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“The Underground Railroad,” by Harvey Morris, Washington County Historical Society, Salem, IN, 1993, manuscript dated 1924. This 170-page hardback is a double spaced, typed manuscript telling the story of the underground railroad in Washington County, IN. Washington County is the second county north of Louisville, KY. Most escaping slaves came from Kentucky across the Ohio River. A few came from further south. The author collected the recollections of family members from the days of the underground railroad, roughly 1817 to 1860.

The underground railroad was an efficient mechanism to assist fleeing slaves and transport them to Canada. Quakers were the core of the system. Free blacks participated, but they were reluctant to travel distances. UGRR teams were strongly opposed to slavery. Many had lived in the south but found their abolitionist views unwelcome there. They relocated to Indiana. Most slave escapes were prearranged so the network could be ready for them. The method of communication is unknown. Some slaves escaped on their own and found their way to safety, but many were caught by slave catchers. The master would often pursue escaped slaves, sometimes with hired assistants, often with dogs. In addition posters offering rewards were posted in the area. Slave catchers worked for those rewards.

In Washington County, the underground railroad split into two routes. The western one went to Bloomington; the eastern one is unspecified but probably went to Indianapolis. The goal was Canada. Those assisted where given a self addressed letter to mail from Canada. In this way they monitored their success (but must have risked repercussions if the runaway was captured.) As many as half a dozen underground railroad stations are described. They were supported by a wider network which helped provide money and clothing. Slaves were hidden while pursued–often in grass lands, forests, caves, corn fields, barns, and other terrain. Stations had hidden rooms, haystacks with hidden chambers, etc, to hide slaves and provide for rapid escape. Some describe the hiding places but others deny they existed. Chasers often gave up after a few days. Stations were known and often watched when notices were out.

Passengers were usually moved at night–sometimes by horse, sometimes concealed in wagons. We learn of methods to foil the dogs. In one case a slave was carried on a rail for some distance to break the trail. Backtracking, wading in streams, and rubbing feet with onions or aromatic plants were common methods.

The book documents legal acts with complete texts in many cases. Adoption of the US Constitution in the Carolinas required several slave clauses (without mentioning slaves). One called for counting slaves as three-fifths of a person (referred to as “other persons”). Another required the return of fugitives. Escape to other colonies did not set them free. Importation of “such persons” could not be prohibited by Congress until 1808.

The Northwest Ordinance of 1787 specifically forbid slavery or involuntary servitude. Indiana statehood in 1816 required compliance with the Northwest Ordinance. The state constitution forbid slavery, involuntary servitude and made indentures invalid in the state. Congress enacted the first fugitive slave law in 1793. It required that a captured runaway appear before a judge who would authorize return to his place of origin. The Fugitive Slave Law of 1850 required that law enforcement capture and return runaways and provided fines of $1000 if they failed to do so. In addition those who assisted fleeing slaves could be sued for damages.

In 1824, Indiana enacted laws with fines for those who assisted escaping slaves and making them liable for damages. Laws also provided for warrants to arrest escaped slaves. In 1851, Indiana’s constitution required that no negro or mulatto could vote, their contracts were void, and anyone who employed a black was subject to a fine. The fines were to be used to form colonies for blacks in Africa (i.e., Liberia). In 1852, a law required that blacks register with the circuit court. Another act created the State Board of Colonization which provided for the creation of a colony in Africa giving blacks 100 acres and $50. Funds came from fines above plus $5000 from the state.

In December, 1860, Senator John Crittenden of Kentucky proposed amendments to the US Constitution which would have recognized slavery in the southern states and territories south of 36 deg 30 min and make it permanent. The government would compensate slave owners when fugitive slaves could not be returned due to local opposition.

Lincoln issued a preliminary Emancipation Proclamation on September 22, 1862. It became effective on January 1, 1863, freeing the slaves of all states in rebellion. It provided that those who remained loyal to the US Constitution would be compensated for their losses including their loss of slaves. The final proclamation issued on January 1, named the states affected and removed the compensation offer. Slaves continued to escape during the Civil War, but the activity of the underground railroad was much reduced after the proclamation.

A final letter in the book indicates the Indiana Historical Society had refused to publish the manuscript when first submitted. The author attributed this to “historians who assume it is their religious duty to eliminate everything that calls attention to the political history of the period from 1830 to 1870.” One wonders how much of our history remains untold due to the tensions that followed the Civil War.

This book adds perspective to the story of the Underground Railroad in the midwest. Photos, maps.
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