“President” of the Underground Railroad

“I learned that the fugitive slaves who took refuge with these people (free colored people) were often pursued and captured, the colored people not being very skillful in concealing them, or shrewd in making arrangements to forward them to Canada.  I was pained to hear of the capture of these fugitives, and inquired of some of the Friends (Quakers) in our village why they did not take them in and secret them, when they were pursued, and then aid them on their way to Canada?  I found that they were afraid of the penalty of the law.  I told them that I read in the Bible when I was a boy that it was right to take in the stranger and administer to those in distress, and that I thought it was always safe to do right.  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. 

In the winter of 1826-27, fugitives began to come to our house, and as it became more widely known on different routes that the slaves fleeing from bondage would find a welcome and shelter at our house, and be forwarded safely on their journey, the number increased.  Friends in the neighborhood, who had formerly stood aloof from the work, fearful of the penalty of the law, were encouraged to engage in it when they saw the fearless manner in which I acted, and the success that attended my efforts.  They would contribute to clothe the fugitives, and would aid in forwarding them on their way, but were timed about sheltering them under their roof; so that part of the work devolved on us.  Some seemed really glad to see the work go on, if somebody else would do it.  Others doubted the propriety of it, and tried to discourage me, and dissuade me form running such risks. They manifested great concern for my safety and pecuniary interests, telling me that such a course of action would injure my business and perhaps ruin me; that I ought to consider the welfare of my family; and warning me that my life was in danger, as there were many threats made against me by the slave-hunters and those who sympathized with them. 

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.  At one time there came to see me a good old Friend, who was apparently very deeply concerned for my welfare.  He said he was as much opposed to slavery as I was, but thought it very wrong to harbor fugitive slaves.  No one there knew of what crimes they were guilty; they might have killed their masters, or committed some other atrocious deed, then those who sheltered them, and aided them in their escape from justice would indirectly be accomplices.  He mentioned other objections which he wished me to consider, and then talked for some time, trying to convince me of the errors of my ways.  I heard him patiently until he had relieved his mind of the burden upon it, and then asked if he thought the Good Samaritan stopped to inquire whether the man who fell among thieves was guilty of any crime before he attempted to help him?   I asked him if he were to see a stranger who had fallen into the ditch would he not help him out until satisfied that he had committed no atrocious deed?  These, and many other questions which I put to him, he did not seem able to answer satisfactorily.  He was so perplexed and confused that I really pitied the good old man, and advised him to go home and read his Bible thoroughly, and pray over it, and I thought his concern about my aiding fugitive slaves would be removed from his mind, and that he would feel like helping me in the work.  We parted in good feeling, and he always manifested warm friendship toward me until the end of his days.

Many of my pro-slavery customers left me for a time, my sales were diminished, and for a while my business prospects were discouraging, yet my faith was not shaken, nor my efforts for the slaves lessened.  New customers soon came in to fill the places of those who had left me…The Underground Railroad business increased as time advanced, and it was attended with heavy expenses, which I could not have borne had not my affairs been prosperous.  I found it necessary to keep a team and a wagon always at command, to convey the fugitive slaves on their journey.  Sometimes, when we had large companies, one or two other teams and wagons were required.  These journeys had to be made at night, often through deep mud and bad roads, and along by-ways that were seldom traveled.  Every precaution to evade pursuit had to be used, as the hunters were often on the track, and sometimes ahead of the slaves.  We had different routes for sending the fugitives to depots, ten, fifteen, or twenty miles distant, and when we heard of slave-hunters having passed on one road, we forwarded our passengers by another…

PLAY:  Follow The Drinking Gourd

Seldom a week passed without our receiving passengers by this mysterious road.  We found it necessary to be always prepared to receive such company and properly care for them.  We knew not what night or what hour of the night we would be roused from slumber by a gentle rap at the door.  That was the signal announcing the arrival of a train of the Underground Railroad, for the locomotive did not whistle, nor make any unnecessary noise.  I have often been awakened by this signal, and sprang out of bed in the dark and opened the door.  Outside in the cold or rain, there would be a two horse wagon loaded with fugitives, perhaps the greater part of them women and children.  I would invite them, in a low tone, to come in, and they would follow me into the darkened house without a word, for we knew not who might be watching and listening.  When they were all safely inside and the door fastened, I would cover the windows, strike a light and build a good fire.  By this time my wife would be up and preparing victuals for them, and in a short time the cold and hungry fugitives would be made comfortable.  I would accompany the conductor of the train to the stable, and care for the horses, that had, perhaps, been driven twenty-five or thirty miles that night, through the cold and rain.  The fugitives would rest on pallets before the fire the rest of the night. Frequently, wagon loads of passengers from the different lines have met at our house, having no previous knowledge of each other.  The companies varied in number, from two or three fugitives to seventeen.

The care of so many necessitated much work and anxiety on our part, but we assumed the burden of our own will and bore it cheerfully.  It was never too cold or stormy, or the hour of night too late for my wife to rise from sleep, and provide food and comfortable lodging for the fugitives.  Her sympathy for those in distress never tired, and her efforts in their behalf never abated.  This work was kept up during the time we lived at Newport, a period of more than twenty years.  The number of fugitives varied considerably in different years, but the annual average was more than one hundred.  They generally came to us destitute of clothing, and were often barefooted.  Clothing must be collected and kept on hand, if possible, and money must be raised to buy shoes, and purchase goods to make garments for women and children.  The young ladies in the neighborhood organized a sewing society, and met at our house frequently, to make clothes for the fugitives.

Sometimes when the fugitives came to us destitute, we kept them several days, until they could be provided with comfortable clothes.  This depended on the circumstances of danger.  If they had come a long distance and had been out several weeks or months – as was sometimes the case – and it was not probable that hunters were on their track, we thought it safe for them to remain with us until fitted for traveling through the thinly settled country to the North.  Sometimes fugitives have come to our house in rags, foot-sore and toil-worn, and almost wild, having been out for several months traveling at night, hiding in canebrakes or thickets during the day, often being lost and making little headway at night, particularly in cloudy weather, when the north star could not be seen, sometimes almost perishing for want of food, and afraid of every white person they saw, even after they came into a free State, knowing that slaves were often captured and taken back after crossing the Ohio River.

PLAY:  Let Me Cross Over

When I went to the banks of Jordan

I wanted to see its chilly waters

..wanted to see the other side

Jordan stream was chilly and wide

Get away!

Get away to Jordan!

Let me cross over,

to the other side.

Sallie Martin Singers

Such as these we have kept until they were recruited in strength, provided with clothes, and able to travel.  When they first came to us they were generally unwilling to tell their stories, or let us know what part of the South they came from.  They would not give their names, or the names of their masters correctly, fearing that they would be betrayed.  In several instances fugitives came to our house sick from exhaustion and exposure, and lay several weeks.  One case was that of a woman and her two children – little girls.  Hearing that her children were to be sold away from her, she determined to take them with her and attempt to reach Canada.  She had heard that Canada was a place where all were free, and that by traveling toward the north star she could reach it.  She managed to get over the Ohio River with her two little girls, and then commenced her long and toilsome journey northward.  Fearing to travel on the road, even at night, lest she should meet somebody, she made her way through the woods and across fields, living on fruits and green corn, when she could procure them, and sometimes suffering severely for lack of food.  Thus, she wandered on, and at last reached our neighborhood.  Seeing a cabin where some colored people lived, she made her way to it.  The people received her kindly, and at once conducted her to our house.  She was so exhausted by the hardships of her long journey, and so weakened by hunger, having denied herself to feed her children, that she soon became quite sick.  Her children were very tired, but soon recovered their strength, and were in good health.  They had no shoes nor clothing except what they had on, and that was in tatters.  Dr. Henry H. Way was called in, and faithfully attended the sick woman, until her health was restored.  Then, the little party were provided with good clothing and other comforts, and were sent on their way to Canada.

Notwithstanding the many threats of slave-hunters and the strong prejudices of pro-slavery men, I continued to prosper and gained a business influence in the community.  Some of my customers, who had left me several years before on account of my anti-slavery sentiments, began to deal with me again.”

Excerpts from Reminiscences of Levi Coffin, the Reputed President of the Underground Railroad, Western Tract Society, 1876

Overlooking the Ohio River


          Freedom Stairway       

Rev. & Mrs. John Rankin

Reverend John Rankin was a Presbyterian minister who lived in Ripley, Ohio.  He wrote the Letters on Slavery which influenced many early Abolitionists.

See:  John Rankin