Persons of Color
No Haven on Free Soil
Has Some Friends That Are Freemen Living in a Cedar Swamp in That
that former haven being increasingly denied to
them after the 1750s, fugitive slaves in Pennsylvania sometimes
turned to the more dangerous alternative of trying to survive on
their own in a remote location. This tactic was in keeping with
a precedent set by fugitive slaves for hundreds of years. In Caribbean
society, fugitive slaves who banded together and set up camps in
the mountains or in swamps became known as Maroons, from the Spanish
word Cimarrón. Occupants of these Maroon settlements
lived a very harsh life, as they had to be constantly on guard
against discovery, yet had to hunt and try to grow enough crops
to survive. Frequently they supplemented their supplies by raiding
local plantations or by ambushing and robbing travelers.
settlements usually lasted only a short time before the occupants fell
prey to hunger, illness, or were killed by posses of local militia
or lawmen. In the North American colonies, Maroon settlements flourished
for brief periods in the lower south, particularly in areas where harsh
winter weather was not a detriment to survival.
runaway slaves in Pennsylvania often hid for days in surrounding woods,
and sometimes existed for months at a time in the mountains during
spring and summer, the cold winter weather almost always drove them
to seek other shelter, thus making Maroon communities impractical.
One of the few places used by fugitives in and around Pennsylvania
that came close, though, was the swampy and sparsely settled wetlands
around Philadelphia and extending into Delaware and New Jersey. These
swamps extended for hundreds of miles and were highly valued for the
cedar trees that flourished in them, but except for lumbering, they
were not heavily cultivated or otherwise used by white settlers, making
them perfect hiding places for escaped slaves.
Lebanon iron master Peter Grubb advertised for his slave Abel, who
had run away from the Chester County iron operation of James Sharps,
Grubb noted “It is supposed he harbours between New Castle and
St. George, or about Appquinimink, in Delaware State, as he has some
friends that are freemen living in a cedar swamp in that neighbourhood.” Abel
had already obtained a forged pass stating he was a free man, so it
seems he meant to stay in the cedar swamp Maroon community.
was also following in the footsteps of countless fugitive slaves before
him. Nearly thirty years before he made his escape, a runaway slave
called Cato was doing the same thing, according to his East New Jersey
master, Richard Stillwell. Cato, who preferred the name Toby, was a
Jamaican-born man of thirty years who bore the scars of cruel brandings
on his shoulders. A fortuneteller and musician, Toby had boldly made
his escape in January 1756 and headed for the cedar swamps with a forged
pass. Stillwell had not yet recovered his escaped slave by April of
that same year, but with the onset of warmer weather, and the vast
expanse of swamps to comb, it is unlikely he did.
slave who escaped into the swamps was the “Young Mulatto Fellow” named
Frank, who escaped in June 1764 from Thomas Witherspoon, near Philadelphia.
Like the New Jersey slaveholder Stillwell, Witherspoon had still not
recovered his slave after nearly six months, even though he knew he
was hiding “some where in the Cedar Swamps in the Jerseys, down
Delaware River, as his Mother, and others of his Acquaintance” were
near that area. Witherspoon was also certain that Frank had changed
his clothing and his name by the time of the advertisement.
existence in these ads of clues such as forged passes, family and friends
in the area, and the availability of clothing and resources that allow
fugitives to hide for months, all give reason to believe that a thriving
Maroon community existed in these cedar swamps.
slaves were not the only persons who utilized the swamps around this
area as hiding places. White bound servants were also believed to hide
in the swamplands after escaping from a bad situation. In 1740, the
ironmaster at the Nutt ironworks in Chester County advertised for the
escape of three white tradesmen who he felt would head for “the
Cedar Swamps in the Jerseys.” The men, a carpenter, a laborer,
and a tailor, all bore various marks of ill-use. Two of them had been “marked” on
the hand with gunpowder, and one of them had a noticeable inward cast
to one leg, where the bone had been broken and had healed badly.
gunpowder marks referred to—each man had his initials marked
on his hand—were early, crude tattoos made by piercing the skin
and rubbing gunpowder into the fresh wound. This form of bodily marking,
which was practiced by both men and women, was popular among soldiers,
sailors, bound servants, and others held to involuntary service. Although
it was considered a mark of the laboring and servant classes of society,
akin to the branding that was inflicted upon slaves and criminals,
those who occupied these lower rungs of the social structure wore their
homemade marks with pride.
other white, bound servants who made their escape into the cedar swamps
were fugitives from owner John Kirkpatrick, also in Chester County.
The men, who escaped in August 1752, were both of a dark complexion
and spoke with a brogue, were probably bound Irish laborers.
June 1755, John Wright, whose ferry was located on the west bank of
the Susquehanna River at Lancaster, lost an English servant man named
Henry Cole. Wright believed that Cole was headed for the cedar swamps
in the Jerseys, and noted that the man was “used to the sea,” and “has
a down look, short black hair, walks with his knees a little bending
out, has a large scar on one of his heels just above the shoe, bent
forward, and has a rocking walk.” Cole, at age twenty-three,
had obviously led a very harsh life to be so broken down at that age.22
these groups, fugitive slaves, white servants, former seamen, and others,
fled bondage to the cedar swamps in the region around Philadelphia,
New Jersey and Delaware. There they appear to have lived for varying
lengths of time, and evidence indicates that they lived in small communities
with friends and families.
had connections outside of the swamps. The family of twenty-year-old
Frank lived in a nearby town and may have supplied him with whatever
provisions he needed to remain in the swamps for so many months. Others
may have joined with the remnants of Nanticoke Indians who inhabited
the swamps and waterways of Kent and Sussex Counties in Delaware and
people living in that area came to be known as the Delaware Moors,
and although much of their history is not fully known, it is possible
that this mixed race community was the result of a cooperative Maroon
community of fugitive black slaves, local Indians, and white servants.
Watermen of this and other nearby regions would later become important
links on the Underground Railroad, and would transport many fugitive
slaves out of bondage in Virginia and Maryland and pass them into freedom
in Philadelphia and Wilmington.23
seekers who took to the wild further inland usually found safe harbor,
at least temporarily, in mountainous areas. Like the Caribbean Maroons
who escaped inland, away from the plantations clustered along the island
shorelines, these fugitives were also choosing to take their chances
in the remote, sparsely settled and uncultivated central Pennsylvania
forests that blanketed the ridge tops of the South Mountain range.
Here, among the ancient stands of native hemlock, oak, pine, and ash
trees, fugitive slaves fashioned huts and small cabins, usually on
or near a summit, as a base from which they could forage for food and
higher locations had the advantage of being farther away from established
farms, while affording a vantage point from which the valleys could
be kept under observation. A constant vigilance against pursuit was
necessary, because slave catchers did not always come searching right
away. A pursuer could take months or sometimes years before showing
up, somehow following an old, cold trail. For that reason, fugitives
hiding in the central Pennsylvania hills and mountains limited their
contact with neighbors to only those necessary for survival.
two ex-slaves who lived up in the backwoods of Blue Mountain, above
Harrisburg, are a good example of this type of Maroon strategy employed
in central Pennsylvania. The local stories about the slave-in-hiding
named George Washington, and his companion, whose name remains unknown
even to this day, depict a classic example of Maroon survival, except
that both men obtained needed supplies by trading a few days of work
with a local farmer for what they required, instead of waylaying unwary
course the latter behavior would have drawn immediate and unwelcome
attention to their presence, which seems precisely what they were intent
on avoiding. By trusting only farmer Umberger as a contact, avoiding
census takers, and keeping to themselves, the men maintained a very
stealthy existence on the side of the mountain, but by doing so they
also cut themselves off from news and the support of the community.
That fierce self-sufficiency may have been the undoing of the nameless
slave, who, according to the story, took poison after the death of
his partner, because he had no one left to depend upon for aid or protection.
similar case occurred in Union Township, Lebanon County, where a man
named Joseph Johns led a solitary life in a rude hut in the Blue Mountains
north of Lickdale. Like the fugitive slaves hiding on the mountainside
north of Harrisburg, many different stories about how Johns came to
inhabit his spot on the mountain have been documented. Some have him
arriving as early as 1840, as a young fugitive slave from Virginia,
coming to Lebanon by way of Chambersburg. According to this story,
Johns was traveling with a companion, with whom he had escaped, until
the companion was captured, leaving Johns to continue his journey in
search of freedom.
story places Johns’ arrival in Harrisburg in the year 1850, at
sixty years of age. This story tells of two companions who accompanied
Johns as far as the west shore of the Susquehanna River, across from
Harrisburg, where slave catchers discovered them. The two companions
were both captured, but Johns escaped by jumping into the river and
swimming and wading across to safety. He found shelter and work in
the mountains above Harrisburg, cutting wood for a living, and after
a few years moved east along the mountain to the homestead he established
on the John Fehler farm in Union Township.
are common threads throughout the various stories. All identify Joseph
Johns as a fugitive slave who lived alone and performed various odd
jobs to make a living. In addition to woodcutting, he was also said
to be a collier, and a laborer on the nearby Schuylkill and Susquehanna
Railroad. Joseph Johns apparently had more open dealings with local
citizens, unlike the two men who kept to themselves in the Blue Mountains
above Harrisburg. But Johns also lived much longer than they did, dying
in 1906. It is possible Johns maintained a very solitary existence
for much of his life, and only expanded his dealings with locals in
the last few decades of his life. That would explain the dearth of
details about his early life, while explaining his extensive connections
to the Moonshine Church, where he is buried. He does not appear in
any census listings for Union Township, giving credence to the stories
that he intentionally maintained a very guarded existence.24
facts surrounding Joseph Johns’ early life and origins may never
be definitely established, but regardless of whether he was born in
1794, as his tombstone suggests, or in the 1820s, as one of the local
stories about his life would have it, his chosen lifestyle provides
another example of Maroon behavior among fugitive slaves in central
Joseph Johns nor the aforementioned Harrisburg
Blue Mountain slaves turned to banditry to support themselves,
as did many Maroons in Caribbean culture. It was not a necessary
part of their basic survival needs, as they were able to obtain
what they needed by bartering occasional labor and products (Johns
is said to have produced and sold charcoal for extra money). It
also would not have been long tolerated by local authorities, as
each was located in an area that was much more settled than the
wild mountainous areas of Jamaica or Antigua.
they led solitary lifestyles and generally foraged, trapped, fished
or otherwise produced what they needed, they did allow certain limited
commerce and interactions with neighboring farmers, marking the major
difference between this benign form of Maroon lifestyle, with the more
predatory style that was common in the Caribbean, South America and
in the southern colonies of North America.
there was at least one instance of some fugitive slaves in the Cornwall
area who may have lived, for a limited time, a Maroon lifestyle that
included preying on local inhabitants for supplies. In a previous chapter,
we looked at the iron industry’s heavy use of slaves and servants,
and of the frequency of escape from those same furnaces. The necessity
for easy access to iron deposits and large amounts of charcoal to fire
the furnaces led to their locations in very large, dense forests, in
mountainous land: ideal habitat for Maroon survival. As noted, such
areas provided shelter, food, fuel, and lots of hiding places.
masters acknowledged that runaway slaves frequently hid out in the
surrounding woods, sometimes for weeks and even months at a time. Very
often, the slave owner would not undertake the expense of placing a
runaway ad for several months, on the assumption, or hope, that the
slave would tire of the harsh outdoor conditions and lack of regular
meals, and return on his own. But the lure of freedom kept the growling
of many a freedom seeker’s belly from overpowering the urge to
return to bondage, and many either stayed in the woods until they were
eventually caught, or until they moved on to more hospitable circumstances.
Those with a determined Maroon spirit would have stayed to tough it
out, trying every possible method of survival before surrendering.
may have been two such men who ambushed the Lebanon Township collector
Benjamin Moore, as previously related, on a spring day in 1787. The
two “black coloured Villains” stopped Moore on a lonely,
winding mountain path, produced firearms, and forced him to hand over
more than 400 pounds in currency, then fled into the hills, presumably
back to their hidden lair. Their identity was never established, and
no follow-up story of their capture was published. Were these two men,
dressed in rags, foragers for a rural Lebanon Maroon settlement? There
were no free African Americans living in this area at that time, giving
more credence to the thought that they were fugitive slaves, hiding
in the thickly wooded low mountain spur, in classic Maroon tradition.
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Gazette, 5 June 1740, 13 August 1752, 3 June 1755, 15 April
1756, 22 November 1764, 25 April 1781.
The escaped slave Toby had been branded while in Jamaica with the letters “BC” on
his left shoulder. About that same time, the British army used the same
brand, applied to the left side of troublesome and unruly soldiers, for “Bad
Character.” It is likely that the brands on Toby, whose owner described
him as “sly, artful” and deceptive, were also meant to label
him as such.
Kolhoff, “Fugitive Communities in Colonial America,” in Archiving
Early America, ed. Don Vitale, Ancestry.com, http://www.earlyamerica.com/review/2001_summer_fall/fugative.html
(accessed 29 September 2008).
24. Steve Snyder, “Student
Tracks Johns’ Legend,” Patriot-News, 20 January
2003, B1-2; Al Winn, “Historical Society Acquires Relic of Escaped
Slave,” Sunday Patriot-News, 30 March 1997, B3.
Joseph Johns does not appear in any census records for Lebanon County,
from 1850 to 1900. The closest match is a 53-year- old black man named
Joseph Jones, who was enumerated in 1870, living in a single person household
in neighboring East Hanover Township, Lebanon County. Although the location
is close, and the name is very similar, it is more likely that this person
was related to the free African American Jones family of East Hanover,
and is not the reclusive Joseph Johns. Much of what is known about Joseph
Johns was uncovered by Annville, Pennsylvania native Kate Welch, who
studied the life and legend of Joseph Johns for her undergraduate anthropology
thesis for the University of Pennsylvania. John’s homestead is
preserved in its historic location on the grounds of the Camp Bashore
Boy Scout Reservation, Jonestown, PA.