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Quaker Heritage

Richmond’s first white settlers were mainly Quakers from Guilford County, North Carolina. By the first decade of the nineteenth century, the North Carolina Friends found themselves in an intolerable position. The Quakers were opposed to slavery which led them to buy black men out of bondage and to teach blacks to read and write so the blacks could participate more equitably in society. But North Carolina's cotton economy depended on slave labor, and North Carolina's General Assembly began passing harsh laws forbidding anyone to educate blacks, free or slave. The Friends could not find peace in such an environment. The pro-slavery people persecuted the Friends for their religious beliefs and their attempts to improve the lot of the Negro.

In the first years of the nineteenth century, surveyors and trappers had opened up the Northwest Territory for permanent settlers. In the Carolina Piedmont, backwoods rumors circulated among the Friends that a man could obtain a quarter section of good land in the Northwest Territory at less than a dollar an acre. Since the Northwest Ordinance of 1787 had barred slavery in the Northwest Territory, this area was an ideal settling place for North Carolina Quakers. Slowly at first, families pulled up stakes and began the trek up the Wilderness Trail through Kentucky for the Northwest. They were bound for the Indiana Territory, carved out of the old Northwest Territory in 1803.

Coming here in 1806, Quakers Jeremiah Cox, John Smith and David Hoover were the first to settlers on the banks of the Whitewater River. Together, they laid out a village. David built a cabin of logs for his homestead. John Smith constructed his primitive cabin on a bluff overlooking the river and started to farm the land on the south side of what the settlers considered their main roadway. Jeremiah Cox settled to the north.

Once the story of their find had been told in North Carolina, other Quaker families chose to abandon the security of settled lands for the prospect of religious freedom and good lands in Indiana. The staggering rows of cabins, and the two stores became the village known as "Smithville". In the summer of 1818 Jeremiah Cox, whose lands joined those of John Smith on the north, platted a larger village and called it "Coxborough".

By September of that year, the area had been settled so rapidly, it was decided to incorporate as one and call the village Richmond. The name, meaning "lofty mountain," honors a county in England, the ancestral home of Cox and Smith.. The population at that time was about one-hundred and fifty. Farms flourished, mills tapped the power of the river, and by 1820 the village made its first appearance in the Federal Census with 320 people.

With the arrival of more Friends, and other settlers, the community rapidly grew, prompting Cox to exclaim as he headed to wilderness north of Richmond, "I'd rather see a buck's tail than a tavern sign." The land platted by Cox north of Main Street was bought by fellow Quaker Charles Starr in 1826.

What the National Road didn't do for Richmond's growth, Starr did. Rightfully known as "the town builder," Starr assured industrial strength by giving land that borders what is now the Starr Historic District to the railroad, stipulating that it be used for a depot. Richmond became a hub of industry, eventually drawing laborers from southern states. Today, many of Richmond's citizens have roots in Tennessee and Kentucky. Quakers, however, owned the mills and boundaries along the Whitewater River.

Click here for more information on the Quakers of Richmond/Wayne County


Fully 30 percent of Richmond’s population in the mid-nineteenth century, however, was not Quaker. To accommodate traffic west in the mid-nineteenth century, German stone cutters came from Cincinnati to build a bridge across the Whitewater River. They settled south of Main Street, occupying homes in what is now the Old Richmond Historic District. That segment of the population contributed skilled craftsmanship to the Starr Piano factory and joined Quakers as town merchants.

The Quakers and the Germans established a town whose ordinances reflected shared values: family, austerity, strong work ethic, and faith. They did have one major difference. Germans liked a glass now and then, mostly now. The town's stand on alcohol consumption came not from decisions made by the men in city hall, but by womenfolk on a southside sidewalk. The temperance movement in Richmond was strong until one evening when Quaker ladies staged a quiet protest outside a German tavern. From an upstairs window overlooking the hymn-singing Quakers, hausfraus staged their own protest--with the contents of a chamber pot.

Just north of Richmond on US 27 is the small town of Newport, now called Fountain City. The town was a geyser of hope to thousands of slaves traveling the Underground Railroad to freedom in Canada. The Levi Coffin Home, built in 1839 complete with hidden passages, was a stop-over on the illegal route. Many Newport Quakers vehemently opposed to slavery formed a committee to aid Coffin. The council would plot strategies for each runaway, and their wives met regularly with Catharine Coffin to sew clothes for their wards. One such ward was the heroic Eliza, immortalized in Uncle Tom’s Cabin. During the 20 years that the Coffin House served as “Grand Central Station” of the Underground Railroad, it housed more than 2,000 slaves. All were safely delivered.

The Coffins made many pilgrimages to further their Abolitionist cause to the Indiana Yearly Meeting, held in a large brick structure in Richmond's Starr District. Today, the Meeting House is home to the Wayne County Historical Museum. Established in 1930 by Quaker Julia Meek Gaar, the museum first housed her substantial personal collection. Heir to an industrial fortune (she was, in 1882, one of Richmond's 47 millionaires), Gaar traveled extensively and amassed, according to a Smithsonian director, "the largest and most valuable historical collection of any woman in America." Today, the museum boasts a turn-of-the-century general store, a fully operational 1880s blacksmith shop, an Egyptian mummy, and displays many of the 13 automobiles manufactured in Richmond.

The beginnings of Earlham College in 1847 showed the continuing Quaker influence in the area. Today, Wayne County is home to several Quaker institutions of international importance including Earlham College, the Earlham School of Religion (the world's only accredited theological seminary), the Quaker Hill Conference Center, and the headquarters of Friends United Meeting. Earlham College has an annual enrollment of 1150 students.