July 1, 2013

Levi Coffin and Free-Labor Cotton Goods

Quakers Levi Coffin and his wife Catherine are best known for their perilous and persistent efforts to assist slaves escaping from the South and making their way north to freedom.  These efforts earned Levi the title "President of the Underground Railroad" but his work in support of the Free-Labor (or Free Produce) movement is less well known.

Levi Coffin (1798-1877).  Courtesy of Wikimedia Commons.  The
original image is from Coffin, Levi, Reminiscences of Levi Coffin,
R. Clark & Co., 1880, page xii.
 
Born in North Carolina where he daily witnessed the effects of slavery, Levi resolved early in life to fight this oppressive institution through acts of his own.  As a teenager, he and his father assisted several slaves seeking freedom in the North or returning to their lives as freed men who had been captured in the North and sent back into southern slavery.  Today the campus of Guilford College in Greensboro, North Carolina, "is an historical site where famed abolitionist Levi Coffin, a Quaker, began his Underground Railroad activities prior to the Civil War.  Escaped slaves came to the woods of New Garden and were aided in their flight to freedom in the North by Quakers in the community."  (Guilford College web site.)
 
Catherine White Coffin (1803-1881).  Courtesy of Wikimedia Commons.  Same
original source as cited above, page xx.
 
Levi married Catherine White in the fall of 1824 and, two years later, they joined other members of the Coffin family in Indiana where Levi established a prosperous mercantile business in Newport (later renamed Fountain City).  The Coffins soon discovered that they were in an area where large numbers of fugitive slaves sought out local free blacks for help moving north.  They also found that local whites, including some fellow-members of the Religious Society of Friends, were not actively supporting the fugitives.  As pacifists, they sought to avoid conflicts that might arouse violence.  There were also grave concerns about the consequences of the Fugitive Slave Act of 1793 which conferred steep fines on anyone aiding escaping slaves.
 
The Coffins followed their own leanings and, in the winter of 1826-27, they began to welcome fleeing fugitives into their own home and arrange for their transfer north to the next place of shelter.  As more and more fugitives came and were assisted by the Coffins, many of their neighbors took courage and began to contribute food, clothing, and means of transport to their efforts.
 
The Levi and Catherine Coffin house located in Fountain City, Indiana.
The house has been designated a National Historic Landmark.  Courtesy of Wikimedia
 Commons, author Nyttend.
 
Coffin estimated that he and his wife had assisted in excess of one hundred fugitives a year during the twenty years they lived in Newport.  During this time his home became known as the "Grand Central Station" on the Underground Railroad's path north.  A lady's sewing circle even met at the Coffin home each week for years making and repairing garments for those seeking freedom from slavery.  Although their assistance to fugitives and the activities of the sewing circle were generally known, the house was never searched due to Levi's powerful influence as a local businessman.
 
In 1846 a Quaker Convention at Salem, Indiana, funded an enterprise to establish a warehouse, in Cincinnati, Ohio, that would stock and supply cotton goods, spices, sugar, and other articles to Quakers and others who were boycotting products made and transported using slave labor.  This boycott, inspired by the Free Produce movement founded in Philadelphia in 1827, was gaining in popularity at the time and the demand for free-labor products was rapidly increasing.  Levi Coffin was selected to head up this enterprise and he and Catherine moved to Cincinnati in 1847.
 
Levi, in his Reminiscences cited below, wrote at some length about the difficulty he and other suppliers of free-labor articles had in obtaining cotton products to meet the growing demand.  He began by visiting Philadelphia and New York and buying, from Free Produce associations there, as many free-labor cotton items as could be had.  Some of these were being manufactured in England at Manchester mills under the auspices of free-labor associations and could be relied upon not to have involved slave labor.  But the supply of free-labor cotton was insufficient to meet the demands of Quaker housewives and other free-labor sympathizers for daily uses, including quilt making.  This was a problem that Levi would have to solve.
 
 (To be continued.)
 
Sources:
 
Fernando G. Cartland.  Southern Heroes: The Friends in War Time.  Cambridge, MA: The Riverside Press, 1895.
 
Levi Coffin.  Reminiscences of Levi Coffin, the Reputed President of the Underground Railroad; Being a Brief History of the Labors of a Lifetime in Behalf of the Slave, with the Stories of Numerous Fugitives, Who Gained Their Freedom Through His Instrumentality and Many Other Incidents.  Electronic Edition, Academic Affairs Library, University of North Carolina, Chapel Hill, 2001.  Find it at http://www.docsouth.unc.edu/nc/coffin/coffin.html.  
 
 
(c) Lynda Salter Chenoweth and Mary Holton Robare, 2013.




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