Posts Tagged ‘Guilford County’

The Underground Railroad in Piedmont North Carolina

February 22, 2010


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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Mile Posts and Sign Boards

March 28, 2009


[Published in The Greensborough Patriot, Feb. 3, 1844]

” MILE POSTS, SIGN BOARDS, &C.

Riding across the county of Randolph recently, going and returning over different roads, we had occasion to notice that every mile was marked by a new post, neatly dressed and lettered. A magistrate of the county who was in company informed us that every public road in the county leading from the courthouse, or branching off from any of the courthouse roads, were thus measured and marked.

This brought to mind an order of the county court of Guilford made at August term, 1843, printed and conspicuously posted up at various places, requiring similar services of our overseers of roads to be performed previous to the succeeding term of the court in November. Has this order been attended to all over the county? We made the inquiry lately of some person who had travelled a good deal over the county, and he answered, saying, “sorter–in some places.”

In our sister county of Randolph we were likewise struck with the appearance of the sign boards at the forks of the roads. They were large and legibly lettered, so that he “who runs may read.” They occasioned the indulgence of a melancholy reflection upon the old shingles and strips of clapboards tacked up at various forks of the highway in our old dominion of Guilford, on whose dim and weatherbeaten surface, carved to all appearance with a rusty nail, may be deciphered some such mysterious heiroglyphics as these–“To G B”–“To J T”–“To O S”–“To K K R,” &c.,–meaning, in the opinion of the learned and such has have been brought up in a boarding school, “To Greensborough,” “To Jamestown,” “To Old Salem,” “To Kerner’s Kross Roads,” &c.

All which is nevertheless as intelligible as the red blazonry sewed upon the coat tails of a military company we wot of somewhere in these United States; that is, the letter V on the left skirt and T on the right. Shades of Bonaparte and Wellington! ghosts of Steuben and Lee! what would you suppose these characters, stiched in that conspicuous position, stand for? Why, for VolunTeer, ye bonentition! It is just as plain as that yf spells wife, according to the orthography of Dr. Franklin’s maid; or that &ru Jaxn spells the name of the old hero of the Hermitage, Andrew Jackson.

But we have some how got out of the road subject, owing either to the want of mile posts to show how far we had travelled, or of sign boards to indicate the proper fork to take, or, possibly, unconsciously allured to leave the track and take the field by the splendor of the muster doings…… J. T.”

(This is an English milestone.)

A year before the above article was published, the Justices of the Randolph County Court of Pleas and Quarter Sessions (the antebellum version of the County Commissioners), had ordered mile posts to be erected on all the main roads. Measurements were to begin at the intersection of Main and Salisbury streets in Asheboro (the location of the court house) and run to the county boundaries. It stated that “The number of miles shall uniformly be designated in the same order by the [Roman] numeral letters, I for one mile, V for five miles, X for ten miles, to be cut in the front side or face of posts made of durable wood or stone pillars neatly dressed, and that each and every post or piller shall contain also on some suitable and conspecious [sic] part thereof a number of notches or scores corresponding with the number of miles.” [Randolph County, 1779-1979, p. 63.] (The notches were obviously for those citizens who were unable to read Roman numerals!)

None of the mileposts and signs mentioned by the article above have survived to the present, though Randolph County continues to mark all of its local roads (and even private driveways) with substantial signs. This date from the institution of 911 addressing, begun in the early 1990s.