The Underground Railroad in Indiana
Most of the escaping slaves which entered Indiana did so by crossing the Ohio River from Kentucky, though a few entered from the system in Ohio. They were transported through the state in the usual manner of moving by night, and sheltered during the day in safe houses. Often their stay in the stations were extended due to the presence of slave catchers. Indiana had numerous violent confrontations between slave catchers and abolitionists, which led to actions by the legislature and several succeeding governors to crack down on Underground Railroad activities for the safety of its citizens. They did not succeed in shutting down the system.
The escaping slaves who reached the river across from Madison, Indiana, found a ferry waiting for them to carry them across the Ohio. Madison was one of four principal gateways to the network in Indiana, the others being Evansville, Rockport, and New Albany. Indiana was the home of Levi Coffin, a prominent abolitionist who sheltered escaping slaves in his homes until it was safe to transfer them to the Underground Railroad. As the escaper’s were guided north from the gateways, they were provided with food and clothing. The ultimate goal of the Indiana abolitionists was to carry the cargo to either Detroit or Toledo.
From Detroit the escaped slaves could cross to Windsor, in Canada. From Toledo slaves were picked up by ferries and carried to the Canadian shore. There the slaves, used to the milder winters of the American south, encountered for the first time the harshness of the Canadian winter. They also encountered what they weren’t expecting. Many of the Canadians resented their presence, and several Canadian communities banned them. Work was difficult to obtain, and many were only capable of unskilled labor when they arrived in Canada, which nonetheless allowed them to enter and remain under certain conditions.
The conditions in Canada caused many of the former slaves to attempt to return to the United States, usually via New York. Several states including Indiana passed laws which restricted the movements and other rights of free blacks. In 1851 Indiana passed a law which banned free blacks from entering the state, as part of a campaign to prevent so many slave catchers from roaming through the state, in particular in the region near the Ohio River. Indiana as a state pursued the policy of appeasing its southern neighbor, rather than passing laws which would encourage more blacks from attempting to escape to Canada through its borders.
Kentucky officials and state marshals raided Indiana and abducted abolitionists they suspected of being involved in helping slaves escape, returning them to Kentucky for trial, with conviction and incarceration forgone conclusions. These raids led to reprisals by abolitionists against Kentucky officials, and a small border war evolved. Indiana abolitionists maintained undercover agents south of the river to help escaping slaves get across, and shelter them until it was safe to do so. Reprisals against these agents was harsh and swift, often involving a rope and a convenient tree. The recovered slaves however, were usually returned to their owners for punishment.