Online Texts for Craig White's Literature Courses

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[selections from]

The Reputed President of the Underground Railroad;


Levi Coffin, 1798-1877

[Instructor's note: Born to a Quaker family in North Carolina in 1798, in 1824 Coffin married Catherine White, another Quaker whose family helped African American slaves escape to the North. Coffin and his family moved to Indiana following persecution of abolitionist Quakers by slaveholders. A successful farmer and merchant, Coffin became director of the Richmond branch of the Bank of Indiana, giving him resources to help provide clothes, food, shelter, and transportation to slaves escaping North on the Underground Railroad. Following the Civil War and abolition of slavery, Coffin traveled nationally and internationally to raise funds for aid societies for freed slaves. Chapter 13 of Harriet Beecher Stowe's Uncle Tom's Cabin ("The Quaker Settlement") bases its depiction of Simeon and Rachel Halliday on Levi and Catherine White Coffin.]

from Chapter 1

[1] I date my conversion to Abolitionism from an incident which occurred when I was about seven years old.* It made a deep and lasting impression on my mind, and created that horror of the cruelties of slavery which has been the motive of so many actions of my life. At the time of which I speak, Virginia and Maryland were the principal slave-rearing States, and to a great extent supplied the Southern market. Free negroes in Pennsylvania were frequently kidnapped or decoyed into these States, then hurried away to Georgia, Alabama, or Louisiana, and sold. [<almost like a counter-Underground Railroad] The gangs were handcuffed and chained together, and driven by a man on horseback, who flourished a long whip, such as is used in driving cattle, and goaded the reluctant and weary when their feet lagged on the long journey. [*compare anti-slavery effects of childhood incident to Frederick Douglass's Narrative, 1.11-1.14]

[1a] One day I was by the roadside where my father was chopping wood, when I saw such a gang approaching along the new Salisbury road. The coffle [line, chaingang] of slaves came first, chained in couples on each side of a long chain which extended between them; the driver was some distance behind, with the wagon of supplies. My father addressed the slaves pleasantly, and then asked: "Well, boys, why do they chain you?" One of the men, whose countenance betrayed unusual intelligence and whose expression denoted the deepest sadness, replied: "They have taken us away from our wives and children, and they chain us lest we should make our escape and go back to them." My childish sympathy and interest were aroused, and when the dejected procession had passed on, I turned to my father and asked many questions concerning them, why they were taken away from their families, etc. In simple words, suited to my comprehension, my father explained to me the meaning of slavery, and, as I listened, the thought arose in my mind"How terribly we should feel if father were taken away from us."

[2] This was the first awakening of that sympathy with the oppressed, which, together with a strong hatred of oppression and injustice in every form, were the motives that influenced my whole after-life. Another incident of my boyhood is indelibly engraved on my mind. I accompanied my father one spring to the famous shad fishery at the narrows of the Yadkin River, a spot of wild and romantic scenery, where the stream breaks through a spur of the mountains and goes foaming and dashing down its rocky bed in a succession of rapids. Every spring, when the shad ascended the river, many people resorted [traveled] to the place to obtain fish. They brought with them a variety of merchandise, saddlery, crockery-ware, etc., and remained in camp some time, buying and selling.

[2a] The fishery was owned by two brothers named Crump. They were slaveholders, and sometimes allowed their slaves the privilege of fishing after night* and disposing of the fish thus obtained, on their own account. A slave, who had availed himself of this privilege, disposed of the fish he caught to my father. Next morning he came to the place where we were preparing breakfast, and entered into conversation with my father, speaking of the fish he had sold him, and asking if he would take more on the same terms. Noticing this, and thinking it a piece of presuming familiarity and impertinence, on the part of the negro, a young man, nephew of the Crumps, seized a fagot [stick, brand] from the fire and struck the negro a furious blow across the head, baring the skull, covering his back and breast with blood, and his head with fire; swearing at the same time that he would allow no such impudence from niggers. My father protested against the act, and I was so deeply moved that I left my breakfast untasted, and going off by myself gave vent to my feelings in sobs and tears. [compare Harriet Jacobs, Incidents in the Life of a Slave Girl, 1.5, which also depicts southern African American economic activity at night.]

[3] A few such instances of "man's inhumanity to man" intensified my hatred of slavery, and inspired me to devote myself to the cause of the helpless and oppressed, and enter upon that line of humane effort, which I pursued for more than fifty years. I would still be engaged in it had not Abraham Lincoln broken up the business by proclamation in 1863. [< Emancipation Proclamation]

from Chapter IV

[4] In the early part of the ninth month, 1826, we took a final leave of North Carolina [a slave state]. My parents had emigrated to Indiana [a free state] the previous year, and I was the last one of our family to go. My family at this time consisted of myself, my wife, and our son Jesse, about a year old. My wife's parents were not then prepared to move, but followed the next year. On our way to Indiana we had the company of my wife's cousin, Elias Jessup, and his little family.

[5] We made the journey in light wagons, with good teams, and had a pleasant trip. We took the shortest route, called the Kanawha road, and arrived at our destination in four weeks from the time of starting. We located at Newport, Wayne County, Indiana, where we lived for more than twenty years. This village was in the midst of a large settlement of Friends [Quakers], and a Quarterly Meeting was then established at New Garden Meeting-House [Quaker church], about a half mile from the village. I bought property in Newport, and finding that there was a good opening there for a mercantile business, I concluded to engage in it. I went to Cincinnati and purchased a small stock of goods and opened a store. . . .

[6] In the year 1836, I built an oil mill and manufactured linseed oil. Notwithstanding all this multiplicity of business, I was never too busy to engage in Underground Railroad affairs. Soon after we located at Newport, I found that we were on a line of the U. G. R. R. Fugitives often passed through that place, and generally stopped among the colored people. There was in that neighborhood a number of families of free colored people, mostly from North Carolina, who were the descendants of slaves who had been liberated by Friends [Quakers] many years before, and sent to free States at the expense of North Carolina Yearly Meeting.

[6a] I learned that the fugitive slaves who took refuge with these people were often pursued and captured, the colored people not being very skillful in concealing them, or shrewd in making arrangements to forward them to Canada. I was pained to hear of the capture of these fugitives, and inquired of some of the Friends in our village why they did not take them in and secrete [hide, conceal] them, when they were pursued, and then aid them on their way to Canada? I found that they were afraid of the penalty of the law. I told them that I read in the Bible when I was a boy that it was right to take in the stranger and administer to those in distress, and that I thought it was always safe to do right. The Bible, in bidding us to feed the hungry and clothe the naked, said nothing about color, and I should try to follow out the teachings of that good book. I was willing to receive and aid as many fugitives as were disposed to come to my house. I knew that my wife's feelings and sympathies regarding this matter were the same as mine, and that she was willing to do her part.* It soon became known to the colored people in our neighborhood and others, that our house was a depot where the hunted and harassed fugitive journeying northward, on the Underground Railroad, could find succor and sympathy. It also became known at other depots on the various lines that converged at Newport. [*a brief acknowledgement of Quaker gender equality.]

[7] In the winter of 1826-27, fugitives began to come to our house, and as it became more widely known on different routes that the slaves fleeing from bondage would find a welcome and shelter at our house, and be forwarded safely on their journey, the number increased. Friends [Quakers] in the neighborhood, who had formerly stood aloof from the work, fearful of the penalty of the law, were encouraged to engage in it when they saw the fearless manner in which I acted, and the success that attended my efforts. They would contribute to clothe the fugitives, and would aid in forwarding them on their way, but were timid about sheltering them under their roof; so that part of the work devolved on us. Some seemed really glad to see the work go on, if somebody else would do it. Others doubted the propriety of it, and tried to discourage me, and dissuade me from running such risks. They manifested great concern for my safety and pecuniary interests, telling me that such a course of action would injure my business and perhaps ruin me; that I ought to consider the welfare of my family; and warning me that my life was in danger, as there were many threats made against me by the slave-hunters and those who sympathized with them.

[8] After listening quietly to these counselors, I told them that I felt no condemnation for anything that I had ever done for the fugitive slaves. If by doing my duty and endeavoring to fulfill the injunctions of the Bible, I injured my business, then let my business go. As to my safety, my life was in the hands of my Divine Master, and I felt that I had his approval. I had no fear of the danger that seemed to threaten my life or my business. If I was faithful to duty, and honest and industrious, I felt that I would be preserved, and that I could make enough to support my family. At one time there came to see me a good old Friend, who was apparently very deeply concerned for my welfare. He said he was as much opposed to slavery as I was, but thought it very wrong to harbor fugitive slaves. No one there knew of what crimes they were guilty; they might have killed their masters, or committed some other atrocious deed, then those who sheltered them, and aided them in their escape from justice would indirectly be accomplices. He mentioned other objections which he wished me to consider, and then talked for some time, trying to convince me of the errors of my ways.

[8a] I heard him patiently until he had relieved his mind of the burden upon it, and then asked if he thought the Good Samaritan stopped to inquire whether the man who fell among thieves was guilty of any crime before he attempted to help him? I asked him if he were to see a stranger who had fallen into the ditch would he not help him out until satisfied that he had committed no atrocious deed? These, and many other questions which I put to him, he did not seem able to answer satisfactorily. He was so perplexed and confused that I really pitied the good old man, and advised him to go home and read his Bible thoroughly, and pray over it, and I thought his concern about my aiding fugitive slaves would be removed from his mind, and that he would feel like helping me in the work. We parted in good feeling, and he always manifested warm friendship toward me until the end of his days.

[9] Many of my pro-slavery customers left me for a time, my sales were diminished, and for a while my business prospects were discouraging, yet my faith was not shaken, nor my efforts for the slaves lessened. New customers soon came in to fill the places of those who had left me. New settlements were rapidly forming to the north of us, and our own was filling up with emigrants from North Carolina, and other States. My trade increased, and I enlarged my business. I was blessed in all my efforts and succeeded beyond my expectations. The Underground Railroad business increased as time advanced, and it was attended with heavy expenses, which I could not have borne had not my affairs been prosperous. I found it necessary to keep a team and a wagon always at command, to convey the fugitive slaves on their journey. Sometimes, when we had large companies, one or two other teams and wagons were required. These journeys had to be made at night, often through deep mud and bad roads*, and along by-ways that were seldom traveled. Every precaution to evade pursuit had to be used, as the hunters were often on the track, and sometimes ahead of the slaves. We had different routes for sending the fugitives to depots, ten, fifteen, or twenty miles distant, and when we heard of slave-hunters having passed on one road, we forwarded our passengers by another. [*cf. Uncle Tom's Cabin, 9.120-121]

[10] In some instances where we learned that the pursuers were ahead of them, we sent a messenger and had the fugitives brought back to my house to remain in concealment until the bloodhounds in human shape had lost the trail and given up the pursuit.

[11] I soon became extensively known to the friends of the slaves, at different points on the Ohio River, where fugitives generally crossed, and to those northward of us on the various routes leading to Canada. Depots* were established on the different lines* of the Underground Railroad, south and north of Newport, and a perfect understanding was maintained between those who kept them. Three principal lines from the South converged at my house; one from Cincinnati, one from Madison, and one from Jeffersonville, Indiana. The roads* were always in running order, the connections* were good, the conductors* active and zealous, and there was no lack of passengers*[*extended metaphor of railroad>]

[11a] Seldom a week passed without our receiving passengers* by this mysterious road. We found it necessary to be always prepared to receive such company and properly care for them. We knew not what night or what hour of the night we would be roused from slumber by a gentle rap at the door. That was the signal* announcing the arrival of a train* of the Underground Railroad, for the locomotive did not whistle*, nor make any unnecessary noise. I have often been awakened by this signal, and sprang out of bed in the dark and opened the door. [*extended metaphor of railroad]

[11b] Outside in the cold or rain, there would be a two-horse wagon loaded with fugitives, perhaps the greater part of them women and children. I would invite them, in a low tone, to come in, and they would follow me into the darkened house without a word, for we knew not who might be watching and listening. When they were all safely inside and the door fastened, I would cover the windows, strike a light and build a good fire. By this time my wife would be up and preparing victuals [food, "vittles"] for them, and in a short time the cold and hungry fugitives would be made comfortable. I would accompany the conductor of the train to the stable, and care for the horses, that had, perhaps, been driven twenty-five or thirty miles that night, through the cold and rain. The fugitives would rest on pallets before the fire the rest of the night.

[11c] Frequently, wagon-loads of passengers from the different lines have met at our house, having no previous knowledge of each other. The companies varied in number, from two or three fugitives to seventeen. The care of so many necessitated much work and anxiety on our part, but we assumed the burden of our own will and bore it cheerfully. It was never too cold or stormy, or the hour of night too late for my wife to rise from sleep, and provide food and comfortable lodging for the fugitives. Her sympathy for those in distress never tired, and her efforts in their behalf never abated. This work was kept up during the time we lived at Newport, a period of more than twenty years. The number of fugitives varied considerably in different years, but the annual average was more than one hundred. They generally came to us destitute of clothing, and were often barefooted. Clothing must be collected and kept on hand, if possible, and money must be raised to buy shoes, and purchase goods to make garments for women and children. The young ladies in the neighborhood organized a sewing society, and met at our house frequently, to make clothes for the fugitives.

[12] Sometimes when the fugitives came to us destitute, we kept them several days, until they could be provided with comfortable clothes. This depended on the circumstances of danger. If they had come a long distance and had been out several weeks or monthsas was sometimes the caseand it was not probable that hunters were on their track, we thought it safe for them to remain with us until fitted for traveling through the thinly settled country to the North. Sometimes fugitives have come to our house in rags, foot-sore and toil-worn, and almost wild, having been out for several months traveling at night, hiding in canebrakes or thickets during the day, often being lost and making little headway at night, particularly in cloudy weather, when the north star could not be seen, sometimes almost perishing for want of food, and afraid of every white person they saw, even after they came into a free State, knowing that slaves were often captured and taken back after crossing the Ohio River.

[13] Such as these we have kept until they were recruited in strength, provided with clothes, and able to travel. When they first came to us they were generally unwilling to tell their stories, or let us know what part of the South they came from. They would not give their names, or the names of their masters, correctly, fearing that they would be betrayed. In several instances fugitives came to our house sick from exhaustion and exposure, and lay several weeks. One case was that of a woman and her two childrenlittle girls. Hearing that her children were to be sold away from her, she determined to take them with her and attempt to reach Canada. She had heard that Canada was a place where all were free, and that by traveling toward the north star she could reach it. She managed to get over the Ohio River with her two little girls, and then commenced her long and toilsome journey northward. Fearing to travel on the road, even at night, lest she should meet somebody, she made her way through the woods and across fields, living on fruits and green corn, when she could procure them, and sometimes suffering severely for lack of food. Thus she wandered on, and at last reached our neighborhood. Seeing a cabin where some colored people lived she made her way to it. The people received her kindly, and at once conducted her to our house. She was so exhausted by the hardships of her long journey, and so weakened by hunger, having denied herself to feed her children, that she soon became quite sick. Her children were very tired, but soon recovered their strength, and were in good health. They had no shoes nor clothing except what they had on, and that was in tatters. Dr. Henry H. Way was called in, and faithfully attended the sick woman, until her health was restored. Then the little party were provided with good clothing and other comforts, and were sent on their way to Canada.

[14] Dr. Way was a warm friend to the fugitive slaves, and a hearty co-worker with me in anti-slavery matters. The number of those who were friendly to the fugitives increased in our neighborhood as time passed on. Many were willing to aid in clothing them and helping them on their way, and a few were willing to aid in secreting [hiding] them, but the depot seemed to be established at my house.

[15] Notwithstanding the many threats of slave-hunters and the strong prejudices of pro-slavery men, I continued to prosper and gained a business influence in the community. Some of my customers, who had left me several years before on account of my anti-slavery sentiments, began to deal with me again. I had been elected a director in the Richmond branch of the State Bank, and was re-elected annually for six or seven years, by the stockholders, to represent our district. When any one wished accommodation from the bank, much depended on the director from the district where the applicant lived. His word or influence would generally decide the matter. The remembrance of this seemed to hold a check on some of the pro-slavery men of our neighborhood. They wished to retain my friendship, and did not openly oppose my U. G. R. R. work as they might otherwise have done. My business influence no doubt operated in some degree to shield me from the attacks of the slave-hunters. These men often threatened to kill me, and at various times offered a reward for my head. I often received anonymous letters warning me that my store, pork-house, and dwelling would be burned to the ground, and one letter, mailed in Kentucky, informed me that a body of armed men were then on their way to Newport to destroy the town. The letter named the night in which the work would be accomplished, and warned me to flee from the place, for if I should be taken my life would pay for my crimes against Southern slaveholders. I had become so accustomed to threats and warnings, that this made no impression on mestruck no terror to my heart. The most of the inhabitants of our village were Friends [Quakers], and their principles were those of peace and non-resistance. They were not alarmed at the threat to destroy the town, and on the night appointed retired to their beds as usual and slept peacefully. We placed no sentinels to give warning of danger, and had no extra company at our house to guard our lives. We retired to rest at the usual hour, and were not disturbed during the night. In the morning the buildings were all therethere was no smell of fire, no sign of the terrible destruction threatened. . . .

[16] Slave-hunters often passed through our town and sometimes had hired ruffians with them from Richmond, and other neighboring places. They knew me well, and knew that I harbored slaves and aided them to escape, but they never ventured to search my premises, or molest me in any way.

[17] I had many employees about my place of business, and much company about my house, and it seemed too public a place for fugitives to hide. These slave-hunters knew that if they committed any trespass, or went beyond the letter of the law, I would have them arrested, and they knew also that I had many friends who would stand at my back and aid me in prosecuting them. Thus, my business influence and large acquaintance afforded me protection in my labors for the oppressed fugitives. I expressed my anti-slavery sentiments with boldness on every occasion. I told the sympathizers with slave-hunters that I intended to shelter as many runaway slaves as came to my house, and aid them on their way; and advised them to be careful how they interfered with my work. They might get themselves into difficulty if they undertook to capture slaves from my premises, and become involved in a legal prosecution, for most of the arrests of slaves were unlawful. The law required that a writ should be obtained, and a proof that the slave was their property before they could take him away, and if they proceeded contrary to these requirements, and attempted to enter my house, I would have them arrested as kidnappers. These expressions, uttered frequently, had, I thought, a tendency to intimidate the slave-hunters and their friends, and to prevent them from entering my house to search for slaves.

[18] The pursuit was often very close, and we had to resort to various stratagems in order to elude the pursuers. Sometimes a company of fugitives were scattered, and secreted in the neighborhood until the hunters had given up the chase. At other times their route was changed and they were hurried forward with all speed. It was a continual excitement and anxiety to us, but the work was its own reward.

[19] As I have said before, when we knew of no pursuit, and the fugitives needed to rest or to be clothed, or were sick from exposure and fatigue, we have kept them with us for weeks or months. A case of this kind was that of two young men who were brought to our house during a severe cold spell in the early part of winter. They had been out in the snow and ice, and their feet were so badly frozen that their boots had to be cut off, and they were compelled to lie by for three months, being unable to travel. Dr. Henry H. Way, who was always ready to minister to the fugitives, attended them, and by his skillful treatment their feet were saved, though for some time it was thought that a surgical operation would have to be performed. The two men left us in the spring, and went on to Canada. They seemed loth [disinclined] to part from us, and manifested much gratitude for our kindness and care. The next autumn one of them returned to our house to see us, saying that he felt so much indebted to us that he had come back to work for us to try to repay us, in some measure, for what we had done for him. I told him that we had no charge against him, and could not receive anything for our attention to him while he was sick and helpless; but if he thought he would be safe, I would hire him during the winter at good wages. He accepted this offer and proved to be a faithful servant. He attended night-school and made some progress in learning. He returned to Canada in the spring.

[20] Many of the fugitives came long distances, from Alabama, Mississippi, Louisiana, in fact from all parts of the South. Sometimes the poor hunted creatures had been out so long, living in woods and thickets, that they were almost wild when they came in, and so fearful of being betrayed, that it was some time before their confidence could be gained and the true state of their case learned. Although the number of fugitives that I aided on their way was so large, not one, so far as I ever knew, was captured and taken back to slavery. Providence seemed to favor our efforts for the poor slaves, and to crown them with success.