Underground Railroad: Local Sites and People

Referred to as America’s first civil rights struggle, the Underground Railroad began near river towns such as Evansville, Indiana. Indiana was one of the most important states during the time of the Underground Railroad because it was one of a few that bordered on slave states.

It is difficult to gather documentation on escaped slaves, and Underground Railroad trails and stations, as records were held by slave owners and abolitionists (who mostly operated in secret). Though some documents have been passed down throughout the years most of them have been destroyed. In 1998, the Indiana Freedom Trails Organization was started with the purpose of preserving what is physically left of the Underground Railroad. Members of the “Indiana Freedom Trails” are striving to keep Underground Railroad sites safe and stop the destruction of places such as one near Princeton, Indiana where a family of pioneers aided escaped slaves. Just a short way from their homestead site is a private road that passes a cave used to hide slaves. The cave entrance has since been covered. There is another place near Lynville, Indiana where another pioneering family aided escaped slaves. They hid the runaways in their barn or in a little grove of trees at the northwest corner of their property. Instead of the house, barn, and grove you will now see only the field remaining, surrounded by coal pits.

Members of the “Indiana Freedom Trails” are also searching for the descendants of those who aided escaped slaves. For example, descendants of Ira Caswell are being sought after. He was a very important figure in the Underground Railroad in Evansville. Not only did he give shelter to escaped slaves, but he and others, including free blacks, captured men who kidnapped free blacks and sold them in the south as slaves. It is hoped that finding and interviewing descendants of well-known or unknown abolitionists, will unearth documentation that can be preserved.

Mr. Wayne Crowe, co-chairman of the Indiana Freedom Trails, has done an enormous amount of field research and gone to great lengths to find any physical evidence of the Underground Railroad. In an interview, Mr. Crowe said that many people ask him where they can go to see physical evidence of the Underground Railroad. Although he would love to help them he can only tell them that those items simply do not exist. Even after explaining this, people are persistent about asking him to point them in the direction of a known trail so that they can try to find something themselves. One of the places he can suggest to visit is the Oak Hill Cemetery in Evansville, Indiana. There is not a “known trail” there but there is a section of graves marked “USCT” which stands for the United States Colored Troops. Through oral history we know that many of the USCT’s were escaped slaves. As frustrating as it may be to admit that there is not much visual or physical evidence now, it is the aspiration of many in Indiana to find and protect what is left.