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Underground Railroad in Guilford College Woods

Although the Underground Railroad network was secretive and no blueprint for it survives, it is generally agreed that a southern terminus was centered around the New Garden community in Guilford County, North Carolina.

The Woods and the Beginning of the Underground Railroad


Earlier known as the New Garden Woods, the approximately 200 acres are part of Guilford College’s campus and felt as a sacred place. Located within the historically Quaker New Garden/Guilford College community, these woods remain a relatively stable landscape with old growth forest and at least one champion tree standing as a silent witness. Abolitionist Levi Coffin grew up north of the site and references these woods between his home and his New Garden Quaker Meeting as a place of refuge. The case of John Dimery’s escape and quick movement to Indiana in 1819 is the earliest documented instance of Underground Railroad activity. Levi and Vestal Coffin were known leaders assisting runaways going to Indiana from 1819 to 1826. The legacy of justice continued with documented anti-slavery activists serving on the initial staff of New Garden Boarding School when it opened in 1837. A runaway notice in the January 4, 1842 Greensborough Patriot specifically references the New Garden community. Even if the school was not institutionally involved, the land served as a crossroad to freedom -- the Southern Terminus for those slipping away north to Indiana.

The historical significance of the woods as a place of refuge has been passed down through the years so they have been intentionally protected for the past twenty-five years. They are located near -- but not on -- several main local roadways of the early nineteenth century (see Maps section for details) and, not inconsequentially, directly between New Garden Friends Meeting and the Coffin family farm along a southern branch of Horse Pen Creek. Portions of these woods remained unploughed and wooded throughout the eighteenth and nineteenth century, so there was plenty of cover created by trees and the terrain in less developed areas.

History of the New Garden Community

The New Garden community was settled by European American Quakers in the mid-1700s and was a vibrant farming community located west of the Guilford County seat of Greensboro (founded 1808). By 1830, Guilford County was 84% white with 14% enslaved black and 2% free black populations. The New Garden community was predominantly white with some free black residents and nearby properties with enslaved residents (most well documented in relation to anti-slavery efforts is the David Caldwell property to the east of New Garden). Unlike the eastern part of the state, there was a significant presence of non-slaveholding white abolitionist Quakers and Wesleyan Methodists living amongst the influential slaveholding families. New Garden was located near crossroads used by those forcibly moving enslaved people from Virginia and North Carolina to developing agricultural areas further south and west. The New Garden community was also tied to northern free state areas through family and faith community connections to Quaker settlements in the northwest, most especially to Wayne County, Indiana, and other areas of Indiana and Ohio where both Quaker and African Americans from North Carolina began to settle in the early 1800s.

History of the Role of North Carolina Quakers in the Underground Railroad

The participation of, and leadership contributed by, North Carolina Quakers to the network was a natural outgrowth of the Society of Friends’ concerns over slavery and of the failure of a legal means for ending the practice. There was much disagreement among Quakers, more formally known as the Religious Society of Friends, during the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries as they wrestled with how best to approach this evil in their midst. By the late eighteenth century there was clear denominational agreement that slavery was immoral and that members were not to participate in the institution. Individual Quakers who lived in the immediate area and were active members of New Garden Friends Meeting belonged to the North Carolina Manumission Society when it was established in 1814 - among them Levi Coffin and his cousin Vestal Coffin. The group was committed to gradual emancipation and legal reforms. As time went on and a legal halt seemed impossible, the Coffins left the Manumission Society to pursue the more direct and radical act of helping runaways escape to freedom through extralegal means.

In 1808 North Carolina Yearly Meeting, the statewide organization of Quakers, became a legal institutional owner of enslaved persons as a creative means of removing individual members from the taint of ownership and as a method of protecting enslaved people from being re-enslaved and/or relocated further South as legal means of manumission and freedom became increasingly difficult. Many of the African Americans legally owned by North Carolina Yearly Meeting traveled on convoys accompanied by Quakers as a part of an “overground railroad,” following the same routes often used by others seeking freedom along the route from New Garden, North Carolina to the northwest. The best documented route, known as the Kanawha Route, was popular with Quakers and others legally relocating from South to North as well as those seeking assistance at New Garden and illegally escaping to freedom. A transcription of a common bill of way is available here. This route of approximately 500 miles matches many of the locations described by Levi and Addison Coffin.

As new lands opened in areas where slavery was not present, many southern Quakers chose to move to Ohio and Indiana rather than migrating to the southwestern territories. Settlement patterns can be traced as location names found in North Carolina, such as New Garden, are reused in Wayne County, Indiana. These same locations are notable for the high presence of both Quakers and African Americans (see for additional information about early African American settlers in Indiana and also Maps & Interactive Media section). A strong group of North Carolina Quakers remained in New Garden, North Carolina, throughout the nineteenth century and had direct family ties to those who had moved north to seek new opportunities in Indiana.

Guilford County Court Case Sparks Underground Railroad Idea

In 1817 there was a lengthy legal case in the Guilford County Supreme Court in which a black man named Benjamin Benson was kidnapped in Delaware and sold in Guilford County to a slaveholder. The court decided in his favor eventually, but the backlash from slaveholders sparked the idea of an organized method of helping enslaved people to escape to freedom. The journey of John Dimery of New Garden in 1819 is the earliest one clearly documented and tied to New Garden as a part of what we now know as the Underground Railroad. Local Quaker Vestal Coffin was a leader in this work and collaborated with his cousin, Levi, who much later gained the popular designation as “President of the Underground Railroad.” Members of the Coffin family who lived in the New Garden community were actively assisting fugitives (both enslaved and free blacks) to gain freedom. Quakers in the New Garden community and other anti-slavery neighbors partnered with local African Americans, both enslaved and free, to provide a significant base of support for fugitives escaping from slavery. Author Fergus Bordewich calls it our “country’s first racially integrated civil rights movement.” 

Underground Railroad Stories

Being "underground," or highly secret, meant that all involved in the activities could not risk sharing what they were doing except with those people with whom they were directly working. Amazingly, there were no "leaks" in the system, according to Addison Coffin, son of Vestal Coffin. But years later stories by Levi and Addison Coffin were written about what had transpired (Vestal died in 1826). A few local stories are shared here.


Levi Coffin, the "reputed President of the Underground Railroad," dates his “conversion to Abolitionism from an incident which occurred when I was about seven years old.” There was a coffle of slaves (chained together in couples) who passed by on the Salisbury road. Levi and his father observed and spoke to them. They learned that the slaves were very unhappy because ‘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.’ Levi asked many questions of his father and learned about “the meaning of slavery, and, as I listened, the thought rose in my mind -- ‘How terribly we should feel if father were taken away from us.’” This, he said, was the beginning of his being in sympathy with the oppressed. (From Reminiscences by Levi Coffin, 1880)


“Runaway slaves used frequently to conceal themselves in the woods and thickets in the vicinity of New Garden, waiting opportunities to make their escape to the North, and I generally learned their places of concealment and rendered them all the service in my power.” He fed them scraps of bacon and cornbread meant for hogs, and “many a time I sat in the thickets with them as they hungrily devoured my bounty, and listened to the stories they told of hard masters and cruel treatment. . .” (From Reminiscences by Levi Coffin, 1880)


The Coffins' neighbor, Dr. David Caldwell (physician and clergyman) was asked by his son, a Presbyterian minister, to give his son’s wife the gift of a house slave. Caldwell considered it (over the objections of his wife, who did not like the idea of separating a woman from her husband) and decided to offer Ede. She had 4 children, the youngest a baby only a few months old, who would accompany her to the new home 100 miles away. Just before she was to be sent away, Ede escaped into the woods with her baby, and remained for several days and nights. The child became ill, so she left. “She made her way to our house. . . was kindly received, though we knew we laid ourselves liable to a heavy penalty by harboring a fugitive slave.” Levi continued: “The dictates of humanity came in opposition to the law of the land, and we ignored the law.” He himself went to visit David Caldwell to plead that Ede be able to remain with her husband and family. He “used all the earnestness and eloquence I was master of, quoting all the texts of Scripture bearing on the case. . .” Ede had told Levi she was willing to return to the Caldwell home to be with her family. David Caldwell consented not to penalize the Coffins and to allow Ede to remain at his home with her loved ones. (From Reminiscences by Levi Coffin, 1880)


In 1817 there was a lengthy legal case in the Guilford County Supreme Court in which a black man named Benjamin Benson was kidnapped in Delaware and sold in Guilford County to a slaveholder. The court decided in his favor eventually, but the backlash from slaveholders sparked the idea of an organized method of helping enslaved people to escape to freedom. Quakers in the New Garden community and other anti-slavery neighbors partnered with local African Americans, both enslaved and free, to provide a significant base of support for fugitives escaping from slavery. Author Fergus Bordewich calls it our “country’s first racially integrated civil rights movement.”(From Bound for Canaan by Fergus Bordewich, 2005)


During the time of the Benjamin Benson trial in Guilford County there was “a free black man named John Dimery [who] became the first known fugitive to be spirited away from Guilford County to the free states.” He had been freed by his master elsewhere in North Carolina, and come to live with his wife in New Garden. In 1819 the old master died and his sons came to New Garden to collect Dimery in the night. Dimery enlisted his daughter to “run for ‘Mr. Coffin. ” Vestal and his friend Isaac White caught up with and detained the kidnappers while “the woman of the house” quietly untied Dimery, who “disappeared into the woods.” Addison Coffin reports that Dimery “was started on the Underground Railroad that night and soon landed at Richmond, Indiana.”( From Life and Travels by Addison Coffin, 1897)


 “. . . Sol would manage to bring the person, by night, to some rendezvous appointed, in the pine thickets or the depths of the woods, and there Vestal and I would meet them and have an interview. There was always a risk in holding these meetings, for the law in the South inflicted heavy penalties on any one who should aid or abet a fugitive slave in escaping, and the patrollers, or mounted officers, frequently passed along the road near our place of concealment.” (From Reminiscences by Levi Coffin, 1880)


An inspiring story of an African American’s highly significant contribution to the cause is that of Arch and his wife Vina Curry. Arch was a free black man and was required by law to carry manumission papers, or other proof of being free. Vina was a washerwoman at New Garden Boarding School. When Arch died, his papers stayed with Vina. “She decided to loan these to male slaves bearing some resemblance to her late husband, so they could travel north safely. . .” Levi Coffin, through a courier, returned them to Vina when the slave was safe. “No one knows how many slaves won freedom on Arch Curry’s papers.”(From By Land and By Sea, by Hiram Hilty, 1993)


Many escaping on the URR followed the North star on clear nights. Nails in trees (probably driven in by Coffins), etc. helped mark the routes. Levi claimed he walked to Richmond, IN (500 miles each way) 3 times. (From By Land and By Sea, by Hiram Hilty, 1993) In 1826 Levi moved to IN and helped runaways on that end of the “railroad.” He and his wife Catharine had a house there that you can visit now and see places where the runaways might have hid.

From the starting point in NC to the great turnpike in VA the URR 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.” He then described how the slaves would find the nails or stones in the dark.

An essential 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.  . . 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. . .

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. . . [Also], 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 maneuvering was the means of safety. . .” (From Early Settlements by Addison Coffin, 1894)


Conductors showed freedom seekers how to make a raft of 4-6 fence rails tied together with rope, cord, or a vine. After using this to cross the body of water, the slaves would cut apart the rails and float them downstream. Thus they would avoid leaving evidence of people having crossed.” 

“Slaves walked from station to station at night and when necessary hid in cornfields, forests and friendly homes to avoid being captured by owners or patrols. According to [Addison] Coffin, the system continued from 1830-1860 [most active years here were 1819-1852, with Levi leaving for IN in 1826 and Vestal dying the same year] without anyone finding out about the secret system.” (From "The Underground Railroad in Guilford County by M. Gertrude Beal, 1980)



Sometimes when conductors were moving runaways from South to North, they used wagons that had “false bottoms” built into the floors of those wagons, where the runaways could hide. The wagons appeared to be loaded with cargo of some sort, but under the floor were spaces where people could hide. There is a wagon like this on display at the Mendenhall Homeplace in Jamestown, NC. [Mendenhall Homeplace Tour]