reject something that was once guaranteed.
to awaken or make active.
path or way.
person who seeks out runaway slaves in order to return them to slavery.
process and condition of owning another human being or being owned by another human being.
to steal or take away in secret.
loosely defined geographic region largely composed of states that supported or were sympathetic to the Confederate States of America (Confederacy) during the U.S. Civil War.
in the Underground Railroad, a safe place where runaway slaves could hide.
highest judicial authority on issues of national or constitutional importance in the U.S.
to understand or share a feeling or emotion.
set of terms used in a specialized subject.
topographic features of an area.
land an animal, human, or government protects from intruders.
to offer evidence in court.
geographic and political region in the southeast and south-central parts of the United States, including all the states that supported the Confederacy during the Civil War.
Uncle Tom's Cabin
(1852) anti-slavery novel by Harriet Beecher Stowe.
against the laws of the United States Constitution.
system used by abolitionists between 1800-1865 to help American slaves escape to free states.
William Henry Harrison
(1773-1841) 9th president of the United States (1841).
rumor or informal communication.
formal order, from a government or other authority.