"There's an underground railroad around
here, and Levi Coffin is its president," said a slave-
catcher, as he passed the plain home of Levi and
Catharine Coffin in Newport, Indiana. The man had
been searching for weeks for seventeen escaped slaves
who had fled in a body from Kentucky. He and his
companions had traced the fugitives across the Ohio
River and for fifty or sixty miles through Indiana to
Newport. The fugitives had not been actually seen to
enter the Coffin home; therefore, the pursuers could
get no search warrant to go through the house. But
it was known that any slave who came to Newport
might be sheltered by Levi Coffin. The slave-catchers
watched the house for weeks, while at the same time
searching all over the countryside.
But it was no use. The hot trail which had led to
Levi Coffin's house ended right there, and the men
finally went home in disgust, but leaving behind them
the name that clung to this friend of Negroes for
the rest of his life. It was so often repeated, in fact,
that letters sometimes came to him addressed to
"President of the Underground Railroad."
Levi Coffin's home was the converging point of
several lines of the Railroad. Fugitives came to him
from the East, from the West, or directly from the
South, and were likewise sent on to several different
stations, ten to twenty miles away. If word came that
the slave-hunters were on one trail, the passengers
were sent by another. More than once, a fleet rider
was sent hastily to overtake a party of fugitives,
warn them that danger was lurking ahead of them,
and bring them back to Levi Coffin's hospitable home
to wait until pursuit was given up.
Mr. and Mrs. Coffin never knew when passengers
might arrive by the mysterious Road. But there was
rarely a week that none did, and so they found it nec-
essary to be always prepared to feed and care for
fifteen or twenty people. There would be a gentle
knock at the door, and Levi Coffin would spring from
his bed to find a ragged, footsore man who had strug-
gled northward alone for weeks, now brought to
the Underground Railroad by a free member of his
own race who lived nearby; or there might be a two-
horse wagon loaded with fugitives. Quietly they
would be led in, the door fastened, and the windows
covered so that no light could be seen from without.
Then the Coffins would build a fire, prepare food,
and lay small mattresses before the fire for the Ne-
groes to rest on the remainder of the night.
Frequently several wagon-loads from different lines
of the Railroad came on the same night, by accident.
The entire floor might be covered with 'weary men
and women getting a little rest before they went on
to the next station.
Once he was told that twenty-eight fugitives were
hiding outside Newport. The next day Levi Coffin
gathered together a number of carriages, loaded all
the party into them, and sent a long, funeral-like
procession on the road to Cumminsville.
Levi Coffin was born in North Carolina in 1798.
Friends, even in that Southern State, had freed their
slaves years before. But slavery was all about them,
and the boy soon saw its horror and misery, and be-
gan early to do what he could to help its unfortunate
victims. Gangs of slaves were often driven through
North Carolina on their way to the cotton and rice
plantations further south. Levi Coffin and his cousin,
Vestal Coffin, would talk to these slaves as they
rested at night. They could do nothing to help those
who were legally slaves, but often they would find a
kidnaped free Negro, whom they might help set free
by legal means. One Negro who had been kidnaped
from Philadelphia and sold in New Orleans was
finally restored to his friends through information
given by Vestal Coffin.
Many Quakers found it impossible to remain in
North Carolina because of their anti-slavery senti-
ments. When they set their own slaves free, they sent
many of them to settle in the free State of Indiana.
Later the Quakers themselves in large numbers fol-
lowed their old slaves. Before he was thirty years old,
Levi Coffin and his young wife had settled at New-
port, and had taken up their new method of helping
During the twenty years they lived in Indiana, they
helped in freeing 3,300 slaves. An average of 106
fugitives a year slept under their roof. Readers of
"Uncle Tom's Cabin" will remember the elderly
Quaker, Simeon Halliday, and his kindness to flee-
ing slaves. Mrs. Stowe had Levi Coffin and his wife
in mind when she wrote of Simeon and Rachel Halli-
day. Eliza, who crossed the Ohio River on blocks of
floating ice, was also a real person who was sheltered
in the Coffin home on her way to Canada.
In 1847, Levi Coffin started another form of serv-
ice to the cause of freedom. He moved to the city of
Cincinnati, Ohio, and opened a Free Produce Store;
that is to say, a store in which nothing was sold that
had been produced by slave labor. Such stores were
already in existence in Baltimore and Philadelphia.
Articles which came from the South, such as cotton,
rice, and sugar, were of course more expensive if
produced only by freemen, but many people were
glad to pay the extra price.
Sugar could be obtained from Santo Domingo, the
Negro island. Cotton was secured, by great effort,
from small growers who owned no slaves. Rice could
be done without, or obtained by the same effort.
Levi Coffin made one trip, and possibly more, to
Mississippi, to make arrangements for supplies of
goods which had not been produced by slave labor.
Coffin's work was to continue even during and
after the Civil War, for thousands of Negroes, set
free, without means of livelihood, were in distress.
Many had to leave the plantations, while others
stayed on, but without employment. While the
majority of Southerners took care of their former.
slaves as best they could, homes and plantations had
been looted and destroyed during the war, and many
former masters were as destitute as their Negroes.
Levi Coffin traveled over the country collecting
funds and finally spent a year in England for the
same purpose. Clothes, blankets, and $100,000 in
money were given him by the friendly English to help
the new freemen begin life again.
Until he was nearly eighty years old, he worked
constantly for the colored people, and when he died
they came in weeping crowds to say farewell. He had
always lived according to what he once wrote in his
"I read in the Bible that it was right to take in the
stranger and administer to those in distress, and 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 the good book."