Women Conductors & The Ohio Underground Railrod

Continuing Women’s History Month I would like to focus on the brave women and men that housed, sheltered, protected, fed, clothed, and transported slaves to their freedom.  Just imagine the courage it took in the early 1820s when Catherine Coffin became a conductor and the heart of the Underground Railroad line in Newport, Indiana.  Although the term Underground Railroad (UGRR) didn’t come into use until the 1830s, it had been operating in the free state of Indiana since the early 1820s.

The purpose of the UGRR was to transport slaves from station to station until a safe place was reached where the slaves were able to live free.  This network of more than 3,000 homes and other stations helped runaway slaves travel from southern states to free states in the north and in Canada through a vast network of secret routes, safe houses and hiding places.

UGRR in Indiana
Being respected business owners in Newport in 1826, the Coffins approached the black community making it known that they would hide runaway slaves in their home.  Levi and Catherine Coffin sheltered their first slaves in the winter of 1826–1827, providing transportation, shelter, food, and clothing.  It is believed the Coffins helped as many as 2,000 slaves escape to the free states and Canada during the 20 years they lived in Newport.

Underground Railroad in Ohio
In 1847 antislavery leaders in Cincinnati convinced Levi Coffin to run a warehouse which held only non-slaved goods and moved the Coffins to Ohio where they continued their efforts to help fugitive slaves.  Cincinnati was the center of Underground Railroad activity along the Ohio-Kentucky border and was divided between antislavery and proslavery activists at that time.

Eliza Harris was just one of the many slaves Catherine helped to escape.  Eliza had crossed the frozen Ohio river barefoot and carrying her baby.  Reaching the Coffin home Eliza was exhausted and nearly dead. She was provided with food, clothing, new shoes, shelter, and rest before continuing her journey to freedom.

Harriet Beecher Stowe was living in the city and acquainted with the Coffins.  After hearing the tale Stowe retold Eliza’s story in her book Uncle Tom’s Cabin (1852). Her kind Indiana Quakers named Simeon and Rachel Halliday were based on Levi and Catherine Coffin.  The couple known then for their secrecy became public figures.

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