Underground Railroad: Indiana State Laws

Indiana State Laws and the State Register for Blacks

As escaped slaves made their difficult journeyed toward freedom, Indiana seemed like a promised land – a free border state along the Ohio River. However, many already free African Americans and those who escaped via the Underground Railroad faced harsh discrimination in the so-called “free” state. Those who lived and passed through today’s Hoosier National Forest in southern Indiana during the 19th century did not always get the freedoms they had hoped for.

The Indiana state constitutions of 1816 and 1851 both demonstrated racial prejudices and forced even more hardships on African Americans who lived or passed through the state. When Indiana became a state in 1816, the constitution prohibited slavery but nothing was done to protect the civil rights of the Black population. The 1816 laws prohibited African Americans from voting, serving in the militia, and other basic civil rights.

In 1831, Indiana legislature required all African American residents and newcomers to register with their local authorities and pay a $500 bond as a guarantee of good behavior. The laws not only racially discriminated against Blacks and half black individuals, but since the bond required a White witness and the register required the Black person’s physical description, the laws publically reinforced racial superiority.

As tensions over slavery grew nationally, racial hostilities rapidly increased in Indiana. The state’s Constitution of 1851 prohibited any Black or half black individual from entering, passing through, or settling into the state of Indiana. Those who entered were fined between $5-10. However, African Americans already in the state were allowed to stay.

With Indiana being an important place for freedom seekers, the Underground Railroad in the region became even more crucial after 1851.


Earl E. McDonald, “The Negro in Indiana Before 1881”, Indiana Magazine of History (1931) 27, https://scholarworks.iu.edu/journals/index.php/imh/article/view/6622/6965

PBS, “Race-Based legislation in the North,” http://www.pbs.org/wgbh/aia/part4/4p2957.html

Indiana Historical Bureau, “Constitution of 1816,” http://www.in.gov/history/2460.htm

Indiana Historical Bureau, “Being Black in Indiana,” http://www.in.gov/history/2548.htm

Stephen Middleton, The Black Laws in the Old Northwest, 197-204.

This information about the Underground Railroad is part of a geo-located multi-forest interpretive program. Please contact the U.S. Forest Service Washington Office Recreation, Heritage, and Volunteer Resources program leadership with any questions or to make changes.  SGV – Recreation Data and Information Coordinator.

At a Glance

Information Center: The U.S. Forest Service has created this multi-Forest interpretive program to highlight people and places along the historic Underground Railroad. Some of these sites are “virtual” locations and are intended to provoke thoughts and conversation but may not have anything physical present on the ground.  These locations are generally relevant to the topics presented on the webpage.  Please use caution when traveling to these remote locations and consult your local Forest Service office for more details. All of the sites highlighted in this program can be seen by visiting http://www.fs.fed.us/ivm/ and searching within the magnifying glass for “Underground Railroad.”


Interpretive Areas

Recreation Areas

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