Indiana at 200 (36): Indiana Family Helped Slaves Escape
by Andrea Neal
Once runaway slaves made it to the home of Levi and Catharine Coffin in eastern Indiana, they were safe. Truly safe. To the best of Levi Coffin’s knowledge, every slave who passed through his Underground Railroad station made his/her way to freedom.
The Coffins lived in a mostly Quaker community called Newport, now Fountain City, on the front line of the abolitionist movement. Levi Coffin was the “president,” his house the Grand Central Station of a network of secret routes and safe houses that moved slaves from bondage in the South to freedom.
“You’re standing on the same floor the Coffins stood on, the same floor slaves walked on,” Eileen Baker-Wall tells visitors to the Levi Coffin State Historic Site.
Baker-Wall, a volunteer docent, likes to show tourists a display case containing wooden shoes that belonged to her great-great grandfather, William Bush. He was an escaped slave who ended up staying in Wayne County and working as a blacksmith.
Bush was unusual in that regard. For the vast majority of slaves, Fountain City was a momentary stop en route to Canada. There they would be beyond reach of the Constitution’s Fugitive Slave Clause, which required the return of runaway slaves to their state of origin.
The Coffins, like many Quakers, felt called to ignore that particular clause in order to live out their belief that all people were created in God’s image. “Both my parents and grandparents were opposed to slavery, and none of either of the families ever owned slaves,” Levi Coffin wrote in his memoir, “so I claim that I inherited my anti-slavery principles.”
The family came to Indiana from North Carolina, a slave state, in 1826. Upon his arrival, Levi Coffin opened a merchandise store whose profits subsidized his anti-slavery activities. “In the winter of 1826-27,” he wrote, “fugitives began to come to our house.”
It was a prime location for a depot because three routes converged there; slaves typically crossed out of slave territory via the Ohio River at Madison, Jeffersonville or Cincinnati.
In 1839, the Coffins built a Federal-style brick home ideal for hiding fugitives. Slaves entered through the north door into the dining room where they would warm up by a fireplace and be served a meal prepared by Mrs. Coffin. Twin beds in an upstairs bedroom concealed a rafter room large enough to hide a dozen or more people. The house had an underground well in its basement that allowed the family to conceal the amount of water used to care for their guests.
Baker-Wall says there is no evidence the house was ever searched by slave hunters. Coffin was versed in law and barred entry to any who lacked requisite legal papers, which took so long to obtain that slaves could be well on their way to the next station.
In 1847, the Coffins moved to Cincinnati, where they continued with their abolitionist activities. They opened a free-labor store, which boycotted products from southern states and sold only goods produced by wage-earning workers. Coffin died in 1877, 12 years after the Civil War brought slaves the freedom for which he had fought.
During their two decades in Indiana, the Coffins helped an estimated 2,000 slaves go north. Their home is considered one of the best-documented Underground Railroad sites in the country.
On Oct. 29, the Indiana State Museum and Historic Sites will break ground for a $3.2-million visitors center adjacent to the home that will tell the story of Indiana’s role in the Underground Railroad. It is set to open in 2016 in time for the state’s bicentennial.
Directions: The Levi Coffin House is at 113 U.S. 27 in Fountain City, 47341. It is open to the public seasonally and by special arrangement.