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Chapman Harris

Location: Intersection of Eagle Hollow Rd. and SR 56 (Ohio River Scenic Byway) just east of Madison, Indiana, near the Eagle Hollow Marina (Jefferson County, Indiana)

Installed 2016 Indiana Historical Bureau, Jefferson County Commissioners, and Visit Madison, Inc.

ID#: 39.2016.1


Side One

Harris, a free African American, came to Madison, 1839, as the fight over slavery along the Ohio River became more violent. He worked as a teamster, farmer, and Baptist minister. His family owned land in Eagle Hollow and Madison. Harris’s activities to aid enslaved persons crossing the Ohio River at Madison became widely known throughout Indiana after the Civil War.

Side Two

Harris faced assaults from slave-catchers; his hostility toward them and their allies led to his arrest and conviction for causing a riot in Madison, 1847. After the Civil War, Harris’s influence continued as local political leaders sought his help to promote allegiance to the Republican Party among newly enfranchised African American voters. He died in 1890.

Annotated Text

Side One

Harris, a free African American, came to Madison in 1839[1] as the fight over slavery along the Ohio River became more violent.[2] He worked as a teamster, farmer, and Baptist minister.[3] His family owned land in Eagle Hollow and Madison.[4] Harris’s activities to aid enslaved persons crossing the Ohio River at Madison became widely known throughout Indiana after the Civil War.[5]

Side Two

Harris faced assaults from slave-catchers; his hostility toward them and their allies led to his arrest and conviction for causing a riot in Madison, 1847.[6] After the Civil War, Harris’s influence continued as local political leaders sought his help to promote allegiance to the Republican Party among newly enfranchised African American voters.[7] He died in 1890.[8]

Note: unless otherwise indicated, sources cited are copied from microfilm of newspapers and Indiana county records available at the Indiana State Library. The Indianapolis Journal is also available online at Hoosier State Chronicles and at

[1] “List of Letters,” Madison Courier, January 4, 1840, 3, accessed; Free Register, Chapman Harris, Albemarle County Court, Virginia, August 2, 1836, recorded March 8, 1843 in Jefferson County, Indiana, Deed Record, Vol. 2, 354; “Chapman Harris, An Apostle of Freedom Who Manifested His Faith by Years of Earnest Work,” Indianapolis Journal, January 11, 1880; Sol Yewell Jr., “Underground Road, To Freedom and God’s Land,” Indianapolis News, September 8, 1888, 6, accessed Hoosier State Chronicles; Emma Lou Thornbrough, The Negro in Indiana, A Study of a Minority (Indianapolis: Indiana Historical Bureau, 1957), 31-33, 40-43, 46, 140-41; Emma Lou Thornbrough, Indiana in the Civil War Era (Indianapolis: Indiana Historical Bureau & Indiana Historical Society, 1965), 411-15; Stanley Harrold, Border War, Fighting over Slavery before the Civil War (Chapel Hill: The University of North Carolina Press, 2010), 5-7, 36.

Information about abolitionists’ activities before the Civil War is particularly difficult to substantiate with primary sources unless legal procedures were involved. Most narratives about such activities were written later as recollections and reminiscences. Narratives about Chapman Harris are found in newspapers and personal collections from the 1880s. IHB staff research focused on locating primary sources to substantiate Harris’s abolitionist activities.

Free African American Chapman Harris came to Indiana from Virginia by steamboat in 1839 in search of better opportunities offered by a free state. In a January 11, 1880 article for Indianapolis Journal, the author [initials S.G] explained that his purpose was “to give only a brief outline of some of the incidents in his [Chapman Harris] career.” S.G. introduced his subject, “Conspicuous among the noted characters of Madison is Rev. Chapman Harris, a stalwart colored man, now in his seventy-eighth year.” He explained that Harris was:

Born in Nelson County, Virginia of a free mother, in 1802. . . . He had heard in his childhood of Indiana as a land of freedom, and at an early day resolved to seek a home there; but he did not leave old Virginia until he was 37 years of age.

The Madison Courier, published January 4, 1840, supports Harris’s arrival date with a printed “List of Letters” to be picked up at the local post office. Chapman Harris’s name is on this list. Harris’s free status is confirmed by a copy of his Virginia “free papers” recorded in the Jefferson County Indiana Deed Record on March 8, 1843.

Another anonymous author, writing for the Madison Daily Evening Star in 1881, described Harris:

He is a giant. As black as ebony, tall, strong-limbed, deep-chested, he looks like an Abyssinian chieftain. His size is enormous, but he is as well-proportioned as an athlete. A fine, shapely head, crowned now with a circling wreath of crisp, iron grey hair, fitly sets him off. He walks among men with a natural grace and dignity inseparable from fearlessness and strength of will. Such is the negro man Chapman Harris, a pure type of the African, the hero of the underground railroad.

In the mid-1800s, Madison, Indiana, was described by Emma Lou Thornbrough in Indiana in the Civil War Era as one of the largest towns in Indiana with an economy based on pork packing and river commerce. A small African American community grew along with the city and the economy. Madison’s location directly across the Ohio River from the slave state of Kentucky provided ample opportunities for Madison residents to aid the escape of enslaved African Americans. (See also Thornbrough, Negro in Indiana.)

[2] William D. Rosseter, “Jefferson County Anti-Slavery Society,” Philanthropist, October 13, 1837, 2, accessed; Niles National Register, August 15, 1840, 375, accessed; “Persecution,” Philanthropist, September 22, 1841, accessed; Thomas Hicklin, “The Experience of an Abolition Lecturer in Indiana,” Philanthropist, October 20, 1841, 6, accessed; Keith P. Griffler, Front Line of Freedom, African Americans and the Forging of the Underground Railroad in the Ohio Valley (Lexington: The University Press of Kentucky, 2004), 46-47, 74, 84, 94, 120-21; Stanley Harrold, Border War, Fighting over Slavery before the Civil War (Chapel Hill: The University of North Carolina Press, 2010), xii, 2 [first quote], 14, 27-28; Matthew Salafia, Slavery’s Borderland, Freedom and Bondage along the Ohio River (Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania Press, 2013), 178, 186-87, 191, 193-211, 218; Christopher Phillips, The Rivers Ran Backward, The Civil War and the Remaking of the American Middle Border (New York: Oxford University Press, 2016), 9-12, 57, 62, 67-72, 83, 100.

The Ohio River divided the free states of the lower North from the slave states of the upper South. According to historian Stanley Harrold, violence occurring along this border in “the 1840s and 1850s had a significant role in the sectional controversy that led in 1861 to the Civil War.” Harrold’s book provides evidence to support his theory that the main reason for this conflict was the escape of enslaved persons from slave states into free states, that African Americans were at the center of this struggle, and that African American communities like those in and near Madison, Indiana led in early aid to escaping slaves.

In his history of the Ohio River borderland, Matthew Salafia explains that the black communities “provided physical protection against the threat of sale for both free and enslaved African Americans . . . African American residents knew that the difference between fugitive slave reclamation and kidnapping was a slippery legal distinction that slaveholders crossed nearly at will, and so they used collective resistance to combat both kidnapping and reclamation.”

This “resistance” placed African American and white residents on both sides of the Ohio River at great risk. In 1837, a report from the Jefferson County Anti-Slavery Society in the Philanthropist described an incident in 1836 that lasted three days and nights. “Our commonly retired, pleasant and delightful village, was in commotion. Mobbing was the order of the day.” In the summer of 1840, the Niles National Register reprinted an article from the August 3 Louisville Journal:

There was a conflict between a number of whites and blacks at Madison, Ia., [IA was the abbreviation for Indiana at this time.] in the course of which two men were shot and very severely wounded. One of the negroes was subsequently taken to the river for the purpose of being thrown in and drowned, but the interference of some influential persons saved his life. On Saturday night many of the citizens were arming themselves and swearing to exterminate the negroes from the city.

The Philanthropist, September 22, 1841, reported:

The persecution of the colored people is extending all along the Ohio River. It broke out in New Orleans and Mississippi . . . Then in Indiana and Ohio. And now we hear, that in Kentucky, the same devilish spirit is abroad. At Louisville, the free people of color have been warned out of state. In Lexington they are charged as incendiaries. At Maysville they have been mobbed, and their church has been burnt.

In this dangerous environment, Harris and others in the Madison area, black and white, actively aided the escape of enslaved African Americans.

[3] U.S. Bureau of the Census, Seventh Census (1850), Schedule 1, Population, Indiana, Madison Township, Jefferson County, Roll M432_154, Page 12 at; U.S. Bureau of the Census, Eighth Census (1860), Schedule 1, Population, Indiana, Madison Township, Jefferson County, Roll M653_270, Page 339 at; U.S. Bureau of the Census, Ninth Census (1870), Schedule 1, Population, Indiana, Madison Township, Jefferson County, Roll M593_328, Page 269A at; U.S. Bureau of the Census, Tenth Census (1880), Schedule 1, Population, Indiana, Madison Township, Jefferson County, Roll 287, Page 119C at; Indianapolis Journal, January 11, 1880; Chapman Harris, Mortgage Indenture, October 10, 1844, Jefferson County, Indiana, Deed Book W, 84; Williams’ 1859 Madison Directory, City Guide, and Business Mirror, vol. 1, [15], accessed GoogleBooks; Indianapolis Journal, January 11, 1880; “The Underground Railway, William Wesley Woollen’s Recollections of Chapman Harris,” Indianapolis Journal, February 1, 1880, 6; Madison Daily Evening Courier, July 22, 1881; William T. Stott, Indiana Baptist History (Franklin, Ind., 1908), 263-64, accessed; Emma Lou Thornbrough, The Negro in Indiana (Indianapolis: Indiana Historical Bureau, 1957), 288-92, 298.

Soon after Harris arrived in Madison, he began working as a teamster for a wealthy African American resident named Lewis Evans. According to a February 1, 1880 Indianapolis Journal news article, Harris continued to work as a teamster for several years. This recollection is corroborated by a mortgage recorded in the 1844 Jefferson County Deed Book that enabled Harris to purchase a team of horses, a two-horse wagon, and a set of harnesses. The U.S. Census records from 1850 through 1880 record Harris’s various occupations: laborer, farmer, Baptist preacher. Harris’s last-named occupation is corroborated by Williams’ 1859 Madison Directory. Also, William Stott’s Indiana Baptist History describes an association of “Negro” Baptist churches established in 1858. In 1867, there were 15 member churches; Chapman Harris was listed as one of the ministers.

More recent secondary sources have suggested that Chapman Harris was a blacksmith. IHB has been unable to locate any primary sources to corroborate this idea.

[4] Marriage License, Chapman Harris and Patsey Ann Allen, February 11, 1841, Jefferson County, Indiana Marriage Records Book, 330; George W. Canada and Matilda Canada to Patsey Ann Harris, Deed, January 25, 1856, recorded February 7, 1856 in Jefferson County, Indiana, Deed Book 12, 441-42; Wade H. Dennis and Margaret Dennis and William Anthony to Patsey Harris, Deed, April 17, 1867, recorded April 22, 1867 in Jefferson County Deed Book 29, 391; Jacob B. Ritter and Rachel Ritter to Patsey Ann Harris, Deed, April 29, 1870, recorded May 7, 1870 in Jefferson County Indiana Deed Book 31, 283; U.S. Bureau of the Census, Ninth Census (1870), Schedule 1, Population, Indiana, Madison Township, Jefferson County at; “The Underground Railway, William Wesley Woollen’s Recollections of Chapman Harris,” Indianapolis Journal, February 1, 1880, 6.

Harris married Patsey Ann Allen in February 1841. She is the only owner listed on the 1856 deed for the 40 acres located at Eagle Hollow where many of Chapman Harris’s abolitionist activities took place. She is also listed as the sole owner of land purchased in Madison in 1867 and 1870. The question about why only Patsey’s name is on the deeds remains unanswered. It may have been strategic, if only Patsey’s name is on the deeds, that land might have been protected from being confiscated to pay legal fees and costs if Harris was convicted of illegal abolitionist activities. By 1870, the U.S. Census recorded Harris with real estate valued at $2000. A comprehensive search for Harris family land purchases and sales is beyond the scope of this project.

[5] Indianapolis Journal, January 11, 1880, 6; “Reminiscences of the U.G. Railroad,” Indianapolis Sunday Journal, January 18, 1880, 4; Indianapolis Journal, February 1, 1880, 6; “Chapman Harris, Hero of the Underground Railroad,” Madison Daily Evening Star, June 28, 1881, 1 (reprinted in New York Times, July 6, 1881); J. H. & S. A. Tibbets, “Reminiscence of Slavery Times,” [circa 1885], Theodore L. Steele Papers, M0263, Box 2, Folder 2, William H. Smith Memorial Library, Indiana Historical Society, photocopy, 11; Sol Yewell Jr., “Underground Road,” Indianapolis News, September 8, 1888, 3, accessed Hoosier State Chronicles; “An Indiana Senator’s Slave,” Indianapolis Journal, February 14, 1890, 8, accessed Hoosier State Chronicles; George Woodruff Herrigo, “In the Days of Slavery,” (Indianapolis) Freeman, October 31, 1891, 2.

Beginning in the 1880s, a number of Madison residents, former residents, and journalists authored columns or offered information about the activities and individuals involved in the Underground Railroad in Jefferson County, Indiana. All of the sources cited above mention Chapman Harris specifically. In January 1880, the author “S.G.” wrote that Harris was “a man who for many years devoted his best energies to delivering the men, women, and children of his race from cruel bondage.” William W. Woollen had known Harris for thirty years when he wrote in February 1880, that even though Chapman had told him “nothing about his underground railroad operations. I was satisfied he was a conductor.” In his Reminiscence, John Tibbetts recalled Harris bringing to him five enslaved African Americans whom Tibbets then transported to the next stop. Additional newspaper articles in the Indianapolis Journal, from January and February 1880, report on Harris’s and others’ successful attempts to aid the escape of enslaved women working for and belonging to Democratic Indiana Senator Jesse Bright in Madison.

Sol Yewell wrote in the Madison Daily Evening Star, June 28, 1881, that “Harris tells the following as one of his most dangerous as well as exciting adventures.” Harris waited for hours “concealed in the trunk of the old sycamore tree.” He heard the landing of “a frail skiff loaded down with colored people. There were two old, gray-headed persons, husband and wife, their son, a fine shapely-limbed young fellow, and his wife, a ‘likely’ woman, a bright mulatto and their three children, the youngest a babe!” Hearing the slave catchers were in pursuit, Harris hurried the group to a nearby tree-shaded cliff to hide. The terrified family pleaded with Harris not to leave them there. Up on the cliff, Harris “found the tracks of sheeps’ feet and by digging footsteps with his knife, clinging on to rocks, roots and stout shrubs, he fought his way up.” The young mother followed him up the cliff and by various means they rigged a rope-like assist for the adults. To rescue the children “A kind of bag or sack was made of the woman’s skirt and in it the children were drawn up one by one.” In “a tremendous storm of wind and rain. . . . Harris stealthily conducted his little band to a thicket. . . where good John Carr found them and ‘expedited’ them.” Harris headed home but “when he came up to his door-yard he was surrounded by an angry crowd of ‘[slave]- catchers’ who threatened him by placing pistols at his head and the display of a rope to hang him. . . . But the noble, brave, true man stood firm and never a word escaped his lips.”

William Woolen corroborates Harris’s hostility toward slave catchers, stating, “I have seen fugitive slaves hunted . . . ‘round about Chapman Harris’s home. . . . If they once reached Chapman’s house they were safe, for he would only surrender them with his life. Many efforts were made to take fugitives from him, but they all came to naught.” See footnote 6 for more information about protecting enslaved persons from recapture.

[6] City of Madison vs. Elijah Anderson, Chapman Harris, William Clay, Peter Carter, William Hayden, George Plowden and Calvin Hood on a Complaint of Riot, April 30, 1847, Jefferson County Circuit Court, No. 93, Civil Cases, Box 3, 7-I-C, Indiana State Archives, photocopy; Elijah Anderson and Vernon C. Wood vs. John Simmons and James M. Todd, Indiana Supreme Court, Case Number 00158, decided May 23, 1854, Indiana State Archives, photocopy; Judgment Docket C, 1841-49, Jefferson County, Indiana, 176, Indiana State Archives, photocopy; “Police Court,” Louisville Daily Courier, November 25, 1856; “Representative of Henry Ward Beecher,” Daily Louisville Democrat, November 26, 1856, n.p., accessed Kentucky Digital Library; “City Court,” Louisville Daily Journal, November 25, 1856; “City Court,” Louisville Daily Journal, November 26, 1856, 3; Indianapolis Journal, February 1, 1880, 6; A Biographical History of Eminent and Self-Made Men of the state of Indiana 2 vols. (Cincinnati, OH: Western Biographical Publishing Co., 1880) 2:243-44, accessed at Archive.Org.

William W. Woolen, author of the February 1, 1880 Indianapolis Journal article, lived in Madison from 1844 until 1860; he served in several Jefferson County offices during that time. He stated:

I well remember the trial of Chapman Harris and Elijah Anderson, in the Jefferson Circuit Court, for being engaged in the riot. . . . They were the leaders of a party of some twenty-five or thirty colored men who whipped nearly to death one John Simmons, a colored man, for betraying the whereabouts of a fugitive slave. . . . After a long and tedious trial they were convicted, and, I think, fined $200 each. It was very difficult to get any evidence against them, for those who knew the facts would not give them to the court.

According to Jefferson County Circuit Court records, John Simmons accused Elijah Anderson, Harris, and several others of attacking him on April 26, 1847 “with force & arms in a violent manner.” Anderson, Harris, and the others were arrested on April 30, 1847 and “charged with having committed a riot.” According to Indiana Supreme Court records, the trial held at the August term of the Circuit Court resulted in a judgment of $200 plus costs and interest against Anderson and Harris only. The Jefferson County Sheriff was ordered to “claim and seize the goods and chattels” of both men to satisfy this judgment. He reported to the court that “Elijah Anderson and Chapman Harris have no goods and chattels, lands or tenements in his bailiwick, nor have either of them, upon which to levy said writ, out of which to make said judgment.”

Woollen also wrote that Harris was arrested in Louisville, Kentucky. Harris had taken a steamboat to Charlestown “to fill a pulpit appointment,” but bad weather forced the boat to land in Louisville  where police officer William Rea (who knew Harris) arrested him for coming into Kentucky “contrary to law.” Harris was found to be armed and when he could not pay the fine, he was condemned to the “city work-house.” Fortunately, Madison friends sent a lawyer to obtain his release.

Newspapers from November 1856 corroborate this event. The November 25, 1856 Louisville Daily Courier, described Harris as a “Fremonter in Trouble—An Abolition Ally in Arrest—A Negro Preacher of the Church Militant—Beecher School—Kansas Shrieker Armed to the Teeth.” The Louisville papers all stated that Harris was arrested by officer Ray [sic] and “was found to be armed with a deadly bowie knife, a pistol, lucifer matches and powder and ball in abundance.” The Louisville Democrat said that Harris “represents himself as a minister of a Christian denomination near Madison, Indiana, supposed to be an evangelical association of negro-stealers.” The article also suggested “that ‘his reverence’ owes his present arrest to the fact of his having upon a former occasion interfered with Officer Ray [sic] in the recovery of a party of slaves which had escaped into his neighborhood, near Madison.” The Daily Journal of November 26, 1856 stated that Harris “was sent to the workhouse, but he was bailed out this morning.”

[7]Indianapolis Sentinel, March 27, 1878, 2, accessed; “The Dark Cloud,” Madison Weekly Herald, June 26, 1878, 2, accessed; “Republican Township Meeting,” Madison Weekly Herald, February 4, 1880, 3, accessed; “Douglass’s Reception at Madison,” Indianapolis Journal, September 11, 1880, 1, “A Worthy Colored Man Rewarded,” Indianapolis Journal, March 15, 1881, 2, accessed; “House,” Indianapolis Journal, March 26, 1881, accessed; “Hon. J. S. Hinton at Madison,” Indianapolis Journal, September 27, 1882, 1, accessed; “Letters from the People, The Colored Man on Ryker’s Ridge,” Madison Evening Courier, October 13, 1882, 4; “J. Allen Ross, Esq.,” Madison Daily Herald, September 18, 1888, 4, accessed; “Demolished by Chapman Harris,” Indianapolis Journal, September 19, 1888, 2, accessed; Emma Lou Thornbrough, The Negro in Indiana, A Study of a Minority (Indianapolis: Indiana Historical Bureau, 1957), 288-94.

Rev. Chapman Harris remained an influential Madison resident after the Civil War. He worked to keep African American voters in Jefferson County, Indiana, safely within the Republican Party fold. Historian Emma Lou Thornbrough states, “The new voters at first naturally turned to the party which claimed credit for emancipating their race.” African American ministers, like Harris, became important contributors in “shaping the political attitudes of Negroes.” In fact, Thornbrough states, “Without exception, the ministers supported the Republican party and in some cases were bitterly partisan.”

According to the Indianapolis Sentinel, March 27, 1878, “The colored club of Madison has resolved to cut loose from radicalism. Its members have resolved to vote in the future regardless of party.” This vote alarmed the Jefferson County Republican leaders “and they have induced the Rev. Chapman Harris, a Baptist preacher, to issue an address, in which he calls upon the ‘man and the brother’ to stand up to the rack and vote the republican ticket, ‘fodder or no fodder.’” Just a few months later, an article titled “The Dark Cloud” appeared in the Madison Weekly Herald.  It described a restless political climate in Jefferson County

“The political sky is overcast with an ominous black cloud. The colored people are divided on the school question and politically and socially . . . So long had the machine politicians of the Republican party been of the opinion that they owned the colored people . . . that such treason could not be tolerated, and immediate steps were taken . . . The notorious Chapman Harris . . . got put into action.”

In 1880, Republican leaders recognized Harris’s efforts by appointing him as an alternate delegate to the Indiana Republican Convention. In September, Harris rode in the carriage next to Frederick Douglass in the Madison parade celebrating the famous abolitionist. The Indianapolis Journal, March 1881, reported that Harris had been appointed Assistant Doorkeeper of the Indiana House of Representatives. This is the same legislative body that welcomed James S. Hinton, the first elected African American state representative. In September 1882, Harris introduced Hinton in Madison to “a crowded and enthusiastic audience.”

In a Madison school house in October 1882, a “colored meeting” was held. The Madison Evening Courier on October 13, 1882 reported on the meeting. The featured speaker “wanted to show that the Republican Party had never done anything for the colored man . . . and attempted to show that the Democrats were as good friends to the colored man as the Republicans.” And he “urged the colored man to desert the Republican party.” Harris was present and was called to speak. Harris asked questions: “Who objected to the Thirteenth Amendment? Who objected to the Fifteenth amendment? . . . This speaker has got his head in a hoggy pot. . . . I am ashamed of you who would come here where the under-ground railroad run and plead we ought to turn over to a party that hunted us down with blood hounds.”

Harris continued to participate at Republican party meetings as late as September 1888. At a meeting at the Madison Court House, an African American Mississippi preacher gave a lively Democratic speech. In response, “the venerable Chapman Harris was then assisted to the stand and spoke a few words of dissent.” Harris stated that he had always been a Republican. But he ended his remarks “by saying that if the Democratic party did no more for negroes in this city than the Republican party had done, they would certainly do very little.”

[8] Madison Herald, May 14, 1885, 4, accessed; “Fatal Illness of Chapman Harris,” Indianapolis News, January 29, 1890, 1, accessed Hoosier State Chronicles; “Death of Rev. Chapman Harris,”  Madison Courier, February 10, 1890; Madison Courier, February 11, 1890; “Apostle of Freedom Gone, Death of Chapman Harris, a famous Worker in the Underground Railroad,” The Indianapolis Journal, February 11, 1890, 5; “The Funeral of the Rev. Chapman Harris,” Madison Courier, February 12, 1890; Burial Permit, February 12, 1890, Office of the City Clerk, Madison, Indiana, photocopy; “Death of Chapman Harris,” The St. Louis Republic, February 12, 1890, 12, accessed; “Death of an Underground Railway Manager,” The (Baltimore) Sun, February 14, 1890, 3, accessed

The 1885 Madison Herald reported that “Rev. Chapman Harris, Madison’s best known colored citizen, says he came to this city in 1839. . . . According to the way he has always counted his age he will be eighty three years old next July. He is yet strong and hearty; and is mentally as vigorous and cool as in his younger days, when he used to assist the fleeing slaves from the South. He operated with the ‘original Abolitionists’ of this State.”

Chapman Harris died of “dropsy” (congestive heart failure) at his home in Madison on February 10, 1890. Rev. Richard Bassett of Shelbyville, Indiana conducted the funeral service. He is buried in Springdale Cemetery, Madison.


African American, Underground Railroad, Politics