The Underground Railroad ran through northeast Indiana
By LEE SAUER
Cobwebs of myth cover America's Underground Railroad, the largely informal system of pathways and hiding places used to conduct African American slaves to Canada. Many of the terms, heroes and ingenious hiding places featured in oral traditions were created well after emancipation.
But this much is certain: fugitive slaves did make their way to Canada through DeKalb and Steuben counties. And they did so with the help of local residents who risked condemnation, arrest and even violence in staying true to their consciences.
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Slaves began running away from their masters as soon as forced labor washed up on American shores. Early on, however, there was little reason to wish escape, since Africans were treated much like indentured servants.
When Eli Whitney invented the cotton gin in 1792, however, the face of American slavery changed. With huge demand at home and overseas, growing cotton became wonderfully profitable. In Southern states where the climate made cotton king, landowners chopped huge plantations out of primeval forests.
Riches from cotton came with a curse: it required massive amounts of manpower. Without modern fertilizers, more land continually needed to be cleared. Without modern machinery, planting and harvesting needed to be done by hand.
As the South became more and more dependent on cotton, its fragile, one-horse economy became more and more dependent on slave labor. Anyone with African blood became a highly prized commodity and the source of huge profits. Human beings were bought and sold like cattle.
Being so expensive, Southern slaves weren't abused physically as habitually as sometimes portrayed. When extreme cases did occur, Abolitionists made sure they received lots of publicity.
Still, plantation owners continually feared their slaves might organize, take up arms and rise in revolt. To prevent this, they emotionally and intellectually abused slaves on a continuous basis. Owners forbid slaves from holding large gatherings, withheld virtually all education, and when it served their purpose broke up slave families. These steps were specifically aimed at keeping slaves ignorant and dependent; in general, the actions crushed slaves' spirits.
When held down so hard, the human spirit seeks escape. A steady trickle of slaves did so. Through the direction of paid guides, hints hidden in songs and needlework, an informal network of sympathetic friends (both black and white), and, finally, the Northern Star, fugitives made their way north.
They had to pick their way through a dangerous maze. Nature threw at them hunger, unfamiliar roadways, unbridged waterways and a tangle of forests and marshes. Frantic owners sent bounty hunters and bloodhounds to bring back their valuable property. Spies (again, both black and white) would pretend to be friends, then reveal the fugitives for a fee.
At first, escaped slaves headed for safe havens such as Boston and Philadelphia. But even among large populations of freemen, they weren't completely safe. When Britain abolished slavery in all its colonies in 1833, the escapees found their "Canaan" in Canada.
A variety of stories attempts to explain how the term "Underground Railroad" came into being. One such example: in 1831, an escaped slave named Tice Davids swam across the Ohio River in plain sight of his Kentucky master. Once across the river, however, the master couldn't find Tice. After a long search the master reportedly said the fugitive "must have gone off on an underground road."
At the time, railroads were in an embryonic stage. In only a few decades, however, they would criss-cross the nation. "Underground road" evolved into "Underground Railroad." The terms used today in connection with the UGRR such as conductor and station may have been used when the system was actually in operation, but only gained common usage after the Civil War ended.
The same year Tice disappeared, the first recorded organized movement of slaves took place through Indiana. A well-used route originating in Cincinnati featured stops in Richmond, Winchester, Portland, Decatur, Fort Wayne, Kendallville, Salem Station, and Orland before heading into Michigan.
From its days as part of the Northwest Territories, the area that became Indiana had never sanctioned slavery. The constitution that created the state in 1816 excluded the practice.
Still, slaves were not guaranteed safety within state borders. Later laws banned former slaves from settling and fined any person who employed fugitives or encouraged them to stay in Indiana. The southern part of the state remained largely Democratic and pro-slavery in its sympathies; the northern part of the state would embrace the Republican party when it emerged around 1856, but largely for its view of the nation as an inviolable union of states. In general, Indiana residents favored aid to the slaves since it stuck a thumb in the eye of the South, but they preferred fugitives continue on their way to Canada.
In other words, abolitionists those few people who advocated the immediate abolition of slavery had to be people of strong conviction. Among their numbers were found most of the "conductors" who helped fugitive slaves escape.
In contrast to current perception, the business of the Underground Railroad wasn't heavily cloaked in secrecy. Certainly, deception was used to hide slaves and put pursuers off track, but abolitionists and their sympathies would be well known within a community. Levi Coffin, for example, reportedly aided 2,000 slaves between 1827 and 1847 through his home in Newport (now Fountain City), Indiana.
Signals supplied some secrecy. A lantern in a window or a scarf tied to a lawn ornament would let weary travelers know when it was safe to approach a haven. Most of the travel was conducted at night on foot or under cover in a two-horse wagon or double carriage.
Another common misconception is that the UGRR featured a great labyrinth of tunnels, hidden rooms and false floors. For the most part, accommodations along the way remained informal and haphazard. Mixed feelings toward African Americans existed; in many cases conductors wouldn't allow fugitives in their homes. Runaway slaves were often asked to stay in attics or barns, while a few enjoyed the luxury of a home's spare room.
In 1850, the stakes raised. Congress tried to compromise with the South by passing the Fugitive Slave Act. In general terms, the law allowed slave owners or their agents to recover their human property anywhere in the United States. The law also made aiding a runaway a federal offense.
The Fugitive Slave Act cut both ways. It gave slave owners greater latitude in chasing down fugitives, but it also inflamed the North. Sympathy toward the slaves increased, as did willingness to help them escape.
In DeKalb and Steuben counties, UGRR facts and myths easily mix. Only a few stops have been identified by documents written by people from the time.
The Butler family home south of Orland served as a station. Marion Butler, a Civil War veteran, would write in his memoirs, "For years before this Slave Holders' Rebellion began, my mother's house was a home and refuge for all runaway slaves, who chanced to come through on the route. We fed and sheltered scores of them and then took them on to other stations."
Butler records a tantalizing bit of information: that he wrote down information on the slaves and their stories. Unfortunately, if his diaries still exist, they have yet to be found.
From the Butler place, the slaves followed a lane along the west side of Otter Lake, then turned north to Orland.
Susan Salisbury, a student at the Orland Academy while the UGRR was in operation, recorded activities in town. Salisbury claimed the home of Russell Brown featured a secret apartment on the second floor, complete with a separate stairway. She said from 15 to 20 slaves might hide in the room at a given time.
Salisbury also recorded that S.U. Clark hid slaves in his hotel (perhaps as early as 1838), and later, in a home he built on North Street. The house featured a built-in cupboard in the cellar that concealed a hiding spot.
Capt. Samuel Barry of Orland would become a local celebrity in the fugitives' cause. After 1850, Orland residents so openly flaunted their disregard for the Fugitive Slave Act that Dr. Madison Marsh, an Orland physician and one-time Indiana state legislator, was deputized as a U.S. Marshal to enforce the law. His appointment only enraged Orland citizens. To tease Marsh, they openly paraded escaped slaves in front of the doctor's home.
Marsh responded by arresting several of the scofflaws, including Barry. After a trial in Indianapolis, all of the Orland residents were released, except the captain. In addition, Barry was fined $1,000.
Steuben County erupted. When Barry's supporters appealed to the public to help pay his fine, the largest public gathering up to that time assembled in Orland. A program of anti-slavery speeches ended with the crowd burning an effigy labeled "Madison Marsh, Southern Bloodhound."
Marsh showed up at the meeting and tried to pull the effigy down. In response, "a powerful man and athlete" named Allen Fox turned Marsh on his head. The deputy's injuries must have been quite severe; he reportedly never fully recovered.
A second UGRR route passed through the eastern portion of DeKalb and Steuben counties. Following the state line from Richmond, Winchester, Portland, Decatur and Fort Wayne, the line passed through Auburn, Angola and Fremont.
Some sources claim this route was much more secretive. Perhaps it was simply used less. According to one account, an average of only two to three slaves passed through Angola each year.
Local tradition holds that a home further north on the route built by Erastus Farnham on the south edge of Fremont was built around 1849 with features specifically suited to service on the UGRR. The house still maintains its mid-19th century look, complete with a cupola said to have been used as a look-out nest.
The lure of the UGRR is irresistible. It tells a uniquely American story with all the elements our country holds dear: defiance in the face of systematic injustice, overcoming incredible odds, and common people making an uncommon difference.
Plus, interest only seems to be growing. A year ago in October, Steuben County formed a group whose goal is to uncover and preserve local UGRR history.