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Levi Coffin House

Cardinal Greenway

Black History Religion

The red-brick Levi Coffin House, with its symmetrical windows and chimneys, has a sense of sturdiness and permanence.

Photo by: Nyttend/Wikimedia

Most of the railroads along the Great American Rail-Trail are literal ones. But perhaps the most important railroad in America during the early to mid-1800s had no tracks, trains or bustling boomtowns sprouting from the route. The Underground Railroad, made up of safehouses and depots owned by abolitionists who helped freedom seekers escape from the South, was instrumental in the liberation of many enslaved African Americans. One of the most important figures of the Underground Railroad, often nicknamed the “President,” was Levi Coffin. He and his wife Catherine helped thousands of people escape to Canada, and now you can visit their house where many stopped along their route to freedom.

Levi Coffin (1780–1877) was a devout Quaker originally from North Carolina. [1] Growing up on a farm deep in the South, he regularly witnessed the harsh treatment of enslaved people, which is where his opposition to the institution of slavery came from. [2] Despite having had little access to formal education, he eventually became a teacher. He attempted to open a school for enslaved people in the Greensboro, North Carolina, area in 1821, but it was quickly forced to close when his pupils were forbidden to attend. Levi later married his wife, Catherine Coffin, also a devout Quaker, and moved to the area now known as Fountain City, Indiana, in 1826. [3]

The Quaker faith, also commonly referred to as the “Society of Friends,” is a sect of the Christian religion. Quakers believe that God exists in every person and believe strongly in pacifism. Their strong belief in equality applies to every human being regardless of their race or gender, and Quakers were active in both the abolitionist and women’s rights movements. [4]

Once Levi and Catherine arrived in Fountain City, they purchased an eight-room federal-style home, which they quickly realized was right in the middle of an Underground Railroad route that passed through the state of Indiana on its way to Canada. The Coffins did everything they could to help people along the way. They opened their home, using secret rooms and spare bedrooms to provide safe shelter for runaways. [5] Levi relied on income from his ownership of a local store to house them and give them supplies, but his neighbors also contributed to their efforts by donating money or slipping them clothes and food. [6]

Catherine Coffin was a major contributor to their inventory of supplies. She organized a sewing circle that met at the Coffin house and made clothing for the people who took refuge there. It is estimated that approximately 2,000 freedom seekers stayed at the Coffin House. The Coffins’ efforts were so impactful that they are thought to be the inspiration for the characters of Simeon and Rachel in the classic American novel “Uncle Tom’s Cabin” by Harriet Beecher Stowe. [7]

The Levi Coffin House was purchased and restored by the state of Indiana and is currently operated by the Indiana State Museum. [8]

 

  • [1] National Register of Historic Places, Levi Coffin House, Fountain City, Wayne County, Indiana, National Register #66000009_NHL. Hereafter NRHP; The Editors of Encyclopaedia Britannica, “Levi Coffin,” Encyclopaedia Britannica, January 14, 2020.
  • [2] NRHP.
  • [3] The Editors of Encyclopaedia Britannica, “Levi Coffin.”
  • [4] History.com Editors, “Quakers,” History.com, last modified September 6, 2019, https://www.history.com/topics/immigration/history-of-quakerism.
  • [5] “Levi Coffin House,” WayNet, WayNet, Inc., 2020, https://www.waynet.org/levicoffin/default.htm .
  • [6] NRHP; The Editors of Encyclopaedia Britannica, “Levi Coffin.”
  • [7] NRHP.
  • [8] “Levi Coffin House,” WayNet.
References

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