Levi and Catharine Coffin are considered by many to have been the “president and first lady of the underground railroad.”
Originally from North Carolina, they were part of the state’s large Quaker population, which did not believe in the institution of slavery. However, Levi had seen chain gangs of enslaved people trudging by as a child. He remembered one of the men telling his father, “They have taken us away from our wives and children, and they chain us lest we should make our escape and go back to them.” This encounter left a deep impression on young Levi.
Levi and Catharine moved to Newport (now Fountain City), Indiana, in 1826, where Levi became a prosperous local merchant. From 1839 to 1847, the Coffins’ handsome Federal home was a temporary shelter and safe house for men, women and children escaping on the well- worn routes to Canada that we now know as the Underground Railroad.
Parties who had often spent days on the road, hidden uncomfortably in wagons and carts, would rap at the family’s door late in the night and be quietly ushered into the house. They would be given food and a warm place to sleep until it was safe for them to continue on their journey. When neighbors asked why he chose to risk so much to help the cause, Levi explained that he “read in the Bible when I was a boy that it was right to take in the stranger and administer to those in distress, and that I thought it was always safe to do right. The Bible, in bidding us to feed the hungry and clothe the naked, said nothing about color, and I should try to follow out the teachings of that good book.”
Eventually, many neighbors were won over to the cause and begin aiding the fugitives as well. During their 20 years in Newport, the Coffins sheltered over 2,000 people on their way to freedom. They eventually moved to Cincinnati, where Levi continued to be a leader in the abolitionist movement. After the war, he worked to help formerly enslaved people obtain an education and job skills. Today, the Coffin home in Fountain City is a National Historic Landmark and a museum where visitors can learn about the Coffins and their courageous hospitality.
Know Before You Go
Right on the main north-south road through Fountain City, U.S. 27. Parking north of the house.