More on The Wagon

 

Rear of  our Wagon

There is probably only one vehicle left in North Carolina that was used to transport runaway slaves in the days before the Civil War. That vehicle is now the property of the Historic Jamestown Society and is on display at the Mendenhall Plantation located on West Main Street in Jamestown, North Carolina, opposite the High Point City Lake Park. There is a second wagon, almost identical, in the Levi Coffin House and Museum located in Fountain City, Indiana, on U.S. 27.

The story of the North Carolina wagon is a fascinating one, because it is part of the story of the Underground Railroad.

The Underground Railroad was a system for helping black slaves to escape to the northern states and to Canada. It was called "underground" because fleeing slaves who seemed to mysteriously disappear from sight were in fact hiding in the homes of people who were opposed to slavery.

The Underground Railroad was active in the years before the Civil War, especially from 1830 to 1860. Possibly as many as 50,000 slaves in the South were helped to escape to free territory beyond the Ohio River and often on into Canada.

Assisting runaway slaves was against the law and so it was done with as much secrecy as possible and no records of any kind were kept for fear they might serve as incriminating evidence. A new vocabulary was developed to conceal operations and protect individuals. Cooperating homes in the network were called "stations," the vehicles were called "trains," the drivers were known as "conductors," the fugitives were referred to as "baggage" or "cargo." The movement of "passengers" was mostly at night; they traveled in small groups numbering from two or three to seldom more than a dozen. Movement was slow. The "stations" were ten to twenty miles apart and transportation was mainly by horseback, in carriages or wagons, and often on foot.

Fugitive slave laws provided severe penalties of stiff fines and imprisonment. (See Fugitive Slave Law of 1797.) To interfere with the recovery of an owner's slaves was considered a serious crime. But many Quakers and some members of other religious groups preferred to live by the words of the Bible: "Thou shalt not deliver unto his master the servant which is escaped from his master unto thee." (Deuteronomy 23:15) To these abolitionists and others, the laws of God superseded the laws of man.

Levi and Catherine Coffin

In North Carolina, one of the leaders in giving assistance to fugitive slaves was Levi Coffin, Jr. (1798-1877). Levi was born at New Garden, now Guilford College. As a boy he saw numerous occasions when slaves were badly abused.' He resolved that when he grew up he was going to do something about these matters. As he grew through the adolescent years he became acquainted with a young Quaker girl, Catherine White of Randolph County, who shared his convictions regarding slavery. They were married in 1824. During their courtship and early years of marriage they felt ever more strongly that the Lord was calling them to some special service on behalf of the slaves but they were still unclear in their minds as to where and just how they could help. However, since both sets of parents and their brothers and sisters had now moved to Indiana along with many other relatives and friends, they felt that their futures lay there. Early in the autumn of 1826, they, with their year-old son, packed all their household belongings on a wagon and headed for the West.

They decided to settle in Newport (now Fountain City) just over the Indiana line, where two- or three-dozen Quaker families had already settled. The community needed a general store, and Levi and "Katie" provided it, showing themselves over many years to be good merchandisers. They built a large house in 1839, providing hiding places for fugitive slaves. Levi afterward estimated that in Indiana they probably assisted more than 2,000 slaves to freedom, and helped another thousand after they moved to Cincinnati in their later years. So successful was he that Levi came to be called the President of the Underground Railroad. To Levi and Katie these runaways were "Precious Cargo," many of whom kept in contact with the Coffins until death became the gateway to a larger and better life.

In 1967 their house, still in good repair, was purchased by the State of Indiana, and is now under the care of the Wayne County Historical Society. One of the most treasured items in the house and museum is the wagon which transported hundreds of runaway slaves, with its secret hiding place for the Precious Cargo.

When Levi and Catherine Coffin moved to Indiana they left behind them many friends and relatives who chose to remain in North Carolina and to do what they could for the anti-slavery movement here. One such couple was Joshua Stanley (1785-1855) and his wife, Abigail Hunt Stanley (1791-1874). Abigail and Levi Coffin grew up together in the New Garden community. The Stanley home was in the Centre community of southern Guilford County, and stood until recent years on Old U.S. 220 some 500 yards toward Greensboro from the intersection with N.C. 62. The Stanley house was a station on the Underground Railroad and Joshua was the station master. Significantly, they had a wagon with a false bottom for the purpose of hiding runaway slaves, which was identical to the wagon in the Levi Coffin Museum in Indiana.

1. Coffin, Levi Sr. Reminiscences, pp. 12-31.

 

Joshua and Abigail Hunt Stanley

They left their farm in Centre Community for a five-year period, 1842-1847, to serve as superintendent and matron of the struggling New Garden Friends Boarding School, now Guilford College.

We believe they were the original owners of "our wagon.”

BIBLIOGRAPHY

Coffin, Levi. Reminiscences. Cincinnati; Clark, 1800.

Ludwig, Chas. Leui Coffin and the Underground Railroad, Scottsdale,

Pa.: Herald Press, 1975.

Ritterhouse, Jack D. American Horse-Drawn Vehicles New York:

Bonanza Books.

Walton, Aldren A. The Village Blacksmith, New York: Thomas Y.

Crowell Co.

ACKNOWLEDGEMENTS

In the writing of even this small leaflet there are many people who helped. First among these are the members of the Murrow family who recalled family names and whose memories are still fresh with the inimitable storytelling of their patriarch, Joshua Edgar Murrow. Their names are recorded elsewhere in this leaflet.

When we were floundering a bit in the earliest days of our own study, Robert and Janice McQuire offered great encouragement. Bob is currently the President of the Levi Coffin House Association, Fountain City, Indiana. They, with many others over a period of time, were instrumental in having the Coffin House purchased by the State of Indiana and leased to the Wayne County Historical Society. It was later declared a National Historic Landmark, and was restored and provided with appropriate furnishings. Among them is an old wagon "like the one Levi Coffin used to transport fugitive slaves in the Underground Railroad." This model has helped us in the restoration of our wagon - which we believe WAS used to transport fleeing slaves. The Levi Coffin House Association has published several booklets about Levi and Catherine Coffin. The address: Box 48, Fountain City, IN 47341. The sketch of their wagon was done by Jack Phelps, a local artist. The portrait of the Coffins was done by Doris Phelps. and both are used in this leaflet by permission.

A key figure in the restoration of our wagon is John Braxton, Route 1, Graham, NC. John is a master riflesmith whose handcrafted rifles have won many prizes. He is a Federally-licensed machinist, and owns a lumber mill, now operated by his son, which makes available to him most any kind of lumber he needs. Our wagon got his immediate attention because of its Quaker connections since his ancestors were among the earliest Quaker immigrants from Pennsylvania and other points north. They settled in the Cane Creek Valley, probably in the 1750s. A good historical background of the Braxtons and other early Quaker families in the Spring Friends Meeting will be found in Algie Newlins' recent book, Friends "at the Spring" So John and Judy Braxton were just the people we needed and he has done a masterful job of rebuilding the ancient vehicle. Judy painted the wagon as the final step.

As always, the staff of the Friends Historical Collection in the Guilford College Library has been most helpful. Damon Hickey, Curator, and Carole Treadway. Bibliographer, helped us to secure the picture of the first owners of our wagon, Joshua and Abigail Hunt Stanley, which we greatly appreciate.

There are others to whom we are indebted. Mary A. Browning of Jamestown made helpful suggestions regarding the text of this leaflet, and prepared the copy for the printer. Don Grison of Jamestown Graphics did the attractive artwork for us. Lastly, I appreciate the fact that my son, Howard Haworth of Morganton, has underwritten the cost of the renovation of the wagon and related expenses.

Thanks is also expressed for the many others who have been helpful in this most interesting undertaking.

- Cecil E. Haworth

Mendenhall Plantation - 603 W Main St - Jamestown, NC 27282

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