By Rick Hinton
Do many of us fully understand the Underground Railroad system as it applied to frontier Indiana starting in the early 1800s?
We’re not talking trains here, but the metaphor is still the same. Instead of moving products along shiny rails, we are talking about moving people to a glimpse of freedom that had, for some, been years in the making. The Perry Township/Southport Historical Society meeting on March 29 gleaned some insight from this turbulent time in Indiana history.
Secretary of the historical society, Barry Browning, introduced Jeannie Regan-Dinius of the Indiana DNR Division of Historical Preservation & Archaeology as the “main go-to expert of the Underground Railroad.” He was correct! Jeannie and her team work closely with the Indiana Historical Society and maintain a relationship with the National Park Services.
“I’m your tax dollars at work,” she opened with a smile. She is Indiana in the truest sense: She graduated from Decatur Central High School, followed by Ball State in Muncie. “I have a short time to talk about 300 years of history,” she stated. No pressure there!
“I want to give a critical eye of the Underground Railroad because this history is heavily seeped in myth,” she stated. “It was not just a southern thing, but a world thing!” Indiana certainly played its part yet did so many other northern states. Many escaped slaves traveled across the Hoosier State in the years prior to and during the Civil War. And, according to Regan-Dinius, regarding maps dictating straight line routes to refuge, it was anything but; instead, it was rather a spider web of pathways that could change daily.
Head north … or south?
Head north … always north to the safety of Michigan and Canada. However, not all slaves sought freedom to the north. If you were a slave in a southern state, it might make better sense to head south to the safe refuges of Florida or Mexico. Yet … many did pass through Indiana, most often crossing into from the Ohio River that bordered Kentucky and Ohio. But that was not the beginning of their journey.
“So many people died on the ships from West Africa that sharks followed these as they were coming across the ocean,” Regan-Dinius stated. “When someone died, you just threw them off the back!” Other revelations of when they reached the mainland: “They were bought and sold like we buy cattle. They were thought of as property. This is how we find a lot of our documentation and verify. It was like [today] getting a mortgage, and then insurance.”
It became a business expense. The slaves were never paid for their labor. Many decided to take their chances and run. “When you ran, and were recaptured, you were punished publicly.” They were, after all, a sizable investment and valuable property. No slave owner would just shrug his shoulders and dismiss it to business loss. They were serious about their property! Public punishing sent a message to those thinking of running.
During this period of time, most Hoosiers thought slavery was wrong. Anti-slavery took a firm grip on the Indiana Territorial Legislature that hindered the recovery of runaway slaves by slave catchers (essentially bounty hunters). Bounty hunters were supported by federal and state law to go after the fugitives. “Bounty hunters are a mystery in themselves,” Regan-Dinius said. “I would love to do a study just on them!” The law had its gray areas that worked part of the time, and not at all in others. There were many years of fuzziness in the law, resulting in an uneasy relationship with our immediate neighbor to the south, Kentucky, and its army of hunters —the Kentucky mob.
Crossing from the Ohio River, for example, might find these travelers huddled in the free-black neighborhood in the town of Madison. It is known as the start of the Underground Railroad in Indiana. Many of those houses there then, are still there. It was a safety zone. “You could find a plan, a respite, who in the white community could be trusted, and those to help you on your journey north.” And the long journey north, and those people that provided a safe haven, were destinations that inspired hope for a man, women, or children who only desired a free life: Fountain City and Levi Coffin (with his house still there as an historic site), Huntington, Bloomingdale, Rockport, Michigan City. Marion, Orland, New Albany, Evansville, Wabash and South Bend as they made their way to Cass County in Michigan and freedom.
The life of an abolitionist
There were Hoosier folks willing to do something about the abomination of slavery. By the late 1850s, public opinion had swayed against the continuation of slavery. However, it started even before that. There were abolitionists who worked toward a legal end to stop slavery. You shouldn’t, however, confuse that with the Underground Railroad.
With the first — abolitionists — it was a legal process done by the books. With the Underground Railroad, you stepped over that legal line. There could be a combination of the two (Levi Coffin, even though an abolitionist, is rumored to have assisted hundreds by sheltering and aiding in his home in Fountain City), but that didn’t happen too often. An abolitionist’s life was not one of ease. They were often the target of violence from bounty hunters for their stand on slavery. The Underground Railroad — an unofficial group of individuals helping and facilitating the escape of runaway slaves as they hit the southern Indiana border — however, was something completely different.
“The Underground Railroad,” Regan-Dinius said, “is NOT underground … it’s NOT a railroad … it’s NOT a subway system. It’s basically people helping people! Giving them a place to sleep, food, maybe clothes, or most important, guidance to the next house. That’s what it was.”
The meeting ended and Jeannie took questions. Of course, being Perry Township, the question was raised about the Hannah House being a stop on the Underground Railroad? Regan-Dinius smiled. She knew that was coming. “There is no primary documentation that links the Underground Railroad to the Hannah House. We’ll leave it at that,” she replied.
In all suspected Underground Railroad links to not only the state, but also the city of Indianapolis, there can be a story to be had. Yet … a story all the same. It doesn’t become one of a particular house or location, but the people who lived and worked there. Who were they? What is the genealogy? Can you link them to this point in their history? Was there something particularly strange going on there from the records?
That’s what Jeannie and her team do. The Hannah House? Alexander Hannah was a staunch Republican, a businessman, an icon and pillar in the community. He was also an abolitionist. He didn’t approve of slavery, however, just because you’re an abolitionist doesn’t mean you supported and aided the Underground Railroad. And certainly, not in the basement of your house on the Southside of Indianapolis for all to see. I don’t believe he did. Why would he? It was only his reputation that would be tarnished. The paranormal aspects of slaves dying in an accidental fire in the basement of the Hannah House might be just that — a tall tale. However, the specters of Hannah and his wife Elizabeth, still hanging around, could be something else entirely.
“Oral traditions are tough … they’re a tough one,” Regan-Dinius admitted. “Because people make things up … and lie. People exaggerate. Back then, they thought it not a big deal.”