Identifying Resources: Underground Railroad
Levi Coffin House
Fountain City, IN
Photo courtesy of waynet.org
Although there is a great deal we will never understand about the Underground Railroad (UGRR), and although those involved in the effort were not always interested in leaving written evidence of their activities, they could not escape leaving footprints of their existence and activities in all kinds of ways. Researchers of the UGRR thus have access to a rich "toolbox" of primary and secondary resources that can help them learn about and interpret the UGRR.
You have an individual you believe participated on the UGRR. While proving this is not easy, there are steps you can take to substantiate your claim.
- Check the early county histories (before 1930s). What information do they contain about UGRR activity? While not always 100% accurate, it can give you an early look at who was being "accused" of participating.
- It is important to prove the person you think participated in the Underground Railroad actually lived in your community during the appropriate time period. For example, rumors might have John Doe participating in the UGRR in the 1850s, but maps and other records do not show him moving to the community until 1870s. There are multiple ways to prove where a person lived.
- Maps - Historic plat maps of the community show where people lived.
- Census Records - Most of the United States Census records are indexed and available on microfilm. Unfortunately, researchers will not flip to a page in the 1850 census which lists “Underground Railroad” or “Fugitive Slave” as John Doe’s occupation, but can be used to document a person’s name, age, sex, family relationships, boarders and tenants, ethnicity and/or color, slave or free status, property value (in slaves, land, and personal property), educational level, occupation, proximate location to neighbors, and occasionally physical appearance.
- Negro Registers - In 1831, all Free Blacks in Indiana were required to register with their county authority. Since Free Black Settlements were often active on the Underground Railroad, this registry could show potential participants. Not every county followed through with the law. Even though your county may have required the registry, they may not have kept the rolls. Check to see.
- City directories, almanacs, and gazetteers - As the yellow pages of the nineteenth century, city directories, almanacs, and gazetteers are good sources for establishing historical context as well as documenting factual information. Although limited because some individuals are not generally included in these listings, these documents often list the exact addresses of businesses and individuals.
- The next step is to see what you might find in the local newspapers. Newspapers of the time period might have information about escaped slaves, abolitionist meetings, and the community’s general opinion regarding slavery, abolition, and the Underground Railroad.
- Another set of newspapers to use are the abolitionists’ papers. Whether a nationwide piece like the Philanthropist, or locally published piece out of Fort Wayne, Indiana, these resources can contain meeting information, names of officers, events of significance, and clues. A list of newspapers and their repositories in Indiana can be obtained from the DHPA.
- Many individuals who participated in the Underground Railroad wrote about their activities. These papers may be housed at your local historical society. Sometimes these diaries only have brief mentions of this illegal activity, but show the daily lives of people.
- Many anti-slavery or abolition groups existed in Indiana. If they kept minutes, these records might indicate who participated and how. Sources such as these might be housed at the local historical society or library.
- The Indiana Historical Society has the minutes from the Indiana Anti-Slavery Society.
- Wilbur Siebert Papers - Professor Wilbur H. Siebert. Siebert (1866-1961) was a Professor of History at the Ohio State University and had the UGRR as one of his research specializations. His research contains one of the most extensive collections of letters and interviews of participants. Siebert gathered documents and reminiscences from aged abolitionists or their descendants in the 1890s. While his work The Underground Railway from Slavery to Freedom (New York: The Macmillan Company, 1898), focused primarily on Ohio, he did gather much information on Indiana. Microfilm rolls of the Indiana materials are housed at the Indiana State Library, Manuscript Division. There is an index with the papers at the State Library and one on the DHPA website.