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Levi Coffin State Historic Site
Levi Coffin was a successful Quaker businessman who helped an estimated 2,000 slaves escape to Canada and freedom. He arrived in Fountain City (then called Newport) with his wife Catherine in 1826, and opened a store. His Fountain City home is now the Levi Coffin State Historic Site. As his business prospered and expanded, he took on Joel Parker as a partner, and the firm became known as Coffin & Parker. Their store sold only free labor goods. This meant that no slave labor was used to produce them. It was difficult to obtain some goods, such as cotton, that were produced without slave labor. Cotton was purchased from small farmers in Mississippi who owned no slaves. Great care had to be taken to have the cotton ginned and transported to Philadelphia without utilizing slave labor. There it was made into cloth and shipped west.
Levi Coffin's Early Years
Levi Coffin was born and grew up in North Carolina. This meant that he saw the horrors of slavery firsthand. His family opposed slavery and never owned any slaves. When he was fifteen, Levi helped a freeborn black who had been kidnapped and forced into slavery. With his father's help, they obtained proof that the man was freeborn, and he eventually regained his freedom. In 1821 Coffin ran a Sunday school that taught slaves to read the Bible. This frightened slave owners, who quickly forced its closure. In 1826 he moved to Indiana, where slavery was prohibited by the Northwest Ordinance.
Underground Railroad Activity
When Coffin came to Newport, the settlers were mostly anti-slavery Quakers, but they did little to help fugitives. Only the free blacks in the area provided assistance, which they did at considerable risk. They were in constant danger since bounty hunters could seize them and claim they were runaway slaves. They also had few connections outside the community and many of the slaves they assisted were recaptured. Coffin soon changed that. He was a talented administrator and inspired many others to join the cause, even though it violated federal law. Fugitives were hidden during the day, and moved an average of 15 miles per night. Sometimes they were transported in false-bottomed wagons. Slave hunting parties were always monitored closely. When there was no danger, slaves might stay a few weeks at the Coffin house to build up their strength. None of the fugitives who reached the Coffin house were recaptured. This lead frustrated slave hunters to proclaim "There must be an Underground Railroad and Levi Coffin must be the President and his house the Grand Central Station."
Coffin took legal action against anyone who violated the law in pursuit of slaves. He knew the law well and used it to his advantage. When someone wanted to search his home for fugitive slaves, he insisted on seeing two documents. One was a warrant authorizing a search. The other was proof of ownership of a slave. The county courthouse in those days was located in Centerville, about 15 miles away. If there were any in the house when the slave hunter first came there, they would certainly be gone by the time he obtained the proper paperwork.
One day, thirteen runaway slaves came to the Coffin home. The Coffins moved them along to the next stop, but rumors spread and Levi was later called before a local judge about this incident. The judge asked him if it was true that there had been 13 African-Americans in his house. Coffin admitted that it was. The judge then asked if any of them were fugitive slaves. Levi replied that some of them claimed they were, but pointed out to the judge that a black man's word was not legally valid in the state of Indiana at that time. The case was dismissed.
Levi Coffin's Home
The Coffin house and grounds are quite interesting. The home has an indoor well, something that was quite rare for that time. This eliminated the need to make frequent trips to an outdoor well, which might have tipped off anyone watching that there were more people at the house than normal. There are numerous hiding spots in the home. Moving the beds over a couple feet could easily cover up access hatches to the attic. One of the rooms has a closet, which was unusual for the time because they were taxed as extra rooms. The closet has a latch so that it can be opened from the inside. Even the bookcase in the study could be used to hide a person. In the barn there is a false-bottomed wagon like the Coffins would have used to transport slaves. There is also a carriage like they would have used.
Levi and Catherine Coffin moved to Cincinnati in 1847 and became wholesalers of Free Labor Goods. There he helped another 1,000 slaves to freedom. During and after the Civil War, Coffin raised money to aid former slaves. This work took him to England, where he stayed for more than a year and raised over $100,000. The money was used to establish schools and help former slaves become self-supporting. One slave who traveled through Newport on her way to freedom was Eliza Harris, whose story was chronicled in Uncle Tom's Cabin. It is generally believed that the Simeon and Rachel Halliday, the Quaker couple in the book, were actually Levi and Catherine Coffin.