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Levi Coffin’s Writing of the Underground Railroad

Levi Coffin was a man who became an important historical figure because of his work in helping runaway slaves to find their freedom.

Levi Coffin

Levi Coffin became known for his help with the “Underground Railroad.”

 Fact Frenzy presents the following passage taken directly from the accounts of Levi Coffin, an Ohio Quaker in 1850. He helped slave fugitives escape from the south in a system that was known as the “Underground Railroad.”

The Underground Railroad was neither underground, nor was it an actual railroad. Rather, it was the methods used to help slaves escape from their “owners” in the south, by helping them move to the north, “station by station.” There were millions of slaves in the country at this time. Though the Underground Railroad only rescued a small percentage of slaves, it escalated tensions in the south and helped bring about the Civil War (which brought about the end to slavery). In a book he wrote titled “Reminiscences,” published in 1876, Levi Coffin talks about the experience in the crossing from Kentucky to Canada:

The fugitives generally arrived in the night and were [hidden] among the friendly colored people or hidden in the upper room of our house. They came alone or in companies, and in a few instances had a white guide to direct them.

One company of 28… crossed the Ohio River at Lawrenceburg, Indiana — 20 miles below Cincinnati… They hastened along the bank toward Cincinnati, but it was now late in the night, and daylight appeared before they reached the city. Their plight was a most pitiable one. They were cold, hungry, and exhausted. Those who had lost their shoes in the mud suffered from bruised and lacerated feet, while to add to their discomfort a drizzling rain fell during the latter part of the night. They could not enter the city, for their appearance would at once proclaim them to be fugitives…

Several plans were suggested, but none seemed practicable. At last I suggested that someone should go immediately to a certain German livery stable in the city and hire two coaches, and that several colored men should go out in buggies and take the women and children from their hiding places…

The Underground Railroad

In this famous painting by Charles T. Webber, 1893, former slaves are escaping to freedom with the help of the Underground Railroad.

The coaches and buggies should form a procession as if going to a funeral and march solemnly along the road leading to Cumminsville, on the west side of Mill Creek. In the western part of Cumminsville was the Methodist Episcopal burying ground, where a certain lot of ground had been set apart for the use of the colored people. They should pass this and continue on… till they reached a right-hand road leading to College hill. At the latter place they would find a few colored families, living in the outskirts of the village, and could take refuge among them…

All the arrangements were carried out, and the party reached College Hill in safety and were kindly received and cared for…

… With little delay they were forwarded on from station to station through Indiana and Michigan to Detroit, having fresh teams and conductors each night and resting during the day.

I had letters from different stations as they progressed, giving accounts of the arrival and departure of the train, and I also heard of their safe arrival on the Canada short.

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Fact Source: Levi Coffin. Reminiscences. Cincinnati, 1876

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