Excerpt from Reminiscences of Levi Coffin (1880)

Reminiscences of Levi Coffin (1880)Reminiscences of Levi Coffin (1880)Reminiscences of Levi Coffin (1880)Reminiscences of Levi Coffin (1880)Reminiscences of Levi Coffin (1880)Reminiscences of Levi Coffin (1880)Reminiscences of Levi Coffin (1880)Reminiscences of Levi Coffin (1880)Reminiscences of Levi Coffin (1880)

In this excerpt from Reminiscences of Levi Coffin, first published in 1876, the Quaker and abolitionist describes how he and his cousin Vestal Coffin began to aid fugitive slaves in North Carolina early in the 1800s.



Reminiscences of Levi Coffin (1880)

The first opportunity for aiding a slave occurred when I was about fifteen years old. It was a custom in North Carolina, at that time, to make a “frolic” of any special work, like corn husking, log-rolling, etc. The neighbors would assemble at the place appointed, and with willing hearts and busy hands soon complete the work. Then followed the supper and the merry-making, and the night was in

“The wee sma’ hours ayant the twal,”
before the lights were out and the company gone.

At a gathering of this kind, a corn husking at Dr. Caldwell’s, I was present. The neighbors assembled about dark, bringing their slaves with them. The negroes were assigned a place at one end of the heap, the white people took their place at the other, and all went to work, enlivening their labor with songs and merry talk.

A slave-dealer, named Stephen Holland, had arrived in the neighborhood a short time before, with a coffle of slaves, on his way to the South, and as this was his place of residence, he stopped for a few days before proceeding on his journey. He brought with him his band of slaves to help his neighbor husk corn, and I was much interested in them. When the white people went in to supper I remained behind to talk with the strange negroes, and see if I could render them any service. In conversation I learned that one of the negroes, named Stephen, was free born, but had been kidnapped and

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sold into slavery. Till he became of age he had been indentured to Edward Lloyd, a Friend [i.e., a Quaker], living near Philadelphia. When his apprenticeship was ended, he had been hired by a man to help drive a flock of sheep to Baltimore. After reaching that place he had been seized one night as he was asleep in the negro house of a tavern, gagged and bound, then placed in a close carriage, and driven rapidly across the line into Virginia, where he was confined the next night in a cellar. He had then been sold for a small sum to Holland, who. was taking him to the Southern market, where he expected to realize a large sum from his sale. I became deeply interested in his story, and began to think how I could help him to regain his freedom. Remembering Dr. Caldwell’s Tom, a trusty negro, whom I knew well, I imparted to him my wishes, and desired him, if it could be arranged, to bring Stephen to my father’s the next night. They came about midnight, and my father wrote down the particulars of Stephen’s case, and took the address of the Lloyds. The next day he wrote to them, giving an account of Stephen and his whereabouts. In two weeks from that time, Hugh Lloyd, a brother of Edward Lloyd, arrived by stage in Greensboro. Procuring conveyance, he came to my father’s, and there learned that Stephen had been taken southward by the slave-dealer Holland. Next day being regular meeting-day at the Friends Meeting-House, at New Garden, the case was laid before the men after meeting, and two of them, Dr. George Swain

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and Henry Macy, volunteered to accompany Hugh Lloyd in search of Stephen.

A sum of money was made up for the expenses of their journey, and Lloyd was furnished with a horse and saddle and the necessary equipments. The party found Stephen in Georgia, where he had been sold by Holland, who had gone farther South. A suit was instituted to gain possession of him, but the laws of that State required proof, in such instances, that the mother had been free, and Hugh Lloyd was too young to give this proof. So the matter was referred to the next term of court, security being given by Stephen’s master that he should be produced when wanted. Lloyd returned North, and sent affidavits and free papers giving proof in the case, and in six months Stephen was liberated and returned home. The man who had hired him to drive the sheep to Baltimore had, in the meantime, been arrested on the charge of kidnapping, but as Stephen was the only prosecuting witness, the suit could not go on while he was absent. The man’s friends took him out of jail on a writ of habeas corpus and gave bond for his appearance at court, but he preferred forfeiting his bond to standing the trial, and fled the country before Stephen returned.


But I was not always so fortunate as to be able to render assistance to the objects of my sympathy. Sometimes I witnessed scenes of cruelty and injustice and had to stand passively by. The following

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is an instance of that kind: I had been sent one day on an errand to a place in the neighborhood, called Clemen’s Store, and was returning home along the Salem road, when I met a party of movers, with wagons, teams, slaves and household goods, on their way to another State. After passing them I came to a blacksmith’s shop, in front of which were several men, talking and smoking, in idle chat, and proceeding on my way I met a negro man trudging along slowly on foot, carrying a bundle. He inquired of me regarding the party of movers; asked how far they were ahead, etc. I told him “About half a mile,” and as he passed on, the thought occurred to me that this man was probably a runaway slave who was following the party of movers. I had heard of instances when families were separated—the wife and children being taken by their owners to another part of the country—of the husband and father following the party of emigrants, keeping a short distance behind the train of wagons during the day, and creeping up to the camp at night, close enough for his wife to see him and bring him food. A few days afterward I learned that this man had been stopped and questioned by the party of men at the blacksmith’s shop, that he had produced a pass, but they being satisfied that it was a forgery had lodged him in jail at Greensboro, and sent word to his master concerning him. A week or two afterward I was sent to a blacksmith’s shop, at Greensboro, to get some work done. The slave’s master had, that very day, arrived and taken possession of him, and brought him to the blacksmith’s shop

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to get some irons put on him before starting back to his home. While a chain was being riveted around the negro’s neck, and handcuffs fastened on his wrists, his master upbraided him for having run away. He asked:

“Wer’n’t you well treated?”

“Yes, massa.”

“Then what made you run away?”

“My wife and children were taken away from me, massa, and I think as much of them as you do of yours, or any white man does of his. Their massa tried to buy me too, but you would not sell me, so when I saw them go away, I followed.” The mere recital of his words can convey little idea of the pitiful and pathetic manner in which they were uttered; his whole frame trembled, and the glance of piteous, despairing appeal he turned upon his master would have melted any heart less hard than stone.

The master said, “I’ve always treated you well, trusting you with my keys, and treating you more like a confidential servant than a slave, but now you shall know what slavery is. Just wait till I get you back home!” He then tried to make the negro tell where he had got his pass, who wrote it for him, etc., but he refused to betray the person who had befriended him. The master threatened him with the severest punishment, but he persisted in his refusal. Then torture was tried, in order to force the name from him. Laying the slave’s fettered hand on the blacksmith’s anvil, the master struck it with a hammer until the blood settled under the finger nails. The negro winced under each cruel blow, but said not

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a word. As I stood by and watched this scene, my heart swelled with indignation, and I longed to rescue the slave and punish the master. I was not converted to peace principles then, and I felt like fighting for the slave. One end of the chain, riveted to the negro’s neck, was made fast to the axle of his master’s buggy, then the master sprang in and drove off at a sweeping trot, compelling the slave to run at full speed or fall and be dragged by his neck. I watched them till they disappeared in the distance, and as long as I could see them, the slave was running.


Runaway slaves used frequently to conceal themselves in the woods and thickets in the vicinity of New Garden, waiting opportunities to make their escape to the North, and I generally learned their places of concealment and rendered them all the service in my power. My father, in common with other farmers in that part of the country, allowed his hogs to run in the woods, and I often went out to feed them. My sack of corn generally contained supplies of bacon and corn bread for the slaves, and many a time I sat in the thickets with them as they hungrily devoured my bounty, and listened to the stories they told of hard masters and cruel treatment, or spoke in language, simple and rude, yet glowing with native eloquence, of the glorious hope of freedom which animated their spirits in the darkest hours, and sustained them under the sting of the lash.

These outlying slaves knew where I lived, and,

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when reduced to extremity of want or danger, often came to my room, in the silence and darkness of night, to obtain food or assistance. In my efforts to aid these fugitives I had a zealous co-worker in my friend and cousin, Vestal Coffin, who was then, and continued to the time of his death—a few years later—a stanch friend to the slave.

Vestal was several years older than I, was married and had the care of a family, but, in the busiest season of work, could find time to co-operate with me in all my endeavors to aid runaway slaves. We often met at night in a thicket where a fugitive was concealed, to counsel in regard to his prospects and lay plans for getting him safely started to the North. We employed General Hamilton’s Sol, a gray-haired, trusty old negro, to examine every coffle of slaves to which he could gain access, and ascertain if there were any kidnapped negroes among them. When such a case was discovered, Sol would manage to bring the person, by night, to some rendezvous appointed, in the pine thickets or the depths of the woods, and there Vestal and I would meet them and have an interview. There was always a risk in holding such meetings, for the law in the South inflicted heavy penalties on any one who should aid or abet a fugitive slave in escaping, and the patrollers, or mounted officers, frequently passed along the road near our place of concealment. When information had been obtained from kidnapped negroes regarding the circumstances of their capture, Vestal Coffin wrote to their friends, and in many cases succeeded in getting them liberated. In this way a negro man of family and means, who

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had been abducted from Pennsylvania and taken to New Orleans and sold, was finally restored to his friends. Obtaining through Vestal Coffin a knowledge of his whereabouts, they brought suit against his owners and gained his liberty.


Another negro was kidnapped from Delaware, and brought to Guilford County, North Carolina, by a man named John Thompson. Learning the particulars of his case, Vestal Coffin went to Hillsboro, a neighboring- town, and obtained a writ, which he placed in the hands of the sheriff to be served on Thompson, requiring him to produce the negro in court, for investigation regarding the unlawfulness of his being held in bondage. Thompson, disregarding the writ, sent the negro South, and sold him. Vestal Coffin went back and procured another writ, causing Thompson to be arrested on charge of kidnapping, and thrown into prison till the negro should be produced. This proceeding greatly enraged Thompson, but he was obliged to send for the negro, who was delivered to the charge of Vestal Coffin. When the case went into court, Thompson secured the best lawyers, but Vestal Coffin had right on his side, and finally triumphed. As the poet says:

“Thrice is he armed who hath his quarrel just.”

The case was delayed nearly a year, and in that time Vestal Coffin procured affidavits and other documents establishing the negro’s freedom, and he was

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set at liberty. These are some of the results of the consultations held by night in the pine thickets.


Runaway Servants (1643) “Against Runawayes” (1699) “An act concerning Servants and Slaves” (1705) “A Caution to All Travellers to Philadelphia,” Virginia Journal and Alexandria Advertiser (March 30, 1786) Letter from George Washington to Robert Morris (April 12, 1786) “An Act respecting fugitives from justice, and persons escaping from the service of their masters” (1793) “An ACT to amend an act, intituled, ‘An act to reduce into one the several acts concerning slaves, free negroes and mulattoes, and for other purposes’” (1795) “Tales of Oppression” by Isaac T. Hopper, National Anti-Slavery Standard (March 25, 1841) “Abolitionism,” New York Spectator (September 26, 1842) “Miraculous Escape,” Boston Emancipator and Free American (May 11, 1843) “The Albany Forwarding Trade,” Boston Emancipator and Free American (May 20, 1843) “An Act to amend, and supplementary to, the Act entitled ‘An Act respecting Fugitives from Justice, and Persons escaping from the Service of their Masters,’ approved February twelfth, one thousand seven hundred and ninety-three” (1850) Chapter VII; an excerpt from the Narrative of the Life of Henry Box Brown (1851) “More Fugitive Slaves,” New York Daily Times (May 14, 1852) “Fugitive Slaves in Ohio,” New York Daily Times (September 7, 1853) “The United States Bond”; an excerpt from Isaac T. Hopper by L. Maria Child (1854) The Thomas Hughes Affair; an excerpt from Isaac T. Hopper by L. Maria Child (1854) Chapter II; an excerpt from Twelve Years a Slave (1855) Arrivals from Virginia; an excerpt from The Refugee (1856) “An ACT providing additional protection for the slave property of citizens of this commonwealth” (1856) Arrivals from Virginia; an excerpt from Still’s Underground Rail Road Records (1886) “The Quakers”; an excerpt from A Key to Uncle Tom’s Cabin (1896)

APA Citation:
Coffin, Levi. Excerpt from Reminiscences of Levi Coffin (1880). (2020, December 07). In Encyclopedia Virginia.
MLA Citation:
Coffin, Levi. "Excerpt from Reminiscences of Levi Coffin (1880)" Encyclopedia Virginia. Virginia Humanities, (07 Dec. 2020). Web. 24 Apr. 2024
Last updated: 2020, December 07
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