When the Path to Freedom Isn’t a Legal One

*Post written by Mona Meyer, Archives and Special Collections Metadata Librarian.

In the light of today’s rhetoric, this could be construed as an inflammatory statement, but there’s no political commentary intended here. Instead, this blog delves into the Underground Railroad, particularly in Indiana.

When Francis Scott Key wrote about the star-spangled banner waving over “the land of the free” in 1814, that land included plenty of people who weren’t free. Slavery had existed in America long before the colonial period. “By the time we became a nation, slavery was predominately in the south. Some northern states made it illegal to hold slaves, but the U.S. Constitution did not make it illegal to hold slaves. …The words slave and slavery do not appear in the Constitution….” Early American patriots like George Washington and Thomas Jefferson were slaveholders. But Quaker abolitionists were even then advocating for freedom and organizing to help slaves escape. Washington once complained of a Quaker attempt to free one of his slaves.

Still, some states and territories made it illegal to hold slaves even if the U.S. Constitution did not. And slaves were helped to escape via that Underground Railroad. “It is important to realize that while conductors and fugitive slaves were participating on the Underground Railroad, all of their actions were illegal. The federal government had passed Fugitive Slave Acts as early as 1793 that allowed slave catchers to come north and force runaways back into slavery. By the 1830s and 1840s, these laws were expanded in reaction to increased Underground Railroad activity. With the passage of the Fugitive Slave Act of 1850, assisting or helping hide fugitive slaves became a federal offense, making all Underground Railroad activity subject to six months in prison and a $1,000 fine. Escaping from slavery or helping someone to escape from slavery was a very difficult and dangerous task.” For more information, check out more information on the Underground Railroad from the History Channel at: https://www.history.com/topics/black-history/underground-railroad

What about Indiana? Wasn’t it a free state? After all, it is north of the Ohio River and fought on the northern side in the Civil War.

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.

No matter the law, no matter the consequences, there were slaves who were willing to take the chance to escape and those who were willing to take the chance to help. This is where the Underground Railroad comes in. “The Underground Railroad is a term for the covert network of people and places that assisted fugitive slaves as they escaped from slavery in the South. Most widespread during the three decades prior to the Civil War, this activity primarily took place in the regions bordering slave states, with the Ohio River being the center of much of the activity. Of course, Underground Railroad activity did not literally take place underground or via a railroad, nor was it an official organization with defined structure. It was simply a loose network of people who attempted to move enslaved individuals escaping from slavery to and from safe places in a quick and largely secretive manner.

The language of the Underground Railroad mirrored that of a “real” railroad. Those who assisted escaped slaves were called conductors. Safe houses were stations or depots, with those operating them stationmasters. The escaping slaves were passengers or possibly cargo, depending upon the circumstances. There was one reference to those who went south to find and help escaped slaves being called pilots. It was originally thought that there were 3 main escape routes, but further research proved this to be inaccurate. “It was more of a web of potential paths, hiding places, help, and betrayal. Those helping might have information about hunters up north, so they would go east, then back south, then north, then east into Ohio. It depended on the circumstances. So there was no one definite “they went from house A to house B.” Also, homes changed ownership hands. So a home in the 1830s might not have been a part of the Underground Railroad, but in the 1850s would have. … As people moved north, they would travel in various directions, depending on weather, bounty hunters, people willing to participate. You have to remember that people died, moved, changed their minds, or were not available at all times. For this reason, a “route” in 1850 may not be the same as in 1851.

Harriet Tubman, n.d. Source: https://bit.ly/2JHFEZb

Harriet Tubman, n.d. Source: https://bit.ly/2JHFEZb

The best-known conductor on the Underground Railroad was Harriet Tubman, herself an escaped slave. She was born into slavery in 1822 on the eastern shore of Maryland, one of nine children. Slave families often did not stay together as members were sold off or forced to work elsewhere. This was true of Tubman, who at the age of six was “rented out and forced to work for other masters to care for their children, and catch and trap muskrats in the Little Blackwater River.” She resisted even while enslaved—she once refused to help with the capture of a runaway slave and was struck in the head with a 2-pound weight. Although she survived (barely), she suffered from epilepsy the rest of her life. Working in the marshlands gave Tubman important navigational and survival skills. She also met African-American sailors there who, by virtue of their work, had more freedom than either free or enslaved men and women. She might have learned about the Underground Railroad from them. “During her time working in the marshlands at Parson’s Creek she married her first husband, John Tubman, who was a free man, and changed her name from Araminta Ross to Harriet Tubman. In Dorchester County, free and enslaved African Americans lived and worked in the same community. Some enslaved men and women married free African Americans. Free African Americans provided freedom seekers information on the location of safe houses and routes on the Underground Railroad.

3. Grave of Harriet Tubman

Gravestone of Harriet Tubman, n.d. Source: https://bit.ly/2Jy8lZG

In March 1849, Tubman faced a dilemma. Her master died, and it was likely that his wife would have to sell off some slaves to pay his debts. Not wanting to be sold further south, “in the fall of 1849, she escaped from slavery alone, and found freedom in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania. In Philadelphia, Tubman made connections and found support among other white and black abolitionists. Although Harriet Tubman found her freedom, she was separated from her family. Between 1850 and 1860, Tubman returned to the Eastern Shore of Maryland 13 times and freed more than 70 people, who were her family and friends so they can [could] all be free together as a family.” During the Civil War Tubman served as a Union spy and nurse, once leading a raid in South Carolina that burned plantations, disrupted Confederate supply lines, and freed more than 750 slaves. After the war, Tubman remarried (her first husband, who refused to join her in freedom in the North, had died) and made her home in Auburn, NY. She was active in the fight for equality and woman suffrage until she died on March 10, 1913. Next year Tubman, who was able to claim that “I never ran my train off the track and I never lost a passenger,” will be honored on the new $20 bill.

4. Levi Coffin

Historical marker of Levi Coffin, n.d. Source: https://bit.ly/2JKV7HT

The man known as the “President of the Underground Railroad” hailed from Indiana. Levi Coffin was born into a Quaker family in North Carolina on October 28, 1798. By the time he was 15, he and his family were helping escaping slaves. As time went on, this enterprise became more and more perilous, particularly from within a slave state. He married his childhood sweetheart, a woman who shared his abolitionist fervor, and in 1826, they and other friends and family members moved to the free state of Indiana, to what is now Fountain City (then called Newport). “Coffin was dedicated to peaceful measures to bring about the abolition of slavery. His home became the centre for the Underground Railroad which took runaway slaves north to Canada and freedom. Escaping slaves could only travel safely in the hours of darkness and had only the North Star as a guide. During the day they often hid in the homes or on the property of anti-slavery supporters. … It is estimated that Levi and his wife Catharine helped more than 2,000 slaves to freedom during the 20 years that they lived in Newport. One of the slaves who escaped was Eliza Harris, whose story is told in Harriet Beecher Stowe’s novel Uncle Tom’s Cabin. Catharine and Levi Coffin were depicted as Simeon and Rachel Halliday. The fearlessness the Coffins showed in offering assistance to the fleeing slaves had an effect on their neighbours. Levi Coffin noted that those who had once “stood aloof from the work” eventually contributed clothing for the fugitives and aided the Coffins in forwarding the slaves on their way to freedom, but were “timid about sheltering them under their roof; so that part of the work devolved on us.”

In his book, Reminiscences of Levi Coffin (1876), he told of another escape, this one of two young slave girls from Tennessee who had made their way to their grandparents’ house in Randolph County, IN, hoping to live there safely. It was not to be, as their master came to town (Richmond) and attempted to seize what he considered to be his property. “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. Coffin writes, “The girls were dressed in boys’ clothes and smuggled through the crowd . . . to where two horses awaited them. They were soon mounted and on their way. The slave hunters were permitted to enter the house. They were completely baffled because the girls were not 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.” Coffin moved to Cincinnati in 1847 and continued his work there, dying in 1877.

Indiana can claim other Underground Railroad conductors and stations. Look at just some of these historical markers from our state.

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Source: https://www.in.gov/history/markers/556.htm

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Source: https://www.in.gov/history/markers/533.htm

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Source: https://www.in.gov/history/markers/552.htm

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Source: https://www.in.gov/history/markers/Bethel.htm

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Source: https://www.in.gov/history/markers/14.htm

Be sure and visit Underground Railroad Historical Markers, Indiana Historical Bureau online to find the exact location of these signs and to learn more about other Hoosier contributions to the cause of freedom.

15. Ira Warrick

Ira Caswell, n.d. Source: https://bit.ly/2LnNjz7

Closer to home, a man named Ira Caswell lived in Warrick County, either Boonville or Lynnville, accounts differ. “Along with Ira’s work as a conductor and stationmaster, he also helped detain a group of bounty hunters travelling in Southwestern Indiana. These bounty hunters planned to abduct free Blacks and sell them into slavery in the South.

In Evansville, there are at least two sites that reportedly were used as Underground Railroad stations. Note that there was, by necessity, a lot of secrecy surrounding these stations and stationmasters, so not all claims can be easily verified.

This is the home of Willard Carpenter at 405 Carpenter Street. Willard Carpenter was born in Stafford, Vermont in 1803. He made his first trip to Evansville in 1822 and settled here in 1837. His main interest was in the promotion of railroads in Southern Indiana. He built Willard Library. “Known as Evansville’s “pioneer of public charity,” Carpenter also acted as an agent for the Underground Railroad before the Civil War. His home became one of the first stops for slaves who made their way across the Ohio River. A stone tunnel led from the river three blocks north to the Carpenters’ basement, where runaway slaves hid until they could be relayed to stations further north.

MSS 184-0506

Carpenter House in Evansville, Indiana, c. 1970. Source: MSS 184-0506.

MSS 157-0340

Main Street and NW 3rd Street., looking along NW 3rd Street in Evansville, Indiana, 1965. Source: MSS 157-0340.

In this photo, the restaurant named the Farmer’s Daughter was located at 230 Main Street. But the building itself was built in was built in 1855 as a fine hotel–the Washington House. Cosmetically changed since that time in this photo, it was the hotel basement that was purportedly used as a hiding place for escaped slaves. A restaurant called Comfort by Cross-Eyed Cricket currently occupies this location.

Today we’d say that the Underground Railroad workers were “on the side of the angels,” but they were breaking the law. The path to freedom wasn’t a legal one, for the slaves or for those who helped them.

Resources Consulted:

“Enabling Freedom: History.” National Underground Railroad Freedom Center.

Gates, Henry Louis, Jr. “Who Really Ran the Underground Railroad?”

Harriet Tubman Underground Railroad National Historical Park.

“House Remains a Symbol of Evansville History.” Indiana Landmarks, March 16, 2017.

“Levi Coffin.” Quakers in the World website.

Schons, Mary. ”The Underground Railroad in Indiana.” National Geographic, May 26, 2011.

Underground Railroad. History Channel.

Underground Railroad Historical Markers. Indiana Historical Bureau.

Underground Railroad in Indiana.


This entry was posted in American history, history, Indiana history, Local history. Bookmark the permalink.

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