I’ve Been Workin’ on the Railroad:
Tracking Down Huntertown’s Abolitionist Past
by Alex Jokay
It’s smack dab on one of the Underground Railroad’s busiest routes. It had a politically progressive Universalist church. And by all appearances, its leading citizens in the 1850s believed in the intellectual equality of women--a sentiment often appearing hand in hand with slavery abolition. Huntertown, Indiana, almost certainly played a part in the Underground Railroad.
But who was involved? Where were runaway slaves concealed? After a century and a half, these secrets are finally emerging from hiding. And it appears that antislavery activism may even have been the primary motivation of the area’s earliest settlers to locate in desolate and swampy northeastern Indiana, where friends of the slave were much needed for the cause of assisting escapees to freedom in Michigan and Canada.
I first developed a passion for pioneer history at the knee of my late grandmother, Carolyn Kell. A teacher by profession, she came from two lines of pioneer farm families who encouraged the education of women at a time when it was almost unheard of. Both of her grandfathers, Nathaniel Fitch and Jacob Kell, founded the Perry Center Seminary, along with Jerome Gloyd, in 1856. This highly unusual co-ed school produced a few women who went on to become college professors before it was closed by the conscription of its teachers and many of its students during the Civil War.
In 1972, Carolyn Kell wrote a fairly comprehensive genealogical history of the Nathaniel and Sarah DeLong Fitch family. Even though it consisted mostly of family trees and rather brief biographies, I spent endless hours of fascination with it as a child, always asking my grandmother questions about Huntertown’s past. When I revisited it in recent years, I was surprised to find no information anywhere about the history of the Underground Railroad--at least nothing readily apparent.
Carolyn’s last surviving siblings, Mary Ellen Arnold and Jacob Kell, could provide no recollections on the subject either. Yet I knew that some of Huntertown’s earliest settlers fit the profile of those who would likely be sympathetic to the antislavery cause, if not outright participants in it.
At present, I am building a case based on available circumstantial evidence, as well as oral tradition among local families. Persons who were known as “staunch Republicans” in the 1850s, who belonged to certain churches or who were known to have associated with abolitionists fit the profile of those who could have assisted slaves on their journey through Huntertown to freedom.
(Note that the GOP, in its heyday, was the “party of Lincoln”--a radical newcomer on the political scene. The Democrats, pro-slavery in sentiment, were the conservatives.)
An incredible amount of information has been uncovered about the Fort Wayne area’s role in in the Underground Railroad in just the last few years, thanks largely to my former college classmate Angie Quinn, now executive director of ARCH, Fort Wayne’s historic preservation organization. Hoping to document local landmarks as stations on the Underground Railroad, Quinn began her research by looking outside the city.
First, she visited the Levi Coffin house, a museum downstate in Fountain City, near Richmond. Coffin, a North Carolina Quaker, arrived in Indiana in the 1820s as part of a large migration of Quakers who left the southern states in protest of slavery. Coffin became one of the antislavery movement’s leading activists. Thousands of fugitive slaves passed through Coffin’s home on their journey north; it became known as “the Grand Central Station of the Underground Railroad.”
From the Richmond area, runaway slaves generally came to the Fort Wayne area along the Bluffton and Winchester Roads with the help of abolitionists, who housed runaway slaves by day and transported them in wagons by night. Travel was typically accomplished in increments of about ten miles per day, and along these routes an organized network of pioneer settlers received them, sometimes for stays of weeks or even months if they were too lame or ill to travel.
Quinn began looking at early township maps to obtain names of pioneers who had settled along these routes between Richmond and Fort Wayne. In Pennville, a Quaker settlement in Jay County, she discovered a familiar name: Lindley Ninde. As a Fort Wayne historian, Quinn knew he was a lawyer and a prominent early Fort Wayne citizen. Further research revealed that his wife, Beulah Puckett Ninde, was a niece of Levi Coffin.
The Nindes came to Fort Wayne from Pennville in 1850. As an attorney, records show, Lindley Ninde represented black citizens of Fort Wayne on several occasions when they were being treated unfairly under the harsh laws of the period. The Ninde homestead in Fort Wayne was located on what is now Fairfield Avenue; their home later became the first Lutheran Hospital.
Fugitives may have been harbored on this property in the earlier years, but as Fort Wayne became more populated, and penalties for aiding slaves grew more severe leading up to the Civil War, it is very likely that abolitionists avoided taking fugitives through the city, instead going around it.
Quinn discovered that the Nindes also owned property in Aboite Township in an area known as “Devil’s Hollow.” (An odd coincidence--Perry Township also has a Devil’s Hollow, quite similar in character to its Aboite counterpart, with large ravines and rugged terrain. This latter parcel was originally owned by the Vandolah family, also my ancestors.)
It is now an established fact that the Aboite Devil’s Hollow was a major URR station. Here the Nindes served as “conductors” along with a woman named Dr. Mary Frame Myers Thomas, later known as a national mover and shaker in nineteenth century women’s rights. Also assisting runaway slaves was Lindley’s sister, Rhoda Ninde Swayne, who lived near present-day Saturn in Whitley County and later founded the Saturn Christian Church.
Another noteworthy abolitionist in early Fort Wayne history was the Presbyterian preacher Alexander Rankin. Rankin’s house on Lafayette Street in Fort Wayne still stands; it was donated to ARCH in 2001. Whether this home was used as a URR station remains a matter of speculation. One of its more interesting features is the basement, where the perimeter walls are concealed by walls set further in, creating what may have been used as a hiding place.
Rankin, one of the abolition movement’s leading agitators, worked to organize abolition groups in Ohio and Indiana. He is remembered for being a founding organizer of both states’ Antislavery Societies (Ohio’s in 1834, Indiana’s in 1837.) Rankin later served as minister of the First Presbyterian Church in Fort Wayne, from 1837 to 1843.
Historian T. B. Helm, in his 1880 History of Allen County, Indiana, says that the Reverend Rankin held a meeting and led one of Perry Township’s first-ever religious services in 1834. This took place in a log cabin near the site of what was to become Huntertown.
Whose cabin would it have been? In 1834, the township was home to a relative handful of people. Deducing from what Helms wrote about Perry Township’s earliest settlers and the placement of their first cabins, it appears very likely that it was the home of one of the Duntens, the Parkers or the Woods.
These families were later among the charter members of the Huntertown Universalist Church. As early as the eighteenth century, the Universalists began arguing against the practice of slavery, and in the nineteenth century took a leading role in the progressive causes of the day: slavery abolition, temperance and women’s suffrage.
Other charter members of Huntertown’s Universalist congregation included the Hatches, a “staunch Republican” family from Hatch Hollow, Erie County, Pennsylvania, according to records turned up from there. Today the 1851 Universalist Church building still stands. It has been rehabbed into an apartment building and is located on Old 3 just south of Cedar Canyons Road.
In studying the genealogy and history of the Duntens, Parkers and Woods, I discovered that all came here from Jefferson County, New York, in the vicinity of Watertown--a place known in the nineteenth century as a hotbed of abolitionism. It also bears mentioning here that Ebenezer Dunten of Watertown, brother of Huntertown settlers Thomas and Ephraim Dunten, is noted as an abolitionist in a Jefferson County, New York, biography.
I also learned of several other local families who migrated from the Watertown vicinity in 1833-35, and it turns out they were all intermarried or associated with the Duntens, Woods and Parkers in one way or another. These were the Holbrooks, who settled near present-day LaOtto, and the Broughtons, Timmermans and Cramers, who settled just north of LaOtto in Swan Township, Noble County, along the old Lima Road.
The Holbrooks were charter members of the LaOtto Wesleyan Church, where oral tradition says slaves were hidden in the basement and belfry. Adorning an interior wall of the church today is the former front door, riddled with bullet holes. Some interior wainscotting and a pew, now gone, are also said to have shown evidence of gunfire. It is believed that the church was shot at by slave hunters, or possibly just those who disapproved of its activities.
The Wesleyans were antislavery Methodists who formed their own church because of the Methodists’ unwillingness, at the national level, to support an immediate and unconditional end to the practice of slavery. Other charter members of the LaOtto church, which originally met in a schoolhouse on the Holbrook property, were the Hogues, Gorrells, Bassetts and Parishes.
Mrs. Fred Knott of LaOtto, great granddaughter of John Hogue, says that she was told by her grandfather that as a small boy he would often see black people in the basement of the family’s home when he would wake up in the morning. They would always be gone when he’d return at the end of the day.
Her great grandfather would transport them in a hay-covered wagon to “the tall house north of Kendallville.” That would be the landmarked Underground Railroad home on Old 3 near Cree Lake that belonged to Stutley Whitford, a noted abolitionist, who along with his brother, Alonzo, were known to transport slaves further north to the town of Orland. (Here, a family named McGowan was active on the Underground Railroad, says descendant Diane Tichenor of Illinois.) The Whitfords had a younger brother, Noah Harrison Whitford, who was a neighbor of the Holbrooks and Hogues in LaOtto and whose widow married a Holbrook after Noah’s death.
Elsewhere in Noble County, an obituary says of Ira King of Swan Township that he was a “strong antislavery man.” And George Harvey, a Scottish immigrant who lived just north of Skinner Lake near Albion, is recorded as having helped fugitive slaves.
Mrs. Knott indicates that the Holbrooks, of course, were also participants, as were a family named Hansen, who lived near the intersection of 205 and 327, “just north of St. John’s.”
The Hogues owned considerable property in that part of Butler Township, DeKalb County, as did the DeLong and Fair families, both of whom came to the area by way of Miami County, Ohio. George Washington DeLong was the first cousin of Nathaniel Fitch’s wife, Sarah DeLong. He was the adoptive father of Effie King Hogue, wife of Henry. He is described in DeKalb County history as “a Republican of the most radical variety.” His lands were just north of the Fitch property, which straddled the Allen/DeKalb County line.
Contrary to Helm’s 1880 book, in which he says Nathaniel and Sarah Fitch were married in the home of Sarah’s parents in Ohio, family historian Betty Fitch believes they were more likely married in George Washington DeLong’s home. The confusion may have come from the fact that Sarah’s father was also named George.
Doubts exist as to whether Nathaniel Fitch could have been an abolitionist. He is said to have been a Democrat in sentiment and is known to have bought his sons’ way out of military service in the Civil War. It is possible, however, that he may have been a believer in pacifism and thus could not support the war. In any case, it seems unlikely that he could have been unaware of the antislavery sentiments or activities of his neighbors and kin. His wife first came to the Allen/DeKalb area with her sister, Christina DeLong, who was married to “staunch Republican” Abraham Fair.
A Fitch daughter, Sarah Elizabeth, married Judge Irving Franklin Stratton of Wabash County, brother of noted author Gene Stratton Porter. The Strattons’ father, Mark, is now known to have served as an Underground Railroad conductor in the town of Hopewell, Lagro Township.
A Fitch son, Amos, married Nancy Hunter, daughter of Huntertown’s namesake William Todd Hunter and Jane Ranney Buckingham. Notable about the Hunters was their involvement in the Universalist church; also that they came to the area in 1836 from Ann Arbor, Michigan, a hotbed of abolitionism where Michigan’s Antislavery Society was founded during roughly the same period.
The Hunters, incidentally, cleared a farm in 1836 in Sherman Township, St. Joseph County Michigan, before settling in Perry Township. It occurs to me they may have had a purpose in doing so--perhaps setting up a URR station further north.
The Fairs were originally from the Quaker stronghold of Frederick, Maryland, as were the Cornells, a known abolitionist family on County Road 68 just east of the settlement known as New Era on DeKalb County Road 11A. The Cornell house, today occupied by Auburn attorney John Martin Smith, is a landmarked Underground Railroad site. Mrs. Knott mentioned the Cornells as another family with whom her great grandfather had URR dealings.
Remarkably similar in architecture to the Cornell house is the Fisher West house on West Road near Huntertown, now owned by Don Seyfert. And though it is not a landmarked Underground Railroad site, oral tradition supports such a likelihood. The West family, who came to the area from Onondaga, New York, first lived next door to the Cornells in Butler Township.
According to Mrs. Alfred Bornkamp, she was told that the Hatches were involved in the Underground Railroad and that the Fisher West house was an Underground Railroad station by the late Mary Madeline Rhodes Hatch, wife of Versil Hatch, who was the grandson of pioneer Newman Versil Hatch and Abigail Parker. She remembers Mrs. Hatch talking about it at a Fitch family reunion on Auburn Road some years ago, possibly at the Gloyd home.
Other indicators that the Hatches may have been abolitionists comes from the marriage of Newman and Abigail’s daughter, Gertrude, to Fremont Lou Jones, son of abolitionist newspaperman David W. Jones, who published northern Indiana’s earliest abolition newspaper--the Western Aurora--in 1843, while still a teenager in Grant County. He moved to Fort Wayne in 1863 and founded the Fort Wayne Gazette, then a progressive Republican paper that is the ancestor of today’s Journal Gazette. After the death of Gertrude, Fremont Jones married her sister, Florence Hatch.
Another oral tradition was told to me by my mother, who spent time as a child at the home of her grandfather, Frederick Kell, on the Kell Road. The home today is owned by Ann and Russell Lyons. Originally it was owned by the Hatch family before it passed into the hands of the Kells.
She remembers being told as a child that the root cellar of this house was used for hiding slaves. The house was built in 1870, after the Civil War. However, its unusual root cellar--with both interior and exterior doors--may have been part of an earlier dwelling owned by the Hatches on the site.
Another oral tradition handed down by my grandmother, Carolyn Kell, is that free persons of color were known to have lived and worked on the Fisher West farm.
The Vandolahs and Hands, also my ancestors, piqued my interest as their place of origin in America was Amwell Township, Hunterdon County, New Jersey. This area, known as West Jersey, was originally populated by Dutch Quakers brought over by William Penn in colonial times, according to the book Albion’s Seed by David Hackett Fischer.
In the Vandolah genealogy is the name Rittenhouse (originally Rittinghuysen, according to Albion’s Seed), a Philadelphia Dutch Quaker family. The Huntertown Vandolahs also had cousins who parted with them in Ohio, the family’s first stop in their migrations to the west. The cousins settled in Dearborn County, Indiana, another area known in the 1830s for its antislavery Quakers. Born there in 1854 was a John Nixon Vandolah, Nixon also being a Quaker name.
Records indicate the Vandolahs in Huntertown had other religious affiliations by this time.
Because of their proximity to Dutch Ridge in Allen County, a Dutch Reformed settlement, I’d long assumed the Vandolahs were part of the Dutch Reformed wave of immigration to America, which occurred from about 1720 on, most entering the country via New York. The Vandolahs were in America by 1705.
The Vandolahs purchased an enormous piece of land in what became known as Devil’s Hollow in northern Allen County. One local history records that the people at the land office were amazed James Vandolah would want this land. He replied that he was a millwright and wanted the water rights to Cedar Creek. Still, far better waterways were available in the area than the spot he chose.
For years, people have speculated as to why Allen County has two Devil’s Hollows, and both areas are surrounded by folklore about witches and ghouls. (As mentioned earlier, the Aboite Devil’s Hollow is a documented Underground Railroad station.) One theory: if the inhabitants wanted to keep intruders out of their woods because they were operating Underground Railroad stations there, they may themselves have invented the scary mystique.
I’m putting this information out there in the hope that others will come forward and help fill in the picture. Please feel free to contact the Huntertown Historical Society. Or e-mail me at email@example.com.