Underground Railroad

Not where you’d expect to find an important force in the abolitionist movement—a small town in Indiana near the Ohio border.

I had encountered the name of Levi Coffin in 2014, when I was looking for historic places to visit in Indiana. And then I stumbled across him and his wife Catherine in an exhibit at the Indiana State Museum last year about early African-American experiences.

Visiting the Coffin’s historic home was on my want-to-visit list.

The historic site is well worth it. The house has been well maintained/restored. and although most of the furnishings are not the Coffins’, they are from that time period. The house is probably the third residence of the Coffins’ in this community, built 13 years after they arrived at Fountain City (or what was called Newport at the time).

The construction of the house shows the Coffins’ well thought out use of the house. A third-floor attic could house pallets for run-away slaves passing through and a secret garret could conceal them during any threatened search of the house.

The kitchen was actually in the cool of the basement, which I have never seen in a house before, next to a cistern that maintained itself with area spring water—no outside prying eyes could see how much water the Coffins were using and suspect that extra mouths were staying with them.

The real gem of the house was the tour guide. The house is staffed completely by volunteers. The woman who acted as the tour guide for my band of twenty or so was a retired schoolteacher—and it showed. She was a font of knowledge, shared stories non-stop, and engaged the kids of the group in ways that only a master schoolteacher could.

The historic site is raising funds for and beginning renovation on an older building next door (two years older than the 1839 Coffin house) for use as a welcome center. The ten-minute video about the Coffin house has already been shot. While I welcome the center, I bemoan the replacement the lecture and stories that I received on my visit with a short film. My guide made the house, the Coffins, the time period, and the abolitionist activities come alive—for more than two hours of a scheduled one-hour tour.

My guide continually referred to Levi Coffin’s book of slave stories. While the gift shop sells an abridged version (400 and some pages rather than the original 700 and some pages), I have opted to read the full version of Reminiscences available in various electronic formats at the Internet Archive. It’s a fascinating and enlightening read about the experiences of slaves and free blacks, who were at risk of being kidnapped and sold into slavery (clearly, the kidnapping shown in 12 Years a Slave was not necessarily exceptional).

Learning about Levi Coffin has been an experience in learning about Quakers in the US and Indiana, communities of free blacks (who often congregated near communities of Quakers), slave experiences, free black experiences, the abolitionist movement (which was not a monolithic approach to the opposition of slavery), Indiana history, and free-trade shopping—just to name a few things.

If you are passing through Indiana or find yourself in the eastern part of the state, stop by the Levi Coffin house. The house and tour are well worth it.

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