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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 Five:
Dogs, War, and Ghosts

Unlike the Men, More Ferocious Than Wild Beasts

Where in the tangled thicket lay
The panther lurking for his prey;
Or heard unharmed in swampy brake,
The hissing of the poisonous snake.
    John Collins, “The Slave Mother” (excerpt)
    For the Pennsylvania Anti-Slavery Fair,
    Philadelphia, 1855 1

Nineteenth century anti-slavery poets created vivid and terrifying settings through which their heroes and heroines, desperate and set-upon fugitive slaves, determinedly and defiantly struggled. Typical of these is the “sad slave mother” of Philadelphia native John Collins’ poem, an excerpt of which opens this chapter. She braves “secret and dangerous paths,” through “tangled thicket,” teeming with lurking panthers and poisonous snakes. Prickly brushwood and thorns tear her flesh. Despite these dangers, she holds to her northern course “In search of freedom and a grave.”

A similar grim determination is shown by the escaping slave Eliza Harris, from Uncle Tom’s Cabin, clutching her infant child, Harry, to her chest as she leaps into the frigid Ohio River, perilously, even foolishly, balancing on ice floes in a mad attempt at escape. Author Harriet Beecher Stowe painted a thrilling and unforgettable image for her readers with the following passage:

The huge green fragment of ice on which she alighted pitched and creaked as her weight came on it, but she stayed there not a moment. With wild cries and desperate energy she leaped to another and still another cake; --stumbling, --leaping, --slipping, --springing upwards again! Her shoes are gone, --her stockings cut from her feet, --while blood marked every step; but she saw nothing, felt nothing, till dimly, as in a dream, she saw the Ohio side, and a man helping her up the bank.2

Each image of escape quoted above is crafted in the romantic tradition of man fighting against awesome natural forces. The danger is palpable to the reader, and carefully sketched out to draw forth a strong emotional response in favor of the innocent fugitive. Eliza’s heroic leap from one ice chunk to the next, with the prospect of drowning beneath rushing dark and frigid waters, or being brutally crushed between giant frozen slabs with a single slip or misstep, was a favorite scene for Stowe’s readers. So cherished was this scene of peril that when the book was turned into an early stage play, the staging of the escape-over-the-ice scene often disappointed theater patrons because theaters were unable to adequately recreate the intense emotional drama that readers of the novel had invested in the same passage from the book.

An 1853 review in the Philadelphia Sunday Dispatch called Eliza’s escape scene from the National Theater’s production “poorly managed,” complaining “Instead of jumping from piece to piece, she kept on one cake of ice, which was moved very slowly, and in a manner which spoiled all the thrilling incidents of what might have been a very exciting scene.”3 In response to popular demand, the theater company improved its special effects so that the scene might properly thrill a theater audience, and the stage play of Uncle Tom’s Cabin, in six acts, moved out from the large cities and began playing the smaller towns in Pennsylvania in December 1853. A traveling company presented it in Norristown, Lancaster, Lebanon, and Harrisburg.4 It played well in most northern locales, and continued to do so for decades after the end of the Civil War, but despite the improved staging, the theater version never eclipsed the popularity of the book.

Popular images, however gruesome or thrilling, paled against the reality of the actual dangers faced by most freedom seekers. While panthers and frozen rivers provided vicarious thrills for nineteenth century readers, the fugitive slave faced far nastier perils from the moment she or he stepped away from the plantation without permission. Every force in nature became a potential threat; every person met along the way was a possible assailant. Homes and inns, which traditionally offered warmth, rest and nourishment to weary travelers, became suspected traps.

The prospect of collecting reward money, which was sometimes a substantial sum and very appealing to a poor farmer, made every resident a possible bounty hunter. Freedom seeker James Curry, in his 1840 narrative of escape published in Garrison’s Liberator, expressed a preference for facing wild animals rather than slave hunters when he wrote of an incident on his journey to freedom “In that afternoon I was attacked by a wild beast…I thought surely I am beset this day, but unlike the men, more ferocious than wild beasts, I succeeded in driving him away.” Wild animals presented a danger when they were accidentally encountered, and even predatory beasts such as wolves could be warded off or avoided, but only men, using all their intelligence, tools, and domesticated animals as help, would hunt down other men for profit.

As newspapers became more prevalent, notices of runaway slaves, some with extensive descriptions, commonly appeared next to advertisements for stage lines and local inns. The Farmer’s Instructor and Harrisburgh Courant, a short-lived newspaper in Harrisburg in the first decade of the nineteenth century, frequently published advertisements from Maryland slaveholders seeking the return of fugitives. An advertisement from May 1800 offered fifty dollars for the return of “Mid,” a runaway from the plantation of Leroy Hughes in Frederick, Maryland. Hughes described the escapee as a Negro man, thirty-two years of age, who “calls himself Middleton Garrett.” Hughes believed that Middleton had not taken off on his own, noting “It is believed some free person has taken him off.”5

The reward that Hughes promised for the capture of his wayward slave, fifty dollars, was a tidy sum when compared with common wages of that time period: laborers on the Schuylkill and Susquehanna Canal in nearby Middletown earned five dollars per month in winter and six dollars per month in summer. Soldiers were paid three dollars per month in that same time period. Local merchants advertised whiskey at forty-seven cents per gallon and bacon at nine cents per pound.6 Fifty dollars for the return of a slave, then, could induce many people to risk a potentially dangerous capture attempt.

Charles County, Maryland slaveholder William Mackall Wilkinson placed an advertisement in the Carlisle Gazette, in September 1787, seeking to find a man named Walle and his female companion. Both had escaped from Wilkinson in April and the slaveholder believed they had gone to Pennsylvania. He offered a reward of six guineas for the pair, a guinea being worth twenty-one shillings. As day laborers earned anywhere from three to five shillings per day during this time, this too, was a substantial reward. Wilkinson’s published description of the male slave, whom he called Walle, included many details:

Two Negro Slaves, one a man, about thirty five years old, he is tall slender made fellow, with a remarkable small head and very black, speaks very broken English, his name is Walle, but I am apt to think he will change it, as he is a very artful fellow, and will endeavour to pass as a freeman, he has had a hurt on one of his hands which prevents him from straightening his fingers.

Wilkinson was less descriptive of, and equally unflattering, in describing the female fugitive:

The other is a woman, a low squat wench, about forty years old, she is very black, and makes use of a great deal of tobacco, both of chewing and smoking … they took with them two horses, one light sorrel, about 14 hands high, nine years old, he had two white feet, a star in his forehead, very flat feet and branded thus: W. The other a dark bay, not branded, but has a small nick in one of its ears near the end, about 14 hands high, six years old last spring.7

Wilkinson also offered two dollars apiece for the return of the horses. The use of horses to speed their escape was a daring move by Walle and his companion. It carried the increased danger that they would be recognized, as people often paid more attention to good horseflesh than to lowly slaves, and it probably increased the severity of the punishment, should they be captured.

An older and more lasting Harrisburg newspaper, the Oracle of Dauphin, also ran slave recovery advertisements. A particularly descriptive advertisement appeared in January 1813, for a slave who had gone missing since the previous April. Adam Shirley of Augusta County, Virginia, offered fifty dollars for the return of a man called “Baker” with the following ad:

Ran away from the subscriber, in April last, a bright Mulatto Man, named Baker. Formerly the property of Charles Lewis, of Rockingham county, Va., he is about thirty years of age; about six feet high, thin visage; walks quick; he is a straight and handsome-built fellow, speaks quick; I believe he has a considerable scar on one of his shins, perhaps has a pass, which is not good without the county seal; not a doubt but he will change his name. He had on when he left the premises, a wool hat, striped blue and white linsey overalls; he also had a quantity of very good clothing, viz. three great coats, one light blue, one drab made for a low person, one brown rough wool, a superfine black cloth close body coat, covered buttons; two pair of pantaloons of the best kind of dove-colored corduroy, a scarlet jacket; two or three white dimity jackets; a bottle-green cloth coat and pantaloons; a pair of very good boots, and a number of other clothing that I do not recollect. Baker was raised, I believe, in King George county, Va.8

Baker left the plantation particularly well prepared, with extra clothing, heavy coats for protection from the weather, and a pass. The slaveholder added a postscript to the ad, warning all “masters of vessels and others” from harboring or employing his escaped slave, an acknowledgment that waterways were frequent escape routes for fugitives.

Also in the Oracle, in 1815, was an advertisement for two “Negroe men” named Jack and Lloyd. They had escaped from a Washington County, Maryland plantation and their owner expected they would head for Chambersburg, Pennsylvania. He offered twenty dollars for their return. More than a decade later, slaveholder Henry Nelson, who lived in a small town in Frederick County, Maryland with the ironic name of Libertytown, offered a considerably larger reward for the return of Charles Barrick, who was commonly called “Buck.” Advertising in the Harrisburg Argus, in March 1828, Nelson offered two hundred dollars in reward money for twenty-six-year-old Buck’s capture. That same year, Robert R. Richardson, of Baltimore, sought the return of Andrew Martin, age twenty-six, putting up one hundred dollars as a reward.

Another Libertytown slaveholder named Carroll Hammond bought several advertisements a few years later, in 1830, seeking the capture of runaways Dan and Peter. Hammond offered a two-hundred-dollar reward in his March advertisement. By April 1830, in a second advertisement, Hammond stated that the reward for the missing men had doubled to four hundred dollars, a very large and tempting amount of money for anyone adventurous enough to attempt to capture the two men.

So frequent were incoming runaway slave notices that central Pennsylvania printers prepared special graphic devices to insert at the top of the ad to attract the reader’s eye. All the advertisements for runaways from this period featured a drawing of a black man or woman, walking with a bundle over their shoulder.9 Additional proof showing the importance of the Harrisburg area as an escape route was in the willingness of southern slaveholders to pay for advertisements in Harrisburg, Carlisle, Gettysburg, Lebanon, and Lancaster newspapers, in hope of enticing local men to capture and jail runaways.

In typical fashion, a 2 November 1849 advertisement from the Baltimore Sun for female runaway Eliza Pinkney concludes with a request for the “Philad. Ledger and Lancaster Intelligence[r], copy each to the amount of $1, and charge this office.” By the 1820s, judging from the large number of locally printed advertisements for southern fugitives, the Susquehanna Valley had developed into a major northern route for escaping Maryland and Virginia slaves.

This presented local men with a lucrative opportunity, of which many readily took advantage. The capture of fugitive slaves by local citizens was also made easier by the cooperation of county authorities. Since most residents were usually acquainted with slaves and free blacks in their own community, unfamiliar blacks passing through the area were often suspected of being runaways, and were subject to challenges from people they met, and detainment by the sheriff in order to explain their reason for being on local roads. An unsatisfactory answer or failure to produce a pass from an owner would generally result in the arrest of the stranger, who was then committed to the county lock-up. In Pennsylvania, this practice was particularly common in the last few decades of the eighteenth century, but it continued well into the early 1800s. The jails of many central Pennsylvania counties prior to the 1830s frequently held one or more alleged fugitive slaves.

County jailers had the responsibility not only of holding and caring for these suspected fugitive slaves, but of periodically placing ads in regional newspapers with descriptions and details from the capture of such inmates. Reading Jailor William Whitman, in February 1784, advertised that he was holding an Irishman named John McKinney and a “Negroe Man, who calls himself Cato, belonging to Michael Dowdle, living in York-Town, in the county of York, and state of Pennsylvania.” Per traditional practice, Whitman was carefully tracking all the expenses of incarcerating these men, and had to recover his costs from the respective owners. He stated in the advertisement that “The owner or owners are hereby requested, on or before the 15th day of March, to take them away, defray the expences and charges, otherwise they will be discharged or sold according to law.”

Discharge was probably more of a possibility for the white inmate McKinney, who likely had some resources on which he could draw, than for Cato. Either way, it was a bad situation for both jailed men. If an owner came forward to claim them, they likely faced severe punishment after returning home. If no one claimed them, they could not leave until they covered the cost of their own imprisonment, unless they could persuade the jailer that they were truly free of any sort of indenture or enslavement.

The latter case was unlikely, considering that local assumption of guilt was what got them imprisoned originally. Few captured fugitive slaves would have had any money to pay their way out, much less enough to repay the cost of imprisonment for several months, the usual time required to establish if anyone was going to answer the advertisements. That generally meant being sold by the county to pay their costs, and a return to slavery.

In at least one instance, however, a captured fugitive slave saw this system work to his advantage. In March 1788, twenty-one-year-old Ned ran away from Lancaster slaveholder Isaac McAmant. Ned was not at large long before he was imprisoned in the Easton jail as a runaway. His owner later learned of the imprisonment, but not before Ned was released by the jailor. McAmant wrote, in a summer advertisement, that Ned was “sold for his goal fees without my knowledge, to two gentlemen in Bucks county, who gave six dollars to a lawyer to help them to set him free, and had him bound 18 months for the fees. From these circumstances I have reason to suspect he is gone that way, as they were such good friends to him.”10 The eighteen-month indenture to which the Bucks men charged Ned was a bargain in comparison to a lifetime of slavery in Lancaster County to Isaac McAmant. If he was able to avoid recapture, Ned would have come out ahead. But his experience was the rare exception, as most jailed runaways and jailed free blacks would learn.

A good illustration of the dangers to blacks traveling on Pennsylvania roads in the late eighteenth century, as described above, occurred in October 1784 when Newark-born Prince Frederick and his wife, Betsy, were arrested in Reading and jailed on suspicion of being runaway slaves. Frederick protested that he used to belong to a man he called Doctor Bonat, in Newark, but that he had since been given his freedom. Betsy, his wife, was born near Harrisburg and was also free, he said. Neither could produce papers to back up their claims, so Sheriff Philip Kremer took the stance that both would be sold, if unclaimed, by the end of the month.11 Were Prince and Betsy Frederick escaped slaves? Even if they were innocent, the married couple apparently did not possess the money to cover their jail costs, so they faced the very real horror of separation and enslavement.



The sad story of Prince and Betsy Frederick also illustrates the importance and value of a pass to any African American traveling Pennsylvania’s highways and back roads prior to the 1830s. An official pass could easily mean the difference between freedom and enslavement. But what was a pass and how were they obtained? Such an important document deserves a bit of explanation and description.

The typical slave owner in Pennsylvania did not own hundreds or even dozens of slaves on a large plantation. Rather, most slave owners had a few slaves that worked closely with the owner or other workers around the rural farm, inn, mill, or foundry. Many slaves were also held and worked in small towns or cities. They, too, worked and lived alongside their owners and any hired help. As a result of this familiar arrangement, slaves were frequently trusted to run errands on their owner’s behalf, and were sometimes even given the authority to conduct a limited amount of business for him or her. Because most neighbors or people in the town knew their neighbor’s slaves, this did not present a problem. But when this errand involved travel to a nearby town where they were not well known, a written pass from the owner became a necessity.

A typical pass might be a brief dated note explaining the errand and instructions for the slave, or it might be a more open-ended pass, giving the slave permission to be away from the farm or store on certain days of the week. A pass might also be written to allow a slave to travel on his own for a great distance, passing from one owner to another, for instance.

An interesting example of such a pass was recorded in Dauphin County, in 1816, for a young girl named Ruth. She was the slave of William Frazier, of Londonderry Township, and upon his death was given a pass by someone in his family to travel to nearby towns “in order to hunt another master.” Ruth was away for several weeks, all under the protection of her pass, when the administrator of the estate, William Hamilton, attempted to call her back to settle the estate. Ruth could not be found where he had last been told she was staying, and he placed an advertisement in an attempt to locate her. At the end of the ad the administrator noted that he thought she had “gone into York County.”12 Whether Ruth was a runaway slave, or was just exploring the limits of her pass is not clear, but it shows how useful a pass could be.

In all cases, at the very least, a pass stated the slave’s name, the owner’s name, and written permission to be away. Loss of the pass could have disastrous consequences, as already seen by the arrest of Prince and Betsey Frederick. Former slaves who were subsequently manumitted, or freed, by their owners also carried a type of pass proving their newly freed status. These “freedom papers” took various forms. Sometimes it was an official transcript of the manumission papers filed with the clerk of the county in which they had been freed, and sometimes it was a letter from their former owner attesting to their good character.

Character references were particularly important in a time when idleness was a recognized crime and newly freed blacks traveling in search of employment or lost relatives could be arrested as vagrants. The danger was multiplied considerably in the early nineteenth century as white suspicions toward mobile blacks increased in the wake of an increasing number of transient former slaves making their way through central Pennsylvania. These persons consisted of two main groups: escaped slaves from Maryland and Virginia seeking to start a new life by traveling north into Pennsylvania, and manumitted former slaves and servants from Pennsylvania owners.

The latter case constituted more of a problem than one might suspect. As anti-slavery sentiment increased in Pennsylvania after the revolution and into the early decades of the nineteenth century, the practice of owning slaves became less acceptable and more of a financial and social liability. As a result, many owners, cynically citing benevolence as their motive, suddenly cut their slaves loose without providing for their well-being, and without a thought as to their ability to provide for themselves. The very young and very old sometimes found themselves turned out and left to exist by their wits. They flocked to larger towns and cities, where a lack of employment and inadequate housing only compounded the problem.13 This latter group presented a potentially greater problem for authorities as they could not be arrested and returned to a southern state.

At the same time, rumors that blacks were responsible for a spate of violent crimes in places such as York and Harrisburg led to heightened suspicions toward all blacks traveling from town to town. The incident that caused the biggest stir occurred in York, in 1803, when arson fires destroyed several valuable properties. York residents immediately put the blame on local free blacks, believing they had set the fires in retaliation for the imprisonment of a young black woman for the attempted poisoning of an employer. This “Negro Conspiracy,” as the newspapers called it, led to a local ordinance requiring all white employers and owners of black slaves or servants to “keep them at home under strict discipline and watch,” and not let them travel into York without a pass. It further stipulated that any such slaves and servants in York on their owner’s business with a pass must leave York at least an hour before sundown, “on pain of being imprisoned or at the risk of their lives.” Free black residents of York were required to obtain an official pass from a justice of the peace, in order to retain their freedom.14

Despite such severe measures, transient blacks continued to enter towns in central Pennsylvania in numbers alarming to local whites. Harrisburg saw its free black population increase from eighty-one persons, in 1810, to one hundred and eighty-seven in 1820.15 White community leaders and authorities in smaller cities and towns across the midstate both reacted to this increase in different, but equally racist ways. Community leaders in Harrisburg, again citing practicality and benevolence, organized a colonization society in 1819, which had as its aim the removal of local free blacks to the newly established colony of Liberia on the western coast of Africa.

Law enforcement officials in the same town took a more direct and immediate approach and simply had the borough council pass a severely worded ordinance that targeted local blacks for registration and monitoring. Such laws were passed in at least two towns in central Pennsylvania, first in Lancaster and then in Harrisburg, in an attempt to control the freedom of movement of blacks.

The ordinance that became law in Harrisburg in 1821 required all free African Americans in the borough—Harrisburg was forty years away from becoming a city at this time—to appear before the chief burgess and register their names, occupations, addresses and the names of all family members and other non-whites in their homes. They had to notify the authorities if they moved to another residence in town, and if anyone moved in with them. Chief Burgess Obed Fahnestock would then give them a certificate of registration, for which they had to pay him twelve-and-a-half cents. In addition, the ordinance also required all innkeepers and other persons who hosted travelers, to notify the authorities of any free African Americans who were staying at their inn or home for more than twenty-four hours. The travelers were then required to appear before the authorities to register their names, occupations, and place of rest.

The penalties for failing to comply, whether out of neglect or willful disobedience, was one dollar per day, which was a very stiff fine. If the local constables found a "strange person of color" around town who was not registered, they were supposed to take that person before a judge and that person would be charged with vagrancy, idleness and disorderly conduct, regardless of what they were doing at the time.16

This ordinance follows closely a similar ordinance passed the previous May in Lancaster, and in fact uses language identical to that found in the Lancaster law. The perceived threat from idle free blacks that prompted the earlier Lancaster law actually came from Harrisburg. An 1820 letter from a Harrisburg citizen to Lancaster merchant Adam Reigart told of a rash of fires in the vicinity that prompted nightly patrols by local citizens. As a result of these regular patrols "after two or three nights patrolling [sic], eighteen blacks, supposed to be runaway, left Harrisburg, all directing their course for Lancaster."17

By 1820, passes for black persons in Pennsylvania had undergone several changes, beginning as required documents for traveling slaves and servants, progressing to papers guaranteeing the character and free status of freed slaves, and ending, much as they had begun, as mandatory documents for any person of color. Between the rewards offered by slaveholders for the capture of runaways, and the ability of county jailers to recover all costs of capturing and holding a suspected runaway, there were few reasons for authorities, and local whites in general, not to detain any unfamiliar black person caught passing through town without the required legal paperwork.

Persons without documents, whether they were called “freedom papers,” a “pass,” or a “certificate of registration,” were liable to arrest and subject to great injustices and unpleasant consequences, the least of which was several days or even weeks of imprisonment, and the worst of which was possible re-enslavement. A century of laws and tradition made the value of passes evident to all blacks.

One Harrisburg resident who carefully guarded his “freedom papers” was Fleming Mitchell, better known in his later years around town as “General Mitchell.” Fleming’s year of birth is difficult to determine, but it seems that he was born sometime between 1792 and the early 1800’s in Virginia, to an enslaved woman in the household of the white Mitchell family. Because children of slaves inherited the bound status of their mothers, Fleming was legally an enslaved child. Ownership of this child, and later young man and still later mature adult, passed from father to son, but his legal status changed significantly when the white Mitchell family moved to Philadelphia. No longer, according to Pennsylvania law, could Fleming be held to a lifetime of slavery, but he had to be manumitted if he was older than twenty-eight years. However, he might have remained with the Mitchell family for some time yet as a servant before deciding to move on.

On 1 August 1837, Fleming’s owner, Dr. Alexander W. Mitchell, had papers drawn up in Philadelphia officially stating that this “honest, sober…man of truth,” who had been a slave in the household “for more than twenty years” was a free man. With his documents of manumission carefully tucked away, Fleming Mitchell took his leave of the white Mitchell family and eventually made his way to Harrisburg, where he settled down with a wife and worked as a laborer.

He first shows up in Harrisburg in the census of 1850, where census takers recorded his age as fifty-eight, the first indication that he was older than the description hinted at on the freedom papers, although it was not unusual for ages to be estimated if the person reporting their age was not certain. Because slaveholders so frequently rounded the ages of their slaves to the nearest decade as they aged, many enslaved persons and formerly enslaved persons did not know their exact year of birth.

Neither Fleming nor his wife Dinah, with whom he lived in a rented house in Harrisburg’s West Ward, could read or write. More than twenty years of slavery and the following decades of manual labor could take a mighty toll on youth and vigor. Even if he was closer to the 40-some odd years, as estimated from his manumission documents, he probably looked like he was much older.

He aged at an even greater rate by 1860, telling census takers, or allowing them to think, that he was seventy-four years old. By then he was remarried to a much younger woman named Maria, and secured a job as a porter, which was probably the occupation that put him in regular contact with the city’s more influential white citizens, who at some point either acknowledged or gave him the nickname “General,” a name by which he became widely known, and who memorialized him in a photograph sometime shortly before he died in the early 1860s.

Through all this, Fleming Mitchell kept his manumission documents near at hand. He did not survive long after being recorded by the 1860 census taker: a city directory agent making his rounds sometime between 1863 and 1864 found only Fleming Mitchell's widow living in his house. The exact date that the agent visited is not known, but “General” Mitchell may still have been alive during the 1863 invasion. If he was, he probably checked on his precious freedom papers in the summer of 1863, when invading Confederate soldiers swept north along the South Mountain range, out of Maryland, across the Mason-Dixon Line into the Keystone State.

One has to wonder if he pulled them from some hitherto safe place of storage, just to make sure they were intact, as the sun-scorched soldiers in butternut and gray marched and rode through town after town in the Cumberland Valley. Did he gaze at his papers with increasing apprehension as he listened to the stories told by the weary refugees that flooded into Harrisburg about how all blacks in the invaders’ path, regardless of free status, were rounded up like frightened cattle, tied to wagons and carried south to re-enslavement? Perhaps he even placed the yellowed papers in his pocket, or hid them among other possessions in preparation for flight, as the Confederates took Carlisle, then Mechanicsburg, and were suddenly on Harrisburg’s doorstep. The enemy shot and shell that rained on Carlisle, and later in farmers’ fields only a few miles from his town, quickly erased any imagined safety that Mitchell felt in the Keystone State’s capital.

Fleming Mitchell, if he was still alive at that time, apparently did not run. Like many of Harrisburg’s African American residents, he seems to have stayed through the danger, and whether he took an active part in the defense of Harrisburg by digging entrenchments high atop Hummel’s Heights in the newly named Fort Washington, or helped to feed and care for the frightened refugees that constantly tumbled out of the Camel Back Bridge and collapsed on the riverfront, or even if he merely kept at his work as a porter, he courageously made a stand in his adopted home. We know this because his freedom papers remained with him in Harrisburg, where they were kept safe even after his death during the war that made them obsolete. They were eventually preserved by a collector as a curiosity from a bygone time when men owned other men, and were eventually exhibited in a local museum.18 To modern researchers, they are valuable artifacts, but to Fleming Mitchell, they had worth beyond any amount of money, because they guaranteed his freedom in a time of great strife.

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1. John Collins, “The Slave Mother” (excerpt) (Philadelphia: 1855), in, Anti-Slavery Literature Project, Joe Lockard, ed., (accessed 16 April 2007).

2. Harriet Beecher Stowe, Uncle Tom’s Cabin (Boston: John P. Jewett, 1852) 118.

3. “The Theatres,” Philadelphia Sunday Dispatch, 11 September 1853.

4. “Hit or Miss,” Detroit Free Press, 4 January, 1897.
The stage play “Uncle Tom’s Cabin” also played in Harrisburg in September 1862, as Confederate forces were threatening central Pennsylvania. At that time, it played at Sanford’s Opera House on Third Street (see chapter nine).

5. Farmer’s Instructor and Harrisburgh Courant, 28 May 1800.

6. The 1800 salaries and prices were quoted from an unnamed Middletown, Pennsylvania newspaper, dated February 1800, published in Morgan, Annals of Harrisburg, 324.

7. Morgan, Annals of Harrisburg, 505; Carlisle Gazette, 24 September 1787.

8. Oracle of Dauphin, 23 January 1813.

9. Oracle of Dauphin, 11 November 1815; Harrisburg Argus, 8 March, 26 July 1828; Harrisburg Republican and Anti-Masonic Inquirer, 13 March, 17 April 1830.

10. Pennsylvania Gazette, 3 March 1784, 31 March, 13 July 1788.

11. Pennsylvania Gazette, 8 October 1783.

12. Pennsylvania Republican, 16 February 1816.

13. Carl D. Oblinger, “Alms for Oblivion: The Making of a Black Underclass in Southeastern Pennsylvania, 1780-1860,” in The Ethnic Experience in Pennsylvania, ed. John E. Bodnar (Cranbury, NJ: The Associated Universities Press, 1973), 94-119.
Oblinger studied the careers of 15,000 black paupers in Lancaster and Chester counties from 1820 to 1860, and determined that this mix of freedmen and fugitive slaves made up a large transient population that “usually moved on every few months.”

14. “To the Inhabitants of the Borough of York and its Vicinity, to the Distance of 10 Miles,” Lancaster Journal, 2 April 1803, in Leroy T. Hopkins, Jr. "The Negro Entry Book: A Document of Lancaster County's Antebellum Afro-American Community," Journal of the Lancaster County Historical Society 88: 142-180.
The paranoia that inspired the York “Negro Conspiracy” may have had its roots in a series of incidents that occurred in nearby Baltimore and vicinity, a few years earlier. The following item was reported in the Pennsylvania Herald and York General Advertiser on 31 January 1798: “An attempt was made a few nights past to set fire to the house of Mr. N. Rogers of Baltimore, who was in bed & smelt something burning. The fire was discovered downstairs & suppressed; & it was found that a bundle of newspapers had been fired in the closet. On Thursday the 11th inst., an attempt was made to burn the house of Edward Norwood, near Elk Ridge Landing Ferry (Md) by one of his negro women. She was brought before G. G. Presbury, Esq. of Baltimore & acknowledged she had placed fire under 4 different beds of the house by advice, as she said, of a female slave of Samuel Norwood. Both were committed to prison.”

15. Egle, Notes and Queries, 3rd ser., 29:184-185.
Historian Egle, writing sixty years later, remarked on the obvious disparity in population increases among the races, noting, “During the next decade [1820], notwithstanding the removal of the seat of government of the State here, the [total] population had not increased very rapidly…It will be seen that the colored population more than doubled itself.” Incidentally, the official number of free blacks enumerated in Harrisburg during the 1820 census is 177, a decrease of ten from Egle’s numbers. I have not been able to reconcile the two figures.

16. The ordinance was passed 25 April 1821.

17. Hopkins, “Negro Entry Book,” 147.

18. Original emancipation papers in the collection of Fort Hunter Mansion, Dauphin County Parks and Recreation, Harrisburg PA. The original emancipation paper reads: "Philadelphia 1st Augt. 1837. This is to certify that the bearer here of Fleming Mitchele, who was born a Slave in my father's house...Hereby is Emancipated + is a free man, honest, Sober + a man of Truth: he having lived with us for more than twenty years.------Alex. W. Mitchele M.D.”
A photograph of "General" Fleming Mitchell appears on page 43 of Linda A. Ries, Harrisburg (Charleston, SC: Arcadia, 2000). Although Ries dates the photograph as circa 1870, it was probably taken just shortly before his death. Fleming Mitchell had passed away by the time the 1863-1864 edition of James Gopsill’s Directory of Lancaster, Harrisburg, Lebanon and York listed his widow, Maria, living at the corner of Barbara and River alleys, which was a strong abolitionist and Underground Railroad neighborhood. Some confusion arises from a tombstone in Harrisburg’s Lincoln Cemetery for “Gen. Fleming Mitchell,” which indicated a lifespan from 1818 to 1894. But these dates may be for another person, possibly a son, buried under the same stone, as city census records and directories all agree with the earlier age estimates of circa 1792 to 1863. No person named Fleming Mitchell shows up on any city census after 1860 or any city directory after 1863.


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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