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.
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.
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.”