Underground Railroad Elkhart County

A map showing Calvin Center and Penn in Cass County Michigan (just north of Bristol, Indiana). Calvin Center was where a number of free slaves settled

The Michigan Connection

Discussions of the Underground Railroad activity in Indiana often end with the Michigan border. However, the close proximity of The Bristol Road to Michigan makes necessary an understanding of what happened once the fugitives reached the state line. Indeed, studying activity in Cass County and beyond adds important information to what we know about the Elkhart County Underground Railroad—and especially the larger context of the Elkhart County slave-catcher incident.

One mile north of the Michigan line near Bristol is today's route US12, which in the early nineteenth century was a stagecoach route between Detroit and Chicago. Some fugitives, upon reaching US 12, traveled on it to Detroit and crossed into Canada and freedom (Quinn 118).

Other slaves continued twelve miles west and north of the state line, across US 12-- probably through Union, Michigan—toward Young's Prairie, the Quaker settlement located a bit west of the present-day village of Penn in Penn Township of Cass County. As mentioned before, Young's Prairie Quakers were very active in Abolitionism in general and in helping fugitive slaves make their way toward freedom. Often that meant sending them on to Battle Creek and then to the crossings into Canada at Detroit or farther north at Port Huron. Charles Osborn, the Indiana abolitionist of a similar stature to Levi Coffin, sought refuge in the Young’s Prairie area when he was silenced by the executive committee of the Richmond, IN Meeting for Suffering (executive committee) in 1838. After 1842 he lived in Penn, where he owned a grocery store, was postmaster and was a leader in the “Young’s Prairie Anti Slavery Society of Friends.” His son-in-law James Bodine gave 1500 acres of land for former slaves, at 5 acres apiece. Or runaways became hired hands of Quaker landowners.

The activity in Penn and Young’s Prairie has in recent years been associated more with the village of Vandalia, Michigan, two miles south of Penn on route M60.. The population of today’s Vandalia is predominantly African-American, and a large historical marker along the highway commemorates Underground Railroad activity in that area.

In 2001-02 the Anthropology Department at Western Michigan University in Kalamazoo conducted excavations in “Ramptown,” the area where some fugitive slaves settled in Young’s Prairie. They found 1143 artifacts from dwellings at 12 sites—nails, horseshoes, animal skeletons and pieces of glass, pottery and bricks.. Some of the artifacts are displayed in the Underground Railroad exhibit at the museum at Southwestern Michigan College near Dowagiac. (South Bend Tribune 10-04-05.)

Old African American church at Calvin Center. The community has a retained a large population of African-Americans since the mid-1800s.

Cass County's reputation for helping slaves is also associated with the Calvin Center community in Calvin Township, just below Penn Township. That unusual farming community of blacks, which still exists today, was not composed of fugitive slaves but of the descendants of emancipated slaves whom the Quakers of Calvin and Penn Townships helped to settle there (CC 387). Those blacks may indeed also have helped fugitives, but Quaker efforts on behalf of fugitives were centered in Penn Township, not Calvin Township.
For a very specific connection between Young's Prairie and the history of the Underground Railroad in Elkhart County, one must turn to the raiding party of Kentuckians that entered southern Michigan in 1847. Thirteen of them headed for Battle Creek to seize their human property but were thwarted there on August 1, 1847. One of them was John L. Graves, sheriff of Bourbon County, Kentucky, who possibly was a brother of the accused, Joseph A. Graves, in the Bristol case (Wilson 418). (Joseph Graves is not named in the Battle Creek records.) "Upon leaving Battle Creek they had driven southward into Indiana, and rendezvoused at Bristol" (CC 111), where they stayed one or two days. In the cover of night they then left for Cass County, via Porter Township, and stopped at Calvin Center. "It was their intention to kidnap the negroes in Calvin and Penn, and retreat as quickly as possible to Bristol" (CC 111). The raiding party at Young’s Prairie included Joseph Graves, a principal in the Bristol slave-catcher case. (See the “Time Line of Slavery, Resistance and Freedom” on the “History, Arts and Libraries” pages of Michigan.gov.) After seizing some slaves, "The company of raiders now turned southward to effect a retreat into Indiana" (CC 112). However, they were stopped and brought before a judge in Cassopolis, who decided against their right to apprehend the fugitives. The slave-catching, or the judge's decision, occurred on August 16, 1847. Subsequently, they made their "return south" (CC 114), no doubt through Bristol and Goshen.         

Of course, what makes these raids important for Elkhart County is their dates. The slave-raiders were stopped in Battle Creek on August 1, 1847. On August 27, 1847 the Cass County incident was mentioned—with the Bristol incident--in the St. Joseph Valley Record, published in South Bend. The Bristol slave-catcher incident, involving Kentuckians, occurred only nineteen days later than the Battle Creek incident, on August 20, 1847. The Cass County incident is dated August 16, 1847. The Bristol raid was carried out by members of the same posse who headed for Battle Creek and Calvin Township. Was the Bristol incident one final attempt by the Kentuckians, following their defeat in Calvin, to redeem their long trip north by re-capturing at least one runaway? Or had some of the Battle Creek slave-catchers stayed behind in Bristol while others went to Cass County? None of the three Kentuckians named in the Bristol case—Elisha Coleman, James Graves, Hugh Longmore—were named in the Battle Creek case, although six unnamed men were also involved there. Possibly the three Bristol slave-catchers were among the unnamed persons in Battle Creek. They may have been two separate groups or, more likely, one group divided into different posses for the nonce.

A modern reminder on the landscape of the Underground Railroad and Quaker history. Quaker street leads into Penn, MI.

All of these attempted seizures of fugitive slaves ended up in courts—first, in local courts, where the slave-catchers were always convicted on the basis of local law; later, on appeal, in higher courts, where federal laws associated with the Fugitive Slave Act were invoked and local Underground Railroad people were convicted. In Young’s Prairie, a son of Charles Osborn was given such a heavy fine for resisting the slave-catchers that he went bankrupt and moved West. Jeanne Miller suggests that these court cases may have influenced the harsher provisions of the second Fugitive Slave Act of 1850.

Miller points out that the Bristol slave-catcher incident may have been part of a larger foray north by slave-catchers from Kentucky. She cites a report in the National Anti-Slavery Standard, dated November 4, 1847 that:

a band of Kentucky kidnappers, numbering about sixty, were organized and fitted out with teams and arms. The kidnappers divided into smaller groups, three or four in each group. . .. They seized colored men and women and children wherever they could be found. They would begin their diabolical work just before the break of day, being armed with carbines, pistols, dirks, etc. They entered simultaneously a number of dwellings, dragging the sleeping inmates from their beds, and confining them in irons. (24-25)

This report of raiders and their tactics is a general one, following by about two months the raids in Bristol and southern Michigan, described above. The description fits the Bristol incident, which may have been part of this particular raiding party's earlier work in southern Michigan and northern Indiana. (A transcript of testimony by Judson in the trial of Graves suggests that defendant Graves "had another pistol at Middlebury," which implies that there might have been a similar incident about five miles east of Bristol, too.)

All evidence suggests that the Goshen-Bristol Road was so well used and well known that even slave-catchers knew about it and used it to carry out their sinister work in Indiana and Michigan.