A Rosetta stone on slavery's doorstep: Eleutherian College and the lost antislavery history of Jefferson County, Indiana

Mark Allan Furnish, Purdue University


This study examines the relationship between abolitionism and antislavery sentiment in Jefferson County, located in southeastern Indiana on the north bank of the Ohio River. As the vast bulk of scholarship on abolitionism, antislavery politics, Indiana history, and Ohio Valley regionalism does not acknowledge the presence of either abolitionism or serious antislavery sentiment anywhere in southern Indiana, this study makes an original contribution to all of these lines of historical enquiry. It begins by quickly sketching the short but significant life of Eleutherian College, one of only a handful of institutions in the antebellum North to provide both common and higher education regardless of race or gender. Located in Lancaster Township of Jefferson County, only ten miles north of the Ohio River and the slave state of Kentucky, the school actively enrolled black students from throughout the South between 1848 and 1861, thus brazenly defying Indiana’s “Negro Exclusion Law” of 1852, which prohibited the migration of free African Americans into the state. The school was the product of a community of white abolitionists, largely but not exclusively New England in origin and Baptist in faith, who battled slavery for roughly thirty years by means legal and illegal, including working closely with free blacks and whites throughout the region as part of the Underground Railroad. Although a few older works on Indiana history acknowledge the existence of Eleutherian College and its founders, they are largely presented as exceptional phenomena located in a minuscule pocket of antislavery activists in an otherwise unbroken landscape of negrophobic Upland Southerners. This study demonstrates that rather than being utterly isolated, the Lancaster abolitionists and their unique school represented the pinnacle of an antislavery impulse that had existed in the county since its founding in 1810. In fact, the story of Eleutherian College functions as an historical Rosetta Stone. Important and fascinating in its own right, Eleutherian’s primary significance is that it reveals that antebellum Jefferson County was an antislavery environ, a place where antislavery sentiment and racial tolerance were significant enough that abolitionists black and white had the requisite social space to engage in activities that directly attacked slavery and racial discrimination. This reality has been completely lost to locals and historians alike for generations. The dissertation is divided into two parts. Part I consists of six chapters that explain the forces that lay the foundation for the Jefferson County antislavery environ, specifically antebellum settlement patterns, Jeffersonian yeoman republicanism, the tension between environmental and essential racial theory, and evangelical Christianity. Part II consists of five chapters that detail the rise and operation of abolitionism in Jefferson County, describe how public memory of abolitionism in the county became lost for nearly a century, and explain how the story of Eleutherian College and the Jefferson County antislavery environ contribute to various lines of historiography. The study provides evidence that enhances Stanley Harrold’s thesis that black and white xi abolitionists used aggressive tactics to undermine both slavery and racial inequality along the borderlands between the Lower North and the Upper South. As concerns the history of Indiana, this dissertation contests the simplistic notion that antebellum Indiana was divided between a “localist” southern one-third populated by negrophobe natives of the Upland South and a “nationalist” northern two-thirds populated by commercial oriented natives of the Midlands and Greater New England cultural regions, and demonstrates instead that Indiana – especially its southeastern region – was culturally multifaceted and heavily shaped by local settlement and development patterns. As related to Ohio Valley regionalism, the study fully embraces Andrew Cayton’s insight that the Ohio River played a complex duel role as a trade and communications artery that economically united both banks while also constituting a legal and cultural border between free and slave states, by demonstrating that most residents of Jefferson County simultaneously embraced an identity as “Westerners” and as citizens of a “free state.” Lastly, as concerns Civil War causation, the study affirms Stanley Harrold’s assertion that borderlands conflict over slavery was real, prolonged, and had national consequences that contributed to the coming of war, but demonstrates that he undervalues the ideological and social context that gave that border conflict meaning to northern citizens.




Larson, Purdue University.

Subject Area

Religious history|Black history|American history|Geography

Off-Campus Purdue Users:
To access this dissertation, please log in to our
proxy server