Underground Railroad Elkhart County


Today's US 33 southeast of downtown Goshen was known as the Goshen Road.

The Goshen-Jefferson-Bristol-Michigan Road

Among the many routes that escaped slaves used to make their way through Indiana to Michigan, Canada and freedom, one important final link was the road between Goshen and Michigan, through Jefferson Center and Bristol—today's SR 15.

In her well researched study of Underground Railroad activity in the Fort Wayne area, Angela Quinn names "the Goshen Road" as one of the important routes north out of Fort Wayne: "through Heller's Corners, the Jeffries Settlement, Ligonier, and Goshen, and then north to Cassopolis, Cass County, Michigan" (27). Quinn includes a map of the southerly part of the Goshen Road, headed north out of Churubusco, and she also mentions Wolf Lake, which is just north of Chrubusco (149). She errs only in naming Cassopolis, rather than Young's Prairie, as the more usual, specific destination in Cass County, Michigan. The long narrative of the escaped slave Jacob (Smith) Cummings says: “I disappeared one night and went to Fort Wayne to Nelson Black, a colored man who looked after fugitive slaves. From there I traveled up northwest to Goshen, in Elkhart County, Indiana, and crossed to West Cassopolis, in Cass County, Michigan. The men in charge there were Zachariah Osborn and old Charlie Osborn, the latter a Quaker preacher” (Siebert). In naming the Osborns, he is referring to Young’s Prairie Quakers. “East Cassopolis” would be a more accurate reference to the Quaker settlement.

Today the “Goshen Road” is still so named in Fort Wayne, as U.S. 33 heads north out of the city toward Goshen. Although going "north to Cassopolis" (and Calvin Center and Penn, MI) would have been more direct through Elkhart, which is also on US 33, Quinn seems to be correct in assuming that slaves went north out of Goshen rather than Elkhart. For instance, Dakin (via Cathcart) assumes that the route through Bristol was the main one. She says, "Frequently fugitives . . . strayed from the direct [i.e., Bristol] road and came through Elkhart, or even as far west as South Bend" (5). She cites Cathcart as saying that "there never was an organized station of the underground railroad in Elkhart" (5), although he does cite several individuals and the occasional help that they gave to escaping slaves. One reason why Elkhart may not have been very important in the Underground Railroad is that SR 19, which goes north into and out of Elkhart, has always been a less important route than SR 15, which leads into and out of Goshen.

Dakin assumes that the Goshen-to-Michigan road also served a second branch route established by Levi Coffin--headed north out of his hometown of Fountain City and passing through "Winchester, Marion, Wabash, Silver Lake, Goshen, Bristol and into Michigan to Detroit" (3). That would be on today's SR15 and SR13. Some Siebert papers also include Lagro and Warsaw as key points in that route. Underground Railroad Research says that by 1840 a "regular route" ran through Richmond and then through North Manchester and Leesburg to Cass County Michigan" (64, 73, 80). Leesburg is on SR 15. North Manchester is on SR 13, a few miles east of SR 15. A map in the notebook, The Underground Railroad in Indiana: A Symposium, published by the Lincoln Museum in Fort Wayne (2000), shows both the US 33 (from Fort Wayne) and the SR 15 routes (from Wabash-Warsaw), although it seems to imply that SR 15 was the more important one.

Documents and maps in the Siebert collection suggest other nearby branches of the Underground Railroad east of the Goshen-Bristol road in northern Indiana: (1) up SR13 through Millersburg to Middlebury and then north to Schoolcraft, Michigan; (2) from Kendallville north to Orland and Howe and then up to Coldwater, Michigan, and on to Detroit on US12 or north to Battle Creek; (3) north out of Fort Wayne on US 27 to Coldwater and Battle Creek. Fremont, Indiana, was also an important link.

In the larger picture of Underground Railroad routes in Indiana, the Goshen-Bristol road probably should be regarded as the final link in the "east" Quaker route to Michigan—with the west Quaker route coming into Indiana from St. Louis through Illinois and heading to Cass County, Michigan, through the Quaker settlement near Laporte in St. Joseph County.

Although there apparently was no Quaker meeting in Elkhart County, the Goshen-Bristol road was a strategic link in Quakers' traveling from Wayne County, Ohio, to Cass County, Michigan—specifically, to the Young's Prairie meeting just west of present-day Penn in Cass County. Young's Prairie was settled by many Quakers with origins in Wayne County, Ohio. Earlier those Quakers (including Levi Coffin) had moved north to Indiana out of the Carolinas and Tennessee because of slave culture and militarization. One of the earliest settlers in Young’s Prairie had to take his grain for milling to Fort Wayne, no doubt using the Goshen Road (CC 243-46). The Young's Prairie, Michigan, “Anti-Slavery” meeting was part of the Richmond, Indiana, Quaker district—and eventually became the home of Charles Osborne, who had been censured by the Richmond Meeting for extremism in the abolitionist cause (CC 261). Levi Coffin himself visited Young's Prairie (CC 111), kept in close contact with Quakers there, once sent a personal emissary (Reminiscences 168-69), and includes a long account in his Reminiscences of a slave-catcher incident in Cass County (366-73). When he went to Young's Prairie, Levi Coffin no doubt traveled on the Goshen-Bristol Road.

Levi Coffin's first cousin Jesse Lynch Williams lived in Fort Wayne by 1832 (Quinn 52). His nephew Micajah White moved to Milford—on SR 15 nine miles south of Goshen—in 1832 (Heighway 5). Owen Coffin, who was active in Bristol, was a third cousin (once removed) of Levi Coffin (Ancestry.com). Owen moved to Bristol directly from Nantucket, the home of the Quaker Coffin clan; Levi's grandfather had moved to North Carolina from Nantucket.

As we shall see in considering the Bristol slave-catcher case, the link between Bristol and the Quakers of Young's Prairie was direct and important. Even though there apparently were few Quakers in Elkhart County, the Goshen-Bristol Road played a strategic role in their project of aiding escaped slaves. The people of Elkhart County may not have been Quakers, but their hearts were in the right place. After all, LaGrange and Elkhart Counties—next-door neighbors--were two of only four counties in the state to vote against excluding new black settlers from the state of Indiana in the referendum of 1851 (Underground Railroad Research 5). As Patrick Furlong put it:

Statewide 84% of the voters favored keeping all Negroes out of Indiana, while in St. Joseph County the vote was much closer, with 53% in favor of exclusion. But in Elkhart County the vote was 486 for exclusion and 786 against, 62% of the voters against the constutional exclusion of persons of color. There was certainly no majority of abolitionists in Elkhart County, but the people who lived here during the 1850’s were certainly less violent in their racial prejudices than most Hoosiers. Only a few, however, dared to break the law in support of a fugitive slave. (18)