The Underground Railroad: A Well-Kept Secret

Map of the Underground Railroad
Map of Undergroudn Railroad routes through Indiana


Several years ago, I was sitting in the sanctuary of St. John’s Church downtown, waiting for the Bach Chorale’s presentation of Lessons and Carols. The beautiful old church was lit softly by candlelight that evening, evoking a sense of days gone by. It brought to mind a comment I’d heard about the part the church had played long ago in the Underground Railroad. Intriguing, but could it be true? Right here in Lafayette? Was it simply a remnant of unfounded rumor from the past or was it a reminder of a proud moment in Lafayette’s history?

Indiana was a border state, a free state upon entry into the Union in 1816. But sentiments were always anti-abolitionist. Many of those who had moved to Indiana were from the South. Even William Henry Harrison, territorial governor of the state in 1813, was said to harbor pro-slavery opinions. In fact, Indiana is said to have barely entered the Union as a free state and remained generally unsympathetic to the abolitionist movement. So why did many in the state act in apparent opposition to common beliefs of their time and place? Why did many, including citizens in and around Lafayette, risk their lives to help transport fugitive slaves on the Underground Railroad? Why did so many choose to keep dangerous secrets so well? 

In the first part of the 19th century, as the country grew, the tension over slavery increased. The abolitionist movement also grew, becoming more organized and efficient. Laws were passed that put more pressure on slaveholders. A law passed in 1807 prohibited importing slaves from Africa and the Caribbean to the United States. With this law, slaves in the United States no longer could readily be replaced, in spite of the fact that the invention of the cotton gin 14 years earlier meant demand for slave labor had never been greater.

Furthermore, with the addition of each new territory or state, there were heated and sometime bloody debates over the question - free or slave?

The Missouri Compromise, enacted in 1820, illustrates the divisiveness of the issue. At the time, the states were equally divided between free states and slave-owning states. Missouri was admitted as a slave state and Maine as a free state after furious debate. Those from existing free states wanted all future states admitted as free. Plantation owners and other pro-slavery advocates wanted them admitted as slave states. The compromise was that all land in the Louisiana Purchase north of 36°30’ latitude except Missouri was to be free.

The debate over slavery was taking shape.

Jump to the year 1850. Again, heated debate as California was admitted as a free state. In the same year, a more stringent fugitive   law was passed. Our own community reflected the division in the country over this issue. In 1850, The Lafayette Daily Journal published a strong editorial against slavery, even though a mob had rioted against African- Americans in the Lafayette community just four years earlier. The state of Indiana remained generally pro-slavery. The same year, 1850, the Indiana constitution made it illegal for blacks to settle in the state.

In this environment in the 1800s, why the Underground Railroad? Simply, to escape.


The actual routes of the Underground Railroad were determined chiefly by three factors:

  • Geographical location
  • availability of workers, and
  • the political climate in North America.

The first factor was geographical location: a border state en route to Canada.

The Underground Railroad encompassed an area generally above the Ohio River in the Midwest, along the state line of Pennsylvania in the East, and stretching into Canada. There was heavy activity in IL, IN, OH, PA, DE, and the New England states. (SHOW MAP; INDICATE THE MASON- DIXON LINE.) (Show illustration of Indiana’s three routes.)

The second factor for favored sites on the railroad was the availability of Underground Railroad workers in an area.

Abolitionists and members of various religious groups, including Mennonites, Baptists, Presbyterians, Methodists, and others participated in the Underground Railroad. The Quakers (the Society of Friends), however, played the biggest role throughout the United States, and a significant role locally.

The Quakers believed that no man should own another. Early on, in America, some Quakers actually owned slaves, but by 1782, a form of "friendly persuasi0n” was used to convince them to set their slaves free.

  • First, there was a visit by other Quakers to persuade them nicely to set their slaves free.
  • If this friendly, private visit failed, they took it public, testifying against slave-holding Quakers in open meetings.
  • Then, if they remained unconvinced, the slave-owners were partially excluded from the society.
  • Finally, if they refused to free their slaves, they were disowned completely.

This "friendly persuasion" eventually convinced all Quakers to manumit their own slaves and to work for the peaceful elimination of slavery in America. 

Their efforts were being felt as early as 1786, when no less an eminence than George Washington complained, "a society of Quakers, formed for such purposes, has attempted to liberate one of my slaves,” who had escaped from Alexandria, VA, to Philadelphia. In 1787, a Quaker teenager named Isaac Hopper organized a system for hiding and aiding fugitive slaves in Pennsylvania and New Jersey, a precursor to the Underground Railroad. Later, in the 1800’s in Indiana, the Quaker village of Greenfield Monthly Meeting (now Farmer’s Institute, southwest of town in Union Township) was a center for traffic on the Underground Railroad in this area. Looking back in the 1920s, Joseph Cannon, former speaker of the U.S. House, wrote: "The quiet Quakers of Indiana were about as rabid lawbreakers, as far as such things as the fugitive slave laws went, as you could find anywhere."

In and around Lafayette, there were a number of stations on the Underground Railroad. The Buddell Sleeper home at C.R. 700S and 330 W was the only house definitely associated with the UGRR. Others reportedly were the homes at Seventh and Main streets (the Linn house) and Fifth and South streets (the Falley house), and St. John’s Episcopal Church at Sixth and Ferry streets. (My research for this paper confirmed the rumor I’d heard - more or less.)

The third decisive factor in determining the routes of the Underground Railroad was the political climate in North America. Canada had enacted laws against importing slaves in the late 1700’s. In 1826, it formally refused to return runaway slaves. 

At the same time, the United State’s increasingly stringent fugitive slave laws facilitated the capture of runaway slaves and made no escaped slave feel safe in the U.S. As late as 1857, the Dred Scott Decision by the Supreme Court ruled that a person descended from slaves, whether free or slave, had no rights as a U.S. citizen.

The anti-slavery climate in Canada, in contrast to the pro-slavery attitudes in the United States, made Canada, hundreds of miles from the slave states, a haven for fugitive slaves.


In 1830, the United States saw the first successful run of a steam- engine locomotive. In 1831, the term "underground railroad" was coined when a slave ran away from his master in Kentucky and disappeared in the free state of Ohio. Members of the Underground Railroad adopted railroad _ terminology to describe the secret roles they assumed. They called themselves brakemen, firemen, agents, stationmasters, and conductors. Levi Coffin, who lived in Rockport, IN (now Fountain City), was a Quaker storekeeper. He became known as the President of the Underground Railroad because of his extraordinary contributions to rescuing fugitive slaves. (Show picture of Levi Coffin house. Show map with Fountain City.) His plain, two-story, red brick house had a basement that provided safe hiding; his barn held a horse and wagon ready to go. Over time, three different lines of the Underground Railroad converged on the Coffin house, referred to as “Grand Central Station."

"Tracks” were laid across the North. Safe houses were called "depots" and "stations”. "To catch the next train" meant to move to the next safe house. When real railroads were used, they were referred to as "surface lines." Anyone contributing money for the cause was called a stockholder. Funds were often used to purchase a slave’s freedom. Frederick Douglass, leading spokesman for American blacks in the 1800s, was a stationmaster in the Underground Railroad and a former fugitive slave himself. He had his freedom purchased by the Underground Railroad for $750.


Communication was key to the successful operation of the Underground Railroad Secrecy was vital. Safety was more important than quickness. Of necessity, both fugitive slaves and members of the Underground Railroad learned to code and decode hidden messages, to disguise signs and themselves to avoid capture or worse. There were code names for towns on the routes. Cleveland was called "Hope." Sandusky was called "Sunrise." There were code numbers for towns: Seville, Ohio, was code number 20.

"By Tuesday you shall receive a shipment of four large kegs of dark ale and one small one." was a message that four adults and one child would be arriving at the station.

There were signs. A quilt hanging on a clothesline with a house and a smoking chimney among its designs indicated a safe house.

There were signals. Each house had its own combination of knocks. For example, (three knocks), "Who’s there?" "A friend with friends."

There were no telephones and no access to telegraphs, so messages were sent by softly tapping stones together, by imitating the shrill call of the hoot owl, or by signaling with lights. Messages were also sent through song. Most slaves could not read and their masters had purposely kept them ignorant of geography. Spirituals were a safe way to express what the slave could not say openly. They could have double meanings and be used to send secret messages.

"Steal Away to Jesus" - double meaning; sung as an invitation to slaves to run away.

"Steal away, steal away to Jesus. Steal away, steal away home. I ain’t got long to stay here."

“Wade in the Water" - to warn an escaped slave that his master and his bloodhounds were on the trail. The only way to throw a bloodhound off a human scent was to get into the water.

"Wade in the water. Wade in the water. Children, God going to trouble the water.”

"Get on Board Little Children" - referred directly to the Underground Railroad.

"...Get on board, little children, There’s room for many more."

"Follow the Drinking Gourd” - taught to slaves in the South by a "conductor" named Peg Leg Joe, a free black and a former sailor who worked for hire at plantations as a handyman. The lyrics served as directions to Canada:

Chorus: Follow the drinking gourd! Follow the drinking gourd. "drinking gourd" - the Big Dipper, which points to the North Star. For the old man is awaiting for to carry you to freedom -Peg Leg Joe, waiting to help them at the Ohio River and into Canada. If you follow the drinking gourd.

When the sun comes back, "when the sun comes back" - meant slaves should travel in springtime. and the first quail calls, Follow the drinking gourd. For the old man is awaiting for to carry you to freedom Iffreedom if you follow the drinking gourd.

The riverbank makes a very good road, tThe dead trees will show you the way. Left foot, peg foot, traveling on, Follow the drinking gourd.

When the great big river meets the little river, “great big river” - the Ohio River. “The second river” - the Tennessee River. Follow the drinking gourd. For the old man is awaiting to carry you to freedom

In addition to coded messages and signals, disguises were also used. A successful disguise was the inconspicuous clothes of the Quakers: a light gray dress and a bonnet with a heavy veil. Or just the opposite worked equally well: rich looking clothes. Slave catchers would be looking for fugitives in rags.

Hiding places were essential. False walls were built into attics. Secret chambers, sometimes referred to as "liberty rooms”, were included as floor plans. There were fake closets, trapdoors, hidden tunnels, church belfries, and empty schoolhouses. The woodpile outside might have a room in its center. The bank of coal might be hollow. One fugitive lived in a haystack for six weeks. Even funeral processions served as hiding places, with fugitives placed in the coffins.

Working on the Underground Railroad was dangerous. There were threats and rewards for the capture of workers on the Underground Railroad. Harriet Tubman, a former fugitive slave herself living in Pennsylvania, gave no heed to the danger, returning again and again to the South. She eventually brought 300 slaves to freedom during her time with the Underground Railroad. Rewards of up to $40,000 were offered for her capture.

Those suspected of aiding the Underground Railroad often paid the price. Their businesses suffered. Banks wouldn’t lend them money. They were subject to mob violence, imprisonment, and death. Abolitionists in Lafayette were no exception. Located on the Wabash and Erie canal, which was fully operational in the 1830s and ‘40s, Lafayette was a wild place; Its strategic location, though great for commerce, brought with it a large floating population of boatmen, characters "almost lawless and ungoverned", as an article in the local paper described them. Combined with the local rough young men, like Lafayette’s founder William Digby, reputedly a gambler and a ne’er do well himself, these wild characters gave Lafayette the unenviable reputation of being the "hardest place on the Wabash."

At this time, there was “great agitation" on the subject of slavery. One night, in 1845 or 1846 (the date is uncertain), a large party of boatmen and local "rough young men" organized. Their objective: to tear down the house of Dr. Deming, who lived on Sixth Street opposite the Trinity S Church. Dr. Deming had “made himself obnoxious” by his anti-slavery speeches, according to an article in The Lafayette Daily Courier.

When the mob came to Dr. Deming’s home, he was ready. He came forward boldly and made what was described as the greatest speech of his life. It had a powerful effect, for the rioters gradually, quietly snuck away. This mob also planned to attack Mr. Lewis Falley, Sr., whose house was a suspected refuge for runaway slaves. However, J. M. Michael, then sheriff of the county, got wind of the plan. He quickly organized law- abiding citizens into a militia of armed men called the Lafayette Blues to protect the abolitionists. The mob went to Mr. Falley’s house hell-bent on destruction, but was stopped by the men of the Lafayette Blues. "Whoever tears down the first board from Mr. Falley’s fence will be shot down like a dog." If this threat wasn’t strong enough, a witness reported: "While the men of the mob were rioting there came up a most violent thunderstorm and the lightning was the worst I ever saw." The sight of the armed militia and the fierceness of the storm so frightened the mob that they went away without doing any damage. Some later regrouped, however, and proceeded to riot for three days and three nights, harassing the African-Americans in Lafayette and burning several houses down, until the militia was able to restore order.

But enough for now about the men.

In an era when women were often considered weak and timid, many slave-hunting men couldn’t believe that a "mere woman" could outdo them. The women made the most of it. A woman in Ohio was carrying fugitives in her cart, hidden under a quilt, when the cart became stuck in the mud. Imagine her presence of mind as she calmly asked for help from some passing men - all firm pro-slavers — and stood "helplessly" by while they rocked and shoved and grunted the cart free.

Others took a more hands-on approach, like the elegant lady who reportedly clipped one slave catcher in the head with a well-aimed stone. Apparently she found him ill-bred.

Or picture Harriet Tubman, guiding fugitives on yet another journey on the Underground Railroad. She was clearly on a mission, and did not suffer fools. (Show picture.) In fact, she was not above pulling out a pistol and barking orders in her heavy, rolling voice.

As the story goes, a fugitive slave named Peter voiced his reluctance during his journey to freedom: "I’ll wade no freezing water for no crazy woman," he said at a river crossing.

"You try to go back, try to run back to the woods, and you’ll never run anymore. You go on with me or you die," Harriet said. Small wonder that one of her nicknames was "General Tubman." 


Another Harriet also played a key role in the success of the UGRR. I Harriet Beecher Stowe, raised in Cincinnati and Boston, did not wave pistols. Rather, she wove words. She described herself as "a little bit of a woman - somewhat more than 40, about as thin and dry as a pinch of snuff; never much to look at on my best days, and looking like a used-up article now." (Show picture.)

Harriet Beecher Stowe’s child had died in the cholera epidemic of 1849; standing at her child’s grave she gained an understanding of how a black mother felt being separated from her child. This "little bit of a woman" vowed to do something special for African-Americans. She began to write. In 1851, the serialized version of her impressions of the treatment of slaves, Uncle Tom’s Cabin, appeared in the National Era, an anti-slavery newspaper in Washington, D.C. In 1852, it was published as a novel.

I’ll recap the novel briefly.

 Set in Kentucky, the novel told the story of plantation owner Arthur Shelby. To pay his debts, Shelby had to sell his faithful slave, Tom, and a child, Harry, who was the son of Eliza, another slave. When Eliza heard Harry was to be sold, she embarked on a desperate flight with him across the frozen Ohio River, where she was rescued by Quakers with the Underground Railroad.

Meanwhile, little Eva, the daughter of a wealthy Louisiana planter, is saved from drowning by Tom. Out of gratitude, the planter, Augustine St. Clare, buys Tom and gives him the duties of a household servant. Unfortunately, St. Clare dies and Tom is sold to the brutal owner of the Red River plantation, Simon Legree. Shelby sets out to save his old - servant, but it is too late.

The scene of Eliza crossing the ice floes of the half-frozen Ohio River, a baby in her arms, was based on a real incident. A slave named Eliza Harris and her baby, wet and numb with the cold, made the precarious crossing. They were greeted by Reverend John Ripley at Ripley’s Crossing on the free side of the Ohio River. The character Uncle Tom was based on one Josiah Henson. He was a slave who originally escaped from the South by wandering through the wildernesses of Indiana and Ohio. Chased by wolves, nearing starvation, he was found by Native Americans and eventually led to Canada by the Underground Railroad. The characters of Simeon and Rachel Halliday, who operated an Underground Railroad station in Indiana, were based on the Quaker storekeepers Levi and Catherine Coffin, whom I mentioned earlier.

Uncle Tom’s Cabin brought the plight of fugitive slaves to the attention of the public with a bang. Stowe’s vivid, emotional writing style gripped her readers. They became outraged at the treatment of the fugitives and sympathetic to the abolitionist cause.

The novel sold 300,000 copies in two months. Her publisher had to run the printing presses day and night to try to keep up with the demand. It was translated into 23 languages. Suddenly, this “used-up" woman was very famous, very rich and very controversial. Even possessing a copy of Stowe’s book could be a crime.

The timing of this novel was critical. ” Only a year before it was published in serial form, in 1850, a tougher fugitive slave law was enacted by Congress, as mentioned earlier. Now, even those who had been born free in the North might be taken and sold in the South just on the word of another person. They could not offer any defense. Those who aided fugitive slaves would put themselves in grave danger.

Practically overnight, the Underground Railroad had more respectability, more money, more supplies, and more volunteers. It also had many more requests for help. Uncle Tom’s Cabin made the North many enemies in the South; the Fugitive Slave Act made the South many enemies in the North.


The Underground Railroad ended when President Lincoln signed the Emancipation Proclamation: "On the first day of January in the year of our Lord one thousand eight-hundred and sixty-three, all persons held as slaves within any State shall be henceforth and forever free."

Not surprisingly, little documentation or evidence of "the railroad that wasn’t" remains, although more efforts are now being made to uncover its history. It is important that we remember the heroic efforts to help the runaways and the amazing courage it took to ride the railroad. It is important to remember the role that Lafayette played.

As Harriet Tubman recalled when she became free: "I looked at my hands to see if I was the same person now I was free. There was such a glory over everything, the sun came like gold through the trees, and over the field, and I felt like I was in heaven." Why did so many risk so much? Well-kept secrets—all for freedom. 

Cosner, Sharon. (1991.) The Underground Railroad. Franklin Watts: New York.

Cockrum, Col. William M. (1915.) History of the Underground Railroad. J.W. Cockrum Printing Company: Oakland, Indiana.

Gorrell, Gena. (1996.) North Star To Freedom. Delacorte Press.

Haskins, Jim. (1993.) Get on Board.  Scholastic, Inc.: New York.

Various newspaper articles from the collection of the Tippecanoe County Historical Association.