Underground Railroad


how it came to be

The Underground Railroad was neither underground nor a railroad, but a path for the journey made by thousands of people of extraordinary courage on a quest for freedom during the early days of American History, fleeing northward, some to Canada. This path was comprised of individuals who risked their own freedom to help runaway slaves escape.  The Underground railroad as many of us know it became a part of the American vocabulary  around 1830, but slave escape routes were formed long before then.  As early as the 1600s slaves were brought into North America by the French and the English. 

It was the Jesuits and French missionaries that first introduced the negro slave into North America.1  In Canada the greater portion of the slaves were Indians, commonly called panis, who had been taken in war and sold. In Louisiana the greater portion of the slaves were negroes, brought from Africa or from the French Islands. Eventually, Indian slavery gave way to negro slavery.2

England fostered the slave trade from the middle of the sixteenth century to the opening of the nineteenth.  It is estimated that she sent more than 100,000 slaves annually to her American colonies.  In 1619 the first Africans were brought into English colonies, in particular to Jamestown, VA.3

The slave trade under British laws continued to supply Canada, as other colonies, with slaves.  The rigors of the climate made negro slavery unprofitable; there had been but few negros imported; public sentiment was moving towards universal freedom.  On July 9, 1793, the parliament of Upper Canada prohibited the importation of slaves, and provided for gradual emancipation by enacting that every child thereafter born of a negrees slave should be free at the age of twenty-five years.4

America however, (United States) did not emancipate the slave until 1863, and up to then clearly enabled the slave owner, even in so called free states such as Indiana and Ohio.  The fugitive slave law of 1793 was similar to the agreement made in 1787, when the compact was accepted to forever exclude slavery from the states that would be formed out of the northwest territory, except that the act of 1793 provided for the reclamation of fugitives from justice as well as from service.  It was accepted by all as a just law, permitting the owners of slaves to reclaim their property. The fugitive slave law that was passed in 1850 gave the slave holders, or those hunting their runaway slaves, the power to organize a posse at any point in the United States to aid them in running down their negroes.5

An organized system to assist runaway slaves seems to have begun towards the end of the 18th century. In 1786 George Washington complained about how one of his runaway slaves was helped by a "society of Quakers, formed for such purposes."6   While some of the individuals involved in the Underground Railroad were white, it was  mostly the free African American who came to the aid of the escapees.

The phrase “Underground Railroad” wasn’t used until 1831, when Tice Davids, a slave from Maysville, Ky., fled across the Ohio River into Ohio. As Davids fled, his white master followed him. When Davids reached the Ohio River, he jumped in and swam across.  The master found a skiff at the riverbank and crossed the river himself, planning to catch Davids and bring him back. But when the slave owner reached the other side, Davids was nowhere to be found.  No one would admit to having seen Davids. The slave master couldn’t believe it. To him, it seemed as if Davids had simply disappeared. “He must have gone on some underground road,” the owner said.7  The system even used terms used in railroading: the homes and businesses where fugitives would rest and eat were called "stations" and "depots" and were run by "stationmasters," those who contributed money or goods were "stockholders," and the "conductor" was responsible for moving fugitives from one station to the next.  Because the railroad was so poplar is another reason given for this terminology being used in the Underground Railroad. 


Dunn, Jacob Piatt, page 25,
     ... Indiana; a redemption from slavery.
Boston and New York, Houghton, Mifflin and company. 1888
LC# 1-Rc-1628/5.
     Fiche: A-20,224 Lost Cause Press, Louisville, Kentucky

2 Ibid, p.126

3 Ibid, p. 256

4, Ibid, p. 257

5 page 9, 10, Cockrum, William Monroe.
     History of the Underground railroad as it was conducted by the Anti-slavery league; including many thrilling encounters between those aiding the slaves to escape and those trying to recapture them, by Col. William M. Cockrum.
Oakland City. Ind., Press of J. W. Cockrum printing company. [c1915]
LC# 15-18979.
     Fiche: A-10,238 Lost Cause Press, Louisville, Kentucky




The Underground Railroad in Indiana

Clark County, Indiana


The first know route established in Indiana was at Jeffersonville, early in the thirties.  A negro preacher named Alexander White, who lived at Salem, Washington County, along with his friends, moved to Jeffersonville after being run out of Salem.  They ran into trouble in Jeffersonville as well,  and when things reached  a crisis, men like Dr. T. N. Field, Harvey Campbell, Captain Dryden, J.C. Lampton and others interposed.  A route was established and put into successful operation, having stations at Charlestown, Lexington, Marble Hill and Bethlehem, making connection with historic Hanover.  Here a colored man named George Evans had already established a line with stations at Graysville, then called Africa, Wirt, College Hill, and ending at Butlersville. Corruption in this route made change necessary and this led to the formation of the Madison or Tibbett's route in 1845.  Eventually, three grand trunk lines converged at Levi Coffin's residence in Newport, leading from Cincinnati, Madison and Jeffersonville. 8

Dr. Nathaniel Field of Jeffersonville was the great anti-slavery leader of Clark County after the death of Jonathan Jennings.  He was born at Middletown in Jefferson County, Kentucky, of slave holding parents, but conceived a strong aversion to the institution (of slavery) and went to Indiana (1829) to practice medicine in a free state.  He was a highly cultured man and when Alexander Campbell organized the Brownsboro Christian Church and crossed over into Clark County on a preaching tour, Dr. Field was one of his warmest supporters and became himself the ordained pastor of the first Christian Church in Jeffersonville, and baptized hundreds of converts in the Ohio River.  He had the courage and devotion of an old Hebrew patriarch.9

8Madison Courier, Sept. 19, 1888, The Underground Railroad, the Madison Route, Prominent Abettors of It

9Oldham County history, Volume 2, Chapter XVIII, by Lucien Rule, Filson Club, Louisville, Kentucky

Calllvin Fairbank, Nathaniel Field

Indiana's Anti-Slavery League


In early southern Indiana most of the people were in sympathy with slavery.  Most of them had moved to Indiana from slave states and had regarded slaves as legal property of the slave holders.  At the time of the passage of the fugitive slave law in 1850 there was little open opposition to slavery.  But after the passage of the law so many brutal acts of kidnapping were committed that a great change came over the people.  Negroes could be kidnapped and sold into slavery who were free born and this could be done legally.

The anti-slavery league was formed to help the slaves escape and outwit the slave hunters.  Indiana's superintendent of the anti-slavery league was J. T. Hanover but was known to all by the name of John Hansen.  Hansen worked and traveled over the first three or four tiers of counties all along the southern borders of Indiana, pretending to be a representative from an eastern real estate firm and received large packages of mail at many of the county seats and large towns all along southern Indiana. 

There were many places that runaway negroes crossed the Ohio river from Kentucky into Indiana, and the anti-slavery league put skiffs and boats along the river to aid the fugitives.  The most used routes were above the mouth of the Wabash River on the Ohio and on up to the neighborhood of Cincinnati.

At Diamond island near West Franklin, Posey County, many were helped over the river and taken over two routes.  One route was to cross the Wabash river at Webb's Ferry near the southern line of Gibson County, go up along the Wabash or near it in Illinois to a rendezvous where they were then carried north near Lake Michigan in Lake,Porter or LaPorte Counties.  The negroes were kept secreted in holds until a number were gathered then taken along the Michigan shore on up into Canada.

The other route from Diamond Island was to a point in Vanderburg county then known as the Calvert neighborhood, then northward to various rendezvous until one of gathering places near Lake Michigan.  Near the city of Evansville was another very popular place where the runaways crossed as there were many free negroes in the city to help hide the fugitives.

The third route was a short distance above the mouth of the Little Pigeon.  From this crossing the route went through Warrick County then north to Davies and Green counties and finally to Lake Michigan.20  The fourth place for crossing the Ohio river was at a point midway between Owensboro, Kentucky and Rockport, Indiana.

The next crossing place was near the mouth of Indian Creek in Harrison county where the fugitives were ferried across, then carried to Corydon, north across Washington, corner of Jackson into Jennings then through Decatur, Rush and Fayette counties, into Wayne County among the Quakers.  They were piloted through Western Ohio to Lake Erie then onto Canada.

Probably more slaves crossed the Ohio river in front of Louisville than any place else from the mouth of the Wabash to Cincinnati.  The black settlements at Jeffersonville, Clarksville and New Albany were the reason for this.  The crossing at these places were all conveyed to Wayne county, Indiana, and on to the Lake.  Wayne county had a large community of Quakers and the belief among fugitives was, that if they made it to Wayne County, the prospect of finding them was very remote.  It was said that the old house built by Levi Coffin at Fountain City, Indiana had sheltered ten thousand runaway slaves.12

12 page 12-21, Cockrum, William Monroe.
     History of the Underground railroad as it was conducted by the Anti-slavery league; including many thrilling encounters between those aiding the slaves to escape and those trying to recapture them, by Col. William M. Cockrum.
Oakland City. Ind., Press of J. W. Cockrum printing company. [c1915]
LC# 15-18979.
     Fiche: A-10,238 Lost Cause Press, Louisville, Kentucky


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