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a book about Harrisburg...

by George F. Nagle


Table of Contents

Study Areas:



Free Persons of Color

Underground Railroad

The Violent Decade

US Colored Troops

Civil War


Chapter Three (continued)

Origins ~ Hercules

The white man came out of the southeast, following the waterways from Conoy, where he had begun his first trading operation in 1705. The Native Americans in that area had expressed their unease with the proximity of his storehouse and log outbuildings, the operation being too close to their settlements for comfort, so he had been keeping his eyes open for other opportunities. He could not stay permanently in a place where he was not wanted. A trader must maintain good relationships with his neighbors as a matter of sound business practice. Now he was moving north and west.

He remembered the day when, on a trading expedition to some of the Shawnee villages along the Swatara Creek, he had first seen this new place. The land was smooth and even where the small creek emptied into the wide river, and the river current was calm over the shallow stone riverbed. He saw then that it was perhaps the best place to ford the broad expanse of the Susquehanna River for many miles, giving it great potential as a trading post. It would become his new home, he had decided, and he had returned to Conoy with plans to pack up his trading operation and move it to the large and unsettled area that appeared on maps labeled with its Native American name, “Peshtank.” Now, as he reached his journey’s end, at the spot that would soon bear his name, John Harris would not be returning to Conoy with pelts and other items of commerce. This time he was here to stay.

John Harris’ arrival on the Susquehanna River at Peshtank, early in the 1700s, did not mark the first time that the trader had packed up and moved in search of a new opportunity. It was at least his third major move. Born in Yorkshire, England and brought up in the brewer’s trade, Harris moved to London when he came of legal age, tarrying in the big city for a few years before making the decision to undertake the rigorous ocean crossing to America. He landed in Philadelphia, where, at the age of about twenty-five, he was eventually able to secure a letter of introduction to a local influential citizen, Edward Shippen. Shippen, who would eventually serve as the town’s second mayor, also hailed from Yorkshire, and the older Shippen rapidly became great friends with the young Harris. Although he would only serve two years as mayor, Edward Shippen, as one of the wealthiest and therefore most influential men in the province, proved to be a good friend and valuable contact.

During the several years Harris spent in Philadelphia, Shippen helped him obtain a contract to clean and grade the streets of the town. Ever hopeful for a better opportunity, the young Harris worked hard, bided his time and finally saw an opportunity. Perhaps taking advantage of his close friendship with the Shippen family, Harris applied for a license to set up a trading post on the frontier. Provincial authorities, as it turned out, were eager to send ambitious English Protestant entrepreneurs into the wilderness to act as buffers against the equally ambitious French Catholic traders who were spreading eastward from the Ohio Valley. John Harris fit the bill, and in 1705, at about thirty-two years of age, he received a permit to begin trading operations along the Susquehanna River.

It was a wizened and experienced John Harris who set himself up a short time later at this new location in Peshtank, perhaps as early as 1707, with plans to profit from the regular movements of Native Americans who crossed the river at this place on their way east and south for trade and sometimes war. Unlike his earlier move across the ocean, neither fellow countryman nor family member probably accompanied Harris to this place, although we do not know for sure if he was completely alone. But whether alone or with help, he worked at a steady pace, eventually building a log post and stockade on the banks of the river.

The work was difficult, but he had the experience and drive to realize the vision that he had formed in his mind when he first saw this place. He was also probably a single man, and supporting a family was not yet a responsibility that he had to bear. He needed only to survive, at first, but he went well beyond mere survival. His instincts turned out to be sound. This was a good location, and it was not long before his operation began to turn a nice profit. Packhorses and mules bearing his pelts, the currency of colonial America, were soon making their way from his trading post toward Philadelphia. His name and reputation began to be known in Philadelphia as well as in Native American villages along the river, among traders and travelers. Harris’ place, as it came to be called, flourished. At some point, then, if he did not already own one, he purchased a slave. 2

African slaves had been held in colonial Pennsylvania and Delaware almost from the start, but in relatively few numbers. The arrival of the merchant ship Isabella at Philadelphia in 1684, with 150 Africans among its cargo, quickly changed the situation. The English settlers, critically short on labor, eagerly purchased every slave. With this newfound acceptance of slaveholding came a blossoming of the slave population in the growing provincial town. By 1705, the year that John Harris received his license to trade along the Susquehanna, an estimated one in fifteen households in Philadelphia held a slave.3

While it is possible that Harris owned a slave prior to his entry into frontier trading, it is not likely. Slaves were costly, and Harris was not wealthy. One historian recorded that the Yorkshire man made the trip to America with only sixteen guineas (a guinea was a coin worth slightly more than a pound) as the sum of his worldly possessions. While that amount was more than most immigrants brought with them, it was certainly not a fortune. It reflected more his tradesman status, having been trained as a brewer in Yorkshire. Yet he was a tradesman without a situation, and therefore had to manage his limited funds with care. Later, in 1698, he signed a petition against the denial of voting rights to citizens with real estate holdings valued at less than fifty pounds, showing his slow growth in net worth. His eventual application for a trader’s license suggests that even by then he possessed more ambition and business sense than financial resources. After all, a frontier trader’s life was extremely harsh compared with that of a merchant or contractor in the city.

He probably bought his first slave in Philadelphia. There were few other places to obtain anything of real value, other than what could be had by bartering with other traders on the frontier. Philadelphia was the place to obtain supplies, tools, horses, fine cloth, clothing, blankets, rum, coffee, books, playing cards, and any other worldly good that could not be fashioned, grown, duplicated, or hunted. It was also, for anyone living in the Delaware Valley or the interior, the place to buy slaves.

From the landing of the Isabella in 1684 until the year 1712, when high duties were imposed upon the sale of slaves in an attempt to reduce their importation, slaves were readily available. Most were brought into the port of Philadelphia as part of a ship’s cargo that might include many other types of merchantable goods. During this early period, few slaves were imported directly from Africa, the slaves on board the Isabella being notable exceptions. Almost all slaves brought into Philadelphia during John Harris’ time were born in either the West Indies or South Carolina, or had lived in those places for enough years to become “seasoned” to the North American climate. They generally spoke English or another European language and could easily adapt to the type of work that would be expected of them in the colony of Pennsylvania.4

In looking to purchase a slave, John Harris, like any prospective slaveholder of his time, had two basic options. He could purchase a slave newly arrived as part of the cargo of one of the merchant ships that sailed into port, or he could seek out a slaveholder who was selling a slave that he no longer wished to own. There were advantages and disadvantages to each approach.

In considering a newly arrived slave, he would need to judge from his own inspection the slave’s relative health, strength, intelligence, willingness to work, ability to understand English, and suitability for frontier life. Accurately determining all these qualities from a brief visual inspection of a group of slaves, for they were usually exhibited in “parcels” from a ship’s docking place on the wharf, would have been very risky. It is unlikely that he would have accepted the judgment of the ship’s captain to answer these questions, or the merchant’s factor, if there was one. Those persons would have had little time to observe the slaves in any meaningful occupation, as well as the fact that they had a stake in the cargo and therefore might not be entirely truthful in describing the slaves’ qualities. Instead, as a seasoned trader, Harris would probably have trusted his own instincts to guide his choice. The only advantage to choosing from among a parcel of slaves was that he could compare several persons of similar characteristics, choosing the one who appeared to be the healthiest, most energetic, quickest of mind, and most suitable for spending years working alongside him in the wilderness.

In buying from a private owner who was offering an enslaved person for sale, he had the advantage of being able to inquire in good faith as to the various characteristics of the slave: whether he worked hard and diligently, how facile his mind was in grasping and following directions, how susceptible to sickness he was, and how many times, if any, he had run away. Harris knew he could better trust the truthfulness of the answers from a private seller than from a ship’s captain, not that the captain would necessarily be trying to mislead him, but the private holder of a slave would have been able to observe the slave over a longer period of time. Also, because Philadelphia had a small population, consisting of only several thousand persons at this point, the private owner was more likely to be acquainted with Harris and therefore considered more reliable.

Another advantage in buying from a private owner was that privately held slaves were healthier than those who had just endured even a brief voyage and the trauma of being shipped away from their former home, friends, and family members. Although not as physically depleted as those slaves who had suffered the infamous “middle passage” from Africa, a traumatic ordeal that many did not survive, the slaves who were shipped into Philadelphia from the West Indies or South Carolina had still been subject to horrible conditions on board ship, were separated from friends, and were being forced into an unfamiliar land. The corresponding disadvantage to buying a slave from a private owner was that the buyer was not choosing the most suitable person from among several slaves, but was simply choosing to buy or not to buy a single offered slave.

Before making any of these choices, John Harris would have had to locate slaves for sale, whether from a private seller or from a ship at a wharf with a parcel of newly arrived slaves. He did not have the advantage of being able to browse through newspaper advertisements of slave sales, as slaveholders would do in later years when they began searching for another person to own. There were not yet any newspapers in town. Philadelphia acquired its first newspaper, the American Weekly Mercury, in the year 1719, which was years after Harris’ first excursion in search of a slave. He probably purchased his first slave from a source that he discovered either from word of mouth or from a posted broadside, those being the primary means of communication in the very early years of the province.

Or he may have learned about, or stumbled upon, a public auction. These “vendues,” as they were called, were a popular method of liquidating possessions in early America, and could include almost anything, from furniture to tools, real estate to produce, and livestock to human chattel. They generally required a highly conspicuous location, in order to attract the largest crowd, and were therefore often held in front of taverns in rural districts, or at the increasingly popular coffee houses in the larger towns of the Northeast.

Many slaves were sold at coffee houses in Philadelphia. Based upon the popular coffee houses in London, which began appearing in the middle of the 1600s, American coffee houses replicated the comfortable atmosphere of the London establishments as a place to gather, relax, share news, make deals, discuss politics, and of course sip coffee. They were quite unlike public taverns in that coffee houses generally posted strict rules that forbade liquor, swearing, gambling, and inappropriate dress. The original coffee houses in London charged a penny admission, generally as a cover charge to provide newsletters and newspapers of the day and an assortment of current books. Patrons were expected to use their best manners and treat every other patron as an equal.

While we do not know if the coffee houses of Philadelphia charged admission, we do know that they had similar rules and were considered prime places for spirited political debate and intellectual discussion on a variety of subjects. The tradition of transacting business at coffee houses also began in England, a notable and important example being the gathering of stockjobbers at the coffee house of Edward Lloyd to hold public sales of ships and cargoes. Within a few years, the actual underwriting of those ships and their cargoes also was done at Lloyd’s Coffee House. In the mid-1770s, some of the underwriters banded together and removed their business to another location, forming a society that became known as Lloyds of London, which is today the worlds’ oldest and largest risk insurance market.

Philadelphia coffee houses, like their London counterparts, were also places where influential men conducted much of the business of the province. The most famous of Philadelphia’s coffee houses paid tribute to its British predecessors in its name: the London Coffee House. The London Coffee House was unique in that it included, in a prominent spot out front, a specially built platform to exhibit enslaved persons offered for public sale. Although it was not opened until 1754, decades after John Harris would have been in town on such business, there were predecessors that also held slave vendues.5

Whatever his method of doing so, John Harris acquired a male slave and brought that slave to Peshtank with him when he returned to work his trading post. While we do not know exactly when, where or in what manner Harris acquired this slave, we do know that he called the slave Hercules, after the famous figure from Greek mythology.

It was an interesting choice of names. Neither the slave bought by John Harris nor his namesake was destined for an easy life. John Harris’ Hercules was of African heritage, but whether he was born on that continent or in the Americas is unknown. Nothing is known about his origins or his life before he came to the banks of the Susquehanna with Harris, and precious little after that. We do not even know how or when he acquired his name. Perhaps his real name was not Hercules. Perhaps he had a traditional African name given to him by his family soon after his birth. “Hercules” may have been the name by which the Europeans distinguished him because his true name, if they even bothered to know it, sounded strange to their ears. Nevertheless, Hercules is the name by which he came to be known and by which he is recorded in local history, and it is probably only coincidental that, like the Greek hero for which he was named, he also experienced a lifetime of trials, forced labors, and bondage.

The two figures share another similarity in their lives: both are said to have performed a heroic rescue. The mythological Hercules, after performing the twelve labors, performed a feat of heroism by rescuing a Trojan princess, Hesione, from a rampaging sea monster sent by the god Poseidon. Hercules of Paxtang, which was the European version of Peshtank—Europeans had just as much trouble with Native American names as African names—would shortly perform a rescue of equally heroic proportions, at least in the annals of local history.

The story is a cornerstone of Harrisburg history, although when it occurred it was little more than a nasty incident that affected the lives of only two persons. In its retelling, it has assumed considerable importance, probably because if the “Attempt to Burn John Harris,” as one artist titled his rendering of the storied event, had been successful, the town would not be named Harrisburg today, but would be named for some other trader or settler who would have arrived to take his place. No one recorded the details of the event at the time and the people involved only spoke of it later, to family and perhaps close friends. Because of this, the story filtered down through several generations before anyone wrote it down, and by then it had acquired the types of details that only an active imaginative and proud relatives can invent.

It happened in the early years when John Harris had established his trading post in Paxtang, probably before 1718 and certainly before his marriage to Esther Say a few years later. Hercules was with him by this time, but was apparently working out of sight when a group of Native Americans moved through the trading post on their way to or from an eastern expedition. This was not unusual, as tribes from the west and the north regularly tied up their canoes near the post to continue their journey on foot. These frequent excursions of Native Americans were a good source of income for Harris, and he had always maintained a very good relationship with them.

This particular group of Indians, though, became angry with Harris and seized him, tying him to a nearby mulberry tree near the riverbank. His life was clearly in danger, as it appeared from their actions that his captors intended to burn him alive. Before he was harmed, however, a larger group of Native Americans from the other side of the river arrived to subdue the hostile group, and John Harris was freed. Leading Harris’ rescuers to the scene of the crisis was Hercules, who had earlier observed the trouble brewing and had slipped away to find help.6

He must have acted quickly, perhaps using instincts honed by years of brutal frontier life, in order to return in time to save Harris and ensure the future of Pennsylvania’s capital city. One has to wonder whether he realized the irony of his actions, in saving the life of the man who enslaved him. By freeing Harris from his captives, the slave was preserving his own bondage. We will never know if Hercules, even for an instant, considered leaving Harris to his fiery fate and striking out on his own as a free man. Perhaps he briefly calculated the risks of fleeing, of his chances of making it safely back to a settlement, of being exposed to all the dangers of the wilderness, and his chances of finding a new life, whether free or as a servant to a new master. Or perhaps he never gave any of that a thought. After all, we do not know anything of his life before becoming Harris’ slave. It could be that, compared with previous experiences, life with John Harris, as harsh as it could be in the threatening wilderness of Penn’s Woods, was not so bad. In fact, he probably had had other chances to run away, or even to sneak up on Harris with a tomahawk and, with one blow, gain his freedom—it wouldn’t have been unusual; slaves had been killing their enslavers for centuries—but he didn’t. Like his mythological namesake, he became the heroic rescuer.

John Harris was relieved and grateful. Local lore says that he manumitted Hercules on the spot, but that is not true, and regardless of how he felt about the man as a rescuer, he kept him as his property until the day he died. It would prove to be a good long lifetime, during which Hercules witnessed many major changes in the growing settlement. The first would come only a few years later when John Harris married Esther Say, a relative of his good friends, the Philadelphia Shippens. They married in Old Christ Church in that city, and John Harris brought his young bride—he was about fifteen or twenty years older than her—to his trading post on the frontier. Esther Harris proved to be a hardy frontier woman who took an active role in running the trading post and all the other operations, as well as tending to the household. It was not long before the little family began to grow, first with two daughters, Elizabeth and Esther, born two years apart, and then John, in 1726. Three more sons would follow: William, Samuel, and David. In between were other births, children who died young and were buried near the frontier house.

It was not only the Harris family that Hercules observed growing. Settlers were crossing into the Cumberland Valley and making inroads into the great Pennsylvania wilderness. Around the time that his first child was born, John Harris constructed a real house for the family rather than have them continue in the log post and stockade that had served him for so long. Shortly thereafter, he opened a tavern and ferry for the growing stream of travelers, and the settlement became known as Harris’ Ferry. About this time, Joseph Kelso settled on the opposite side of the river and would soon have a hand in the ferry business as well. In the late 1720’s or very early 1730’s, Tobias Hendricks settled along the rude road that ran from Harris’ Ferry to Carlisle. Within ten years, Hendricks’ house would be a landmark tavern on that route. Several miles upriver, Benjamin Chambers built a gristmill that would later be known as Hunter’s Mill, after his brother-in-law Samuel Hunter, who inherited it.

Through all this growth, Harris’ Ferry thrived. By the time that John Harris’ youngest son, David, was born, in 1737, a regular road, not a packhorse trail, had been built between the ferry and Lancaster city. The county of Lancaster had been established eight years earlier, hacked out from old Chester, one of Pennsylvania’s three original counties. Paxtang and Derry became official townships in the new county.7 Hercules, season after season, year after year, witnessed it all.

As a slave in the Harris family, Hercules would have had a very close relationship with his owners. Paxtang was a frontier township, and had no room for the type of plantation social hierarchy that would develop in the southern colonies. Provincial Pennsylvania slaveholders, particularly those in the rural areas, typically worked side-by-side with their slaves, sharing not only chores, but frequently also the same dinner table and sleeping quarters.

Many of these same Pennsylvania farmers, if success rewarded their later years so that they could boast of a grand Georgian manor house constructed of fine cut stone, discontinued this close association with their slaves and moved them, if they allowed them to sleep in the house at all, to a pallet near the fire, or at best, restricted them to a tiny attic room. More frequently, they quartered them in the old cabin from which the family had moved, unless that was occupied by the family of the owner’s married son, or they assigned them quarters in a corner of the barn. But in the earliest years, owners and slaves shared the limited space of a cramped cabin.8 As the Harris family grew and the tavern came into operation, Hercules may have gotten his own quarters, possibly in the trading post within the stockade.

Given his strength and years of experience, Hercules was surely a vital part of the Harris household and therefore would have been expected to perform or help with a wide variety of frontier jobs such as clearing timber and preparing land for cultivation. He would also have been responsible for many of the daily chores, such as chopping wood, tending livestock, hoeing crops, and maintaining tools, fences and structures. As the Harris children grew, they would have assumed many of these responsibilities as well, in accordance with the custom on small farms of everyone working together regardless of status.

Hercules was probably also allowed to hunt and fish to provide food, a task commonly assigned to slaves. As the ferry business grew in importance, it appears that John Harris employed Hercules to help run it. Robert Harris, grandson of John Harris, stated that the slave was sometimes employed on the large wooden flats that were poled across the river, laden with cargo or passengers. At one time, according to the grandson, Hercules again saved the life of John Harris when a steer that was being transported across the river on one of the flats became a danger and threatened the trader. Hercules somehow removed the threat from the loose steer and again saved his master.9

Crossing the Susquehanna by ferry flat was not easy. It required considerable strength to push the wooden flat across the wide river without being swept downriver with the current. An account of the experience, recorded about seventy years later by a traveler, Francis Cuming, gives some idea of what it was like. Writing in the early winter months of 1807, Cuming no doubt crossed on a flat that was larger than what was piloted many decades earlier by John Harris and his workers, yet the description is useful because the technique of getting a cargo laden wooden flat across the river remained essentially unchanged:

On Saturday, 24th, I arose early, but the ferry-boat not being ready, I partook of an excellent breakfast with my friendly host and his family, and at ten o’clock I embarked in a large flat with the Western mail and several passengers and horses. The flat was worked by nine stout men with short setting-poles shod and pointed with iron, to break the ice and stick in the bottom. Only one set or pushed on the upper side, while eight set on the lower side to keep the boat from being forced by the current against the ice, while a tenth steered with a large oar behind. A channel for this purpose had been cut through the ice, and was kept open, as loaded wagons could cross the river in a flat with more safety than on the ice.10

John Harris’ ferry flat would have been smaller, and therefore would have required something less than a ten men crew. Cuming was also crossing in January or February, when ice crusted the river, making the crossing more difficult, yet as Cuming noted, it was safer for wagons to cross by ferry flat than to risk driving over the ice. Because of the inherent danger, ferry operators had to employ strong men whom they trusted. For John Harris, Hercules was one of these men.

In addition to the Harris children, Hercules had other helpers. John Harris probably employed local persons as the need arose, but as his fortunes grew he also acquired additional slaves. When he made out his will, in November 1746, he listed three distinct enslaved persons other than Hercules. The first was “the negro Boy called Toni,” whom he bequeathed to his son William. To his daughter and oldest child, Elizabeth, now married to John Findley, he left “the negro girl called Cherida.” To his second daughter, Esther, who was soon to be married, he left “the child whereof the negro Woman is now pregnant.”11

This bequest is unusual because he was providing for the disposition of a slave that had not yet been born. The pregnant slave, not named, is clearly described as a woman, whereas the only other female slave named in the will, Cherida, is described as a girl. This is an important distinction because the terms “girl” and “woman,” although they had no firm definitions when used concerning the ages of slaves, would not have been used in the same legal document to describe the same female. Cherida, then, was not the pregnant slave whose unborn child was to become the property of John Harris’ daughter Esther. That person remains nameless in the will, and to this day.

Grave of John Harris the trader, with the mansion built by his son in the background.

Photograph by the author.

While it is possible that some of the persons identified as slaves in the will of John Harris are related to Hercules, it is only speculation. Hercules did have a wife and children, apparently. Historians note that the descendants of Hercules were living in the city in the decades before the Civil War. An 1859 letter from Harrisburg resident William M. Awl to George W. Harris, great grandson of John Harris, recollects being told of two of Hercules’ children who died young and were buried somewhere on the Harris property.12 Unfortunately the names of his wife and children are unknown, as are the names of their owners. It is possible that Hercules’ family was owned by a nearby settler, and not by the Harris family.

John Harris senior, Hercules’ owner, died on 17 December 1748, and was buried under the mulberry tree at which he nearly met his fate some three decades earlier. The burial site was his choice, made known by him before his demise. His family had protested, wanting him to be properly interred in the yard of the Paxton Presbyterian Church, a little more than two miles to the east along the Lancaster road, but Harris held his ground, telling them that if they buried him at the church, he would rise up and walk back to his homestead and his chosen grave.


Gravestone of John Harris the trader.

Photograph by the author.

And so it happened that John Harris the trader and ferryman was buried on a high point of ground at his ferry, beneath the storied mulberry tree. Many years later, an impressive marker was installed, inscribed in Latin “A Cruce Salus,” (salvation by the cross) “John Harris of Yorkshire England.” Within that eternal salvation lay a second more earthly deliverance: that of the freedom from slavery afforded Hercules by a provision in Harris’ will. Of several slaves owned by John Harris, and mentioned by name in the will, only Hercules was set free. Possession of the other slaves passed to Harris’s children, Elizabeth and William, and wife Esther. Hercules, however, perhaps because of his well-timed rescue, or perhaps because he had served Harris many years at the trading post, helping to build a thriving trade over the past thirty harsh years, gained his freedom with a single line that began “It is my will that my negro man Hercules be set free.”13 This brief item in an unassuming legal document, filed in Paxtang Township, County of Lancaster, was the humble beginning of a vibrant and politically active free black community in what would eventually be the city of Harrisburg.

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2. William Henry Egle, History of the Counties of Dauphin and Lebanon in the Commonwealth of Pennsylvania: Biographical and Genealogical (Philadelphia: Everts and Peck, 1883), 19-20; Commemorative Biographical Encyclopedia of Dauphin County (Chambersburg, PA: J. M. Runk and Co., 1896), 68.
According to most sources, John Harris was born about 1673 and probably reached Philadelphia in the middle or late 1690s. There is considerable debate regarding the dates that John Harris arrived at the site of present-day Harrisburg and began his operations here. I have used the dates provided by William H. Egle.

3. Gary B. Nash, “Slaves and Slave Owners in Colonial Philadelphia,” William and Mary Quarterly, 3rd Ser., 30, no. 2 (April 1973), reprinted in Joe William Trotter Jr. and Eric Ledell Smith, eds., African Americans in Pennsylvania: Shifting Historical Perspectives (University Park: Pennsylvania Historical and Museum Commission / Pennsylvania State University Press, 1997), 44.

4. Nash, “Slaves and Slave Owners,” 45; John Hope Franklin and Alfred A. Moss, Jr., From Slavery to Freedom: A History of Negro Americans, Sixth Edition (New York: Alfred A. Knopf, 1988), 59; Darold D. Wax, “Africans on the Delaware: The Pennsylvania Slave Trade, 1759-1765,” Pennsylvania History 50, no. 1 (January 1983): 39.
The high duty imposed in 1712 was out of fear in response to the organized slave revolt in New York City that year by more than twenty slaves. Property was set ablaze and nine whites were killed. The duties were reduced in 1729 and more or less eliminated in 1731, leading to increased importation of slaves. Following the Seven Years’ War, the origin of most slaves imported into Pennsylvania changed from the West Indies and South Carolina to Africa.

5. For advertisements of slaves offered for sale from newly arrived ships, see the Pennsylvania Gazette, 24 May 1759, 14 August 1760, and 1 October 1761. Advertisements for slaves in Philadelphia being sold at public coffee houses can be found in the Pennsylvania Gazette, 25 November, 2 December 1736, 5 May 1743, 4 May,1758, 11 December 1760, 28 January and 29 April 1762. No newspapers existed in Philadelphia during the period 1705-1715, during which time the slave population continued to increase and slaves were bought and sold. It is my contention that the advertisements cited here are illustrative of earlier practice. Information regarding the London Coffee House is from Nash, “Slaves and Slave Owners,” 58. For more on the London Coffee House see John Fanning Watson, “The London Coffee House &c.” in Annals of Philadelphia and Pennsylvania, vol. 1, (Philadelphia: John Fanning Watson, 1850), 393-395. Information about the history of London coffee houses in general is from J. Pelzer and L. Pelzer, “Coffee Houses of Augustan London,” History Today 32, no. 10 (October 1982): 40-47. Lloyds of London also played a large role in the insuring of slave ships and cargoes in the eighteenth century, thus supporting that trade by removing much of the risk. Eric Williams, Capitalism and Slavery (Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 1944), 104.

6. Commemorative Biographical Encyclopedia, 69; William Henry Egle, Notes and Queries of Pennsylvania, Annual Volume 1900 (Baltimore: Genealogical Publishing Co., 1970), 7:36-38; P. Sturtevant, The Harrisburg Directory and Stranger’s Guide, With a Sketch of the First Settlement of Harrisburg, (Harrisburg: n.p., 1839), 6-7.
The stories of the rescue of John Harris are many and abound with all sorts of details that cannot be authenticated. Some of the stories, including that given by George Washington Harris, great-grandson of the first John Harris, intentionally exclude Hercules. Robert Harris, grandson of the founder, gives conflicting versions of the story. In 1827, he stated to Philadelphia historian Samuel Breck that Breck’s version of the story, in which Hercules led the rescuers, was correct. In 1840, in commenting on the painting by Reeder, Robert Harris denied that Hercules had any part in the affair. Harrisburg historian William Henry Egle cites the version told by John Harris Jr. to his great-grandfather and grandmother, in which Hercules led the rescuers. Egle, a careful historian who spent a lot of time researching the original story, notes, “The burden of evidence seems to be that the alarm was given by Hercules.” The earliest written version that I have found is dated 1839 and includes Hercules as the hero. See also the excellent discussion of this topic in “The Attempted History of John Harris’ Burning,” in Barton, Life By the Moving Road, 25-33.

7. Egle, Notes and Queries, 1st and 2nd ser., 1:9-10, 42, 418-419; 2:13, 155-158; 3rd ser., 1: 387; Merri Lou Schaumann, Taverns of Cumberland County, Pennsylvania, 1750-1840 (Lewisberry: W & M Printing, Inc.,1994), 121.

8. Darold D. Wax, “The Demand for Slave Labor in Colonial Pennsylvania,” Pennsylvania History 34, no. 4 (October 1967): 333.

9. Commemorative Biographical Encyclopedia, 69. Unfortunately, Robert Harris did not provide details about this incident.

10. Egle, History of the Counties of Dauphin and Lebanon, 311. Cuming noted that the crossing took twenty-two minutes.

11. “Copy of Will of John Harris Dec’d,” 22 November 1746, Paxton Township, Lancaster County, Will Book B, 542, Official copy dated 1873, signed by B. Bauman, Depy Regr., library of the Historical Society of Dauphin County.

12. George H. Morgan, Annals of Harrisburg (Harrisburg,1858, repr., Bowie, MD: Heritage Books, 1995), 577; William M. Awl to George W. Harris, 14 July 1859, transcript, “Hercules” folder, library of the Historical Society of Dauphin County.

13. “Copy of Will of John Harris Dec’d.”


Caution: Copyrighted material. Published September 2010.

© 2010 George F. Nagle



This is the first in a series of books from the Afrolumens Project. Drawing on a large number of sources, and making good use of the treasure trove of information on the pages of the Afrolumens Project, this is the first truly comprehensive history of Harrisburg's African American community.

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