The Underground Railroad in Piedmont North Carolina


Before the American Civil War, opposition to the institution of human slavery took many forms. In the 18th and early 19th centuries, Quakers and other thoughtful people opposed treating human beings as property on religious, philosophical, moral and ethical grounds. Some formed groups or “manumission societies” to urge individuals to free slaves; other raised funds and organized groups of “freedmen” to return to Africa through “colonization societies”; others promoted the outright legal and governmental prohibition of slavery as “abolitionists.” Randolph and Guilford counties, the heart of North Carolina’s “Quaker Belt,” had examples of all of these organizations. But by 1835, that kind of individual action had gradually come to be prohibited by new state laws put forward by slaveowners to protect their increasingly-valuable investment in slave property. It became illegal to free slaves, or for freed slaves to move freely around North Carolina, and this promoted clandestine resistance to slave laws by brave local residents who cooperated to smuggle runaway slaves to free states in the North. When Fugitive Slave laws were passed by Congress seeking to force the return of escaped slaves from free states, the slave-smuggler’s network was extended all the way to Canada. This cooperative network supporting the escape of southern slaves to freedom became known as the “underground railroad,” despite the fact that the system began operating years before the time actual steam-powered trains were invented.

The “Underground Railroad” was, first and foremost, secret.  That was what it took to protect the people who helped the slaves escape, as what they did was against the law, punishable by prison and fines, and in fact, the punishments increased almost yearly from the early 19th century to the civil war.  The secrecy of it all makes it very difficult to document. There are very few direct sources of information on underground railroad activities in NC, and only one makes a tangential connection to Randolph County: that is the actual route taken by Elisha Coffin (1779-1872, who built my house in Franklinville), with his sister and his father in March 1822, and described in detail in the autobiography of his first cousin Levi Coffin (1798-1877).


From Levi Coffin’s book it is clear that escaped slaves knew to head generally for the Quaker heart of North Carolina.  Escaped slave advertisements collected by UNCG Loren Schweniger clearly show that eastern NC slave owners assumed that escapees were headed west.  Fugitives coming through Randolph County might have gone toward the Friends meeting houses, or toward individual Quakers, but sooner or later they ended up around New Garden, where the Quaker families descended from Nantucket emigrants of 1771 pretty much headed up the underground railroad in North Carolina.  The Nantucket Quakers (including Levi, Bethuel and Elisha Coffin) were the majority of the active participants in the North Carolina Manumission and Colonization Society which was organized in 1816 and pursued fitful activities until 1832. Some of the largest slaveholders in the area, such as General Alexander Gray, were supporters of the organization until the state’s constitution of 1835 made such activities illegal.

The Coffin family, like most other local Quaker families, was seeing most of its younger generation emigrate West. Some of this was due to the availability of cheap vacant land in the “Northwest Territories” (Indiana, Illinois, Ohio); some of it was the desire to get their children away from the dominant slave-holding ethic. No matter what local Quakers taught their children about the equality of human nature and the evil of slaveholding, the law of the land and the culture of their neighbors promoted and protected the ownership and exploitation of Negroes. It was a conflict that could only be resolved by leaving North Carolina. By 1818, so many residents of Randolph County, NC, had relocated to the Indiana that a Randolph County was created in memory of the “old country”. One of Bethuel Coffin’s daughters had already moved her family to Indiana, and Bethuel himself would soon follow.


It is a glaring omission that Levi Coffin’s autobiography (Reminiscences of Levi Coffin, the Reputed President of the Underground Railroad: Being a Brief History of the Labors of a Lifetime in Behalf of the Slave, with the Stories of Numerous Fugitives, Who Gained Their Freedom through His Instrumentality, and Many Other Incidents. Cincinnati: Robert Clark & Co., 1880.) has not been more used as a source for antebellum NC history. The entire book has been made available online by the UNC-Chapel Hill Library at http://docsouth.unc.edu/nc/coffin/menu.html . The first chapter of Coffin’s book recounts a number of incidents of slave mistreatment which nurtured his abolitionist views, and at least three appear to have involved legal action, which could be confirmed from historical records.


Chapter 2, the story of Jack Barnes, is a fascinating account of one of Levi Coffin’s first efforts to smuggle an escaped slave to freedom, and the fact that he enlisted his uncle and first cousins as co-conspirators illustrates the close-knit family nature of the underground railroad activities. Jack Barnes had fled “the eastern part” of North Carolina after the heirs of his owner refused to follow his will’s instructions to grant him freedom “for faithfulness and meritorious conduct”. He reached the vicinity of New Garden Friends meeting in the fall of 1821, boarding and working for members of the Coffin family. In March 1822 he “received the news that the case in court had been decided against him. The property that had been willed to him was turned over to the relatives of his master, and he was consigned again to slavery. The judge decided that Barnes was not in his right mind at the time he made the will… [Jack] was not to be found, and [the heirs] advertised in the papers, offering one hundred dollars reward to any one who would secure him till they could get hold of him, or give information that would lead to his discovery. This advertisement appeared in the paper published at Greensboro.” [p.33]


Putting Jack into hiding, Vestal and Levi Coffin devised a plan to smuggle Barnes to Indiana in a travelling party of Coffin relatives.


“Bethuel Coffin, my uncle, who lived a few miles distant, was then preparing to go to Indiana, on a visit to his children and relatives who had settled there. He would be accompanied by his son Elisha, then living in Randolph County, and by his daughter Mary. They intended to make the journey in a two-horse wagon, taking with them provisions and cooking utensils, and camp out on the way…. The road they proposed to take was called the Kanawha road. It was the nearest route, but led through a mountainous wilderness, most of the way. Crossing Dan River, it led by way of Patrick Court-House, Virginia, to Maberry’s Gap, in the Blue Ridge mountains, thence across Clinch mountain, by way of Pack’s ferry on New River, thence across White Oak mountain to the falls of the Kanawha, and down that river to the Ohio, crossing at Gallipolis.

“This was thought to be a safe route for Jack to travel, as it was very thinly inhabited, and it was decided that my cousin Vestal and I should go see our uncle, and learn if he was willing to incur the risk and take Jack with him to Indiana. He said he was willing, and all the arrangements were made…” [pp.34-35]


This trip was less than two years since 43-year-old Elisha Coffin had purchased the mill and several hundred acres of land on Deep River that later became Franklinville. He either had just been or was about to be elected a Justice of the Peace of the Randolph County Court of Pleas and Quarter Sessions (the equivalent of a modern County Commissioner), so it was truly a legal and political risk for him to make this trip. But my purpose here is to focus on the route from North Carolina to Indiana rather than on Elisha Coffin or the rather thrilling adventure of Levi Coffin, who was forced to follow the Coffins on horseback to thwart the efforts of a slave-catcher who appeared on their trail. [But all my readers should check out that story in the original—chapter 2,
http://docsouth.unc.edu/nc/coffin/menu.html .]


It is an interesting aspect of modern scholarship of the Underground Railroad, as promoted by the National Park Service and dozens of local historical societies in northern states, that all the maps of “routes” out of the slave-holding states completely ignore the route from central NC to Indiana and Ohio called by Levi Coffin as the “Kanawah” road. In fact, most “maps” of the underground railroad only clearly define the route after it reaches a free state and starts toward Canada.

There is an internet-published record (“The Kanawah Trace Waybill”) which documents an almost identical route from New Garden to Ohio (its first stop appears to go west toward Winston-Salem (Clemmons) instead of north to the Dan River); see http://homepages.rootsweb.ancestry.com/~maggieoh/Migrate/merle.htm .


The only Piedmont NC museum interpretation of the underground railroad of which I am aware is at Mendenhall Plantation, in Jamestown, Guilford County. See http://www.mendenhallplantation.org/. A false-bottomed wagon from the Centre Friends Meeting community some 15 miles southeast is the museum’s primary artifact of the underground railroad, and it too confirms the importance of the Kanawah route. The wagon was preserved by Centre historian Joshua Edgar Murrow (1892-1980), grandson of Andrew Murrow (1820-1908), who with his foster brother Isaac Stanley (1832-1927), used the wagon to transport runaway slaves to Ohio on the Kanawah Road [see http://www.mendenhallplantation.org/Wagon.htm ].

Given the numerous primary sources and confirmation of this route from the heart of Piedmont NC to Ohio and Indiana, and the confirmation of its regular use in underground railroad activities, why is it not listed on the National Park Service websites and maps? Neither is it common knowledge here in North Carolina, and I think both omissions stem from a common source—the fact that the antebellum history of Guilford and Randolph Counties, and its Quaker inhabitants, does not follow the popular “Gone with the Wind” narrative of the antebellum South. Our region was another story, not the romatic lost world of the plantation gentry, but a Shadow South, of abolition and manumission activities, of industry and internal improvements, and steady moral and political opposition to the status quo. Our history is much more nuanced and interesting than the standard black and white (or blue and gray) textbook version, and our culture is lessened by the fact that we forget and ignore the work and sacrifices of the men and women who fought against heavy odds to change the fundamental basis of the society they lived in.

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8 Responses to “The Underground Railroad in Piedmont North Carolina”

  1. katrina Says:

    This information that I never knew before I stumbled upon this site, though it is painful to read about or to see the illustrations of the unjust committed against my people it is still a part of my history and my existance. I am a north carolina resident and I have always seen plantation exhibits but wondered if there was ever any safe haven or a kind act given from anyone to the slaves

  2. Nancy Says:

    I knew the Quakers in the Guilford/Randolph County area were part of the Underground Railroad but this is the first article I’ve seen tracing the route of giving specific names. I have heard that the location of the Biltmore Hotel which was at the corner of High and Elm Streets in High Point was also a station on the Railroad. I’ve also heard that when the Biltmore was torn down, a secret room was found in the basement. I also understand that the hotel was used as a hospital for both Union & Confederate soldiers. I don’t know if this is rumor or historical fact. As this article indicates, everything had to be clandestine.

  3. This weekend: walk the coast, paddle the Piedmont, get educated in the mountains | GetGoing NC! Says:

    [...] State Natural Area near the twin cities of Jefferson/West Jefferson.Saturday, there’s an Underground Railroad Hike exploring the role Mount Jefferson played in helping slaves escape to the north in the 1800s. [...]

  4. R. Whitworth Says:

    As a decendent of the Peter, Joseph and Abner Coffin of Jamestown, NC. I find this a most interesting article.

  5. Wilmington Massacre, Quakers, and A Pink House « Musabee Says:

    [...] The Quakers of North Carolina also played a major role in the Underground Railroad. Their religious doctrine prohibiting the exploitation of other persons: “Quakers and other thoughtful people opposed treating human beings as property on religious, philo… [...]

  6. Peter H. Michael Says:

    Can anyone tell me who is the author of this very interesting article? Thank you.

    Peter Michael, Publisher
    Underground Railroad Free Press

  7. Peter Michael Says:

    Underground Railroad Free Press will have an article on the North Carolina Underground Railroad in our May issue. As you know, information on the Underground Railroad is much harder to come by in the South so we were very glad to come across your very complete WordPress post. Nice work and we encourage you to continue publicizing it. Our article will be one of a series on specific Underground Railroad safe-houses or routes. Can you provide us with an existing location that our readers can research online or visit? You can reply to publisher @urrFreePress.com. Thank you.
    Peter H. Michael, Publisher

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