Updated: Apr 6, 2022
In the fall of 2020, when I began to research the events and people mentioned in the 1879 article published in the Indianapolis Journal about Robert Jefferson and his claim to be the mulatto son of President Thomas Jefferson, I set out first to research the first person mentioned in that article: Dr. W.C. Thompson.
Thompson had spoken with the reporter to confirm the veracity of Robert’s paternity, and had given the reporter Robert’s address so that he could go there to interview the former enslaved man living on Minerva Street in Indianapolis.
Thompson and his story were elusive to me at first. So, because the article mentioned many other people by name, I chose to put a pin in Thompson and go after the “lower-hanging fruit.” This past week, though, I got a “bee in my bonnet” and went back to dig into Thompson’s story and see if I could find out who this man was.
In the 1879 article, Robert is described as someone who had been employed by Dr. Thompson; he very well have been hired by Thompson for his carpentry skills. But the more information I’ve found about William Clinton Thompson and his “FAN Club” (friends, associates and neighbors) leads me to believe Thompson and Robert Jefferson may have known each other long before the article was published.
According to his obituary, published 20 April 1897 in the Indianapolis News, Thompson was born in Butler County, Pennsylvania, in 1812; he was orphaned at an undetermined but young age when his parents died. The identity of his parents remains a mystery to me.
Another obituary published 21 April 1897 in the Indianapolis Journal had significantly different – and I suspect more accurate – information about how Thompson’s life took him from his birthplace in Butler County, Pennsylvania, to Indianapolis. (I say this because the chronology of his life events makes more sense than in the other.) This obit states Thompson graduated from the Ohio Medical College in Cleveland in 1835, then located in Jennings County, Indiana, to serve out his residency. Here he met and married Vernon resident Mary Chalifant New on 6 December 1837; the couple then moved to Saint Charles, Missouri, in 1841, where he began his practice of medicine. In 1848, according to the obituary, the Thompsons moved to Indianapolis, where William became a prominent, well-known physician, local politician and, eventually, a state senator representing Marion County in the Indiana Legislature.
His politics seems to follow the course of someone who was active in the abolition of slavery. In his first term as senator, from 1869 to 1871, William was a member of the Republican Party – back when it was truly the “Party of Lincoln.” By his second term, 1889 to 1891, he had switched alliance to the Democratic Party, which, by then was the liberal party.
A charter member of the Indiana Medical Society, Thompson served as a physician for two Indiana governors: Oliver P. Morton and Thomas Andrews Hendricks, who, coincidentally or otherwise, had once lived in Madison, Indiana.
During the Civil War, Thompson served as a surgeon with the Union armies of Gen. George McClellan and Gen. John Pope.
The Journal obituary describes Thompson as “a friend of the hebrews and an ardent champion of the cause of the negro.” Indeed, his long-time medical partner, Dr. J.H. Woodburn, told the Journal not only of Thompson’s intelligence but also of his nature.
“The full extent of his benevolence and charity the world will never know. The poor Polish Jews and the colored race of people best know of his charitable character. he kept his own council and was generous to a fault,” Woodburn said in tribute to his friend and colleague.
How Thompson was drawn to his charity to Polish Jews and Blacks isn’t clear, but might be explained by the family he married into. His father-in-law John Bowman New, a Quaker, was born in 1793 in Guilford County, North Carolina; five years later, in that same county, came the birth of another famous Quaker, Levi Coffin.
In the mid- to late-1800s, the News moved to Richmondy, Wayne County, Indiana, where the family became prominent. About the same time, it seems, Coffin moved to Newport, a community also in Wayne County, where he and his wife worked as leaders of the Underground Railroad – an organization, it is said, that Coffin had led as its president. Another prominent Quaker in Richmond was William Cooper Starr, whose son, Horace Chipman Starr, married Mary Eaton Thompson, daughter of William and Mary New Thompson.
So, for me, the most significant question I have after discovering all of these connections is just exactly how – and when – Dr. Thompson and Robert Jefferson met. After his daughters graduated from Eleutherian, Jefferson moved the family to live in a prominent black community in Indianapolis – a prosperous community that later became home to Madam C.J. Walker’s hair-products empire. Maps show Thompson’s home on West Ohio Avenue, near downtown Indianapolis, wasn’t very far from where Jefferson built a home for his family.
In his memoir, “Reminiscences,” Levi Coffin tells of a trip he made to Canada: “In the summer of 1854, I was on a visit to Canada, accompanied by my wife and daughter, and Laura S. Haviland of Michigan. At the close of a meeting which we attended, at one of the colored churches, a woman came up to my wife, seized her hand, and exclaimed: ‘How are you, Aunt Katie? God Bless you!”
The woman was the true-life “Eliza Harris,” immortalized by Harriet Beecher Stowe as the self-emancipated woman who escaped with her 2-year-old son across a partially frozen and churning Ohio River near Ripley, Ohio. The true-life Eliza was taken to live with the Coffin family until she could safely be transported to Canada where she could live in freedom among thousands of other self-emancipated slaves who found new lives in colored communities in Ontario.
Coffin continued: “At Amherstburg, generally called Fort Malden, and many other places, we met with many, both men and women, whom we had assisted on their way to liberty, and their expressions of thankfulness and regard were very gratifying to us.”
For me, all of this begs one main question: Was Levi Coffin instrumental in helping Robert Jefferson go to Canada, as Robert said he did between his manumission in 1852 until 1854, when he brought Celia and their daughters to Madison, Indiana? Are the dates a coincidence, or are they the clue I’ve been looking for, when it comes to Robert’s travels?
In a previous post, I speculated that, once freed, Robert Jefferson may have transported family members, legally or otherwise, from Mississippi to Canada. Most likely, that would have included his mother Milley and possibly siblings (half or full, if she had been with the president before or after Robert was born). Milley who would have been in her 70s by that point, as I believe she was born about 1785. I have also speculated that Robert Jefferson, and his paternity, were well-known to whites, both slave-holding and abolitionist, and blacks, whether free or enslaved.
Is it possible Levi Coffin, his wife, and their associates had helped Robert move his family across the "River Jordan" to Indiana or Ohio and put them on the road to their freedom in Canada, just as they had with thousands of others? Would this be how Robert Jefferson came to know Dr. Thompson? Would this also be part of Robert's decision to move Celia and their daughters to Madison, Indiana, to enroll them in Eleutherian College, and eventually on to Indianapolis?
I may never know for sure, but I am going to keep pulling at all of these threads. I am amazed how every now and then new information pops up.
Something or someone led Robert to Madison and Indianapolis – and before that, from Mississippi to Canada and back. It seems unlikely he could have devised any such plan without seeking the counsel of others – particularly whites and blacks who were significant in the workings of the Underground Railroad.
I just can’t help but think that none of this is coincidence.
Until the next find!