Underground Railroad Elkhart County

Levi Coffin's (above) memories have been collected in the work "Reminiscense of Levi Coffin." His work on the Underground Railroad is covered in detail.

Survey and Evaluation of Sources for Research in Elkhart County

Many sources discussed here are in the library of the Elkhart County Historical Museum.

The most impressive source is the research paper written by Jeanne Miller, a retired lawyer from New Haven, Indiana.  She wrote "The Slave Catcher Trial in Elkhart County, Indiana" in December 1997 for the course "Sectionalism and the Civil War" taught by Prof. Jerry Prokopowicz at IUPUFW.  It is a thorough study that is grounded in primary sources (some presented verbatim in appendices) and sustains a critical attitude throughout.  It is probably the "last word" on the subject of the Bristol slave-catcher case and served as the main documentation for the Freedom Trail marker commemorating that case, erected in 2006 in the Bristol park at SR15 and SR120, sponsored by the Indiana Historical Bureau and the Elkhart County Historical Society. 

The earliest reliable source on the Underground Railroad itself is the paper "The Underground Railroad" written by Esse Bissell Dakin for a meeting of the Northern Indiana Historical Society of South Bend on April 29, 1899.  Although it deals mainly with the Underground Railroad in St. Joseph County, it includes a section on Elkhart County.  Dakin makes it clear (p. 3) that her information on Elkhart County came from her interview with B. F. Cathcart and his wife at their home near Bristol.  The Cathcarts had been very active in Underground Railroad activities in Bristol.  Although she gives a weak account of the slave-catcher case, she lists the names of other Underground Railroad participants in Jefferson Center and Elkhart, as well as an incident from Jefferson Center as remembered by Mrs. Emeline Sigerfoos, daughter of C. L. Murray, the best known abolitionist in Elkhart County (4).

The most direct discussion of the subject is by H. S. K. Bartholomew, president of the Elkhart County Historical Society, who wrote the chapter, "The Underground Railroad," in his Pioneer History of Elkhart County (1930).  A version of the essay had been published several years earlier as a column in The Goshen News.  Bartholomew makes it clear that his information came from an interview "several years ago" with Gordon N. Murray, son of C. L. Murray, the abolitionist.  Gordon Murray was editor of a newspaper in Nappanee.  His father edited papers in Goshen, Warsaw, Indianapolis and Chicago and his brother Charles T. was also a journalist in Washington and New York.  The recollections of a family of activist journalists seem reliable, especially since they are supported by other materials.

Many resources on the Underground Railroad can be found in the research library at the Elkhart County Historical Museum.

Bartholomew's chapter was preceded by his article, "'Underground Railway' Station Disappears in Gardner Fire," in the February 23, 1927 Goshen Daily Democrat [henceforth, "Democrat"].  In it he points out that he heard Murray talk about his Underground Railroad work in a public meeting in 1884.  The news story includes two first-person accounts by Mrs. Emmeline Sigerfoos, daughter of Murray and great-niece (by marriage) of Charles Osborne, the Quaker abolitionist.  Notice that the DNR publication of WPA gleanings of Underground Railroad activity throughout Indiana says that the compiler Donald W. Lee was able to "verify" (39) the information given by Bartholomew.  Some additional information on Underground Railroad activity is included in Bartholomew's second book of essays, Stories and Sketches of Elkhart County (1936) (henceforth, "SS").

Other early publications on Elkhart County history give general biographical information on people associated with the Underground Railroad in Elkhart County.  They will be referred to in the survey given below with the short titles of:  Atlas, Bartholomew, Chapman (publisher), Deahl, Goodspeed (publisher), Weaver.

Authoritative sources that give useful, random facts include publications by the Indiana Historical Bureau and Indiana DNR  Their short titles are:  Bury Me in a Free Land (Crenshaw); Underground Railroad: The Invisible Road; The Underground Railroad . . . In Fort Wayne (Quinn); Underground Railroad Research in Selected Counties.  These papers were written by persons in the loosely related research network encouraged by the DNR and the Indiana Historical Bureau.

A key source for understanding Elkhart County in the larger context—the Quaker route from Wayne County, Indiana (Fountain City) to Cass County, Michigan (Young’s Prairie)--is History of Cass County Michigan (henceforth, "CC") with its chapters on The Underground Railroad and Penn and Calvin Townships.  This source is especially important for seeing how the Bristol slave-catcher incident was related to others in southern Michigan.  Levi Coffin's Reminiscences is also relevant for its scattered comments on Cass County.  See also the 2-page typed manuscript , “Route Slip:  Underground Railroad Tour” for specific locations associated with the Underground Railroad in Cass County.”

Miscellaneous items in vertical files at the Elkhart County Historical Society Museum and Archives in Bristol, Indiana, include documentation of surviving residences associated with the Underground Railroad in Bristol, as well as a report of one Underground Railroad incident in Bristol by Mrs. Daniel Hout, daughter of B. F. Cathcart, the most active abolitionist in Bristol.

The largest set of relevant sources are the papers in the Wilbur H. Siebert Collection at the Ohio Historical Society in Columbus. In the early 1900s Siebert contacted many people to obtain facts and reminiscences about the Underground Railroad.  An index of all papers in the collection is available online.  The most important paper for Elkhart County is the long narrative by runaway Jacob (Smith) Cummings in Appendix 1.  Many other references confirm the various routes leading to Goshen and other nearby northern locations.  Only Dr. Matchett is specifically named in the Siebert papers as an active participant in the Underground Railroad in Elkhart County.  Print-outs of relevant papers—those mentioning Goshen and other northern Indiana towns and cities--have been deposited in the library at the Elkhart County Historical Museum.

Finally, Elkhart County should be seen in the larger contexts of the lives and service of the two outstanding Indiana Quaker abolitionists, Levi S. Coffin of Fountain City and Charles Osborn of Richmond and, later, Young’s Prairie, Michigan.  Coffin’s Reminiscences is available in book form; Osborn’s book is available complete online.  Osborn’s is especially important for understanding the haven that so many runaways through Goshen, including Jacob Cummings, were headed for.