History Comes to Life at the Levi & Catharine Coffin House
The Levi and Catharine Coffin State Historic Site and National Historic Landmark in Fountain City, Indiana (near Richmond, IN) has made it to our short list of all-time favorite travel learning destinations. Come see why this site has been named one of the top 25 historic sites in the nation.
∙a heartfelt thank you to Visit Richmond for hosting our stay, allowing us to experience this amazing piece of history∙
The story of the man who came to be known as "president of the Underground Railroad" in the North actually begins with a young boy in the South.
Born a Quaker in North Carolina in 1798, young Levi Coffin was at work with his father one day when a group of slaves was transported past them. Learning that the shackled men had been sold away from their families, young Levi imagined how it would feel to have his own father taken away in shackles. He remained haunted by this and other encounters, and thus began aiding Blacks -those still enslaved and those on their road to freedom- already in his childhood.
Fast forward to Levi's newlywed years. He and wife Catharine moved north to the free state of Indiana, possibly thinking they were leaving the ugliness of slavery behind them. Quickly, however, they realized their new home was along three routes used by freedom seekers heading north. Levi says in his memoir, Reminiscences:
"Three principal lines from the South converged at my house: one from Cincinnati, one from Madison, and one from Jeffersonville, Indiana."
The opportunity to help freedom seekers, it seemed, had followed Levi north.
The HousE & Tour
Near their new community of Newport (present day Fountain City), Levi and Catharine learned free Blacks were attempting to help freedom seekers along their journey, but often with poor outcomes; most were caught and returned to slavery.
The Coffins organized fellow Quakers into the abolitionist cause, realizing that Whites, with greater protection under the law as well as greater ease in networking with nearby communities, might be able to offer more protection to freedom seekers.
As their involvement grew, the Coffins decided to build a house that could provide strategic advantages to the cause.
On a guided tour of the Coffin house, visitors hear powerful, sometimes chilling stories of the men, women and children who passed through the house on their quest for freedom. The informative and moving tour shares specific elements of the house that were uniquely designed to hide, move and protect freedom seekers.
freedom seekers: At the Levi Coffin House, the term "freedom seekers" is used. We appreciate how this term places emphasis on each person's inherent right to freedom, as compared to the commonly used term "escaped slave," which reduces one to an illegal and non-human status.
Blacks: While the term "African American" is often considered the least offensive way to denote race, it overtly implies status as an American citizen. We think it important to remember that at this time in history, Blacks were not afforded any of the benefits of citizenship, nor even citizenship itself. Thus, here we use "Black," considering it to be a more historically accurate term.
We arrived at the Levi Coffin House on a warm, sunny morning in June. It was one of those perfect early summer days when the cool breeze and clear blue sky can't help but give you a carefree, content feeling inside.
The irony of that sentiment was palpable. It seemed odd, almost wrong, that we arrived feeling comfortable, intrigued, even excited; few of the first arrivals would have felt anything but anxiety, dread, and fear for their very lives as they approached the same home we were visiting that day.
Thus, standing in front of the Levi Coffin House, we were already contemplating its story. But our official experience began a few feet away, in the phenomenal, new (2016) multimillion dollar Interpretive Center.
The Interpretive Center experience begins with a well done 12-minute movie and progresses on to informative displays.
Additionally, several interactive elements are scattered throughout the Interpretive Center. Our favorite was a "What would you do?" kiosk wherein we were presented with choices that would lead us either to capture or to freedom. We played several rounds of this "game," which reinforced how few freedom seekers truly did achieve their ultimate goal.
After about 45 minutes in the Interpretive Center, Robyn, our tour guide, took us over to the fully restored Levi and Catharine Coffin House.
We were joined on our tour by a 3-generation party of four. The grandmother, it turned out, had lived in the house as a child, when it had been a private residence. Her family had given tours in their day, although our tour companion had only the vaguest of memories of her years in the house. Her adult daughter recalled visiting once, too, as a child.
As we two families toured the house, Guide Robyn shared stories of some of the slaves who had passed through this Underground Railroad "station," stating that to the best of the Coffins' knowledge, none who had passed through here were ever caught later in their journey.
Robyn outlined how much of this success was due, of course, to the tireless and brave efforts of the Coffins and their community. But equally importantly, Robyn pointed out all the modifications to the house that gave it extra strategic advantages. The most intriguing for us, and likely most visitors, was the cupboard hidden behind a wall and under the eaves in an upper bedroom. Having the opportunity to crawl into that space was both haunting and inspiring.
With years of walking tours and historical site visits to compare this against, our family ranks our experience at the Levi and Catharine Coffin State Historical Site as a 9+. (Two of us gave it a 10; the other a 9.)
We most greatly appreciated how the tangible, restored house and knowledgeable guide brought history to life and piqued our interest to continue learning about not just this era of history, but about this geographic region as well.
Planning Your Visit
Location: 201 U.S. 27 North, Fountain City, IN
Tuesday – Sunday, 10 – 5
Closed Mondays, except Monday holidays: Memorial Day, Labor Day, Columbus Day, Veterans Day
Open Martin Luther King, Jr. Day and Presidents Day
Closed on Easter, Thanksgiving, Christmas
Note: To visit in April or May, Tuesday through Friday, call ahead. School groups visits may limit availability of walk-in tours.
Seniors 60+: $8
Children 3-17: $5
Children under 3: FREE
Things to do Nearby
William Bush was a slave who found freedom by escaping into Indiana. Despite the dangers of remaining in a border state (most freedom seekers continued farther north), William Bush stayed in Newport to assist the Coffins.
Location: Willow Grove Cemetery, 1 mile south of the Coffin House on U.S. 27
Finding the marker: Drive across bridge into cemetery. Make immediate left and park in gravel loop on left. Walk across lane and 25-30 steps ahead. Look for a more modern marker among older, weather-worn markers.
This Amish store sells baked goods, bulk foods, candies, cheeses, farm fresh produce, log furniture, and more. We especially enjoyed their jams and the cinnamon swirl bread. NOTE: Cash only!
1140 Whitewater Rd., Fountain City
Monday-Friday, 8 - 6; Saturday 8 - 4; closed Sunday
Does your family love history travel, too?
Tell us about your favorite destination in the comments!
Interested in learning more about the Underground Railroad?
Check out our guide to the National Underground Railroad Freedom Center in Cincinnati.
And if you’ve got tweens, you’ll love this engaging family read-aloud.