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Levi Coffin (October 28, 1798 – September 16, 1877) was an American Quaker, abolitionist, and businessman. Coffin was deeply involved in the Underground Railroad in Indianamarker and Ohiomarker and his homemarker is often called "Grand Central Station of the Underground Railroad". He was nicknamed "President of the Underground Railroad" because of the thousands of slaves that are reported to have passed through his care while escaping their masters.

Coffin immigrated to Indiana from North Carolinamarker following a persecution of the Quakers by the slave-holders in 1826. In Indiana he became became a local business leader and was a director of the Richmondmarker branch of the Bank of Indiana, a merchant, and farmer. His position in the community allowed him to provide much of the funds necessary to supply food, clothing, and transportation for the Underground Railroad operations in his region. At the urging of friends in the anti-slavery movement, he moved to Cincinnatimarker to operate a warehouse selling only goods produced by free labor in 1847. Despite making considerable progress in his business, the venture was unprofitable and he was forced to sell his warehouse in 1857. After slavery was abolished following the American Civil War, Coffin traveled across the Midwestern United States and abroad to Francemarker and Great Britainmarker where he was instrumental in forming aid societies to provide food, clothing, funds, and education to the freed slaves.

Early life

Family and background

Levi Coffin was born in a factory near New Garden in Guilford County, North Carolinamarker on October 28, 1798, the son of Levi Coffin Sr. He was the family's only son and had six sisters. Coffin's grandfather had immigrated to New Englandmarker from Leicestershiremarker, Englandmarker with his parents around 1740. Coffin's father was born in Massachusettsmarker during the 1760s and emigrated from Nantucketmarker to North Carolinamarker where he farmed land among a community of Quakers. The family was greatly influenced by the teachings of John Woolman who believed that slaveholding was not compatible with Quaker beliefs, and advocated for the emancipation of slaves. Coffin's parents probably met Woolman in 1767 during religious meetings near their New Garden home with the non-slaveholding Quaker families. Coffin's cousin, Vestal Coffin, also probably attended the meeting. Vestel was one of the earliest Quakers to help slaves escape North Carolina, beginning as early as 1819.

Coffin grew up working on his father's farm and received little, if any, formal education. He was frequently exposed to slaves throughout his childhood and sympathized with their condition. According to his own account, he personally became an abolitionist at age seven when he asked a slave who was in a chain gang why he was bound. The man replied that it was to prevent him from escaping and returning to his wife and children. The event disturbed the boy who often considered the possibility of his own father being taken from him in a similar fashion. By age fifteen, Coffin was helping his family in assisting escaping slaves by taking food to those hiding on his farm. As the repressive 1793 Fugitive Slave Act became more rigorously enforced, the family was forced to begin conducting their assistance to slaves with greater secrecy and began doing most of their illegal activities at night. The situation only worsened with the passage of the 1804 Black Laws.

Move to Indiana

By the early 1820s, Quakers in North Carolina were being persecuted for the assistance they were suspected of providing to runaway slaves. In 1821, Coffin and his cousin started a Sunday School to teach slaves to read the Bible. The plan was short-lived though, as slaveholders soon forced the two to close the school. Thousands of Quakers began to leave the state for the Northwest Territories where slavery was illegal and land was cheap. There was already a large Quaker community there and they had been influential in the passing of constitutional bans on slavery in Ohiomarker and Indianamarker. In 1822 Coffin accompanied his brother-in-law Benjamin White on his move to Indiana. He stayed in Indiana with the Whites for about a year before returning to North Carolina. He carried back with him reports of Indiana and its prosperity. He was convinced the Quakers and slavery could not coexist and decided that he himself would move to Indiana.

On October 28, 1824, Coffin married long-time friend Catherine White, the sister of his brother-in-law. The ceremony was held in the Hopewell Friends Meetinghouse in North Carolina. Catherine's family is believed to have been involved in helping slaves escape, and it is likely she met Coffin in this activity. The couple postponed their move to Indiana after Catherine became pregnant with Jesse, the first of six children, who was born in 1825. Coffin's parents and brother moved to Indiana in that year, and he and his new wife and son moved to join them in Newport (now called Fountain City, Indianamarker) in 1826.

Underground Railroad

Indiana

Catherine White Coffin, 1879


After moving to Indiana, Coffin began to farm a tract of land he purchased soon after he arrived. Within a year of his move he also opened a general store. In his later years, he credited his business success with granting him the ability to be so involved in the Underground Railroad which he said was a financially costly enterprise. According to his own account, not long after moving he discovered that his home was on a line of Underground Railroad stops. There was a large community of free blacks near Newport where the fugitive slaves would hide before continuing north. Often, they were recaptured because their hiding place there was well known. Coffin made contact with the black community and made it known to them that he would be willing to hide runaways in his nearby home to better protect them. Although the term "Underground Railroad" did not come into use until the 1830s, the organization was operating in Indiana by the early 1820s. Coffin more commonly referred to the system as the "mysterious road".

He first took fugitive slaves into his new home in the winter of 1826–1827. Word of his activity quickly spread among the community. Although many had previously been afraid to take part, upon seeing his success at avoiding problems they soon joined him. The group formed a more formal route whereby the fugitives could be moved from stop to stop until they reached Canada. As time progressed the number of escaping slaves increased. Coffin estimated that he helped one hundred escape annually on average. Coffin's home became the convergence point of three major escape routes from Madisonmarker, New Albanymarker, and Cincinnatimarker. The runaways gathered at his home and at times two wagons were required to transport the escapees further north. Coffin would move them from his home to the next stops during the night. His home saw so many fugatives pass through, it became known as the "Grand Central Station of the Underground Railroad."

Coffin's life was frequently threatened by slave-hunters and many of his friends feared for his safety. They tried to dissuade him from his activities by warning him of the danger to his family and business. Coffin, however, was deeply moved by his religious convictions and wrote of these fears in later in life saying:

After listening quietly to these counselors, I told them that I felt no condemnation for anything that I had ever done for the fugitive slaves. If by doing my duty and endeavoring to fulfill the injunctions of the Bible, I injured my business, then let my business go. As to my safety, my life was in the hands of my Divine Master, and I felt that I had his approval. I had no fear of the danger that seemed to threaten my life or my business. If I was faithful to duty, and honest and industrious, I felt that I would be preserved, and that I could make enough to support my family.




His business had a period of poor performance. Neighbors who were opposed to his activity boycotted his store. The population of Indiana was quickly growing however, and the majority of the new immigrants supported anti-slavery and Coffin's business began to grow. His prosperity continued and he made a substantial investment in the Bank of Indiana when it was first established in 1833. He soon became the director of the Richmondmarker branch of the bank. In 1836 he built a mill and began to produce linseed oil. Coffin built a new two-story brick homemarker in 1838 and had several modifications made to his house to create better hiding places for the slaves. A secret door was created in his maids' quarters where up to fourteen people could hide in a narrow crawlspace between the walls. The space was often used when slave hunters came to Coffin's home in search of runaways.

Pressure was brought to bear on the Quaker communities that helped escaping slaves during the 1840s. In 1842 leaders of the Religious Society of Friends, the Quaker church group to which Coffin belonged, advised all their members to cease membership in abolitionist societies and end activities assisting runaway slaves. They insisted that legal emancipation was the best course of action. The following year they disowned Coffin and expelled him from their group because of the active role he was taking in freeing slaves and his refusal to stop. Coffin and other Quakers who supported his activities separated and formed the Antislavery Friends. The two groups remained separate until a reunification in 1851.

Despite the opposition, his activity increased and he wanted to do more to help the free blacks. Catherine organized a sewing society who met at the Coffins' home to produce clothing to give to the runaways. Other aid was sought from neighbors and those sympathetic, but unwilling take the fugitives into their homes. Through these activities he was able to procure a steady supply of goods to assist in the operations efforts. Over the years he came to realize that many of the goods he sold in his business were the product of slave labor. Through traveling he learned of organizations in Philadelphia and New York City that only sold goods produced by free labor. He began to purchase stock from the organizations and marketed them to his fellow abolitionists, though the products were sold for almost no profit.

The free labor proponents in the east wanted to create a similar organization in the west. The members of the Salem Free Produce Association approached Coffin to see if he would be interested in managing the proposed Western Free Produce Association. At first he declined, saying he lacked the personal money required to fund the venture, and that he did not want to move into the city. Different groups continued to pressure him to take up the position claiming there was no one else qualified among the western abolitionists. He and his wife were happy with their country life, and did not want to move into the city. He finally accepted reluctantly, but agreed to only oversee the warehouse for five years, until the business was operating well and he could train someone to run it.

Ohio

With the help of other businessmen, a depot was opened in Cincinnatimarker to serve as a warehouse to store the goods in 1845. The Free Produce Association had raised $3,000 to get the business started. Coffin moved to the city in 1847 where he took over operations of the wholesale mercantile warehouse. He rented out his Newport business before leaving, intending to eventually return. With help from the eastern organization, he was able to procure goods to market. His constant problem was being able to procure free goods that were produced with the same quality as those produced by slave labor. The problem plagued the business for years, and as a result the enterprise was a constant struggle.

Levi Coffin, c.
1865
The problem caused Coffin to begin to travel into the south to seek out plantations that did not use slave labor. He was met with only limited success. He located a cotton plantation in Mississippimarker where the owner had freed all his slaves and operated by paying them as free laborers. The plantation was struggling and doing all the work manually. Coffin helped the owner purchase a cotton gin that greatly increased their production and began a steady supply of cotton for his association. The cotton was shipped to Cincinnati where it was spun into cloth and sold. Other trips to Tennessee and Virginia were less successful, although he did succeed in spreading the word about the movement. Despite his constant attention to the business, the problems with availability of cheap and quality free labor products proved insurmountable, and Coffin had to sell the business in 1857.

Cincinnati already had a large anti-slavery movement in the city and had a violent past with slavery proponents. He purchased a new home at the corner of Elm and Sixth streets. He continued to be active in the Underground Railroad, setting up a new safe house in the city and helping organize a larger network in the area. At first he was very cautious about helping slaves until he was able to find people he could trust in the community, and the community came to trust him. Coffin moved several times during his life in the city, and finally came to reside on Wehrman Street. It was a large home and rooms were rented out for boarding. With the many guests coming and going, the home was an excellent place to operate an Underground Railroad stop without arousing much suspicion. Catherine created costumes and when fugitives arrived, they would be dressed as butlers, cooks, and other workers. Some of the mulattoes were even able to pass as white guests. The most frequently used disguise was a that of a Quaker woman. The high collar, long sleeves, gloves, veil, and large brimmed hat could completely hide its wearer when their head was tilted slightly downward.

One of the many slaves Coffin helped to escape was Eliza Harris. The girl had escaped the south and crossed the Ohio River on a winter night when it was frozen over. Barefooted and carrying her baby, she was exhausted and nearly dead when she reached Coffin's home. He provided her with food, clothing, new shoes, and shelter before helping her to continue on her journey to freedom in Canadamarker. Harriet Beecher Stowe was living in the city at the time and was well acquainted with the Coffins. The story so moved her that it served as a basis for her book Uncle Tom's Cabin. Levi and Catherine Coffin are believed to have been the Quaker couple she refers to in her book.

Coffin's role began to change as the American Civil War approached. He made a trip to Canada in 1854 to visit the community of escaped slaves that was living there. Coffin helped found an orphanage in Cincinnati for blacks. As soon as the war broke out in 1861, he and his group began to prepare to help the war's wounded. Although as a Quaker, he was opposed to war, he did support their cause. He and his wife spent almost every day at Cincinnati's war hospital helping to care for the wounded. They prepared large buckets of coffee and distributed it freely to the soldiers, and took many into their home.

Coffin helped form the Western Freedman's Aid Society in 1863 to offer assistance to the many freed slaves. As Union soldiers moved into the South, some slaveholders shot their slaves, while others abandoned them, leaving them without food or shelter. The group began collecting food and goods to be distributed to the former slaves. Coffin petitioned the government to create the Freedmen's Bureau to offer assistance to freed slaves. Coffin was also involved in helping freed slaves after the war in establishing businesses and getting educations. As leader of the society, he traveled to Great Britainmarker in 1864 to seek aid for the slaves freed by the Emancipation Proclamation. His advocacy there led to the formation of the Englishman's Freedmen's Aid Society.

Death and legacy

After the war ended, Coffin raised over $100,000 for the Western Freedman's Aid Society to provide aid to the free blacks. The society provided food, clothing, money, and other aid to the newly freed slave population in the United States. In 1867 he attended the International Anti-Slavery Conference in Paris. Coffin did not enjoy being in the public eye and considered his task of begging for money to be demeaning. He recorded in his book that he gladly gave up the position once a new leader for the organization was found. He was concerned about giving money freely to all blacks, some of whom he was believed would never be able to care for themselves unless adequate education and farms were provided to them. He believed the society should only be giving their limited resources to those who were best able to benefit from them. The society continued to operate until 1870, the same year blacks were guaranteed equality in constitutional amendment.

With the war over, the passage of the Fifteenth Amendment, and slavery illegal, Coffin lived the rest of his life in retirement. He later recorded in his book that "...I resign my office and declare the operations of the Underground Railroad at an end." He spent his final year writing a book about the activities of the Underground Railroad and his life. The book, Reminiscences of Levi Coffin, was published in 1876 and is considered by historians to be one of the best firsthand accounts of the activities of the organization. He died on September 16, 1877 at around 2:30pm in his Avondale, Ohio home. His funeral ceremony was held in the Friends Meeting House of Cincinnati. The Daily Gazette recorded that the crowd was too large to be accommodated and hundreds had to remain outside. Four of his eight pallbearers were free blacks who had worked with Coffin on the Underground Railroad. He was interred in the Spring Grove Cemeterymarker in an unmarked grave; Quakers do not believe in marking grave sites. On July 11, 1902, African Americans in Cincinnati erected a tall monument over Coffin's grave in his honor.

Coffin's homemarker in Fountain City, Indiana was purchased by the state of Indiana in 1967 and restored to its original condition. It is now a National Historic Landmark and is open to the public for tours.

Coffin was first referred to as the "President of the Underground Railroad" by a slavecatcher who said, "There's an underground railroad going on here, and Levi's the president of it." The title became commonly used among other abolitionists. Modern historians estimate that Coffin helped more than 2,000 slaves escape, although Coffin himself estimated the number to be around 3,000. Once questioned about why he aided slaves, Coffin said "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 that good book." Another time he simply said, "I thought it was always safe to do right."

References

Notes
  1. Yannessa, p. 1
  2. Yannessa, p. 2
  3. Yannessa, p. 3
  4. Yannessa, p. 4
  5. Yannessa, p. 7
  6. Yannessa, p. 10
  7. Yannessa, p. 11
  8. Yannessa, p.12
  9. Loderhose, p. 21
  10. Yannessa, p. 14
  11. Loderhose, p. 20
  12. Yannessa, p. 13
  13. Yannessa, p. 24
  14. Yannessa, p. 16
  15. Yannessa, p. 16–17
  16. Klein, p. 98
  17. Yannessa, p. 15
  18. Yannessa, p. 18
  19. Yannessa, p. 25
  20. Yannessa, p. 26
  21. Yannessa, p. 27
  22. Yannessa, p. 28
  23. Yannessa, p. 23
  24. Yannessa, p. 29
  25. Yannessa, p. 30
  26. Landau, p. 61–63
  27. Yannessa. p. 31
  28. Yannessa, p. 43
  29. Landau, p. 65
  30. Yannessa, pp. 44–45
  31. Yannessa, p. 48
  32. Yannessa, p. 47
  33. Yannessa, p. 51
  34. Yannessa, p. 50
  35. Yannessa, p. 52
  36. Yannessa, p. 54
  37. Yannessa, p. 60
  38. Yannessa, p. 36


Bibliography

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