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 ~ Seeds of Community

When John Harris senior made out his last will and testament, in late 1746, he carefully provided for the disposal of his real estate, trading business and all other property. Line by line, item by item, each parcel of land and item of value was divided among his children and wife, according to his wishes, but also according to custom. The bulk of his estate, which included the lucrative trading post and ferry, went to his eldest son and namesake, John. At only twenty-two years of age, the younger John Harris inherited a considerable estate and incredible responsibility. Not only was he now responsible for the management of an increasingly popular and important ferry across the Susquehanna River, but he was also assuming the role of negotiator between Philadelphia and local Native Americans. Frontier traders played a key part in maintaining smooth relations between Native Americans and the provincial government in Philadelphia, a role at which his father had excelled. Fortunately, John Harris the son was up to the task. But he would soon be faced with unimaginable obstacles and problems brought on by forces far beyond his control.

Harris’ son William Augustus, a few years younger than his brother John, received a substantial parcel of land that his father had “purchased of James Allcorn, lying on the River below [John Harris, senior’s] Dwelling plantation containing one hundred & seventy two acres & a half.” William also inherited rights to purchase “a tract of land on the west side [of] the River” opposite the homestead, and the “negro Boy called Toni.”

The first tract of land, considerable in size, was adjacent to Harris’ original patent of land and expanded his holdings to the east and southeast along the river, generally from present day Paxton Street. Harris the Elder had added one stipulation in his will regarding this land: that the manumitted slave Hercules “be allowed to live on a part of the tract purchased of James Allcorn left to my son William.”14 It is important to note that the former slave held no rights to the land beyond occupancy and, presumably, the right to farm enough land to sustain him and his family. But even without ownership, Harris’ provision gave this black family a place to live that could be called home, and to which they could claim a right that was written in ink, sealed with wax, and filed with other official county papers for anyone to see.

It seems only natural that Hercules continued to be a part of the Harris family’s life, and apparently continued working for the young John Harris at the ferry. He was a skilled laborer and knew the business of the trading post and the ferry. Though he had a home on land next to the plantation, he was probably not self-sufficient; it makes sense that he would continue in the occupation that had employed him for so long prior to the death of his owner. Evidence of this employment is found in some of the younger John Harris’ account books. An entry dated 13 July,1754 states, “Black Hercules Dr. (drawn?) to sundrys, £28, 18s, 5d. Settled and clear.” Another line notes, “Mem’d’m. That Hercules worked for me abt. one year, w’ch is in Part of my Acco’t, the old Book tells the time.”

Harris continued to record transactions with the freedman, writing in his ledger, for 8 September 1761, “1 lb Powder & 2 lb Shott for Hercules, 4:8. 6 Kerby Hooks, for Hercules, 1:6.” This entry clearly shows that Hercules was actively engaged in hunting and fishing, both necessary activities to keep food on the table. Wild turkeys were particularly abundant and popular at the time, as was venison. His fondness for fishing continued into his old age, and visitors to the ferry wrote of seeing him in the 1760s, sitting on the riverbank with a fishing pole.15

During this time, fugitive slaves continued to move through the vicinity of Harris’ Ferry. Many local farmers and residents were slaveholders, and these freedom seekers generally came from local farms. Unlike later times, when fugitives generally headed in a northern direction to put as much distance as possible between themselves and southern slave catchers, these escapees wandered the countryside in search of a new beginning. Some settled briefly on a farm or near one of the many iron foundries that dotted the rural Pennsylvania countryside. In many such locations, few questions were asked and cheap labor was in high demand. Others set their sights on finding lost relatives or friends. Quite a few tried to make their way toward formerly familiar areas where they had family, or toward Philadelphia, where a growing free black population was said to offer aid and shelter to runaways.

One such runaway was Dick, who had escaped from Paxton Township farmer John Postlethwaite on 19 May 1766. Postlethwaite may have thought Dick would return on his own after a few days, because he did not immediately advertise for his return. Slaves sometimes took off for days at a time, hiding out in the woods or on neighboring farms, protected by other slaves, until finally deciding to return of their own accord. Slaveholders were somewhat tolerant of this behavior, often giving only a mild punishment for a few days of impromptu absence. Slaves who took flight spontaneously often did so out of anger, and were seldom adequately equipped to deal with a prolonged absence, taking no extra clothing or food, and generally having no plan of escape beyond simply leaving. In this case, however, days turned into weeks, and weeks into months, and Postlethwaite finally decided his wayward slave was not returning on his own. He placed an ad in the Pennsylvania Gazette on 4 September 1766, nearly four months after Dick’s escape. Postlethwaite’s advertisement gives us an excellent description of Dick:

RUN away from the Subscriber, in Paxton Township, Lancaster County, on Monday, the 19th of May last, a certain Negroe Man, named Dick, about 5 Feet 6 Inches high, a slim built black Fellow, about 23 or 24 Years old, speaks good English, some Low Dutch, and some French; had on, when he went away, an old Hat, Blanket Coat, good Leather Breeches, old Stockings, good Shoes, but a good deal too large for him, tied with Strings.

Dick exhibited several qualities that weighed in his favor if he was to be successful in his escape. He was young and seemingly in good health—fugitive slave advertisements usually mentioned health problems and injuries as means of identification—and he was evidently intelligent, having learned at least three languages. Linguistic faculty was another positive trait for runaways, allowing them to move effectively through more of the diverse ethnic communities that made up parts of the early colony. Despite his “too large” shoes, Dick was also dressed well for travel, taking hat, coat, sturdy pants, and “good shoes.” Postlethwaite thought that Dick would make his way east, noting that because he had “formerly lived with one Mr. Hunt, in the Jerseys, it is thought will make that way, or towards Philadelphia.” He offered a six-dollar reward for Dick’s return, which was about average.16

Whether Postlethwaite ever recovered his lost slave is unknown. Also unknown is whether Dick actually passed through Harris’ Ferry in his escape. If he had, he risked being captured and jailed, as he did at any place where he might be recognized. A successful escape required the avoidance of public places and conspicuous appearances. Six dollars was enough money to convince most able-bodied men to attempt a capture, particularly if the potential fugitive was only “5 Feet 6 Inches high, [and] slim built.” Jail cells in Lancaster and Reading were frequently filled with “suspected runaways” awaiting owners to come claim them, pay their charges and take them back home.

Neither John Harris elder or junior is known to have played a part in capturing any runaway slaves that came through the ferry, but their willingness to hold slaves—John Harris, Jr. registered three slaves in 1780—demonstrates that they held no anti-slavery sentiments that might have caused them to conveniently look the other way, as some farmers or iron masters did. Because there were no slaves captured at the ferry in his time, we will never know if Hercules would have ever been involved, one way or the other, with a fugitive. Would this former slave, who was so often described as a “faithful servant” to the Harris family, have helped capture another human being trying to escape bondage? After all, he had saved the life of his former owner, an action that only served to prolong his own bondage. Or would this man, who knew firsthand the ordeals of slavery, have surreptitiously offered aid, or a means of escape? There is at least one documented incident of an escape from the ferry while Hercules lived here that leaves open the tantalizing possibility that he may contributed to one fugitive’s bid for freedom.

John Harris senior’s widow, Esther Say, like her husband, was born in England, and had connections to the powerful Shippen family of Philadelphia. She was also adventurous, outgoing and extremely capable, and it is not surprising that she would eventually remarry. Because tradition dictated that Harris should will the business, land and most of the property to his eldest son, Esther had little reason to remain at the ferry. She was courted by widower William Chesney, of East Pennsboro, in Cumberland County and on June 1, 1752, married him at Paxton Presbyterian Church. This was the second marriage for both of them. William Chesney had a son, also named William, who later moved to York County.

In March 1769, the younger William Chesney, Esther Say’s stepson, was staying with John Harris at the ferry when a slave of Chesney’s, William Keith, escaped. William was an older slave. At forty years of age, he was older than most slaves in the colony. Chesney, after waiting a bit for him to return voluntarily, advertised for his lost slave in June, writing:

RUN away, on the 13th of March last, from the Subscriber, at Sasquehanna, near Harris Ferry, a Negroe Man, called Will, alias William Keith; he is about 5 feet 9 Inches high, thin visaged, a little Pock marked, not very black, about 40 years old, a smooth talking Fellow, can be very mannerly, reads and writes, and is a Cooper by Trade and is also very handy about a Farmer's House; he is well acquainted in Philadelphia, having learnt his trade there, and lived several years ago with Dr. Graham, of that city; he had on, when he went away, a brown homespun Cloth Coat, pretty much worn, yellow buttons; an old white Flannel Jacket, Buckskin Breeches, and an old Felt Hat. He told on the Road, that he was a free Negroe, formerly belonging to one Mr. Blunston, of Lancaster County.

Like the slave Dick, who had escaped a few years earlier, William was obviously intelligent; he could read and write and understood human nature well enough to be described as “a smooth talking fellow.” He was skilled in the coopering trade but was also somewhat worldly, having lived in Philadelphia and Lancaster, and he was mannerly, probably from having lived with a physician for some time.17 With all these traits, and his experiences living in large towns, what would have caused this older, rather genteel man to suddenly take to the road from such a remote spot, in which the newly built gray stone mansion of John Harris was still the only substantial home for many miles?

There must have been an opportunity that was not available in York or Lancaster, or Philadelphia. Like Hercules, he was older, skilled, and intelligent, and the family connection meant that the two men might have been acquainted for some time. Perhaps William Keith knew of Hercules’ nearby home, with his own garden, livestock, and sheds, and perhaps he envied the freedom of this once enslaved man, so like himself. Is it possible that Hercules provided the needed venue for escape, at that particular time and place, perhaps sheltering him in his home, which was not far from the new Harris mansion? Like many questions surrounding this legendary man, an answer will probably never be known, but if he did take that chance and offer aid to a fellow human being fleeing the great injustice of slavery, he would have been participating in a noble tradition of covert aid, which was carried on by his spiritual and lineal descendants in Harrisburg for years to come.

Advertisement placed by William Chesney for runaway slave William Keith, 1769.


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14. Ibid.

15. Egle, Notes and Queries, annual vol. 1900, 38.

16. Pennsylvania Gazette, 4 September 1766.

17. Pennsylvania Gazette, 15 June 1769.


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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