The South Bend Fugitive Slave Case 1849 | The Underground Railroad |
William P. Martin & Arsinoe Martin
To many persons the statement may be a surprise that human slavery ever existed
within the borders of this state. We muse remember, however, that, on the conquest
of the northwest by George Rogers Clark, all this country became a part of Virginia,
under the name of the county of Illinois. Our territory thus becoming a part of the
state of Virginia, slavery had a legal foothold here, as it had there. Besides, the
French, and also the Indians, held slaves in the territory previous to the Virginia
conquest; the slaves so held being not only negroes, but also captive Indians. After
the deed of cession by Virginia to the United States, it was uncertain for a time
whether slavery should be recognized or not; but, in the ordinance of 1787, for the
government of the territory northwest of the Ohio, it was finally provided, in terms,
that “There shall be neither slavery nor involuntary servitude in said territory,
otherwise than in the punishment of crimes, whereof the party shall have been duly
convicted,” The same prohibition was carried into both our states constitutions. Yet,
under the plea that, before the passage of the ordinance, slave property had been
lawfully acquired within the limits of the territory, it was argued that the holders
of such property could not be legally deprived of it. The argument was even made that
a mother being a slave, her children could be born only as slaves, and that the owner
of the mother became the owner of the children so born.
The property interests of the country were enlisted in behalf of retaining the institution of slavery, and even of introducing more slaves into the country. A large part of the population was from Virginia and Kentucky, and this element constituted a powerful party in favor of perpetuating some form of African slavery. At the head of the slaveholding interest was the governor of the territory, William Henry Harrison. The governor was a Virginian, and seemed to be sincerely of opinion that the prosperity of the country depended upon the establishment of slavery. A strong effort was made to have the provision in the ordinance of 1787 prohibiting slavery suspended, at least for ten years. The contest before congress was long and earnest, but the petition from Indiana was finally denied by that body. Yet the effort was still persisted in to retain slavery by form of indenture or otherwise those who had been slaves or who were the children of slave mothers. As late as the year 1813, the act concerning taxation passed by the legislature provided, as a part of the schedule of assessments and taxation, for a tax “for every slave or servant of color, above twelve years of age, two dollars.” Two cases came to the supreme court, in which the questions so raised were finally settled against the right to hold slaves in Indiana. In the first of these cases, State v. Lasselle, 1 Blackf. 60, the trial court had decided that a colored woman, Poly, was the property of Lasselle. The supreme court, without deciding whether Virginia, by consenting to the ordinance of 1787, intended to emancipate the slaves in the northwest or not, held that, in any event slavery was effectually abolished by the Constitution of 1816. In the other case, that of Mary Clark, also a colored woman, decided in 1 Blackf. 122, Mary Clark had attempted to bind herself as a servant for a term of twenty years. She afterwards repented of her bargain; but the trial court held that she must comply with her contract. The supreme court, however, decided that such an indenture, though voluntarily made, was a species of slavery, and that the contract could not be enforced. Thus was wiped out the last vestige of legal bondage in Indiana. It is true that long after these decisions, many persons continued voluntarily to live out their lives as a slave within the limits of the state. Even as late as 1840, as shown by the United States census for that year, there were still three slaves in Indiana,--a man and a woman in Rush county and a woman in Putnam county. But slavery, as sanctioned by the law, was at an end; and it came to an end, in fact, with the death of the last of such voluntary slaves.
The desire on the part of many of the inhabitants to establish slavery in the Indiana territory resulted in a proclamation by the governor calling for the election by the people of delegates to meet in convention at Vincennes, December 20, 1802. This convention petitioned congress for a suspension of the sixth article of the ordinance of 1787, which prohibited slavery in the territory. The petition, as we have seen, was rejected by congress. The report of the committee to which the petition was referred was prepared by John Randolph, the distinguished orator and statesman, then senator from Virginia, and was an unanswerable argument against the establishment of slavery in the territory. The Vincennes convention which prepared the petition in favor of slavery is also noteworthy as being the first deliberative body elected to represent the people of Indiana. The convention consisted of twelve delegates. From the county of Knox, four; from the county of Randolph, three; from the county of St. Clair, three; and from the county of Clark, two. The counties of St. Clair and Randolph were in that part of the territory which is now the state of Illinois; Knox and Clark were in what is now Indiana. So small was the population, in 1802, of the territory now comprising these two great states, Wayne county, now the state of Michigan, does not seem to have been represented in this early convention. (Howard, History of St. Joseph County, 1906)
The election of 1852 was not satisfactory to any party. The Wigs manifested little
concern over the defeat or the fate of their party. The Democrats had made the political
mistake of destroying the Whig party, the only power that could keep their own party
united. The Wigs were released from party allegiance by the death of their party, the
Democrats by the disappearance of opposition. The individuals of each party were thus
left free to discuss any question that came up and form new alliances as circumstances
arose. Several of these emergencies had already arisen before 1852 when nothing but the
power of party discipline and the fear of defeat had held the Democrats together.
The one great question which interested every voter was slavery. No attempt had made to train public opinion in the state. Political parties, the church and the newspaper had, up to 1850, avoided the subject as much as possible in an official way. The Free Soil party had created some interest in 1844 and 1848, but though it remained as a powerful influence, it had disappeared as an organized force. A few outright Abolitionists were active in the state buy were not regarded seriously by the people. It seems that the majority of Indianans in 1852 preferred to let the question rest, but at the same time were apprehensive lest some one open it up again. Herein lay the cause of the tempest that followed the passage of the Kansas-Nebraska bill.
There had been very little sympathy for negroes in Indiana previous to 1852. The new constitution had prohibited free negroes coming into the state. A strict law required every one then in the state to register with his county clerk and one who failed to register was subject to the $500 fine imposed on those who came into the state after October 1, 1851. By a law of February 14, 1853, no person having one-eighth or more negro blood could testify in court in any case in which a white person was interested. These laws were driving the few colored people then in the state, who were able to move, from it. There seems to be ample evidence to show that this was the sentiment of the state previous to the passage of the Kansas-Nebraska bill and the operations of the Fugitive Slave law of 1850.
However there were strong agencies then becoming active to change this attitude. In September, 1853, the Northern Indiana Methodist conference carried twelve resolutions condemning slavery in all its forms. (Logansport Journal, October 22, 1853; Indianapolis Journal, October 5, 1853. “The system of slavery is contrary to the doctrines of the Methodist Episcopal church. We believe it is the duty of the church to seek to remove slavery from the entire country. Whoever holds a slave is a sinner before God, violating in an unmistakable manner the second commandants. We believe the system of slave-raising worse than the African slave trade. The members of our church who hold slaves should be dealt with as for other gross immorality. The iniquitous Fugitive Slave law merits our hearty disapproval.” The resolutions are given in full in both papers.) Each Methodist preacher thenceforth became an anti-slave agitator. Having no regard for political effect these men soon incurred the enmity of the Democratic politicians. John L. Robinson, United States marshal for Indiana, in an address before the Democratic state convention in 1854 referred to the preachers as the “3000 Abolitionists sent out of New England,” and as “non-taxpaying, itinerant vagabonds.” The State Sentinel warned preachers in general from meddling with politics and attending conventions, cautioning them to stick to the gospel. Governor Wright withdrew his membership from Strange Chapel Methodist church at Indianapolis because the minister persisted in talking politics from the pulpit. The Quakers were just as active in denouncing slavery as the Methodists, though, due to lack of numbers and organization, they were not so effective. Moreover, having always strenuously opposed slavery, people were not so much excited by their work.
During the year 1853 accounts of fugitive slave cases appeared frequently in the Indiana newspapers. The iniquity of the business soon forced the editors to plead the cause of humanity. Each section of the state was aroused by the capture of some fugitive in the vicinity. (“We would ask every man who prefers justice to expediency, humanity to the cold-blooded schemes of selfish politicians and persistent slave-holders, how long a system so degrading to man and so dishonorable to God shall be permitted to continue.”—Logansport Journal, February 13, 1853. Of like temper is the following extract from a letter by Henry Ward Beecher referring to the Freeman outrage: “So deadening has been the influence of slavery upon the public mind that religious teachers and religious editors will find not a word to say against this utter abomination. Meanwhile, the same God who permits tarantulas, scorpions, and other odious vermin suffers also the existence of such creatures as the Reverend Mr. Ellington. * * * to crush the human heart, to eat up a living household, to take a family into one’s hands and crush it like a cluster of grapes. This is respectable, legal, and Christian in the estimation of cotton patriots and patriotic Christians who regard law greater than justice, the Union as more important than public virtue and practical Christianity.”—Indiana Free Democrat, August 4, 1853.) (Esarey, History of Indiana, 1924)
|Some in the South say that the Civil War was fought over
states rights. Some in the North say the Civil War was
fought over preserving the Union. The following is a
celebrated court case that took place in the St. Joseph
County court that gives a good representation of the
attitude of the people of Northern Indiana and Southern
Michigan before the Civil War. It is taken from the
History of St. Joseph County written in 1906.
Slave Case 1849
Sec. 1.—Slavery, as Known in Indiana. —Very many
important cases affecting the rights of the people in
their persons and property were passed upon from time
to time by the three courts of St. Joseph County. To
some of them reference has been made in the preceding
pages. No case, however, has at any time been tried
in our courts which roused the people to a higher pitch
of interest at the time, or was productive of more
lasting results upon the community, not only of this
county, but of all northern Indiana, than the fugitive
slave case that came before Judge Egbert in the old
probate court in 1849. The conflict in relation to
slavery was growing warmer year by year over the whole
country, and nowhere more so, perhaps, than in this
state. Indiana, as we have seen, had originally been
slave territory. The ordinance of 1787 for the
government of the northwest had declared that “There
shall be neither slavery nor involuntary servitude in
said territory,” and this prohibition was repeated in
both our constitutions. But though prohibited by low,
slavery did exist in fact. Even as late as 1840, as we
have seen, the existence of slavery in Indiana is shown
I the United States census. From the first settlement
the question was a burning one in our commonwealth, and
this fire was destined to be quenched only by the blood
of the people in the great civil war.
But the people of St. Joseph county in the year 1849 the existence of slavery seemed a thing far off. The great body of our citizens knew of the institution only as something, as it were, in a distant land, something of which they had read or heard people talk. They had not as yet come in contact with it; it was a thing quite removed from their daily life. Railroad communication, which now brings the uttermost part of the land so close to one another, was then unknown. Kentucky was not nearer to us than California or Oregon is now. Neither was the condition of slavery aired among the people by any national uplifting of the subject that set the real nature of the institution before their eyes, or called upon them to take action in regard to it. The compromise measures of Henry Clay had not yet been passed, nor had the fugitive slave law been enacted. The slavery dispute was as yet smoldering, and had not burst into flame. Such was the condition of the public mind of the people of St. Joseph county upon the subject of slavery when a most remarkable object lesson was brought before them. The slave and his master were found pleading the great issue in our simple court.
Sec. 2. Our Slave Case.—John Norris, residing south of the Ohio river, a little below the town of Lawernceburg, Indiana, claimed to own as slaves a family consisting of David Powell, his wife Lucy, and their four children, Lewis, Samuel, George and James. The family was allowed to cultivate a plat of ground and sell the produce where they pleased; and David and his boys often crossed the river to Lawrenceburg to make sale of their crops. During the night of Saturday, October 9, 1847, the whole family disappeared from Kentucky. The alarm was given next morning and several persons started in pursuit. Norris and his party hunted though southern Indiana for two months without success, though they found in several places articles belonging to the fugitives.
Two years afterwards, in September, 1849, Norris started north with eight men, and at midnight on the 27th of that month, they broke into the house occupied by the Powells, about eight miles from Cassopolis, Michigan. The hose was in the woods, about half a mile from any other dwelling; and David Powell and his son Samuel were at the time absent from home. Norris and his party compelled the mother and her three children to rise from their beds and go with them; and, hurrying them off to their covered wagons, they started for Kentucky. A guard was left at the house to prevent the other inmates from giving the alarm. After a short time, however, the news spread and pursuit commenced. A neighbor, Wright Maudlin, overtook Norris and his party about noon nest day near South Bend, Indiana, thirty miles from where they had started. Mr. Maudlin immediately applied to Edwin B. Cocker, an attorney of South Bend, stating what he knew of the circumstances, that he had no doubt the Powells were free people, that he had known them as quiet and industrious persons, and never heard any intimation that they were slaves; that they had purchased a small tract of land, on which they resided at the time of their abduction, and that they were laboring hard to pay for it.
A petition for a writ of habeas corpus was drawn up, and signed and sworn to by Mr. Maudlin, averring that Mrs. Powell and her son Lewis deprived of their liberty by some person whose name was unknown, under pretense that they were fugitive slaves; and averring that he verily believed were free persons. On this petition the Hon. Elisha Egbert, probate judge, ordered a writ of habeas corpus to issue. The writ was placed in hands of Russell Day, deputy sheriff, for service. Mr. Day called upon several citizens to accompany him in serving the writ. In the meantime, the report having spread that a party of kidnappers with their captives were in the vicinity, the whole community was aroused, and the people, in a state of excitement, ran about anxiously inquiring into the matter. The deputy sheriff overtook Norris and his captives about a mile south of the town, where he had stopped in the woods to feed his horses. His party was well armed and made quite a display of their weapons, and at first evinced a disposition to resist all legal proceedings. The writ, however, was served by reading; and after a parley in which the deputy insisted that Norris and his party would not be allowed to proceed without a fair trial of his claims, he at last agreed to go back to town and proceed to trial on the writ of habeas corpus. By this time thirty of forty persons had arrived from town, two of them with guns; but no attempt was made to do violence to the kidnappers; and Norris and his party drove back to town, followed by the deputy sheriff and the people. Meanwhile another writ of habeas corpus, for all four of the captives, was sued out, and directed to Mr. Norris, whose name had now been learned. The first writ was dismissed. At the request of Norris, the deputy sheriff took the custody of the captives until Norris could procure counsel. In a short time he secured the services of Mr. Liston and Mr. Stanfield, to conduct his defense. Mr. Crocker and Mr. Deavitt appeared for the captives.
The fugitive slave law not then being on the statute book, the only law under which Norris could hold his captives was an old statute of 1793, not having any particular reference to the recovery of runaway slaves, but intended, in general, for the arrest of persons who had violated law in one state and then fled to another. It was contended against Norris that he had not complied with the terms of this statute, and therefore had no standing in court to hold his captives. In his favor it was contended that he had a right to arrest his slaves wherever he found them. No authority was introduced to sustain his contention; and Judge Egbert, after a full and candid hearing, ordered the Powells to be discharged.
The court was crowded with an anxious audience, listening to the argument of counsel and awaiting the decision of the court. Everything had been conducted with order and propriety, and no one anticipated the scene that followed the decision of the court. The judge spoke in a low tone of voice, so that but few had heard him. Mr. Cocker, however, stated the decision in a voice that all could hear. Norris, in the meantime, had gathered his men around the captives seated within the bar; and the moment the decision was repeated by Mr. Cocker the Norris party seized each of the captives with one hand, brandished their weapons with the other and threatened to shoot the first man that interfered. This action took place before adjournment of court and while the judge was still sitting on the bench. Up to that time everything had been quiet among those gathered in the court room; but upon this display of force the people rose to their feet in a state of excitement. Some ran out to spread the alarm through the town; others crowded around the Norris party and their captives, calling upon them to put up their arms. Notwithstanding their excitement the citizens made no attempt to rescue the captives by force. At length the Norris party put up their arms, the excitement subsided, and the sheriff, at the request of Norris, locked up the captives for safe keeping.
This was on Friday. During that evening and next day several warrants were issued against Norris and his men for assault and battery, and one for riot, based upon their violent proceedings in the courthouse. Saturday was occupied in trying these cases; and in the riot case Norris and his party gave bail to appear in the circuit court, which was to begin its session the next Monday morning. Two suits were also begun by the Powells against Norris and his men, for trespass and false imprisonment; and they were held to bail in the sum of one thousand dollars in each suit. On Saturday evening another writ of habeas corpus was issued against Norris, charging him with having placed the captives in jail, returnable also on Monday Morning.
There was at this time an extensive negro settlement near Cassopolis, in the neighborhood where the Powells had been found by Norris and his men. As soon as it was known that Powell’s wife and children had been captured, large parties of these people, themselves almost all fugitive slaves, started to rescue their friends. It was not until Saturday that they learned definitely the direction the captors had taken. During Saturday and Sunday great numbers of these negroes arrived in South Bend, many of them armed and all of them in a highly exasperated state of mind, though conducting themselves with coolness and moderation.
On Saturday, a citizen of Michigan made affidavit before a justice of the peace in South bend that Norris and his party had been guilty of kidnapping in Michigan, and had fled from that state to Indiana. On this affidavit a writ was issued, but not served; for it afterwards became apparent that Norris and his men would be pleased to be arrested so as to give that as an excused for not appearing in court on Monday morning to answer in the habeas corpus case.
On Sunday morning Norris, after a consultation with his attorneys, became satisfied that it would be useless to attempt to take his captives out of the county, in the face of the great number of armed negroes from Michigan. He therefore made up his mind to abandon all present legal proceedings; and determined instead to bring suits for damages for the value of the negroes against the persons who had prevented him from taking them back.
On Monday morning, accordingly, when the habeas corpus case came on for trial, Norris refused to appear, saying that he did not want the negroes; but would make the citizens pay for them, which suited him better. The sheriff, in his return, stated that he held the captives as the agent of Norris, under the state writ, which was set out in full. A replication to this return was filed, sworn to by Lewis Powell, excepting to the sufficiency of the return, and alleging that he and his family were free persons and not slaves. One of Norris’ attorneys was present at the trial, but refused to appear for him. The case of Prigg vs. Pennsylvania, 16 Peters’, in which the supreme court of the United States declared that all laws passed by the states in relation to fugitives from labor are unconstitutional, was read to the court, and several witnesses were examined in relation to the facts of the case. The court after a full and fair hearing ordered the captives to be discharged. The negro friends and neighbors of the captives now came forward, conducted them out of the courthouse to a wagon and quietly drove off to their home in Michigan. On the bridge, as they crossed the St. Joseph, they halted and gave hearty cheers. They then rode on, singing their songs of freedom and rejoicing over the fortunate escape of their friends. The prosecution against Norris and his party were now dropped, and in a few days they also quietly departed for their homes. Thus ended one of the most exciting episodes that ever took place in northern Indiana.
Norris afterwards made his threat good; and brought suit in the United States circuit court for the district of Indiana, to recover damages against Leander B. Newton, George W. Horton, Edwin B. Crocker, Solomon W. Palmer, David Jodon, William Willmington, Lot Day, Jr., Amable La Pierre and Wright Maudlin, who had befriended the negroes. The pleadings were passed upon by Judge Huntington, then on the bench, who ruled for the claimant. The case was afterwards tried before Judge McLean. In his charge to the jury, the judge favored the claim; which was, for Lucy, forty years of age, five hundred dollars; for Lewis, twenty years of age, eight hundred dollars; for George, sixteen years of age, seven hundred and fifty dollars; for James, fourteen years of age, seven hundred dollars; and for claimant’s expenses, one hundred and sixty-five dollars and eighty cents. The jury allowed the claims, substantially as made, the verdict, in the aggregate, being for two thousand eight hundred and fifty-six dollars. During the year 1850 and 1851, twelve additional suits were brought against fifteen defendants for five hundred dollars’ penalty each, for violation of the statute of 1793. Twenty-five other suits were threatened, if these should prove successful. These penalty suits were, however, decided in favor of the defendants, and the litigation came to an end. Such, in brief, was the most famous case ever litigated before the courts of St. Joseph county, and by St. Joseph county lawyers.
| In recent years considerable interest has been shown in the famous railroad
concerning which a great deal more was known before the Civil War. Local
historians in many counties have tried to find out whether there were any
stations of this famous thoroughfare in their respective counties and if
so where they were located. Writers on Indiana history have also given the
matter considerable attention but have not been able to throw a great deal
of light upon the subject. It is generally known that the residence of Levi
Coffin, in Wayne county was one of the most important stations in the state
and has been called the union station of the underground railroad in Indiana.
Our state histories however, do not mention Elkhart county, doubtless because
the writers thereof never learned anything about the road or any of its stations here.
Several years of investigation have brought out the information that there were six of those stations in the county. Five of these were in Jefferson township and one in Washington township. The last mentioned was the home of Owen Coffin, just east of Bristol. The writer has been told that a part of Mr. Coffin’s house is still standing. Those in Jefferson township were the residence of Abner Blue, William Martin, James G. Mitchell, Henry G. Davis and Charles L. Murray. All of these men were prominent citizens of the county in their day and generation, but today there are comparatively few people in the county who know anything about any of them. All of them were farmers during part of their lives and it was at their farm homes that the stations were operated.
The residence of Mr. Blue was on the Goshen and Bristol road, the first house north of the line between Elkhart and Jefferson townships and in the corner where the roads make its first jog to the east. For several years it was the residence of Wise Showater. William Martin first lived on the north side of Pine Creek and across the creek from the old Pleasant View church and Pine Creek Cemetery. Later he moved to a farm about a mile south of that on the same road. The farm was afterward owned for quite a number of years by Benjamin V. Case. The James G. Mitchell farm is about three-quarters of a mile west of the Center school house. The house stood for many years a quarter of a mile south of the road, but has been moved south a quarter of a mile to another road. Many people of the present generation remember it as the home of Paul Kirkendorfer, Sr., who bought it of the Mitchell family after Mr. Mitchell died. The farm of Col. Henry G. Davis joined the Mitchell farm on the west and the house stood on the east side of the road, something over a mile south of the Seminary school house. For quite a number of years he operated a saw mill, obtaining his power from Pine Creek, which ran through his farm across which there was a dam. Besides sawing lumber for himself Col. Davis did custom sawing for people who came quite a number of miles in every direction. The Davis saw mill was one of the best known places in Jefferson township for many years. Mr. Davis when a young man, was one of the earliest teachers of the Bristol school. Both he and Mr. Mitchell became operators of stations on the underground railroad through Dr. E. W. H. Ellis, who occasionally asked them to keep slaves who were moving northward.
The most prominent of these underground stations and which afterward became the best known of any was the home of Hon. Charles L. Murray. In fact to many people in the county this is the only one that is known today. The reason why more slaves stopped there than at any other place was because Mr. Murray was more active in the abolition movement than any of the other men and because his home was on one of the main thoroughfares of the county. It was located five miles north of Goshen on the Goshen and Bristol road. For more than twenty-five years the farm was owned and occupied by Mr. and Mrs. Edward H. Gardner and since Mr. Gardner’s death by Mrs. Gardner. The house was burned down February 21, 1927, and a modern bungalow occupies the spot where it stood.
For years it was supposed by all who knew of this station, the writer included, that the old frame house which was the farm residence there for sixty-five years, was the building which was used as the station. An interview several years ago with Gordon N. Murray, of Nappanee, son of Mr. Murray, brought out the information that this house was not built until 1862, a year after the civil war had begun and while Mr. Murray was in the army. During all to the years that he kept runaway slaves, he and his family lived in a log house which stood almost on the site of the later frame building but a little farther back from the road. Cordon Murray said that the slaves always slept in the barn and that they sucked all the eggs they could find, sometimes even bobbing the setting hens’ nest.
For many years the slaves were carried from one station to another during the night and were secreted during the day time. Occasionally they were transported in day time, when they were concealed in a load of straw of hay or by some other means, but night was the safest time to travel and that was the usual time. Each operator of a station took them to the next one, as they were known to one another but their identity was kept secret from those outside. The fugitive slave law of 1850 provided a penalty for harboring fugitives of aiding them to escape. For this reason it was necessary to keep those operations secret. Discovery would have been followed by arrest and punishment.
For many years Mr. Murray was one of the best known citizens in Elkhart county. Today he is all but forgotten. His former home is one of the historic spots in Elkhart county and it has been suggested that it should be marked which probably will be done at some time. (Bartholomew, Pioneer History of Elkhart County, Indiana, 1930)
Ever since the earliest settlements in Indiana there had been some trouble over the rescue
by their masters of runaway slaves. The matter had been aggravated by slave dealers
kidnapping free negroes in Indiana and selling them into slavery. Under the old
Fugitive Slave law the citizens of Indiana aided the fugitives or not just as they
preferred without much danger from the law. However, under the Fugitive Slave law
of 1850 any citizen, if requested, had to join in the capture of the fugitive. A
large number of Indiana citizens were conscientiously opposed to this and an attempt
to compel usually put them actively on the other side.
About this time a secret association of eastern Abolitionists sent agents to strategic points along the Ohio river border to assist the fleeing slaves. Thus encouraged, many slaves succeeded in reaching Canada. Due to their success in escaping, coupled with the persuasion of Abolition agents, the slaves throughout Kentucky and Missouri became restless and thousands made the break for liberty. Those persons who were actively engaged in the rescue work soon banded together into chains of stations across the state, which the refugees followed toward Canada. These routes came to be known as “underground railroads.” It was the duty of those persons at one station to hide, to protect, and in due time and opportunity to forward the negro to the next station. Every obstacle was placed in the way of the master who came in pursuit. In the conflicts between these men the sympathy of the neighborhood was invariably on the side of the slave. The masters or slave hunter by means of liberal rewards soon developed a class of professional slave catchers in southern Indiana. These slave catchers were strictly within their legal rights, but necessarily soon forfeited their reputation in the community, if indeed, they ever had any. A few instances will show how these incidents affected the communities in which they happened and through them the whole state.
In the early fifties there was great demand for laborers on the southern end of the Wabash and Erie canal. Two free negroes who lived near Owensboro came up to work. On one occasion as they were on their way home from Point Commerce and had reached Washington they were approached by a man who informed them he was on his way to Rockport with a two-horse team and would be glad to have them ride with him. After a few minutes parley the white man said he would be ready in a few hours at which time another white man had joined the former. The party set out about four o’clock, reaching Petersburg at sunset. Their conduct on the road and at Petersburg excited so much suspicion among the Abolitionists there that a rescue party was organized by Dr. John W. Posey. The kidnappers were joined at Petersburg by other confederates who, all together, started for Rockport about three o’clock next morning. Somewhere near Winslow the colored men were overpowered, bond and gagged. The rescue party gathered some new recruits, hastened on past the kidnappers, and in northern Warrick county secured a writ from a squire and arrested them. The kidnappers then produced a handbill, apparently printed several weeks before at a town in Tennessee, accurately describing the negroes. The rescuers knew this had been printed in Washington, while the negroes were waiting, but no one could swear to it; so the men were permitted to proceed with their victims. Having thus failed by legal means, the rescuers sought a favorable place where a few hours later they liberated the negroes by force. (This story was first published in the Washington Sun, from which it was copied by a number of other Indiana papers. It is best told by Col. W. M Cockrum, Pioneer Indiana, 574.)
A slave named Rachel lived with her husband and several children at Lexington, Kentucky. Her story was the common one. After twelve or fifteen years under indulgent masters the owner of her husband was compelled to sell him to New Orleans. She had little time to grieve until her own master died, leaving her and her children to mount the auction block. Soon a Mississippi planter put her to work in the cotton fields. Having spent her previous life in her mistress’s kitchen she was unable to do a creditable day’s work and was whipped daily. She ran away in four months had walked by nights to Lexington where she hoped someone would buy her and keep her near her children, the youngest which was only three. She was soon recaptured by her owner, handcuffed and hobbled by a chain and ball riveted on her ankles. On her way to Louisville she crept out of the wagon, shackled as she was, hid in a ravine, made her way by night to the Ohio river opposite Madison, crossed and found a refuge a few miles back in Indiana. Driven from there by her pursuers she passed on from station to station till she reached the home of Levi Coffin at Newport. Here she remained safe for nearly six months while the sores caused by the iron bands on her ankles healed. She was an intelligent woman and scores of people heard her tell her experiences.
“Toney” escaped from his owner in Kentucky and made his way north along the New Albany & Chicago railroad as far as Monroe county. Here he was nabbed by a ban of professional slave hunters. The Underground Railroad agents of the neighborhood secured a writ from the circuit court and freed the victim, but the simple-minded negro immediately joined other members of the Kidnappers who promised to take him to Canada. Toney observed with fear that they were taking him south, but did not have an opportunity to escape until he had been led back almost to Salem. Her he slipped away and hid in a corn field until night, when he again turned north. This time he fell into more friendly hands. He hid in the neighborhood of Bloomington till the hunters had left his trail, when, hidden under some sacks of wheat in a farmer’s wagon, he embarked for Mooresville. The incident aroused great interest at the State university where were a number of young men from the southern states attending school.
The so-called Underground Railroad was an improvised system. Only a few men were regularly employed by the anti-slavery league and most, if not all, of these were stationed on the Ohio river. Stories have come down of highly educated men spending years in shacks along the banks of the Ohio, fishing, examining the river, or studying science, or making secret trips into Kentucky, selling notions to the farmers. On prominent points on the bank of the Ohio where they could be seen up and down the long reaches they kept their fires burning throughout the night. Mysterious flames of light often flashed out from the Kentucky side, exciting the curiosity of these scientists, so much tat they at once pushed off in their skiffs to investigate. One of these silent fishermen watched the long reach between Evansville and Henderson. Fugitives crossing here passed north by Princeton toward Bloomingdale, following either White river or the Wabash. From Bloomingdale they made their way either to Toledo, Michigan City or into the state of Michigan. A second important crossing was in the neighborhood of Owensboro and Rockport, whence the slaves made their way north by Petersburg, hiding there in the coal mines, and thence either by Mooresville or Morgantown, or by Plainfield and Noblesville. At Louisville, New Albany and Jeffersonville many crossed, hiding with friends in the hill country back of New Albany, whence after their pursuers had gone, they made their way north by Salem and Bloomington. A regular ferryman was stationed near Madison and Vevay, from which ferry the fugitives scattered throughout Jefferson, Ripley and Jennings counties, making their way thence by the Madison & Indianapolis, by the Michigan road to Greensburg, or still more frequently to Newport in Wayne county, where Levi Coffin, prince of conductors, assisted them on to Toledo and Detroit. A large number of fugitives crossing at Covington and Cincinnati dodged back into Indiana to elude their pursuers, whence from Wayne and Fayette counties they passed on with those from Madison and Vevay. No definite number can be given for these escaping slaves, but it is certain there were thousands of them.
As far as alleviating the miseries of the slave or settling the slavery question is concerned the results of the Underground Railroad are negligible. The great influence must be sought in the changed attitude of the people on the question of slavery. It is the consensus of opinion that an overwhelming majority of the people of southern Indiana in 1850 were indifferent to the evils of slavery, at least so long as the evils were restricted to the southern states; but the continued agitation produced by negro hunters rapidly aroused the indignation of most of the people.
The appearance of one of these black wretches, naked, hungry, friendless, chased by haughty, swaggering horsemen with dogs, excited pity, disgust and at last indignation; so that by the end of the decade the slave chasers were hated by all men and women except those pecuniarily interested. The slave owners of Kentucky and Tennessee, conscious of their own personal rectitude and their legal rights, were also indignant that a whole people, as they viewed it, should conspire to rob them of their property and violate the plain law of the United States. Especially were the United States marshal and his assistants, whose duty it was to help catch the refugees, held in contempt by the people of Indiana. (Esarey, History of Indiana, 1924)
The following is an email I received from a relative of William Martin. I thought the people of Elkhart might find it interesting.
Subject: William Martin - Underground Railroad
From: "David McLaughlin"
Date: Sun, September 24, 2006 5:17 am
I was reading some of the info on your website about Slavery in Indiana. I noticed you had written some information concerning William Martin and his participation as a conductor on the Underground Railroad. I am a descendant of William Martin and have quite a number of photos, personal effects, genealogical data, and photocopied documents of the William Martin and his family. Also have a lot of photos and personal effects of Arsinoe Martin, his daughter. (She served as a nurse in the Civil War with the 30th Indiana Infantry) I have been trying to find more information about the Martin family and their time spent in Elkhart County, Indiana. Currently, I have a lot of post Civil War info on the Martin family when they lived Grundy County, Missouri. Also have some info on the family when they lived in Miami County, Ohio. However I don't have much on their activities when the family lived in Elkhart County, especially their involvement in the Underground railroad. I was wondering if you may know of any other sources/books/periodicals containing information about their involvement and if any traces/artifacts/homes still remain of this family in Elkhart County today. Since you seem to have a large interest in this subject, I thought I would contact you and share the information I have too.
Attached is a photograph of William Martin and another of Arsinoe Martin.
|William P. Martin||Arsinoe Martin|
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