June 13, 2009

Randolph County History

Randolph County and the War Between the States
Part 3: The Underground Railroad

by Jerry Hilgenberg

This week we feature some of our classmates’ connections to the Civil War, along with some background information on the “Underground Railroad”.  The “Underground Railroad” was a network of escape routes, transportation, safe houses, supplies and methods used by abolitionists to help southern slaves escape to freedom.

Dan Thornburg:  My Family’s Participation in the Civil War 

Shallow-bottom wagon displayed at the Levi Coffin house, donated by Marvin Thornburg in 1969.

There were 89 Thornburg‘s registered with the Indiana Militia during the Civil War.  None of which are my direct ancestors.  Well, you ask, if this is true, what was your family’s participation in the “Civil War”?

I descend from a long line of Thornburg’s who have been Quakers since this religious sect was founded in the mid 1600’s.  “Quakers” is actually a nickname given to the followers of George Fox.  Officially,  we are called “ The Society of  Friends” or just “Friends”.

Quakers, as a whole, are pacifists.  They do not believe in taking arms against one’s brothers.  They do, and did, however, participate in war via peacemaking, life giving duties (chaplains, medics, doctors, etc.).

Charles Thornburgh, my great grandfather to the 9th  (born about 1645 in Methop, England) was a member of the Church of England until he met George Fox.  He immediately forsook the Church of England in favor of the Friends.

His son, Robert immigrated to Ireland because of religious and political oppression and settled in the Cootehill area in about 1686.  Robert’s son, Edward, immigrated to America about 1717 for the same reasons his father had left England.  After arriving in America, he settled in Pennsylvania.

Joseph, the son of Edward, was born in Pennsylvania about 1728 and later moved to North Carolina.  Edward’s son, Isaac, was born in Guilford County, North Carolina in 1773.  He later moved to Highland County Ohio.

Joab (born 1795), Isaac’s son, was born in Ohio.  Joab’s son, Isaac William, was also born in Ohio in 1822.  Isaac, Joab and Isaac William all moved to Randolph County, Indiana about 1824.

One of the primary beliefs of the Society of Friends is that a direct experience with God is available to all people.  This included slaves.   Therefore, in the late 1600’s, Quakers began to free the slaves they held.  This idea was not accepted by all Americans at the time, especially in North Carolina where a lot of Quakers had settled.  Therefore, many Quakers relocated to the free states of Ohio and Indiana.

In 1969, my grandfather, Marvin, donated a false-bottomed wagon to the Levi Coffin House Museum in Fountain City, Indiana (a station along the Underground Railroad).  He became aware of this wagon while “shucking” corn with his grandfather, Joab Alexander, the son of Isaac William.  This wagon was used to transport runaway slaves by hiding them in a secret compartment.  The age of this wagon was authenticated by David Swartz and Son of Berne, Indiana as they had been hired to restore the wagon in 1969.  They stated that this was by far the oldest wagon they had ever seen.

This wagon was also featured in a documentary filmed by the History Channel in 2001, called, “Secret Passages“.  The segment was filmed on location at the Levi Coffin House, and several minutes of the broadcast highlighted the construction and use of this wagon.

There were no written records of the participants in the Underground Railroad.  It was illegal to house or transport runaway slaves.  Anyone participating could be arrested and imprisoned. Therefore, I have no proof that my great, great, great grandparents or my great, great, great, great grandparents were conductors on the Under Ground Railroad.  But, I will always remember the pride in my grandfather’s voice as he spoke to me about the Underground Railroad.

The Levi Coffin House

In his family story, Dan explains why many Quakers from North Carolina ultimately picked-up and moved their families to the Midwest.  Abolitionist beliefs were not well-accepted in North Carolina ---- particularly from the piedmont area on east to the coast --- so many Quaker families resettled to Indiana and Ohio, where they escaped the institution of slavery, and found better farmland in the bargain.

One of the Quakers to migrate from North Carolina was Levi Coffin and his wife, Catharine, with their young son.  Levi Coffin was born in Guilford County, North Carolina, in 1798.  He married Catharine White in 1824, and in 1826 they relocated to the village of Newport, Indiana (now Fountain City) in northern Wayne County.

Shortly after the Coffins relocated to Newport, Levi Coffin learned that many escaped slaves passed through the area on their way to Canada.  There was a small community of free blacks nearby that provided assistance to the escapees, and Levi Coffin joined in their efforts.

The Levi Coffin House and Museum, shown below, was constructed in 1839.  It was originally an 8-room house built in the “Federal” style.

Levi Coffin House, Fountain City, Indiana

Levi and Catharine housed up to 17 escaped slaves at one time, and in the 20 years they lived in Newport it is said they helped over 2,000 slaves escape to Canada.

Slaves were often transported by wagon, carriage, or on horseback.  Traveling at night, most just walked, covering up to 20 miles. Winter was the most popular season for escapes because of the shorter daylight hours. The cold weather also meant fewer people out and about.

Levi and Catharine would keep runaway slaves at their home, providing them with food, water, clothing and medical assistance.  Those who were in good health were sent on as soon as possible; others might remain in the Coffin home for several days or weeks if they arrived in ill health.

Levi Coffin ultimately became known as the “President” of the Underground Railroad.  He worked to spread abolitionism and helped create abolitionist societies in Indiana and Ohio.

He found other like-minded people in Newport and the surrounding area and convinced them to help him and Catharine in their work.

Levi Coffin made another important contribution to the Abolitionist Movement.  He was the owner of a successful store in Newport that featured Free Labor Goods.  “Free Labor Goods” were goods that were produced using non-slave labor.  He worked with other abolitionists in the east and pretty soon Free Labor Goods were being featured in stores as far away as New York.  In 1847, Levi and Catharine moved to Cincinnati to open a Free Labor Goods store there, but the house in Newport remained in their possession until they sold it in 1860.  In Cincinnati, they continued their work and helped up to 1,300 more slaves escape.

The Levi Coffin House was named a National Historic Landmark in 1965, and was purchased by the state of Indiana in 1967.  It has been operated as a museum since 1969, and is a site well worth visiting along the road between Winchester and Richmond.  June through August the museum is open afternoons, 1 to 4 pm, Tuesday – Saturday.

The photos shown here are from the following excellent web site about the Levi Coffins:  http://www.waynet.org/levicoffin/default.htm.

Emojean Moorman Brindel: The Moorman Family in Early Randolph County

The History of early Randolph County is entangled in the abolitionist movement and the civil war.

In 1816, The Moorman, Diggs and Way families, abolitionist Quakers from Richmond, North Carolina, sent a scouting party to the twelve mile territory to find a spot to bring their families.  They chose an area that sits between what is now Farmland and Winchester.  In 1818, the families came in covered wagon across the Cumberland Gap and settled into the area.

Over the next two generations, the families established a strong economic, political and social base for the Underground Railroad.    Moorman Way was the area lawyer who represented in court any slave that was captured.  It is the oral tradition in the family that he never lost a case.

John Moorman was a member of the Indiana state legislature.  In 1861, when the legislature had enough votes to vote to secede from the union, John and several other state senators went into hiding in the underground rail road system to prevent a quorum from being formed, thus preventing the secessionist vote from being able to occur. 

John Moorman and others from the area worked hand-in-hand with Governor Morton to support the efforts of the Union.

(Editor’s note: The Bethel AME Church, shown above, was a major depot in the Underground Railroad system.  We might speculate that this church was one of the “hiding places” used by John Moorman and his friends.)

The Civil War monument in the Winchester town square was placed there by the Moorman family to honor those who fought for peace and justice through both the taking up of arms, and the laying down of their lives and fortunes.

The Thornburg, Coffin and Moorman families were all friends from back in North Carolina.   My family financed the site and did the legal work for that branch.

My dad called them Aunt Katie and Uncle Levi (my dad was born in 1906).

Harriet Tubman

One of the most famous and successful “conductors” on the Underground Railroad was an escaped slave named Harriet Tubman.  She was born into slavery in Maryland in 1820 with the given name of Araminta Ross, and was commonly known as “Minty”. 

Minty was very badly treated as a child.  At one point, she took a severe blow to the head that left her unconscious for two days.  She never received medical attention, and was subject to seizures and “blackouts” for the rest of her life.  Like many slaves, Minty was deeply religious and when, after the incident, she started having vivid dreams and “awakenings” she considered these episodes to be leadings from God.

Minty married a free black man named John Tubman in 1844, and changed her name to Harriet.  Marriages between slaves and free people were common in Maryland, where about half of the black population was free.  They were probably planning to raise enough money to buy Harriet’s freedom; in the meantime, however, the law said that any children would follow the status of their mother --- meaning her children would be slaves.

By 1849, Harriet had decided to take the matter of her freedom into her own hands.  “There was one of two things I had a right to, liberty or death; if I could not have one, I would have the other.”[1]  Late in September, she and her brothers Harry and Ben ran away and headed for Pennsylvania.  Their owner, Eliza Brodess, advertised a reward of up to $100 for the return of each slave if they were captured outside of Maryland; $50 for each slave captured within Maryland.

Her brothers soon experienced doubts about leaving their wives and children behind, and decided to turn back.  They made Harriet go back with them.

The next time she decided to escape, Harriet left her brothers behind.

Traveling alone at night, following the North Star, and using the resources of the Underground Railroad network, she ultimately found herself in Pennsylvania.  “When I first crossed that line, I looked at my hands to see if I was the same person.  There was such a glory over everything.”[2]

In 1850, Congress toughened the Fugitive Slave Law --- imposing harsh penalties on people who were aiding escapees, forcing authorities in free states to cooperate with “Slave Catchers” and making it dangerous for escaped slaves to remain in the free states.  This resulted in many escaped slaves going on to Canada and made the practice of bounty-hunting even more lucrative for the “Slave Catchers”.

Harriet quickly made connections in Philadelphia.  Motivated by her family’s situation back in Maryland, the harshness of the Fugitive Slave Law, and her belief that she was acting under divine guidance, she determined to go back to Maryland and bring out her family.  Late in 1850, she went to Baltimore and hid with her husband John’s brother.  A few days later, her niece Kessiah’s family stole away to Baltimore, and Harriet led them back to Pennsylvania.

She made additional trips to Maryland in 1850 and 1851, bringing out family members and others, until she returned to Maryland in late 1851 to bring out her husband John.  However, John had remarried and opted to remain with his new wife, so Harriet found some other slaves who wanted to escape and led them out to Pennsylvania.  In December, 1851, she led a group of 11 escaped slaves to Canada, staying at the home of former slave and well-known Abolitionist Frederick Douglass.

All told, Harriet Tubman made nineteen trips into the south and helped upwards of 300 people escape to freedom between 1849 and 1860.   Her adventures encouraged others, and she gained more and more confidence with each trip.  Harriet quickly became known by the nickname “Moses” after the Old Testament prophet who led the Hebrews to freedom.  Late in life, she told people, “I was conductor on the Underground Railroad for eight years, and I can say what most conductors can’t say:  I never ran my train off the track and I never lost a passenger.”[3]

She always carried a gun, to protect herself from the Slave Catchers and their dogs.  The gun also enforced discipline; nobody who signed-on to leave with Harriet was allowed to turn back. 
When one of her “passengers” had a change of heart, and wanted to turn back, she would threaten with the gun, saying, “You’ll live FREE or die.”

Harriet Tubman led a full life.  After the Civil War started, she worked as a nurse in coastal South Carolina, and following emancipation in 1863, became the first woman to lead a military assault during the war.  Later in life, she organized with Susan B. Anthony for Women’s Suffrage, and started a home for “aged and indigent colored people” in her adopted home town of Auburn, New York.  Harriet Tubman never received a penny for her work during and after the war, and though rich in experiences, she lived in poverty.  Harriet Tubman died of pneumonia in 1913, in the rest home she established.

Greg Hahn: Underground Railroad Station in Winchester?

I did have distant relatives who fought in the Civil War but weren't from Indiana. My Mother’s family are from Virginia-Kentucky and my Dad’s family from Portland, Indiana.  So nothing on that subject.

However, on the underground railroad side, our house which was built in 1853 was supposedly used by the underground railroad up and thru the Civil War. We were not totally sure but we had a number of folks from the County come out over the years and tell us that.

After some research, I have found there is confirming information at the Indiana State Library about our house with a picture taken in the mid to late 1860's.  The information confirms that there is a very strong likelihood that the house was used for the Underground Railroad and was the next stop after Levi Coffin's home.  The next stop was supposedly somewhere south of Portland and then  Ft. Wayne.  Our house, like the Coffin house, has a large cistern in the basement and several recessed areas under the floors which, until all this came up, we couldn't figure out why they was there!!!

Also, the house and barns were used by the Union Army as it's headquarters for that entire area of Eastern Indiana and Western Ohio. The location next to the main Railroads of the New York Central and the B & O Railroad, made it an ideal location. Our barns still have horse stalls for many horses and we also had a very large commercial scale which was used by the Army to weigh feed etc. it was buying from the local farmers for the horses and other livestock.  Dad and Randy have the original scale weights etc. which are dated before the Civil War.


  1. Photos of shallow bottom wagon, Levi Coffin House, bedroom, and basement well, all published on the website http://www.waynet.org/levicoffin/default.htm   by WayNet.org and the Levi Coffin House Association.
  2. Photo of Bethel AME Church published by the National Park Service at http://www.nps.gov/nr/travel/underground/in1.htm
  3. Map of Routes of the Underground Railroad from Wikipedia Commons at http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/File:Undergroundrailroadsmall2.jpg and first published in 1895.
  4. Newspaper advertisement, and undated photos of Harriet Tubman, from Wikipedia and taken from the site http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Harriet_Tubman#cite_note-QBra19-41
  5. Photo of the Hahn home in Winchester courtesy of Fred Lawson.

 Quotations from Harriet Tubman:

  1. Quoted on Wikipedia from Bradford, Sarah, Harriet Tubman: The Moses of Her People.  New York: Corinth Books, 1961.
  2. Quoted on Wikipedia from Bradford, Sarah, Scenes in the Life of Harriet Tubman.  Freeport: Books for Libraries Press, 1971.
  3. Quoted on Wikipedia from Clinton, Catherine, Harriet Tubman: The Road to Freedom.  New York: Little, Brown and Company, 2004.


Indiana State Museum Historic Sites, “Levi Coffin Home,” http://www.in.gov/ism/StateHistoricSites/LeviCoffinHome/index.aspx (accessed May 9, 2009).

National Park Service, “Aboard the Underground Railroad: Bethel AME Church”, http://www.nps.gov/nr/travel/underground/in1.htm (accessed May 10, 2009).

National Park Service, “Aboard the Underground Railroad: Levi Coffin House”, http://www.nps.gov/nr/travel/underground/in2.htm (accessed May 10, 2009).

WayNet Community Network Association, “Levi Coffin House: Grand Central Station of the Underground Railroad”,  http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Underground_Railroad (accessed May 11, 2009).

Wikipedia contributors, “Harriet Tubman,” Wikipedia, The Free Encyclopedia, http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Harriet_Tubman#cite_note-QBra19-41 (accessed May 10, 2009).

Wikipedia contributors, “The Underground Railroad,” Wikipedia, The Free Encyclopedia, http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Underground_Railroad (accessed May 10, 2009).

We invite class members to share information about ancestors who participated in the Civil War and/or Underground Railroad.  This information will be posted on the site June 27, 2009.  Please forward your information to the webmaster.  Thank you.