Underground Railroad Elkhart County


Jefferson Township, Pine Creek (looking east). Many of the Jefferson Twp Residents connected to UGRR lived near this creek and south of it.

The Underground Railroad near Jefferson Center

Today "Jefferson" is a sprawling bedroom community located at the intersection of SR 15 and CR 20, about 2.5 miles north of Goshen. There is a flashing traffic light, with Jefferson Elementary School on the northwest corner and the Jefferson Township Fire Station on the southeast corner. A bit south of that intersection is Pine Creek, which goes almost unnoticed today, through the old trailer park and the new Broadmore Estates development. The early settlers involved in the Underground Railroad lived along this creek, about a mile west of the school. CR 20 between CR23 and SR15 had not yet been created, so the creek served as a link eastward to SR15 and Jefferson Center, which has always been the site of the township school.

Following his "several years" of investigation, Bartholomew described Underground Railroad activity in this area, involving the families of Charles L. Murray (discussed above), Abner Blue, William Martin, James G. Mitchell, and Col. Henry G. Davis. The 1861 plat map for Elkhart County indicates the location of each family’s property, most of them in a cluster near the present Pleasant View Mennonite Church.

The Charles L. Murray family welcomed runaway slaves to their log house, located (presumably) across from the Jefferson school about five houses north of the flashing light at Jefferson Center. As already mentioned in Section E, the original log house was replaced with a frame house in 1862, closer to the road, eventually owned by the Edward H. Gardner family. It burned down in 1927 and was replaced by a "modern bungalow" (PH, 274-5). Following Bartholomew's research on the Underground Railroad, the Elkhart County Historical Society erected a marker there, commemorating Murray's role in the Underground Railroad, although it has since disappeared. (Notice in the “Goshen” section above that Murray may actually have lived in the southwest corner of the intersection of SR 15 and Old US 20.)

Bartholomew said that Murray "was more active in the abolition movement than any of the other men [in Jefferson Township]" (PH 175), and his home was "the most prominent of these underground stations" (PH 174), perhaps partly because his home was "on one of the main thoroughfares of the county" (Ph 175). Two first-person anecdotes survive, told by Murray's daughter Emeline (Mrs. Sigerfoos) to Bartholomew and included in Bartholomew's report of the burning of the Murray-Gardner house in 1927 in the Feb. 23, 1927 issue of the Goshen Daily Democrat (punctuation as found):

Two very tall colored men came to the house one afternoon when I was alone. I invited them in, asking them what they wanted. 'Little Missy, could you give us something to eat?' Telling them to sit down, I went to the kitchen and finding nothing in the way of bread but some cold breakfast cakes, I returned and told them. Oh! Missy, just anything, we will be glad for the cakes. I gave the poor fellows everything I could find and sent them on their way rejoicing after they had thanked "little Missy" over and over again. Mother certainly found the cupboard bare when she came home."

When asked whether she was not afraid when the two colored men made their appearance, she replied, that she was not in the least. So many negroes had stopped there and had been befriended and aided by her father that she had become accustomed to seeing them and looked upon their coming as a matter of course.

The other incident related by Mrs. Sigerfoos is this: "One Saturday evening just after sunset, a 'schooner' drawn by a pair of fine horses drew up at the gate. It proved to be a whole family of house servants from "down in Kentucky," packed in with household goods. They drove into the barn. After they found that mother was from Frankfort and had been used to slaves the old mammy told their story. "The old master in dying had set them free. There were two children, a son and a daughter. The son, at home, wished to carry out his father's will, but the daughter's husband served notice that he would claim the house servants in his wife's name. He lived some distance away and this gave the son time to get a team, load up the servants and goods, giving them plenty of money and provisions. He brought them as far as the river and gave them liberty and his hope for happiness. [Windle's account of this event adds a few details.]

"One of the young men was a fine violinist, entertaining us on Sunday with his music, but in this instance virtue lost at least a public reward as we found afterward a story going the rounds that 'Charley Murray had a dance in his barn Sunday."

"To explain in that day would have invited disaster. Though we thought then and were certain afterward, our own Hoosiers closed their eyes to what was going on, we still feared slavery's agents."


Grave of John Mitchell. Other families active along the UGRR are buried in this Cemetery. The cemetery is located west of Pleasant View Mennonite Church near the intersection of County Road 20 and State Road 15.

Commenting on the disappearance of this famous but little known [Underground Railroad] thoroughfare, Mrs. Sigerfoos said, "That tragic road, the underground sank bloodstained out of sight, never again to appear."

The appearance of Emeline Murray's Underground Railroad reminiscences has a somewhat peculiar history. Her account appears in print first in Dakin's report, dated 1899. There it appears in third person, which may mean that it was narrated to Dakin by Cathcart. However, in 1927 Bartholomew gives her reminiscences in first-person. Probably Bartholomew had direct access to Emeline because in 1927 she was active in the Elkhart County Historical Society, of which Bartholomew was president. In fact, Emeline contributed a chapter on schools to Bartholomew's second book of essays on Elkhart County history in 1936.

In 1884, at a Prohibition meeting at the Jefferson Center school house "just across the fields from his old home where those secret operations were carried on," Bartholomew heard Murray himself "say that he had secreted and fed many a runaway slave and helped him to escape being captured by those who were pursuing him. He said he regarded it as his Christian duty notwithstanding the fact that laws made by men forbade it." Bartholomew adds that "in the second story of the [Murray] house were several closets and garrets where runaway slaves were concealed in the daytime in the early period of the station's existence."

Bartholomew not only knew Murray himself and Murray's daughter Emeline but he also knew Murray's son Gordon, who was editor of the Nappanee newspaper and whom Bartholomew interviewed for his 1930 essay. Gordon Murray: 

told of a family of negroes stopping at his father's home at a time when he was a small boy and was sick with the measles. He was very desirous of getting out and playing with the little pickanninies, who were romping about the yard and playing on a stone pile near by. But his parents would not let him go outdoors, so he had to content himself watching them through the window. This was in the last years of the railroad's operation when it ceased to be dangerous to care for those who were on their way to Canada where they could have their liberty. [Democrat]

These first- and second-hand reports from and about the Murray family constitute the richest, most revealing set of narratives regarding the Underground Railroad in Elkhart County.

Bartholomew says that the residence of Abner Blue (1819-94) was "the first house north of the line between Elkhart and Jefferson townships and in the corner where the road makes its first jog to the east" (PH 274). Later it was the residence of Wise Showalter. Windle says that the escaped family recalled by Emeline Sigerfoos (above) first arrived at the Blue house. Learning that they were being pursued, they continued on to the Murray residence (6). Blue was born in Miami County, Ohio, and came to Elkhart County in 1836 as a carpenter. He was a member of the Baptist Church and the Order of Odd Fellows. He was elected township treasurer and justice of the peace. During the Civil War he was appointed as agent to give financial aid to soldiers. "In politics he is an ardent Republican" says Goodspeed (762). (see Chapman 1031-32, Goodspeed 761-62) In 2008 Joan Trindle Stiver of Middlebury published a book for young readers, The Door in the Floor: An Underground Railroad Adventure (Author House), set in the Blue residence. She continues to research the Blue family history.

Little is known about William Martin (1803-88). Bartholomew says that he first lived "on the north side of Pine Creek and across the creek from the old Pleasant View church and Pine Creek cemetery" (PH 274). Later he moved to a farm about a mile south on that same road—afterward owned by Benjamin V. Case (PH 274). His sister was a German Baptist (a pacifist denomination) and a "staunch Republican" (Goodspeed 428). At the beginning of the Civil War a mass meeting, with picnic, was held at "William Martin's grove" (? 31).

James G. Mitchell (1819-88) lived "about three-quarters of a mile west of the Jefferson Center school house. The house stood for many years a quarter of a mile south of the road, but has been moved south a quarter of a mile to another road" (PH, 274). Paul Kirkendorfer, Sr., later lived in the home (PH 274). Mitchell was one of the persons to whom Ellis, in Goshen, referred runaway slaves.


Property of Henry G. Davis, he built a dam on Pine Creek. From the Standard Atlas of Elkhart County, 1874.

 

Col. Henry G. Davis (1819- ?) was prominent enough to have his lengthy biography included in the 1874 Atlas of Elkhart County (29-30). He was one of the men to whom Ellis, in Goshen, referred runaway slaves (PH 274). Bartholomew says that the Davis farm "joined the Mitchell farm on the west and the house stood on the east side of the road, something over a mile south of the Seminary school house" (PH 274). He had moved to York Township (just east of Washington Township, where Bristol is located) in 1838 (Atlas 29). Probably that is when he was a teacher in the Bristol School (PH 274). After moving to California, he returned to Elkhart County, settling on Pine Creek in Jefferson Township in 1854 (Atlas 29) and establishing "one of the best-known places in Jefferson Township" (PH, 274). He dammed the creek and established a sawmill and, later, a furniture factory. For six years he was a justice of the peace. In early years he was a Whig, but joined the Republican Party soon after it was formed.

With the outbreak of the Rebellion, he volunteered in 1861 and rose from "orderly serjeant" in 1861 to Lieutenant colonel in 1864—hence his title, "Colonel." He fought in many campaigns in the Civil War and, at one point, led a regiment of black soldiers. After the war, he administered a Freedman's Bureau at Clarksville, Tennessee. In 1868 he was elected to the State Legislature. In 1874 he returned to his farm in Jefferson Center (Atlas 29-30). An engraving in the Atlas shows Davis’s impressive set of buildings on the Pine Creek dam. A wetlands at the northwest corner of today’s CR20 and CR23 may be a remnant of the dam pond at the Davis property. 

One wonders what motivated this particular set of neighbors to be active in the Underground Railroad. One possibility is that some, at least, were members of the United Brethren in Christ Church (UBCC) that once stood near the old cemetery that remains at the west end of the cemetery maintained today by the Pleasant View Mennonite Church. On Monday, October 8, 1860, the UBCC church building was destroyed by arson. The UBCC denomination was strongly anti-slavery. It has its origin in Pennsylvania in 1767 in a coming together of some Mennonite (under Martin Boehm) and Reformed (under Philip Otterbein) people. It was named UBCC at its first official conference in 1800, when Boehm and Otterbein were made the first bishops. Members were mostly German-speaking people in Maryland, Pennsylvania and the Midwest. From 1820 the church took a strong stand against slavery, and in 1837 decreed that no slave-owner could be a member. In 1863 at a UBCC district meeting in Goshen, members were instructed “not to have anything to do with politics at all”--which implies that a significant number of them had been involved in politics. If their church was destroyed by arson, was that because of their political activism?

In 1846 most of the UBCC merged with the (German) Evangelical Church to become the Evangelical United Brethren and in 1968 that group merged with the Methodists to become the United Methodist Church USA. However, the group that did not merge in 1846 remains a UBCC denomination of 40,000 people today, with headquarters in Huntington, Indiana. Huntington College is sponsored by the UBCC; Otterbein College in Ohio was created by the UBCC.

The association of the Jefferson Township Underground Railroad people with the UBCC denomination is suggested by the fact that 4 members of the Blue family are buried in the UBCC cemetery; 8 members of the Martin family; 7 members of the Mitchell family. Only one member of the Davis family is buried there, which suggests that the Davises may have been of another religious persuasion. Of course, those numbers do not include the possibility that daughters with different married names might also be buried there. And perhaps the cemetery was a “union” rather than a denominational cemetery.