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Wednesday, August 31, 2011

In Ye Olden Days: The Underground Railroad

By Lori Benton

Harriet Tubman. John Brown. Frederick Douglas. Sojourner Truth. These are names readily associated with the Underground Railroad, a network of secret routes and safe houses used by nineteenth century slaves in the southern United States, and those who aided them, to escape to the northern states or Canada, and freedom.

While researching the first novel I wrote set in the late 18th century, a story dealing largely with issues of slavery, I began to wonder just when the Underground Railroad had its genesis. Who was that man or woman who first harbored an escaped slave from a neighboring plantation, or gave him food, or warned him of a house nearby where the dogs (or the people) were mean, or told him of a safer path to take? Who was the first farmer or tradesman to step out of their safety and comfort to actually accompany or "conduct" a slave northward in her flight? The Underground Railroad didn't spring into being one day in the early 19th century, fully realized and operational. There had to be a person, sometime, somewhere who, lacking support from neighbor or like-minded friend, decided to help an escaping slave along his daunting road to freedom.

Since a huge element of the success of such endeavors is secrecy, there can be no knowing exactly who they were. No doubt many an early abolitionist carried his or her secrets to the grave.

Levi Coffin 1798-1877
When author Laura Frantz posted on her blog sometime back about her historical heroes, I pondered the question for myself and realized pretty quickly that these unknown 18th century folk who laid the first tracks for the future Underground Railroad were some of mine.

One who stands in place for them all, for me, is a man named Levi Coffin. He was a Quaker, a North Carolinian with Nantucket roots. He and his cousin, Vestal Coffin, became "the founders of the earliest known scheme to transport fugitives across hundreds of miles of unfriendly territory to safety in the free states."*  The year was 1819.

That's the earliest known scheme. But what about the woman, years prior, who opened her farmhouse door to a tentative knocking one evening after sunset, looked into the frightened eyes of a runaway and felt compelled to give her supper, or a place to sleep in the cow shed, or directions to a friend's home just across the county line to the north? My storyteller's mind wouldn't let go of the likelihood that someone else, somewhere, years before the Coffins, had gotten the idea in their head that it was a good thing, the right thing, to help escaping slaves to freedom, in defiance of law and social pressure. Then I found what might have been the impetus for the taking of such risky action.

The year 1789 saw the publishing of the first influential slave narrative, by Olaudah Equiano--as portrayed by Youssou N'Dour in the film Amazing Grace (at left is N'Dour as Equiano in a scene on the streets of London at what may well be the very first book signing... ever). Equiano, having become a Methodist due to the influence of the evangelical teachings of George Whitefield, bought his freedom from his master after many years of slavery. His unflinching portrayal of the horrors of slavery as practiced in the southern United States drew many on both sides of the Atlantic into the cause of abolition.

In the spring of 2004, armed with a copy of Equiano's narrative and a lot of burning questions, I set out on my own long journey back into the late 18th century, when the then 14 United States were still wobbling on foal's legs. Four years later I'd given myself a crash course in the era, and written a historical novel. Working titled Kindred, the story is set in 1793, a few years after Equiano's narrative was published, and some twenty-five years before Levi and Vestal Coffin founded their slave-freeing scheme. Between my knowledge of Equiano's narrative and my surmises on the grassroots beginnings of the Underground Railroad were born one of Kindred's secondary characters, Thomas Ross, a free black man in Boston who has never known slavery, who is shaken by the things he's read in Equiano's book, shaken out of complacency and onto a path that will forever change his and many others destiny.

For more information about Levi Coffin and the early years of the Underground Railroad, visit my fellow Colonial Quills contributor, author Carla Gade's geneaology blog. Small world that it is, turns out Levi Coffin is mentioned in Carla's family tree. Also check out the wonderful book by Fergus M. Bordewich, Bound for Canaan.

*Bound for Canaan, The Underground Railroad and the War for the Soul of America, by Fergus M. Bordewich.


  1. Slaves were disappearing into the back country during colonial times and likely had their own over-mountain log-cabin network (somehow underground railroad just doesn't sound right for back then!) Rather than north, people would head west from what I have read. Lori, you would have loved visiting at Montpelier with me. One of the family slaves who was Madison's servants from childhood was literate. It is said that he is believed to have signed (forged) papers for fellow slaves to get their freedom.

  2. Carrie, that's true. And some slaves escaped to the tribes living in the west. I just had so much information it was hard to choose what to include in such a short post.

  3. This topic has always fascinated me. I wish there were more fiction books written about it.
    Sojourner Truth is one of my heroes!

  4. Great post, Lori! I'm currently reading a YA novel by Stephanie Reed called Over the Wide River about the underground railroad which is the dominant theme in this next book I'm working on. While in Pennsylvania, I discovered some fascinating things about the UR which I'm using. It's proving every bit as fascinating as Kav says. The sky is the limit for story ideas - my hero is an abolitionist:)

  5. Kav, God willing there will be at least one more out there, some day. :)

    Laura, I can't wait to read your new story! I haven't read the Reed book, but will look for it. If you get a chance, and haven't already, check out the book I mentioned in the post, Bound for Canaan. It was one of my favorites while researching the early URR.

  6. Fascinating post, Lori! Your inclusion of this in Kindred is intriguing and unique - I think many will enjoy seeing URR in its infancy. Again, such an interesting post!

    Levi is an old ancestor cousin of mine, one to be proud of indeed.

  7. What a great post, Lori! When I was born my family lived in an old NC farmhouse that my great aunt believed had been used as a station on the URR--there was a sealed room in the top of the house. URR or not, it began a lifelong fascination for me. My first book was "William Henry is a Fine Name"--an URR story, and a Christy Award winner. You might be interested in googling false bottom wagon, Mendenhall Plantation, Jamestown, NC to see a photo of a false bottom wagon they have on display and reading about the Coffin family's relationship to the Quakers in that area. You can see photos of the plantation itself on my website under "Photographs" in my book section for "William Henry . . "
    I'm eager to read your book! The movie you mentioned, "Amazing Grace," was my all time favorite movie--the idea that one life, so committed, could change the world for so many inspires me daily. Thank you for your post!

  8. Cathy! I've read William Henry is a Fine Name--brought to my attention when it won the Christy (congratulations!). I SO enjoyed it, and have the sequel here in my TBR pile. The URR, and all issues to do with slavery and freedom both intrigue me and wrench my heart. How fascinating about your childhood home. I can imagine how my young storytelling mind would have found the notion that maybe... just maybe... my house had been used for such a cause the stuff of endless speculation and wild flights of fancy.

    Amazing Grace is one of my all time favorite movies too. I saw it in theater 10 times! I was able to get word to one of the producers, Ken Wales, through a mutual acquaintance, about how much I loved the film. I've never seen a movie that many times while it was still playing, following it from theater to theater.

    I'll check out those pics of the false bottom wagon. So glad you stopped by, Cathy.

  9. Carla, we both have some interesting cousins way back in the family tree in the late 18th century, but mine was a tavern and store keeper during the time and place I'm presently writing about. Not as much to be proud about as Mr. Levi Coffin. :)

  10. I have read a few books that told the story of the Underground Railroad and learned so much about UR. I am looking forward to reading more so do have on my wish list. Thanks for the great informative post.

    misskallie2000 at yahoo dot com

  11. Thanks for stopping by misskallie. :) The URR is a fascinating era of history, too full of stories to ever tell them all. "Infinite diversity in infinite combinations," to quote a certain Vulcan.


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