Persons of Color
Backlash, Violence and Fear: The Violent Decade
the people of the northern borders will not obey or respect the
common law of the United States,
the people of the neighboring southern States should make them know
and respect the law of the sword, the rifle, the tar barrel, and
vine. A fierce border war is evidently to be the only protection
and hope of the southern states.
Excerpt from a fiery editorial piece published in the Richmond
the 1840s were a decade in which Harrisburg anti-slavery advocates could boast,
in the words of activist John C. Bowers, that “the
cause has been onward,” such forward momentum on behalf of “the
downtrodden and oppressed” was brought to an abrupt halt early
in the next decade by passage of the Fugitive Slave Act, in late 1850.
Even as the
African American residents of Short Street were gathering in a public
show of defiance to protect a family of fugitive slaves secreted
in their midst from the clutches of Southern slave catchers, larger
events were playing out on the national stage that would radically
methods that they and other Harrisburg Underground Railroad activists
had employed with success for decades. The large public turnout of
African American citizens in support of captured fugitives, and the
of talented local lawyers to argue the cause of human rights on behalf
of accused slaves before impartial judges was about to be severely
stifled by the new legislation. Although these tactics would later
would again become valuable and effective weapons in the abolitionist
arsenal, their temporary loss was keenly felt by those activists who,
at the start of the decade, had still been publicly defiant, and who
had been emboldened by the state’s endorsement of the Personal
it was the bold and defiant actions of Pennsylvania’s
anti-slavery activists that triggered a Southern push to incorporate
the most severe provisions into the new law. By the time, in 1847, that
Dickinson languages professor John McClintock had vehemently voiced his
opposition to the use of the Carlisle jail and deputies to detain Lloyd
Brown, Ann Brown, and Hester Norman as escaped slaves, thus setting in
motion events that would culminate with Hagerstown slave owner James
Hugh Kennedy lying in Liberty Alley with fatal injuries, Southern slave
holders had already long been expressing outrage at the complicity of
some Pennsylvanians in abetting the escape of their slaves. Kennedy’s
death gave the slave owners a new cause and new impetus to renew their
lobbying for protection of their rights under the Constitution—rights
that had been affirmed, they pointed out, by the United States Supreme
Court in Prigg v. Pennsylvania.
Pennsylvania’s anti-slavery advocates did not see it that way,
and because they had the momentum of public opinion on their side due
to the notorious abuses of kidnappers like Thomas Finnegan, they could
hold back the tide of pro-Southern sympathies through the 1840s with
their Personal Liberty Laws.2 Nationally, though, the slavery question
remained a thorny issue, spurring a furious national debate over the
real reasons for the 1846 War with Mexico. William Lloyd Garrison published
a guest editorial in the Liberator that summarized the war from the abolitionist
point of view. It railed, “Our readers will perceive that hostilities
have actually commenced between Mexico and the United States. This is
no more than war anticipated at the commencement of the efforts to rob
Mexico of her territory. This is clearly a war for slavery! The Seminole
war was a war to break up the refuge of the fleeing slaves in the everglades
of Florida. The present war is a war for the extension of territory for
the accommodation of Slavery.”3
generally remained openly opposed to the war through most of its prosecution
and had sympathetic representatives in
resolutions to end the war and begin peace negotiations with
Mexico. Supporters of the war, including President James K. Polk, accused
those who spoke out against the hostilities of giving aid and
the enemy. Such charges were based on the steady drumbeat of
in abolitionist newspapers like the Liberator, which called the
most atheistical and impious war ever recorded on the gory page of History.”4 Garrison, in typical style, was not gun-shy about promoting the inglorious
side of war and thereby placing himself and his newspaper on the unpopular
side of public opinion. In his 30 July 1847 edition, he reprinted a story
from the Tennessee Whig on the losses of just two local regiments:
Col. W.P. Campbell's first regiment of Tennessee volunteers numbered
1,000 brave men on their march to Mexico. Only 350, rank and file, of
this gallant regiment, returned with their Colonel to their homes.
Col. Wm. T. Haskell's 2d regiment of Tennessee volunteers numbered
1,040, on their march to Mexico. Only 360 of these gallant men, rank
returned with Col. Haskell, to their homes and friends—their wives
and children—their fathers, mothers, sisters, brothers, and
other relatives and friends.
The rest of them—thirteen hundred and thirty —sickness
and bullets, disease end shot and swords, have consigned to an early
in a foreign land, far from their native homes, without coffins and
winding sheets, or head-stones to tell who they are or where they
residents had no trouble deciding how they viewed the war with Mexico.
They placed their support squarely behind the Cameron Guards,
a company of one hundred local men who volunteered for duty when President
Polk asked Pennsylvania for troops to serve in the war. The Harrisburg
men were enrolled in late December 1846 and mustered into service at
Pittsburgh on 2 January 1847. From Pittsburgh, they traveled south to
New Orleans, from where they departed for the battlefields in the west.
In Mexico, they saw plenty of action, taking part in many of the major
battles, including the climactic storming of Chapultepec Castle and the
occupation of Mexico City.
nineteen men died in combat or from disease and another fifteen to
twenty were missing due to wounds or desertion when the sixty or so
survivors returned to Harrisburg in July 1848 to a joyous welcome.
including the ringing of church bells and the firing of cannons along
Market Street. The veterans were then escorted to the public grounds
next to the Capitol to listen to patriotic speeches in their honor.5
grounds also happened to adjoin Tanner’s Alley, and
the excitement doubtless attracted many of the residents of that
neighborhood, who would have enjoyed the festivities and temporary
holiday to honor
the returning war heroes even though many among them were dedicated
abolitionists who faithfully read the anti-war stories and editorials
in the pages
of the Liberator.
after the 1848 victory celebration, one of the fruits of that war—Alta California—would seriously unbalance Washington’s
never-ending slavery balancing act when it was announced in the
New York Herald that settlers had discovered gold on its soil. By December,
full-scale gold rush was on, as tens of thousands of people flocked
by land and sea to San Francisco to seek their fortunes.
of “Forty-Niners,” as the prospectors were called,
in reference to the year that gold fever enticed huge numbers
of people to abandon their homes for the gold fields, included many
and their slaves, but it also included many northeasterners with
an anti-slavery bent, and even a few hardcore abolitionists, such as
Dr. Lewis C. Gunn,
of Philadelphia. Others perceived that they cold reap a tidy
profit without ever leaving the east coast.
merchant, anti-slavery lecturer, and Underground Railroad activist
Arnold Buffum was savvy enough to capitalize
on the gold
craze among abolitionists, advertising in the National
Era that he had for
ready sale “All necessary California outfits of the first class,
and at the lowest prices including quicksilver gold separators, California
blankets - red, blue, green, and brown; California hats, &c.”
rush even held out promise of a new start for some fugitive slaves,
who sought not only the possible fortune of
a gold strike,
but freedom among the multi-ethnic people who were settling
there. One man
who left central Pennsylvania for San Francisco was escaped
slave and Underground Railroad activist James Williams. Williams
escaped from Elkton, Maryland in the late 1830s, met Daniel
Gibbons in Lancaster,
and later joined the movement, working in partnership with
to smuggle fugitive slaves in the Reading, Lancaster, and
Pottsville areas.6 Williams was just one of many African Americans,
and enslaved, who left Pennsylvania for California.
to add this new territory, by now referred to simply as California,
to the Union became intense as the gold fields
large numbers of people—about ninety thousand in 1849 alone—overwhelming
the capacity of the territorial authorities to effectively govern. But
the addition of one more state would upset the precarious balance of
fifteen slave states and fifteen free states.
In addition, California presented a particularly thorny
problem because its territorial constitution prohibited
a provision that
John C. Calhoun asserted was an abolitionist plot to gain
in the U.S. Senate. In reality, territorial delegates had
debated the slavery question fiercely in California’s
1849 Constitutional Convention, and in the end, the pro-slavery
advocates failed to get their desired
protections written into the final document. It appeared
that Congress had to admit California to the Union as a
free state, but in order for
this to happen, a unique solution to maintain harmony among
a dangerously polarized nation was needed.
came from Kentucky Senator Henry Clay in the form of “an
amicable arrangement” that would become known as
the Compromise of 1850. In his series of bills, known
collectively as the Omnibus Bill,
California would be admitted to the Union as a free state
as stipulated by its constitution, a concession to those
who opposed the extension
of slavery in the west. Pro-slavery advocates were in
turn placated with the provision that popular sovereignty
would determine the future of
slavery within the Mexican Cession territories of New
Mexico and Utah.
this still allowed for an imbalance in the U.S.
Senate, Clay proposed to protect the interests of slaveholders
a substantial strengthening of the 1793 Fugitive Slave
had been progressively weakened by the patchwork of
laws that developed in the Northern states over the decades.
This “Fugitive Slave Act
of 1850” mollified the slaveholders and the South
because it rolled back the protective Personal Liberty
Laws passed by Pennsylvania and
other Northern states to shield African American residents
from kidnappers and slave hunters.
of bitter debate, Congress passed the compromise legislation, hailing
it as a final end to
question, and in September
1850, President Millard Fillmore signed it into law.
What resulted from this
monumental effort to forestall the threatened breakup
of the union was not much of a compromise, and it
to the slavery
question that had plagued this country from its birth.
of the Compromise was the 1850 Fugitive Slave Law, which was intended
to soothe the friction
by standardizing and codifying the process for
hunting, capturing, and returning fugitive slaves to their
owners across state
lines. Instead of reducing friction, though, the
new law hit the gears
relations like a bucket of rocks, and opened the
border counties of Pennsylvania
to a decade of unprecedented violence.
1. “Mine Dream,” Daily
Ohio State Journal, 19 November 1850.
2. A good example
of the pro-southern sympathies held by local citizens is in the prospectus
published in 1846 by Carlisle resident G. A. Doyle
for a new newspaper to be devoted to the capture of fugitive slaves.
The publishing venture, to be named the Pennsylvania News, was “to
be devoted to the interests of the people in Maryland and Virginia, to
expose those who secrete fugitive negroes from the South.” Furthermore,
the publisher of the newspaper proposed “to engage men in all the
towns along the Pennsylvania line, to give us the earliest information
regarding any runaway negroes who may attempt to pass through Pennsylvania.” That
information was to be “put into the hands of our patrons as soon
as possible.” The publisher would also solicit “descriptive
letters” written by the owners of escaped slaves, publish them
in sufficient quantities, and forward them to volunteer pro-South border
guards. The proposed publishing venture does not appear to have gone
into operation, however. Liberator, 15 May 1846.
3. “War for Slavery,” Utica
Liberty Press, republished in Liberator, 5 June 1846.
4. For peace
resolutions and anti-war resolutions see Liberator, 25 February 1848.
For accusations that peace advocates were giving
to the enemy, see Liberator, 12 February 1847.
5. In 1869,
the Keystone State’s Mexican War volunteers would be
honored by a sixty-four-foot marble and granite monument, erected
on the same grounds at which Harrisburg cheered its war survivors on
day in 1848. Morgan, Annals of Harrisburg, 207-211. Frew, Building
Era, 18 April 1850; Williams, Life and Adventures, 11-16, 24.
merchant Arnold Buffum, 1782-1859, was first
of the New England Anti-Slavery Society, and the person who
convinced William Lloyd Garrison to go on the lecture circuit in 1832.
to California, one of whom, Edward Gould Buffum, was elected
to the early state legislature from San Francisco. Arnold Buffum,
role as an
entrepreneur, ran frequent advertisements aimed at persons
about making their fortunes in California, all attesting to
the quality and
ingenuity of his unique gold-panning gear. All had a get-rich-quick
feel to them, and they no doubt contributed to the national
gold fever. In
the 22 November 1849 issue of the National Era, Buffum exhibited
his flair for salesmanship with this typical ad:
Gold Hunters no longer have occasion to go without the most perfect
apparatus. Arnold Buffum, having received instructions
from his sons in California, has constructed a most perfect apparatus
gold from river beds 20 feet under water - price, $15.
Also, a wonder-working, gold-saving, triple-rapid separator, for
than 200 of them were
sold for the last three steamers, at the California Depot,
11 Park Row, New York. When such an outfit can be had for $17,
who will go without
Buffum’s choice of the National
Era for his
advertisements was not incidental. Its editor was anti-slavery
lecturer, activist, and
Underground Railroad agent William L. Chaplin. Chaplin was
a true adventurer who backed his words with action by transporting
fugitive slaves from
Washington to the Wolf Hill Underground Railroad station
of James McAllister, near Gettysburg in Adams County. A McAllister
family member who witnessed
many of the deliveries estimated that Chaplin brought about
twenty fugitives to the farm beginning in 1846. His last
trip, in 1850, was observed,
and his carriage was pursued and captured in Montgomery County,
Maryland by Washington police, who charged him with helping
two slaves belonging
to U.S. Congressmen Robert Toombs and Alexander Stephens
to escape. The slaves were sheltered at McAllister's farm
and forwarded to Quaker William
Wright at York Springs, and then on to agents in Harrisburg.
Caba, Episodes of Gettysburg, 66-74, 81.