By Mary Giorgio
In the decades before the Civil War, thousands of slaves escaped bondage through the Underground Railroad. The journey north was treacherous, with the chance of capture a constant threat. To aid their journey, sympathetic citizens offered transportation, food, clothing, and shelter through this loosely-structured system. As a northern state bordering a slave state (Kentucky), Indiana became the site of much Underground Railroad activity in the 1830s-1860s.
Slavery began in America as early as the 1500s, when captured Africans were brought to the colonies and sold to the highest bidder. The few colonists who lived in America at that time were desperate for additional labor. Slaves worked on farms and plantations, and in factories and homes. Indentured servants were also used for these same purposes. However, indentured servants’ terms of labor were limited, whereas once enslaved, most slaves remained so for the rest of their lives.
Over time, slavery became an institution favored primarily in the southern colonies. Some northerners opposed slavery on ideological grounds, but it was a matter of practicality for others. Crops—corn and wheat—grown in the north demanded less labor to cultivate and harvest. Utilizing slaves for factory work had proved to be largely unprofitable. In contrast, southern crops like cotton and tobacco were labor-intensive and required many workers. Over time, the divide grew stronger, with northern states outlawing slavery and southern states heavily depending on the “peculiar institution.”
In 1787, Congress created the Northwest Territory, which included present-day Indiana. Territorial laws forbid the ownership of slaves northwest of the Ohio River. Even at that time, residents of the new territory remained divided on the issue of slavery. When, in 1797, Congress carved out a smaller Indiana Territory from the original Northwest Territory, territorial lawmakers petitioned Congress to allow a 10-year moratorium on the slavery ban. Congress declined to act.
It wasn’t the end of the debate, however. Seeking to undermine Congress’s decision, territorial lawmakers passed bills in 1803 and 1805 that allowed new residents to bring their former slaves and indenture them instead. By 1810, Quakers and other antislavery groups had achieved a majority in the territorial government and quickly repealed these laws. When Indiana became a state in 1816, both slavery and indentured servitude were outlawed.
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Once Indiana had become a slave-free state, those seeking to escape bondage viewed Indiana as a place of refuge. Although a small percentage of Indiana’s total population, several vibrant communities of African-Americans existed around the state. These groups, along with Quakers and white abolitionists, would become important allies for slaves freedom.
Originally, historians believed that the Underground Railroad in Indiana was established along three major routes. Escapees would cross the Ohio River from Kentucky into Indiana, then follow one of these paths through the Hoosier state. One path was thought to have led north from Evansville along the Wabash River. Another ran from south-east Indiana along the Indiana-Ohio border. A third started in Louisville and made its way north through central Indiana. Current research shows that paths were much more fluid. Locations of safe houses constantly changed as owners moved or came under suspicion of their neighbors. Paths diverged or crisscrossed to avoid bounty hunters and other dangers.
The journey across the Ohio River itself was harrowing, requiring a boat during warmer months. A few brave souls attempted to swim across the great river. Others waited for the river to freeze during the winter months and then walked across the ice. To make matters more treacherous, bounty hunters were always out. Many waited for fugitives on the north shores of the river.
Moreover, due to the extreme secrecy of the Underground Railroad, few guides or owners of safe houses knew more than a handful of other locations. The punishment for involvement, if caught aiding a fugitive slave, including prison and hefty fines. Fugitive slave laws in 1793 and 1850 reinforced those punishments. Ostracism from the community, merely on suspicion of a person’s involvement, was another threat.
To shield their activities from the public eye, Underground Railroad operators adopted the use of Railroad terminology to describe their movements. Depot was a safe house. Agent or station master referred to the owner of the safe house. A conductor was a guide. Passenger or cargo referred to the fugitive slaves.
Guides typically only took small groups of runaway slaves, usually less than 10, at one time. Larger groups were harder to conceal from bounty hunters. Almost all travel took place at night. Some safe houses were private homes, while others were barns, churches, caves, or coal mines.