Cabin of Jimmy and Rachel Silliven
Did Eliza Sleep Here?
Much of what we know today about the experiences of enslaved peoples on the Underground Railroad comes to us through oral testimonies given after the fact or passed down through the generations. One testimony describes Eliza traveling through Indiana to Michigan to reach Canada, rather than going through Ohio. Still another notes that Eliza escaped with a young son, and not a daughter. In Jay County, Indiana, oral testimony claims that Coffin did not take Eliza Harris to the Greenville Settlement. Instead, she was taken straight north into Pennville, Indiana following what Levi Coffin would call “the Quaker Trace”, known today as U.S. 27.
Just north of the small community of Pennville, Indiana is the restored cabin of Jimmy and Rachel Silliven that local history has identified as an Underground Railroad stop. The Silliven cabin sat along northern roads that eventually led to Michigan. Pennville is located north of where Cabin Creek, another prominent free Black community that was involved in Underground Railroad activity, was located. Cabin Creek is a confirmed area where Levi Coffin brought freedom seekers. A settlement mainly of free Black farmers in Randolph County, one can pass through what was that area by driving north of Indiana State Road 1 between Modoc and Farmland. Some of its residents were freedom seekers who did not continue north but chose to make a life in Indiana.
It can be difficult to balance the variety of stories that may have changed with their telling from one generation to another. Historians look at the widest variety of sources available to them in order to map the story of the Underground Railroad, even when significant contradictions emerge and may not be able to be resolved. Archaeologists are also trying to bring to light the role free Black communities had by looking at physical evidence and comparing their finding to documentary sources.
Historic sites often claim extra significance when important dignitaries visited them in the past. It is incredibly common, for example, for a site to advertise prominently that “George Washington slept here,” although his visit was likely only one short night in the site’s long history. By claiming connection to Eliza, even if just for one night, sites connected to the Underground Railroad connect themselves to this important woman’s life and journey and are able to connect a name and a specific story to their site that will help visitors connect with the stories of the thousands of brave men, women, and children who fought for their freedom along the Underground Railroad. While right now, we cannot categorically say which route to Canada Eliza and her family took, we do know that they ultimately reached freedom.