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North Carolina Quakers, Anti-Slavery, and the Underground Railroad: Underground Railroad

Definition of "Underground Railroad"


  • Oxford English dictionary  


    "U.S. the secret system by which slaves were enabled to escape to the Free States and Canada; also underground line; also fig."

  • Merriam-Webster


    : a system of cooperation among active antislavery people in the United States before 1863 by which fugitive slaves were secretly helped to reach the North or Canada —called also Underground Railway 

Reminiscences of the Underground Railroad by Addison Coffin


Transcript from the Friends Historical Collection at Guilford College:










Typed for

The North Carolina Friends

Histoical Society



This paper was written by Addison Coffin for Mary M. Hobbs

to be published and the proceeds given to the Girls' Aid

Committee. It was typewritten by Susan Robeson for that

purpose. Later he wrote an account of his life, and

that was thought to be better.


This is a valuable history of North Carolina Friends

especially concerning the beginning of their work in

N. C. up to and including the period of the Civil War,

and their migrations. It contains interesting stories,

notably "Ann the Huntress," and the minutes of the

Manumission Society.


L. L. Hobbs

April 22, 1930.





The Underground Railroad.



      Now as to the Underground Railroad it is with some hesitation that I venture to speak of its orig.n and management in N. C. As has been mentioned there were societies formed through the state to protect the freed slaves, those societies became known by all the freed men and many slaves, Guilford County became head quarters about 1820, from the result of a long and exciting suit at law to recover a kidnapped man from Delaware state.1

      A colored man named Benjamin Benson was kidnapped from Delaware in 1818, brought to Guilford County and sold to a wealthy slaveholder. In a few weeks he succeeded in getting word to my father, Vestal Coffin and pleading for help. The facts in the case were learned, correspondence was opened with men in Delaware, the kidnapping was proved, my father, Dr. George Swaim and Enoch Macy were appointed commissioners to represent Benjamin Benson by the state of Delaware to recover his freedom. A warrant was procured to arrest Mr. T. and require him to show cause why Benson should not have his freedom. The officer intrusted with the warrant suffered word to be sent to Mr. T. notifying him of what was coming, Benson was immediately concealed, and that night sent toward Georgia, where he was finally sold. When the trial came off Mr. T. denied that he had such a man and the warrent was dismissed.



The result created much excitement, it was the first open act of the slave spirit to override law and justice. The three commissioners had Nantucket blood in them, and were not to be overawed, or frightened. In time they had ample evidence that Mr. T. had Benson in his possession the day he was arrested, and he was ordered to produce Benson in open court, this fell like a bomb shell among the slaveholders. It cost Mr. T. $160.00 to get Benson, the man to whom he was sold learning the situation had his own price, and it had to be paid at once. When the day of delivery came there were hundreds of men in and around the court house to see and hear the result. The court decreed that Benjamin Benson should have his freedom, and the first conflict between freedom and slavery was ended. Many unthinking and reckless slaveholders indulged in threats and insults, which added to the excitement, which might have ended in trouble, but for the greater and higher excitement of the Missouri Compromise, which sent thousands of non-slaveholders to the north-west. Again1 when Friends freed their slaves in -- 1774, many others promised their slaves freedom when they died, but heirs refused to let them go. Then the societies for freedmen were appealed to, who in many cases succeeded_in securing their freedom; many ran away and got to Pennsylvania and New England. It was while assisting this class in escaping that the idea of organized work suggested itself to the anti-slavery men. In a few years there was a regular route to Pennsylvania across Virginia, and one to Ohio by way of the great Virginia turnpike from Richmond to the Ohio river at the



mouth of the Kanawha. This was where, and how, the Underground Railroad started and by 1830 was in good working order; from the state lines in Pennsylvania and from the Ohio river in Ohio, Indiana and Illinois, regular stations were established at the houses of anti-slavery men at intervals of twenty to thirty miles, sometimes a forced march of forty miles had to be made, or hide in the woods, or big cornfields. The greatest difficulty to overcome was in getting to the Ohio river, as in time the slave-owners became vigilant, both for self protection and for the reward for capturing fugitives, and it took some strategy to out general their patrols. The wonder now is that the secret was not discovered in the time intervening between 1830 and 1860, and yet so simple that a child could understand, literally so plain that had the travelling been done by day he that ran might read the unerring guides.

      From the starting point in North Carolina to the great turnpike in Virginia the Underground Railroad was built, constructed, or marked, as we may call it, by driving nails in trees, fences, and stumps. Where there was a fork in the road there was a nail driven in a tree three and half feet from the ground half way round from front to back, if the right hand road was to be taken the nail was driven on the right hand side, if the left was the road the nail was to the left. If there were fences and no tree, the nail was driven in the middle of the second rail from the top, over on the inside of the fence, to the right, or left as in the trees, if neither tree, nor fence was near then a stake, or a stone was so set



as to be unseen by day, but found at night./When a fugitive started on the road there were instructed into the mystery, when they came to a fork in the road, they would go to the nearest tree put their arms round and rub downwards, which ever arm struck the nail, right or left, that was the road, and they walked right on with no mistake, so with fences, but the stakes, or stones had to be found with their feet, which was tolerably easily done. Those who were doubtful as to their ability to remember details, would take a string and tie short pieces of string to the long one to represent the fork and cross roads, and then by tyinid  [It means tying knots.] notes which they understood  Make a complete, but simple way bills that was almost unerring in its simplicity. The most important position on this road was the conductor whose duty was to keep the road marked, and when necessary change and re-locate as emergencies required; this required a good memory of locality and engineering ability. This system of marking was the same from east Tennessee across Kentucky. In eastern North Carolina where water transportation was used, they had secret channels, and byways marked in a similar way by different means known alone to their boatman. The secret of the way marks was known to few, even of the directors, this was absolutely necessary that none might be imperiled by chance treachery, but the conductors, who in many places, and in many cases took his life in his hands when he undertook the dangerous charge. There were more fugitives sent back to their homes and masters than were sent away. When one presented himself for passage,



he was carefully examined as to ability to run the gauntlet, if found wanting was sent back. Under no circumstance was the secret of the way marks imparted to anyone except to those who were sent through, and this, the last thing done, and then under solemn promise not to divulge it to any living creature which was always kept.

      Nor did any one of the anti-slavery men ever solicit, or persuade slaves to leave their masters, for there were others who did that who were actuated by entirely different motives. Their motto "As ye would that men should do unto you, do ye even so to them," was the promoting motive. The members of the "Freedmen Societies were all Friends, and they were in the majority in the Manumission Societies, and were almost all Friends, who were Underground Railroad men in N. C., but in Tennessee they were in the minority.

      It was a rare thing for the conductor in N. C. to go with fugitives, unless there were women and children in the company, then they were seen well on the way. The conductor being a Friend, no arrangement was made, or thought of for fighting, or defense in case of pursuit. Strategy, swiftness of foot, and adroit maneuvring was the means of safety, though it was said that sometimes, some of the patrolers looked very much like they had collided with something physical and demoralising, when they returned from an unsuccessful pursuit, but the whole thing depended on the thorough knowledge of the country, of all its hills, streams, forests and hiding-places, places where they could play bo-peep with impunity with



horsemen. Old veteran conductors were often surprised to see what new light would come into the seeming dull and heavy eyes, and what wonderful agility would develop in the stolid forms of fugitives when aroused by danger. Ability to think, to act, to plan unknown to them before was suddenly called into action, which was to them the dawning of a new life, and was the beginning of their real life, nor was such development lost on the conductor, it gave him new knowledge of humanity, more ability to discern the hidden might that lay in undeveloped minds, and made them mind readers.

      As a part of the secret of the escape of fugitives was the mode of crossing streams and rivers; this was no small item in the plan, for all the ferries were closely watched to prevent fugitives from stealing boats from the landings. Like the other secrets the crossing of water was simple and safe. It was thus The fugitive was instructed to make a raft of four to six common fence rails, tied together with a grape vine rope, cord, or grass rope at each end, then launch the raft, get astride of it, and paddle it across with the hands, then on landing on the opposite bank always cut the cord, rope grape vine, &c., and let the rails float down stream, lest some one should see the floating raft and learn the secret. Strange to say this secret, simple thing was never discovered. When rails were seen floating down stream, it was always supposed that it was mischievous boys had done it for pure wantoness.

      The north shore of the Ohio river opposite Point Pleasant



was very favorable for this business; was a sloping gravelly beach for many miles, landing could be made at any point, and the long curve enabled the fugitives to see steamboats for miles up or down, and escape being seen while crossing. There was no danger of a fugitive failing to cross the Ohio safely, if he reached it safely his wits were sufficiently sharpened, and his experience such that he would cross Jordan, or die.

      When a fugitive had a wife and children, he would sit astride in front, the largest child next him, and so next in size, and the wife behind holding the smaller one and guarding them all. Think of this Young Americans, think that this condition of things existed within the life time of men still living.

      Coupled with the extreme personal danger, the strain on brain and nerve was so great that few conductors could stand it more than ten years without rest, and for that rest they usually went west, and took service on the lines in the free states, where it seemed mere child's play, compared with the south. In connection with this part of the subject it is proper here to give a word of explanation why men engaged in so dangerous business without pay, without honor, or any kind of reward from men. First, they felt a divine impulse in their hearts that it was right in the sight of God, and that was enough, beside they saw and fully realized that slavery was dragging the master and his children down to the level of the slave, faster than the slave was being lifted up to the level of the master. They even then understood that moral,like



physical gravitation, if left free to act would bring everything to a level, so if the non-slave owners continued to emigrate it would only be a matter of time when they came to be a level; but there was still another motive, it was to keep alive and intensify the agitation of the subject of slavery, to compel the indifferent to think, for a thinking community nearly always gets to thinking right on any subject. It is impossible for this generation to understand the feelings of the few surviving conductors when they meet and live over their days of peril and danger, and the calm sweet joy with which they look for their reward in the life to come.

      In connection with the cause of the emigration from Carolina, it may be well to give the history of that emigration, but it must be born in mind that there were thousands of other non-slaveholders who were just as strongly opposed to slavery as Friends, who emigrated at the same time, in the same companies, went with and settled among them in the north-west, and were co-workers in all their efforts to build up the new country, and were always a unit on the anti-slavery question, consequently, they will be included in the history. In 1891, before I had any_thought of undertaking this work, the editor of the Guilford Collegian requested me to write a series of articles on this subject, which was done, and I shall copy them here with slight changes to suit the connection, as they give the history independent of the original causes.


1 An account of this whole trial will be found on the court records from 1817 to 1820 in Greensboro, N. C.


The Underground Railroad and Guilford College

One of the most frequently asked questions in the Quaker Archives is for information about the Underground Railroad and other related antislavery activities by Quaker in North Carolina.  This guide provides some information on local resources and information about how to research the Underground Railroad and related topics in Guilford's Hege Library.

Levi Coffin

Online Resources

The Underground Railroad in Guilford County, by M. Gertrude Beal (The Southern Friend, Spring 1980)

[PDF file]

The Guilford College Woods

[PDF file]

Reminiscences of Levi Coffin

(electronic version of 1880 edition from Documenting the American South at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill)

Quakers in Northeastern NC - Henry and Dorothy Copeland

Underground Railroad Tree