Underground Railroad Elkhart County

Map showing the many and varied routes of UGRR travelers.

Thinking Critically About the
Underground Railroad

The Underground Railroad has become a very popular, heroic, mythic part of early American history. Along with its popularity has developed an abundance of beliefs and attitudes that are not supported by historical evidence. Before entering the field, it is important for the enquirer to understand the pitfalls that threaten good understanding of the era and of individuals’ experience in it. This section will identify and discuss how a number of factors may limit or distort one’s understanding of the Underground Railroad.

Oral Tradition. The main problem in documenting the Underground Railroad anywhere is the fact that most of what is known comes from oral history, not manuscripts or contemporary printed sources. Of course, that is entirely understandable, since assisting runaway slaves was against the law, thanks to the Fugitive Slave Acts (1793, 1850), which gave owners the legal right to pursue and re-capture runaways.

The experience of the markers committee of the Elkhart County Historical Society illustrates this problem. In seeking a marker through the Indiana Historical Bureau (IHB) for the Underground Railroad on the Goshen-Bristol road, we found that none of the evidence we had marshaled qualified as documentation in applying for a marker through their Freedom Road program. That evidence included most of the evidence presented in this study. Only evidence in manuscripts or contemporary print sources that clearly proved that people broke the law in assisting runaways was acceptable. Hence, even the somewhat detailed narratives of the Charles Murray family members (see section F) did not count, because they were put into writing by someone who heard them tell their stories. That constitutes second-hand, not primary, evidence.

However, the Bristol slave-catcher legal case, now commemorated by the handsome IHB marker in the park at the intersection of SR 15 and 120, easily qualified because the author Jeanne Miller could use verbatim transcripts from court cases to prove that Bristol citizens had broken the law to assist runaways. The closest that other evidence in this study comes to proving the existence of the Goshen-Bristol Underground Railroad road is the personal narrative by escaped slave Jacob Cummings, who said that he passed through Goshen on his way into Michigan. However, he otherwise gives no details of his experience in Elkhart County.

This home, located on State Road 15, South of Goshen is known as the Penn House. (It was originally owned by the Hess family.) Though rumored to have served as a station along the Underground Railroad, the home was constructed after the Civil War.

Big Houses. The oral, word-of-mouth evidence for the Underground Railroad has resulted in certain kinds of folklore in Underground Railroad studies. One is that certain large brick houses were stations on the Underground Railroad. One such house is the handsome, bow-roof “Penn” house on SR 15 south of Goshen along the Goshen dam pond (2309 S. Main), also known as the “Balser Hess” house. True, apparently it once had a tunnel leading to the Elkhart River bank. But it was not built until about 1860. Another is the Israel Hess House south of Goshen, 66063 US 33 in the Elkhart Prairie, at one time known as Stagecoach Inn. True, it has a basement of unusual design. But it was not built until about 1863. A third is the Solomon Fowler mansion east of Bristol on SR 120 (1105 W. Vistula), which is rumored to have had a long tunnel leading to the St. Joseph River. But, again, it was not built until 1868, three years after the end of the Civil War.

This particular kind of Underground Railroad belief is widespread and fits the principle in folklore studies that legends tend to gather around the largest figure on the horizon. Hence, Americans tell more legendary stories about Abraham Lincoln than about anyone else in American history, because he is the most prominent popular hero for Americans. So it is not surprising that Underground Railroad beliefs accumulate around the most prominent old houses in the area, usually brick, often with weird cellars, sometimes in haunting ruins. The fact is that, especially in northern Indiana, prior to the Civil War most houses were log or frame and have not survived to the present day. And most brick houses were built after the Civil War, as illustrated by the three examples discussed above. A final consideration would be why people would house runaway slaves in the most easily recognized houses in the landscape?

Having questioned the relevance of these brick houses to the local Underground Railroad, one must also notice that it is of course possible that log or frame houses previously stood in the same locations, although no persons from among those property owners, and no actual Underground Railroad incidents associated with those properties, are part of the oral tradition.

Quilt Patches. A second, very recently developed Underground Railroad legend, concerns the use of quilts in guiding runaways north. It developed and spread widely with the publication of the popular book Hidden in Plain View: A Secret Story of Quilts and the Underground Railroad by Jacqueline L Tobin and Raymond G. Dobard. It claims that various kinds of geometric quilt patches, on quilts hung outdoors, were recognized by runaways as telling them which way to go and turn on their trip North. Its origin lies in the claim by Ozella McDaniel Williams from Charlestown, SC, that her family passed on that belief through the years. But it has not been found in the tradition of any other person and family. The inner contradictions of this belief are obvious, and the internet offers many sites that discredit it.

Misleading Metaphors. Certain dubious beliefs have also been created and perpetuated even by the words “underground” and “railroad.” Underground has encouraged the notion that runaways were usually housed in cellars. We have seen evidence for that in the local big-house legends described above. Both the Penn house and the Fowler mansion are associated with tunnels, although the Fowler mansion likely had no such long, long tunnel and it is puzzling to know how the Penn tunnel would have been used in the Underground Railroad. The Israel Hess House has a cellar of unusual design, but many old houses had strangely formed cellars. Of course, runaways sometimes were housed in basement areas, but they were just as likely to be housed in barns, sheds, attics and other above-ground places.

Railroad more unfortunately leads to the thought that the Underground Railroad route north was a fixed route, as is suggested by the early map of the Underground Railroad in Indiana, which uses a wide, black, single line north on the east side of Indiana. It should be seen as a very general indicator. The map that most accurately depicts the Underground Railroad in Indiana offers a more complex, interconnected set of roads that resemble capillaries. Hence, the route through Goshen and Bristol was not the only route north. The Underground Railroad also included routes north through Elkhart, Millersburg-Middlebury, Angola and Fremont, Indiana. Clearly, runaways and their helpers used any available route north to achieve their goal. Notice that naming a place of refuge a “station” and the person in charge a “conductor” further perpetuated the railroad metaphor.

A very helpful discussion of some of the above beliefs and of how to do productive research on the Underground Railroad in Indiana is the article “Escaping Slavery: Discovering Indiana’s Underground Railroad Connection” by Jeannie Regan-Dinius, the staff member in the Department of Natural Resources who is responsible for the “Freedom Road” project in establishing historical markers for the Underground Railroad throughout Indiana, one of which is the slave-catcher marker in Bristol.

Canada, not Michigan. It is a mistaken notion that the goal was to arrive in Michigan, where runaway slaves would be free. True, many runaways found havens in southern Michigan, especially Cass County and Battle Creek, but that was because Michigan was so far from Kentucky and Tennessee that runaways who made it that far north were, in effect free, if not legally free. They were free and beyond re-capture by their owners only when they reached Canada. Windsor, Canada, across from Detroit, became home for many of the runaways who traveled the Goshen-Bristol road.

Romance. As mentioned at the opening of this section, the Underground Railroad has assumed “heroic” and “mythic” associations in American culture. Some of the mistaken notions clarified above show how, for some people, it has also accumulated a kind of “romantic” glow. That is, a sentimental aura from the sense that it represented human beings—especially Northern white Protestants—at their humane, moral and religious best. Narratives also tend to emphasize elements of exciting melodrama (think Eliza escaping across ice floes on the Ohio River) ending in gratifying success. In reality, the Underground Railroad, especially in northern states, was just as much associated with mundane activity and hard work.

For instance, Underground Railroad stories often emphasize violent pursuits and harrowing escapes, which required surreptitious, dangerous travel by night to the next haven. That, of course, was true of slaves traveling through slave states, and even in the southern part of Indiana close to the Ohio River, where runaways were in real danger of being captured. But stories from Elkhart County, as we shall see in Section F, show runaways traveling in broad daylight and enjoying music and other recreations in the open. Of course, the big exception is the occasional travel by bands of slave-owners into the far North to re-capture slaves, as is the case with the slave-catcher incident in Bristol.

Agency. A recent trend in Underground Railroad studies is to re-evaluate the “heroes” in the Underground Railroad. We know the most about, and celebrate the most, the white people who helped runaways escape farther north. And Underground Railroad studies have typically been carried out by white scholars, not African-Americans. Unintentionally, no doubt, the result is that African-Americans have been depicted more as passive victims beholden to white people’s help, and white people as the people who made the decisions and acted heroically. That, of course, is generally true since white people had the power and the money and other resources that the runaways lacked. But it does minimize African-Americans’ planning and self-help, as well as the African-American communities and individuals in the North who also were agents in the Underground Railroad.

For instance, Jacob Cummings narrative (Appendix 1) shows that he also received help from blacks along his way. This study emphasizes the help given to runaways by the Quaker settlement of Young’s Prairie in Cass County, Michigan. But more study is also needed of the help that settled free blacks in the nearby Calvin Center community in Cass County gave to black runaways, probably most of whom came there through the west Quaker route through Illinois into Indiana. In any event, current studies of the Underground Railroad are also being made by African-Americans and tend to emphasize “agency” rather than passive behavior by blacks on the Underground Railroad.