Underground Railroad Elkhart County

Modern map of the road to Bristol.

The Underground Railroad in Bristol

The town of Bristol is located on the St. Joseph River in Washington Township, about 4.5 miles directly north of Jefferson Center on SR15 and only two miles south of the Michigan boundary.

Bartholomew's research discovered only one person near Bristol (in Washington Township) involved in Underground Railroad activity there—Owen Coffin. However, in his second book of historical essays, Stories and Sketches of Elkhart County (1936), Bartholomew says of Benjamin F. Cathcart of Bristol: "In early life he was a rank abolitionist" (301). Others reported to have been Underground Railroad activists near Bristol were James L. Congdon, Austin Alverson, Samuel Judson (involved in the slave-catcher case), Jesse Adams and Wright Maudlin. Although Dakin reports the names of the Underground Railroad activists in Jefferson Center, and also some in Elkhart (Capt. Orville T. Chamberlain and his father, Dr. David Henry (1838-1910?), B. L. (1824-1896) and John Davenport (1811-98) (5), she does not give the names of any other abolitionists in Bristol—not even that of Owen Coffin. Why did Cathcart not refer to others in his conversation with her? Or why did Dakin not record the Bristol names he gave her?

Benjamin F. Cathcart (1818-1900) was born in Wayne County, Indiana—home of Quaker Levi Coffin and known for its abolitionist activities—and came with his family to Elkhart County in 1830. Goodspeed (765-66) says that "Mr. Cathcart is a Free Thinker and non-sectarian and in politics is Independent." "Free-Thinker" might imply that he was a Quaker or Quaker-inclined, considering his Wayne County origin.

The Cathcarts established a fruit farm on "the Hill" south of Bristol. Benjamin’s third wife Sarah J. Clarkson, sister of his first wife Joanna Calkins, was born in Cass County, Michigan. Chapman said that Cathcart was "a Greenbacker" (1159). Weaver says that his home was "just east of the present schoolhouse in Bristol" (397). In his early years Cathcart taught in the Bristol school. Dakin says that, when she visited him, he lived "upon a large fruit farm two miles southeast of Bristol. Fifty years ago [c. 1849] he lived in a frame house opposite the present L. S. & M. S. depot in Bristol" (3). She implies that it was this house in Bristol that Cathcart used during Underground Railroad activities: "As we looked with interest at the house, while waiting for the train upon our return from an enjoyable call upon Mr. Cathcart and his wife, we saw in imagination the kitchen door softly open and the tired mother and child sink exhausted upon the floor . . ." (3).

Owen Coffin House in Bristol (Third Cousin of Levi Coffin). Owen was of Quaker decent. The house was constructed c1840.

Bartholomew (SS 129), however, says that it was the house on the fruit farm south of Bristol where the Cathcarts harbored escaped slaves:

Some years ago Vernon H. Krider told the writer that Mr. Cathcart's home was one of the stations on the Underground Railroad. Mr. Krider said there were four cellars under the home and that the runaway slaves were concealed in those cellars during the day, to be transported to the next station at night. The Cathcart home was well adapted for this purpose, being located quite a distance from a public road and at that time visited only by those who were interested in his fruits.

No doubt, the "four cellars" refer to winter storage areas for apples and other fruits—but they would also have been easily adapted for housing runaway slaves. Of course, both Dakin and Bartholomew/Krider might be right; the Cathcarts could have harbored fugitives in both residences.

Oddly, though, Dakin says that C. L. Murray's home in Jefferson Center—not Cathcart's near Bristol—was "the last station in Indiana, being but four miles from the Michigan line" (3). In actuality, Cathcart's house must have been "the last station in Indiana," and it was Cathcart's house (not Murray's) that was indeed about "four miles from the Michigan line" (3). Murray's home was over seven miles from Michigan.

Little information is available regarding Owen Coffin (1813-84), who must have been very active in Bristol-area Underground Railroad activity, especially since he was the only one in Washington Township known to Bartholomew as the result of his earliest research. As noted earlier, he was a third cousin (once removed) of Levi Coffin—therefore probably a Quaker but certainly Quaker-influenced. He moved to Elkhart County directly from Nantucket, the home of the large clan of Quaker Coffins. He was a witness to the riot that ensued during the slave-catcher incident, although he later testified on behalf of the defense (Miller 27-28).

Scattered references in Chapman indicate that Coffin was a prominent citizen in Elkhart County. In 1838 he helped finance the new Democrat newspaper in Goshen (607). In 1839 he was a member of the Board of Commissioners (522). By 1843 he had established himself as a merchant with a county-wide distribution network (463). In 1851 he was elected county clerk (524). His frame Greek Revival house still stands on the south side of Vistula Street in Bristol, in grave disrepair. In 1857 he was a charter member of the Pioneers Association, meeting in Goshen (359). No doubt further research will reveal more about this interesting man, his family and their relationship to the Underground Railroad.

James L. Congdon (1816-82), who moved to Bristol from New York, became the founder of a family that is still prominent in Bristol affairs. Congdon Park north of the St. Joseph River is one example. The Congdons were Republicans and members of the Episcopal church in Bristol. He owned property in Bristol as well as "200 acres of land, worth $100,000" (Chapman 1160).

The relationship of Samuel Judson (1800-49) to the Underground Railroad is unclear. He employed the runaway slave involved in the slave-catcher incident. It was his home that the Kentucky slave-catcher broke into. Judson, a merchant, had come to Bristol from Buffalo, New York, in 1834 and had "laid out and recorded the original village of Bristol" (Miller 5). Judson was buried in the St. John's Episcopal Church cemetery. The Judsons have remained a prominent family in Bristol, especially in relation to the Judson orchards south of town on SR 15.

Miller points out that Judson had business dealings with Wright Maudlin (?), a Quaker abolitionist from Cass County, Michigan (27). Maudlin had helped employ runaway Tom Harris in his household. Miller also discovered that, following Samuel Judson's death, his widow and several of his children lived in the home of Samuel (Lemuel) Knight (1841-1933?), Judson's son-in-law. In that home also lived a black girl, Clesta A. Molton, age 15, and a mulatto woman, Clotilla Anderson, age 30 (28).

Currently little is known of Austin Alverson ( ? ), whose home has also been associated with the Underground Railroad in Bristol tradition. Miller points out that Mrs. Emerine Alverson lived with the Knight family, discussed above, in 1850 (Miller 28).

Little is known of Jesse Adams (1820-80), who is identified with the Bristol uggr in the clipping, "A little bit of Bristol History."

Some first- and second-hand accounts of Underground Railroad incidents in Bristol have survived in newspaper clippings. One first-hand report comes from Mrs. Daniel Hout of Middlebury, Indiana, and was published in the column "The Letter Box" in an unnamed, undated newspaper. Rosa (Mrs. Daniel) Hout (m. 1885) was the daughter of Benjamin F. Cathcart, which lends immediacy to Rosa's otherwise general reporting of his and his wife's role in the Underground Railroad:

One of these places of refuge for the escaped black men was just across the Lake Shore tracks in Bristol. I have often heard my mother say it was a frequent occurance [sic] to find a black man on the back steps of her home or in the wood shed; seeking rest and shelter. They were always taken in, fed, and concealed until night, when my father would take them across the line into Michigan where they were free. A slave holder coming north could not arrest him there. . . . [NOTE: Runaways were not free until they reached Canada.] The slaveholder took to bringing bloodhounds with him and at convenient places a sack of onions was placed to rub on their feet by runaway slaves and throw the hounds off scent. [It is unlikely that hounds pursued runaways as far north as Bristol.]

On one occasion a slave was concealed in an old cooper shop that stood near the old school house in Bristol. It was planned that while they were arguing in the front room the slave was taken out the back door to freedom. . . . 

The house referred to in the first paragraph must have been the same Cathcart house in Bristol seen and described by Dakin.

A second clipping, "A little bit of Bristol History," from an unnamed, undated newspaper, also refers to the Cathcart house:

The need for haste and secrecy diminished as the Michigan line drew near and the fugitives felt so secure near Goshen and Bristol that they grew light-hearted and many a time the Cathcart home in 1849, a farmhouse opposite the L.S. and M.S. depot, rang with happy songs from a dozen or more fugitive slaves.

A third report is contained in a mimeographed “History of Bristol” [1961], attributed to William R. Nicholson, lawyer, and Janet Clinger and Jane Landis (punctuation and paragraphing improved). Although it comes from Bristol, it actually is a version of the reminiscence of Emmeline Sigerfoos, the daughter of Charles L. Murray of Jefferson Center:

On a dark and rainy night, a covered wagon drawn by two tired horses was stopped in front of Mr. [Charles L.] Murray’s house a short distance from Bristol. The arrival of fugitives was not unusual, but this group consisted of four generations and had a most interesting story to tell. They were owned by a wealthy planter in Kentucky who had one son and two daughters married to Kentuckyians. The planter had repeatedly told the faithful family of slaves that he would free them on his death. And when he knew the end was approaching, he made out the necessary papers and placed them securely away to await his death. His son and daughter shared his desire to free the slaves, but his son-in-law bitterly opposed the step, and upon [the] death of the planter resolved to have the papers revoked by law, and claimed the slaves as part of the estate, and planned to sell them down the river, and to this end they secured the manipulated documents.

No entreaties from the sons and daughters could move them from their purpose. It was useless to appeal to public sentiment, or to resist the process of law, for public sentiment was entirely in favor of the son-in-laws, and not one in the neighborhood would have refused to aid them in accomplishing their purpose. 

At last, one of the daughters resolved in a bold step. The place of the planter’s burial was a distance of several miles, and would occupy the better part of two days to go and return. The daughter, upon some plausible pretext, remained at home instead of going along, and she went to the slaves’ quarters and told the aged man to hitch a wagon to two of the best horses, gave them provisions and clothing and hastened them to the best of their ability to hurry northward as fastly as possible. Upon the return of the funeral party, the slaves, terrified at the thought of losing their sighted freedom, and afraid that they would be sent down the [Ohio] river, were well on their way, traveling by night and hiding by day in the thickets and forests, trembling at the sound of a falling leaf or a snapping twig, they finally reached Ohio. They were assisted across the [Ohio] river by one of the many Abolitionists on the Northern bank. They pushed on, meeting kind helpers and breathing more freely as they passed unmolested, often traveling by day in sparsely settled regions. Upon arriving at Abner Blue’s, just this side of Goshen, and after a brief rest, they decided to push on to Mrs. Murray’s. Here they kept over Sunday, occupying the barn, and then they passed on and came through Bristol, on to Michigan.