Share |

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 Four

Legacy of Slavery (continued)

Industrial Slaves

The need for iron implements and products became immediately apparent to settlers in colonial Pennsylvania, and several industrious entrepreneurs, taking advantage of the region’s abundant supply of the necessary raw materials, were quick to establish small furnaces to fill the need. Furnaces began appearing in the colony as early as 1716, with the first forge in Lancaster County making its appearance in 1726. Iron furnaces and foundries, many of which could be found tucked into the remote hills of central Pennsylvania, utilized large workforces to handle the tons of raw materials—iron ore, limestone, and wood for charcoal—required by iron production.

Most iron masters found that African American slaves made ideal ironworkers, and they used them, in addition to free black and white laborers, to fill up the ranks of their workforces. Pennsylvania’s charcoal iron furnaces made extensive use of African Americans as both skilled and unskilled laborers, and even small furnaces used a handful of slaves in a system similar to plantation management.

Perhaps the best locally documented example is Cornwall Iron Furnace in Lebanon County, which began as a bloomery in 1737 on Furnace Creek, to take advantage of the area’s immense ore bank. Cornwall, owned initially by the Grubb family and later by the Coleman family, owned six or seven slaves at any one time as furnace laborers and domestic slaves while under the Grubb’s management, and utilized up to seventeen slaves in later years when owned by Robert Coleman.

Coleman registered or was associated with owning at least twenty-seven slaves in his lifetime, using these slaves at his various iron works.20 In addition to owning slaves outright, the operators of Cornwall furnace also hired large numbers of slaves from neighboring farms as its workload demanded. This operation and use of slaves was very typical of Pennsylvania iron producers in the eighteenth and early nineteenth centuries.

Iron furnaces required lots of hard, backbreaking work to function. The raw iron ore, and the limestone that supplied the flux for iron smelting, had to be mined or dug from the earth and transported to the furnace. Charcoal, another component of the iron making process, was obtained from the skillful smoldering of hardwoods, which meant that trees had to be felled and cut into manageable pieces. An iron furnace could easily use the charcoal produced from an entire acre of trees every day. The wood, therefore, had to be transported for longer and longer distances to reach the colliers, as woodchoppers quickly cleared out the nearby sources of timber. Mules and horses provided much of the transportation, but they needed much care. All these relatively unskilled jobs, ironmasters found, could be easily filled by slaves.

African American slaves, although more expensive to obtain than European indentured servants, offered several advantages to the furnace owner over hired white laborers. As forced labor, they had no choice in the type of work they were given, and could not decline the hard, dirty, dangerous work, which might include long days of digging ore and limestone and chopping wood. White laborers who tired of the work could simply move on to another employer when their typically short-term indenture expired. Ironmasters also found that it was very difficult to attract free workers to the furnaces, which by necessity were located in very remote, heavily wooded areas. Married men were reluctant to move their families so far from the comforts and services, not to mention the other employment opportunities, offered in towns. The brothers Curtis and Peter Grubb, owners of Cornwall Furnace, were periodically forced to advertise for men to fill the unskilled positions of woodcutters, carters, and common laborers, as well as for the more skilled positions of colliers, carpenters, and wagoners.21 They filled these positions with free men, both black and white, and slaves.

Slaves, when purchased for use at the furnace, were the most expensive type of labor in initial cost, but once acquired required no wages, cost less to feed and clothe than indentured servants,22 and most of all, were permanent laborers who could have no say in the location where they were sent to work. The account books of Cornwall Iron Furnace, from 1762 through 1764, record the following slaves and their values: Prince, £70; Sam, £60; Tom, £60; Jam [James], £55; Hercules, £52, 10 shillings; and Mingo, £47, 10 shillings; for a total investment in purchased slaves of £345. A few years later, an inventory of the slaves in Peter Grubb’s estate at Mount Hope Furnace showed that he owned Nancy, valued at £100; Bill, £80; Terry, £37½; Rachael, £5; and Negro York, £60; for a total slave investment at that location of £282½.23

In addition to those slaves, the Grubbs also owned and used slaves at Hopewell Forge, located on Hammer Creek, a few miles southeast of Cornwall, and at Union Forge, in Lickdale. Clearly, although they employed many different types of workers, slaves made up a valuable and costly portion of the Grubb Family’s labor force.

Another option to purchasing slaves outright was to hire them for months at a time from local farmers, as demanded by the seasonal workload. This worked out well for the iron furnace owners, as they could avail themselves of the benefits of forced labor, without taking on the responsibilities of caring for these same slaves as they became old and infirm later in life.

Peter and Curtis Grubb hired numerous slaves for temporary work at their furnaces, carefully recording the exact number of days of employment of each slave, in order to compensate their owners for the labor. An entry in the Cornwall Furnace account book for 9 April 1764 lists sixteen slaves, along with the amount due their owners. “Negroe Orrange,” for instance, belonging to “JG” [Jacob Giles], had earned 13 shillings for his owner in a space of time.

Many of the slaves worked for extended periods at the iron furnace, some year round, and the Grubbs reimbursed their owners at the rate of £25 per year. Compensation was based upon the number of days worked, and was calculated to the half day. Eight slaves belonging to farmer Benjamin Welsh worked at Cornwall Furnace for all or most of the months between April 1764 and May 1765, costing the Grubbs more than £191 in wages paid to Welsh. A typical entry for a slave named Dick reads “Negro Dick (BW) for his Work from Apr 1st 1764 to May 25th 65, 12 Ms 9ds @ £25 p ann” for a total compensation to Welsh of £26, 9s, 6½p for that slave’s labor. Sometimes the exact nature of the labor was recorded. A November 1765 entry records debits for “Cordwood to Sundry Accounts,” logging “Negro Orrange for Cutting 50 Cords Wood at 2/3.” When added together, the woodcutting labor of the seven slaves recorded in this entry cost the Grubbs eighteen pounds and sixteen shillings in total.24

Of the money due the slave owners for their slaves’ labor, the Grubbs deducted various expenses. On 24 July 1765, Grubb recorded an expense of fourteen shillings for a blanket for Negro Dick, belonging to “BW,” [Benjamin Welsh]. In November, Welsh was charged four shillings and two pence for two-and-a-half yards of osnaburg, a course, cotton clothing material, used by Negro Ned. In that same month, slaveholder Adam Rhoads was charged fifteen shillings for four yards of linsey, a linen and wool mixed fiber cloth, used by Negro Phillis.

An expense of a different nature was recorded in October 1765, when the Grubbs charged the account of Benjamin Welsh one pound and five shillings for “Negro Ned…paid for taking him up when run away.”25 This was not a lot to expend to recover a runaway slave, indicating that Ned had not gotten far when he was recaptured, and certainly not far enough for Grubb to have to pay a considerable reward for his capture. Although slaves frequently ran away from the iron furnaces, the account books of Cornwall Furnace have few entries related to recovery expenses. That may be because the slaveholders themselves, and not the furnace owners who temporarily employed the slaves, were more often the ones to pay for advertisements and offer rewards. Nathaniel Giles, for instance, offered four pistoles (a Spanish gold coin worth a little more than a pound on the Philadelphia market) for his slave, thirty-five-year-old Sam, who had run away from the Cornwall furnace in August 1761. Giles thought that Sam would head for Philadelphia, as he had been purchased there the previous year, and he offered the reward to anyone who could return the fugitive slave to the iron works.26

Although loss of valuable labor represented the most apparent problem to the iron industry caused by runaway slaves, there were occasional other problems caused by these freedom seekers. Enslaved workers who slipped their chains and took off for the safety and freedom of the surrounding wooded countryside did not always head directly for nearby towns, or seek to put as many miles as possible between themselves and their former owners. Some remained relatively close by, choosing to live for months or even years as outlaws on the land with which they were familiar.

Peter Grubb advertised in 1781 for the slave Abel, who had run from Chester County slaveholder James Sharps two years previously. Abel, he suspected, had made his way toward a cedar swamp in Delaware that harbored a community of free blacks. Abel had apparently secured a bogus pass from a co-conspirator, a free black man named Nat. These remote communities of free blacks often provided shelter to escaping slaves, in the tradition of the maroon settlements in the West Indies. Even though their role in aiding and sheltering runaways was well known, as Grubb acknowledged in his advertisement, it was difficult for local authorities to control or regulate them. The escaped slave Abel had been at large for two years by taking advantage of one remote cedar-swamp camp, a testament to their durability, or elusiveness.27

Communities with large numbers of escaped slaves frequently suffered severe food shortages, and combated them with stolen animals, produce, and other supplies that might prove valuable for survival, and which could be easily taken away from unaware inhabitants, usually at night. The densely-wooded hills surrounding iron furnaces, like the previously mentioned cedar swamps, provided an ideal environment for escapees, offering shelter, fuel, food (for those skilled in hunting, trapping, and fishing) and most importantly, hiding places.

Even with an abundance of resources in these woods, some fugitive slaves found that they needed more. Two such men took to banditry near Peter Grubb’s Cornwall Furnace in the late 1780s. Benjamin Moore, a tax collector for Lebanon Township, in what was now Dauphin County, was riding his horse along the road that led from the land around the furnace to Lancaster—probably modern day Route 72—on a spring morning in 1787. He was carrying more than 400 pounds in public money, some of it in newly printed, uncut five-pound notes. Not far from the furnace, where the road wound in and out of the thick stands of oak, pine, and chestnut in what was then known as “Grubb’s Hills,” he was accosted by “two black coloured Villains, one an elderly man with a ragged coat, about 5 feet 6 inches high, the other a young man, short and fat.” The pair demanded money from the government man, threatening him with a firearm if he did not immediately comply. Moore must have tried to bolt from the scene, or balked at the outrage being committed upon an official emissary, because the man with the gun shot and killed the mare on which the official was riding. Unable to get away, Moore was forced to surrender his charge of public monies to the bandits, and the pair fled into the hills with the loot.28

Not all slaves who lived in remote locations in the woods around iron furnaces were fugitives. Some trusted slaves performed work as colliers, which required them to live for long periods on their own while they tended the mounds of smoldering hardwoods that were slowly being turned into the charcoal burned by furnaces. Because charcoal was lighter and easier to transport than wood, the mounds of freshly cut wood were located near the logging site. When finished burning, the resulting charcoal was then loaded on carts and driven to the furnace. Since a busy iron furnace could easily use the charcoal produced by an acre of wood each day, the logging operation moved steadily further from the furnace as nearby stands of timber were depleted, resulting in charcoal mounds that were increasingly further away as well.

It was the job of the collier to make sure that the burn was carefully regulated, so that valuable charcoal was produced, instead of worthless ash. Colliers usually lived in rude solitary huts near their charcoal mounds. It was a position of great responsibility, and one that required a lot of trust on the part of the ironmaster, since supervision of the collier was almost nonexistent most of the time. It required an independent man, with a large amount of initiative. One such collier was a slave belonging to the Grubb family, and later the Coleman family, named Dick.

Although Dick became a highly trusted slave, being given the respectful, or playful, title “governor” later in his life by the family, Dick had a rebellious streak that occasionally surfaced, and like many other slaves, he occasionally took off. One of the best descriptions of the man comes from a runaway ad placed by the family attorney, Rudolf Kelker, Jr., in 1796. In April of that year, Dick took an unauthorized leave from Cornwall Furnace. The family believed he was headed toward Hartford County, Maryland, because, according to their ad, “he lived in the early part of his life” there. Kelker’s advertisement gives an excellent description of this valuable slave:

Governor Dick... is an elderly man, bald headed, about five feet ten inches high, stout made, has a down look, is slightly marked on each of his temples with the small scores usual to some of the natives of Africa, has large feet, and a remarkable scar on the great toe of his right foot, occasioned by its being split with an axe. He is by trade a rough carpenter, and values himself greatly on his dexterity in that occupation. Had on when he went away, a new drab-coloured coatee, with metal buttons, jacket and overalls of the same, a new wool hat, and took with him some old clothes.29

Note the mention of small scores marked on each of Dick's temples, "usual to some of the natives of Africa." These traditional tribal markings are only rarely found on slaves working in this area and time period. Most slaves in rural Pennsylvania during this time were either born in the region or, more rarely, were brought from plantations in the Caribbean Islands. Governor Dick, who was about sixty years old when he escaped that Sunday in April, had retained the strong cultural ties to the homeland of his ancestors, or might even have been born in Africa, captured at a young age, and brought on a slave ship to a northern port. Imports of slaves directly from Africa to Philadelphia wharves, however, were rare about the time that Dick was probably captured and enslaved, and we already know he had spent “the early part of his life” in Hartford County, Maryland. It is therefore more likely that he was brought from Africa to the West Indies, and only later, after being “seasoned” to the American climate, diseases, and work, shipped to a mainland colony, probably Virginia or Maryland, before being purchased by the Grubb family to work at one of their iron furnaces.30

Regardless of his place or birth or journey into enslavement at Cornwall, Dick showed his talent at carpentry, among other skills, and had the patience, initiative, and work ethic to take on the responsibility of being a collier for the iron works. He built a collier’s hut near a spring on a prominent hill well east of the Lancaster road, and tended numerous mounds of slowly burning wood from that place.

It was such a good location, and Dick remained there so long, that the hill itself was soon associated with the solitary enslaved collier. Years after Dick was gone, Governor Dick’s hill, located near modern Mount Gretna, saw the construction of a sixty-foot observation tower, and it became the center of an 1100-acre nature preserve and park, now enjoyed by thousands of hikers.

The fate of Governor Dick the slave remains in question. He is often confused with another Grubb/Coleman slave named Dick, a man who was born about 1760 and remained at the ironworks at least through 1807. Both slaves were registered at Lancaster on 6 October 1780. The age of the elder slave, registered simply as “Dick,” was given as fifty years, while “Little Dick” was listed as being twenty years old.31 The name "Little Dick" was probably used to differentiate this slave from the elder Dick, born thirty years earlier. It is not known if “Little Dick” is related to the older man. Dick was listed as a slave at Cornwall Iron Furnace for 1800 and 1807, according to a source derived from the Pennsylvania Septennial Census records. His age was reported as forty years in 1800, which is consistent with his age at registration, and fifty years in 1807, the latter record seeming to be an estimated age.32 It appears that this second slave named Dick is the one often confused with the original Governor Dick, the collier, who escaped on a spring day in 1796.

Previous | Next


20. Gerald G. Eggert, The Iron Industry in Pennsylvania (Camp Hill, PA: Plank’s Suburban Press, Inc., 1994), 1-2, 22; “Slaves in Lancaster County in 1780.”

21. Lancaster Journal, 8 January 1803, 1 July 1808; Pennsylvania Gazette, 12 September 1765, 2 February 1785.
It was also common for iron masters to train African American slaves in the more skilled positions at the forges. Evidence for these slave positions can often be found in runaway ads. Cyrus Jacobs, an iron master at Spring Grove Forge in what is now East Earl Township, Lancaster County, advertised for the runaway Caesar in 1802, noting, “Said negro is a forge man by trade, and it is likely he will make for some forge or furnace as he has worked at both.” In some instances, slaves viewed forge work as desirable, and an opportunity to better themselves. Farmer and slaveholder Jacob McDill, of Salisbury Township, Lancaster County, offered his nineteen-year-old slave for sale, with the note, “He is very stout and healthy, he would prefer going to a forge, where he might have an opportunity of learning that business.”

22. Walker, “Negro Labor,” 468.
Swedish visitor Pastor Israel Acrelius made extensive notes on the Pennsylvania iron industry in his published travel memoirs. He noted that a black slave cost about eight pounds sterling to feed and clothe, per year, versus about six-and-one-half pounds sterling for the indentured servant.

23. “Cornwall Furnace and Hopewell Forge Journals and Ledgers, 1752-1766,” MG262 General microfilm collection, Pennsylvania State Archives; Walker, “Negro Labor,” 468.

24. “Cornwall Furnace and Hopewell Forge Journals and Ledgers, 1752-1766.”

25. Ibid.

26. Pennsylvania Gazette, 27 August 1761.

27. Ibid., 25 April 1781.

28. Pennsylvania Gazette, 23 May 1787.
The location named by Moore as “Grubs Hills” is now known as Furnace Hills. Benjamin Moore offered a reward of twenty pounds sterling for capture of the two men who robbed him in Grubb’s Hills. His ad was dated 14 May 1787.

29. Lancaster Journal, 8 July 1796.

30. Historian Darold D. Wax writes, "Prior to the late 1750s slaves entering Pennsylvania came via the West Indies and South Carolina. They were shipped north on consignment or carried on locally-owned vessels that brought sugar and other island produce home for sale." Wax, “Africans on the Delaware,” 38-39.

31. “Slaves in Lancaster County in 1780.”

32. “Tax Lists, Inhabitants and Slaves, 1800, 1807.”


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.

About the AP | Contact AP | Mission Statement | 20th Century History