Levi and Catherine Coffin: the Underground Railroad


In 1876, an elderly man decided to write his memoirs. As we’ll see during this show, he and his wife were very important in 19th century America. They helped a great many people achieve freedom, but very few people have heard of them.

As he was writing his autobiography, this old man wanted to stress the centrality and strength of one of his earliest experiences, and the impact it had on how he chose to live his life. You see, Levi Coffin became an opponent of slavery and an abolitionist at the age of seven when he saw a slave working on a chain gang. Young Levi asked him why he was being held in chains. The slave replied that the chains were there to prevent him from escaping and returning to his wife and family. The impact of this encounter was very strong, and it touched Levi very deeply.

The recently-released movie about Harriet Tubman has prompted a lot of discussion about the history of the Underground Railroad. Several Buzzkillers have emailed, asking specific questions about things they’ve seen in the movie or things they’ve heard about the Underground Railroad in school. Invariably, people seem to know only a little bit about the Underground Railroad, and seem to have only heard about Harriet Tubman.

The history of the Underground Railroad is much longer, fuller, richer, and more complex and compelling than what’s depicted in the movie Harriet. This is a special show on two genuine heroes from the early history of the Underground Railroad — Levi and Catherine Coffin. It’s kind of a combined Man Crush Monday and Woman Crush Wednesday show. And we’re putting it out there for all Buzzkillers, not just our Patreon members. Having said that, I want to remind you that, generally, Man Crush Mondays and Woman Crush Wednesdays are only available to our Patreon members, so please go to www.professorbuzzkill.com and sign up.

Despite being called “The Parents of the Underground Railroad,” Levi and Catherine Coffin are almost completely forgotten. Their Indiana home is now The Coffin House, a National Historic Landmark in Fountain City, Indiana, but no one’s made a major motion picture about them (although they certainly deserve one). Underground Railroad historians, and other experts from that period, estimate that Levi and Catherine Coffin helped rescue and convey about 3,000-3,300 escaped slaves to freedom via the Underground Railroad.

One thing I really hate is what I call “scoreboard history” — who did the most (in terms of numbers) and all of that stuff. Everyone who worked on the Underground Railroad was obviously committed, selfless, and heroic. So I don’t want to say that Levi and Catherine Coffin were _more_ important than Harriet Tubman (who is estimated to have saved and transported around 150 slaves). But I do want to say that they should receive a great deal more attention and celebration.

Let’s go back to their early lives. Levi and Catherine Coffin were born in North Carolina (Levi in 1798 and Catherine in Catherine in 1803). Levi grew up in a non-slave-owning Quaker family in Guilford County, and it’s fairly clear that his parents were strong abolitionists. Despite living in a slave state, like other Quakers in the area, Levi’s parents hid escaping slaves on the family farm, and helped them get out North Carolina as early as 1819.

This, as you might imagine, was a very dangerous thing to do. The Fugitive Slave Law of 1793 made it illegal, and North Carolina passed “Black Laws” in the early 1800s to crack down on abolitionists. Quakers were well-known to help escaping slaves, and local authorities became increasingly vigilant in harassing them.
The Coffin family, including young Levi, did a number of things for North Carolina slaves in the 1810s and the early 1820s, hiding some runaways in their farmhouse and in the outbuildings on their farm, founding and running a Sunday School for slaves, making and repairing slave clothing, and providing food in times of scarcity. But it soon became obvious that North Carolina was too dangerous for Quaker abolitionists and early underground railroad workers. Along with fellow Quaker, Benjamin White, Levi Coffin traveled to the Indiana territory in 1822, and met fellow Quakers there.

Levi was impressed with Indiana, and soon returned to the Quaker community in Guilford County, North Carolina to spread the word about the possibilities for slave abolition in the territories, and the possibilities for helping slaves escape to what was then “the west.” While home in North Carolina, Levi married Catherine White, a long-time family friend. After the birth of their first child in 1825, Levi and Catherine moved with more or less the whole extended Coffin family to Newport, Indiana (which is now called “Fountain City”) on the Ohio border.

The Coffins started farming in Indiana, and eventually opened a dry goods store in the town of Newport in, probably, 1827. What later became known as “the Underground Railroad” was already running in America (which I’ll explain in a later episode), and, as you might imagine, went right through the center of the country, which meant Indiana and Ohio. The Coffins were very successful in running the dry goods store, and rather than stockpile lots of cash or investing it, they decided to spend their modest profits on helping runaway slaves move through Indiana to safer places further north.

Here’s how they made it work. Newport, Indiana was already home to a large-ish number of free blacks (people who were either born free or had their freedom granted to them before moving to Indiana). This community started harboring and protecting escaping slaves in the early 1820s. The problem was that fugitive slave catchers knew about this, and were sometimes able to capture runaway slaves hiding on these free black farms or in these free black homes. These places were just too obvious, and since the Fugitive Slave Law was a _national_ law, northerners were required to comply with it (no matter what their own personal views on slavery were).

After establishing themselves in Newport, the Coffins contacted these free black groups, and offered to hide some runaways in their own home. Since Levi was becoming a businessman in the Newport community, he was able to establish ordinary commercial connections with townspeople and farmers, and his “networking” didn’t seem out of place or too obvious to slave catchers (or their look-outs). The Coffin house quickly became a better place to take in runaways, and to, eventually, convey them to the next stop on the Railroad.

This is a crucial aspect of the early Underground Railroad that should be better known and understood by Americans. Many of us have the impression that escaping slaves were brought all the way north (or to other candidates) by “conductors” on the Underground Railroad, who accompanied them the whole way. This was very rare. Sometimes it happened (and it was more common in Harriet Tubman’s day – the 1850s), but was definitely the exception and not the rule.

Here is what usually happened. Escaping slaves would run north, and toward places they had heard were safer, hoping that they would find an underground railroad “station” (that is, a safe house or farm, run by people sympathetic to runaway slaves, and willing to hide them). When it was safe to continue their flight, they would move to the next safe house, and eventually to Canada or someplace so far north that fugitive slave catchers wouldn’t find them.

It’s important to remember, however, that a lot of the words I’m using, such as “underground railroad,” “station,” and “safe house” were not used in the early days of this “system.” And the organization that grew up around southern Ohio and Indiana didn’t really have a name until the mid-1830s. Levi Coffin called it the “mysterious road” at the beginning of their involvement in late 1826, early 1827.

Geography was crucial here. Three important escape routes passed through the Coffin home, and even in the very beginning, nearly 100 slaves went through their care every year. Again, the key was that the Coffin home, like other stops on the mysterious road, were places for slaves to stop, rest, get fed consistently, and get prepared to move to the next stop. The Coffins built up a network of connections with other stops further north to help. And they led by example. It was no secret that there was an escape route through town, but many people in Newport (especially Quakers) who were opposed to slavery and the Fugitive Slave Law were afraid to help because of the dangers, both legal and physical. Since the Coffins were able to hide slaves and move them further on their way, without being harmed themselves, some of their neighbors began to help.

But that was far from the universal reaction in Newport. A good number of residents had more or less ignored the Coffins’ slave harboring and transport but didn’t agree with it. In fact, as the Coffin effort became more successful and some other Newport people joined in, there was a brief backlash. The Newport people opposed to this increasing activity were either anti-Underground Railroad (as it was now being known by the 1830s) because of their racist attitudes toward African-Americans, or because they were afraid of the legal ramifications of violating the Fugitive Slave law. Some Newport residents started to refuse to patronize the Coffins’ dry goods store in the early 1830s. And their business started to suffer.

But then there was a backlash against the backlash. Newport’s population was growing in the 1820s and 1830s, and a great number of the newcomers were deeply religious, strongly Quaker, and anti-slavery. They even gravitated towards Newport and the Coffins’ dry goods store because of its centrality to the Underground Railroad. These people made special efforts to support the store and to alleviate some of the slave harboring burden borne by the Coffins. Levi Coffin’s finances rebounded, and he and Catherine were able to diversify their investments, including land ownership, a paint shop, hog-butchering, a flaxseed mill, and investing in two large-ish banks in Indiana.

By the late 1830s, Levi Coffin was in his late 40s and Catherine in her mid-30s. They had each been helping escapees since their late teens. They had put their own safety, property, and livelihoods at risk. They were part of a larger group of activists doing the same thing, and risking the same things. They had lived through business ups and downs, and had diversified their financial base, to use an anachronistic term. It would certainly be understandable if they decided to keep themselves secure and stop risky humanitarianism. Well, you know where I’m going with this, Buzzkillers. The Levis didn’t keep themselves secure. They “doubled down” (to use another 20th/21st century term) on the Underground Railroad.

They built a new house in Newport. Larger, made of brick, and designed with the Underground Railroad in mind. They built hiding places for slaves, including a space in the maid’s quarters for fourteen people. And they built other passageways to make their railroad work both easier and more secret. This was expensive, and difficult. But it was necessary because slave catchers and fugitive slave hunters were crafty in trying to figure out how to get into what they were suspected were safe houses. So Levi and Catherine designed their new house to buy time.

What I mean is, they needed time, sometimes very short amounts of time, when confronted by slave catchers. Levi was especially brave in demanding that slave catchers show the proper, legal documentation at the door. Required documentation included search warrants and slave-ownership papers, according to the Fugitive Slave Law. Slave catchers didn’t always have these things with them and had to go to local courts to get search warrants. This was usually too difficult, and the new Coffin house was never searched before any of the slaves they were hiding were smuggled out and sent to the next Underground Railroad station.

Most slave catchers suspected the Coffins of harboring runaway slaves, and the large community around Newport, Indiana probably knew of their Underground Railroad work, the Coffins made sure to disguise a great deal of their work in lots of ways . Levi’s Coffin’s business concerns required him to meet with a lot of people, and having a dry goods store meant that shipments of products were always arriving, and there were lots of customers going in and out of the store. So there was a lot of “traffic” in the Coffins’ lives. It was easy (-ish) to “hide” fellow Underground Railroad workers in and among “regular” customers. And it was easy (again, -ish) to communicate with fellow Underground Railroad workers in this way. They mixed in with the other people in the day-to-day running of the Coffins’ lives.

Catherine Coffin took charge of the more “domestic” needs of fugitive slaves. Again, she probably did this to avoid suspicion. She concentrated on the traditional gender roles of the time, and was far less likely to raise suspicion than if she tried other types of Underground Railroad work. For instance, she organized a sewing circle among her friends, and they met regularly at the Coffin house. This was a common thing for women in their position to do, and would not, on its own, come to the attention of slave catchers or those opposed to the Underground Railroad. But these sewing circle meetings were far more than just embroidery and tea. The women worked on clothes for runaway slaves — not only mending travel clothes, but creating whole new outfits (sometimes disguises) for fugitive slaves to wear.

Catherine was also, more or less, in charge of organizing regular meals, and traveling food for escaped slaves. Again, the fact that the Coffins’ owned a retail business (and the fact that they had a large family) meant that relatively large amounts of food passing through their shop and their house was not suspicious in itself. But she also made sure that her fellow Underground Railroad workers contributed to the food stores, and cooked many of the meals, so that the work was dispersed throughout the underground community.

So, it was a complex and continuing effort that required the participation of the whole adult Coffin family, and that of many like-minded people in and around Newport.

But here we come to one of the major problems faced by Underground Railroad activists and workers. The project did not have universal support among abolitionists and even religious groups like the Coffin’s own Quakers. By the late 1830s and early 1840s, there were essentially two main Quaker strains of thought about what to do about slavery, abolition, and activist movements like the Underground Railroad. The first was that slavery was evil, and that Quakers should do all they can to help end it, including helping slaves to escape. The second was that Quakers should concentrate their efforts on legal emancipation. That is, working in the political realm to end slavery first, and then work on how to improve the lives of freed peoples. This second group also thought that working in the Underground Railroad was dangerous, and put too many lives at risk (not only the escaping slaves, but those who helped them — and maybe even children in both cases). So they wanted any energy used in the Underground Railroad movement to be put behind the call for emancipation and legal abolition.

By the early 1840s, the second school of thought was gaining the upper hand among Quaker leaders. The Society of Friends insisted that its members resign from direct-action groups such as the Underground Railroad. The Coffins, along with a number of like-minded Quakers, refused, and were thrown out of the Society of Friends. They formed the Antislavery Friends and continued their work in the Underground Railroad.

But the whole broad effect that slavery had on American society and the American economy bothered Levi Coffin more intensely as the 1840s progressed. It was one thing to help fugitive slaves, but Coffin also knew that many of the things sold in his dry goods business, and that much of the money that flowed through his banking interests, had their origins in slavery. Slave labor helped create and distribute a great number of commodities, and many people, including northerners, had profited monetarily from selling goods produced by slave labor. Increasingly, Coffin became convinced that slavery could be abolished only if, in addition to political action, economic pressure was placed on the whole system.

So he once again tried to cleanse his businesses of the stain of slavery. Levi began to listen to overtures from “Free Produce Associations” from the north-east. These free produce associations (or “societies”) were, essentially, merchant and consumer pressure groups who refused to purchase or sell products and commodities that had been created by slave labor. These associations and societies were not new. They’d been around since the 1770s and 1780s in England, where they concentrated on boycotting slave-produced sugar. The idea spread to the United States in the 1820s, and free produce associations were founded in several north-eastern states.

As I said a little earlier, the Coffins had tried to boycott slave-produced products in their Newport stores, but it had proved too difficult. But the eastern free product associations now worked to start similar movements in what was then “the west” — Ohio and Indiana, and the Coffins saw an opportunity to try this moral experiment again. To make a long story short, Levi and Catherine Coffin were convinced to move to Cincinnati, Ohio in 1847 to run a wholesale mercantile business on the “free produce” model. They were reluctant to leave Indiana, but were ultimately convinced by Ohio Quakers and leaders of the American free produce movement to go to Cincinnati and try.

Cincinnati, of course, is on the northern bank of the Ohio River, and directly across from the slave state of Kentucky. In its own way, the city was a sort of half-way house for the anti-slavery movement in the border states. “Crossing the Ohio River” became a metaphorical, as well as a physical, journey to freedom, and Cincinnati was often seen as the gateway. The anti-slavery movement was already well established there and had held its own against fugitive slave catchers from the south, and against pro-slavery (or, at the very least, anti-abolitionist) forces in Ohio. It was, of course, a constant struggle. But the fact that the struggle was even going on, combined with the fact that a new Western Free Produce Association there had the backing of eastern abolitionists and the free produce movement, made it seem like an excellent place for the Coffins to further their Underground Railroad work.

They began that work in Cincinnati much in the same way that they had begun their work in Indiana — by gradually reaching out to local people they trusted and building the Underground structure slowly and safely. At the same time, Levi built the free produce business side of their operation.

The business side proved to be the more difficult of the two. One of the problems with dealing in only “free goods” (that is, goods produced only by free labor) was that the number of suppliers was often small. And since commodities such as sugar, rice, and cotton were overwhelmingly southern and slave-produced, it was difficult and expensive to find free produce suppliers. There were such suppliers, even one free cotton plantation in Mississippi, but there weren’t enough to be able to rely on a steady supply of quality goods that northerners and westerners would buy. The purity of their production was only one part of their attractiveness to buyers. And often, Levi Coffin wasn’t able to get quality goods from enough free production suppliers to make the Cincinnati business viable. Eventually, he had to sell it in 1857.

The Underground Railroad side of their lives in Ohio, however, was very successful in the dozen or so years leading up to the Civil War. Just like in Indiana, Levi and Catherine had a large home in Cincinnati, and used much of it, ostensibly, as a rooming house or guest house. And also like their businesses and other safe houses they had run, there was, well, safety in numbers. Lots of people came and went to the Coffin house on a fairly consistent basis and it was very difficult for fugitive slave catchers to determine whether any of them was an escaped slave.

Catherine Coffin started another clothing and sewing circle in Cincinnati and began to produce _servants’_ clothes for escaped slaves. It was fairly easy to explain away the presence of so many servants at the house. Catherine had them dressed as garden workers, cooks, butlers, and stable hands. She also disguised a number of female escapees in traditional Quaker attire — full-length dresses, blouses with long sleeves, gloves, veils, and a traditional, wide-brimmed Quaker hat helped a great number of women go unnoticed around their house. Sometimes, she even had escaped slaves pose as servants and attendants for other guests at the rooming house, as if they were traveling with them.

All this worked very well. Historians of the Underground Railroad have estimated that the Coffins helped nearly 1,300 slaves escape through Cincinnati over, roughly, a dozen years.

This changed dramatically once the Civil War broke out. The Coffins were, of course, pacifists, but they supported the Union cause and served in a Union military hospital during the war. They took recuperating soldiers to their home to free up space in the hospital for other wounded soldiers. They also built an orphanage for African-American children whose parents were serving in the Union forces. Laws and proclamations in the early years of the war (including the Emancipation Proclamation in 1863) made it somewhat easier for African-Americans who were able to get away and join Union forces to be protected by the American Army (even though the final Fugitive Slave Act wasn’t abolished until 1864). The Underground Railroad became slightly above ground, and the Coffins were able to add to their already extensive rescue efforts in southern Ohio.

Levi Coffin became one of the leaders in the Freedman’s Aid Society after the war, helping freed people economically and sometimes providing education. He was an American delegate to the International Anti-Slavery Conference in Paris in 1867, and he and Catherine were strong proponents of what became the Fifteenth Amendment to the US Constitution, which prohibited the federal government and each state from denying male citizens the right to vote based their citizen’s “race, color, or previous condition of servitude.”

The Coffins retired from public life and their various humanitarian efforts in 1870. These two, having done the work of a dozen people at least, were no doubt worn out. They were hailed as the leaders of the Underground Railroad. And often, they were called the “founders,” but we’ll explain the complications surrounding that in our next episode. Levi Coffin died in the family home in the Avondale neighborhood of Cincinnati in 1877 and his funeral was one of the largest the city had ever seen. Catherine died in 1881. An African-American group in Ohio built a monument to Levi Coffin at his gravesite in 1902.

Perhaps the most enduring homage to the Coffins is that they were probably the models for the characters of Simeon and Rachael Halliday in Harriet Beecher Stowe’s Uncle Tom’s Cabin, published in 1852. The Hallidays rescued the protagonist Eliza Harris, a young slave who had crossed the Ohio River during the winter. She was nearly dying from exhaustion and exposure when the Hallidays found her, and they nursed her back to health, and sheltered and clothed her until it was safe for Eliza to continue toward Canada. So keep that in mind the next time you’re reading Uncle Tom’s Cabin

I mentioned at the beginning of the show that, according to experts in this field, Levi and Catherine Coffin were responsible for helping somewhere between 3,000 and 3,300 slaves escape along the Underground Railroad. 2,000 in Indiana, and 1,000-1,300 in Ohio. Although I don’t like “scoreboard history” when it comes to assessing the importance of the work that humanitarians did in the past, this is an enormous number. Yet, I don’t think that we should “rank” these heroes by “stats,” the Coffins deserve a great deal more attention than they’ve been given.

Let’s not forget — there were hundreds of Underground Railroad workers. It’s virtually impossible to know how many there were, and even, to a large extent, who they were, mainly because helping slaves escape was dangerous and had to be kept secret. And helping any slave was potentially life-threatening. So each incident was a true act of heroism.

But it’s only “virtually” impossible to find out who they were. Despite being “the dusty and hidden past,” there are still many, many, many things still to be discovered about the Underground Railroad, and people whose lives deserve more attention

Here’s where “scoreboard history” or “history by numbers” can really work. According to the stats we keep here at the Buzzkill Institute, there are 1,775 Buzzkillers in North Carolina, where the Coffins started their work; 1,515 Indiana Buzzkillers; and 3,045 Ohio Buzzkillers. That a lot of potential researchers. Imagine what we can do with that kind of workforce. If you have some free time, please go to your local library, county archives or records office, your local college or university archives, and, of course, your local historical society, and volunteer to help work through the evidence we have about ordinary people in the past. You’ll be surprised how much evidence is available and how much has yet to be uncovered.

Levi and Catharine Historic Site. The Coffin House: https://www.indianamuseum.org/levi-and-catharine-coffin-state-historic-site

Buzzkill Bookshelf

Reminiscences Of Levi Coffin: The Reputed President of the Underground Railroad; Being a Brief History of the Labors of a Lifetime in Behalf of the … Instrumentality, and Many Other Incidents

It was the great good fortune – if not something more – that Levi Coffin was able to complete the story of his exciting and incredible life, not long before he died. Time and again Levi Coffin, his wife and family, and their associates, risked freedom and life itself, in the effort to fight against the scourge of slavery in the days before the Civil War; then, once the days of slavery were over, fought to ensure that the newly- freed slaves would be afforded the rights due them. Thousands of slaves gained their freedom from the efforts of Coffin. It would not be an exaggeration to call him one of the most important figures of the antebellum era, not only by his extensive efforts in the Underground Railroad, but in helping to bring the evils of slavery to the attention of a greater number of Americans, both North and South. There is no history better than Real History – that is, history written at the time, by the people who lived it. No more reliable source on the life of Levi Coffin, nor more honest telling of the Underground Railroad, can be found than in the person of Levi Coffin himself. The number of families, both black and white, whose ancestors knew, assisted, were assisted by, or fought against Coffin, is impossible to count – it is safe to say that his life well over a hundred years ago, is part of our lives still today. Many thousands today owe their existence and their family history to the Underground Railroad and the work of men such as Levi Coffin.

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