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 Six (continued)
No Haven on Free Soil

For You Know the Negroes are Slaves

Colonial governors regularly received complaints from slaveholders in their own colony and from slaveholders in neighboring colonies that local Native Americans were harboring runaway slaves. This phenomenon was documented in Pennsylvania colonial records in the first decades of the eighteenth century; although it is likely that escaped African American slaves found refuge in Native American villages right from the start. Unlike later decades, when communities of free blacks began to appear in the larger cities of the northeast—communities that offered shelter to runaway slaves—early fugitives had few options for finding a safe haven. Either they had to hide out in a remote location, constantly guarding against discovery and fighting for survival, or they could appeal to the local non-white inhabitants to take them in.

Faced with certain capture and a return to bondage if they remained among white settlers, freedom seekers often found refuge among Native Americans in nearby settlements. There, they were more likely to find food, shelter, and acceptance, frequently being invited to live among the inhabitants as a member of the community. Marriages and children frequently resulted from these alliances, which were noted by white slaveholders when they occurred. It was generally assumed that slaves with Native American connections would make their way back toward the Indian villages that had previously welcomed them if they escaped.

Such was the case with Sampson, a fifty-year-old slave who escaped in September 1747 along with his teenage son, Sam, from Silas Parvin, of Philadelphia. Both slaves, according to Parvin, had “Indian blood,” and the boy was “born of an Indian woman, and looks much like an Indian.” The runaway ad placed by Parvin gives indications that the elder Sampson had spent considerable time among the Indians, and had fathered a son to a Native American woman. In the ad, Parvin wrote that both escaped blacks were fluent in the local Native American language, and wore Indian garb when they left. Parvin’s observations about his escaped slaves highlights the strong cultural connections between some enslaved blacks and local Native American tribes.7

The welcome that Native Americans initially extended to freedom seekers probably came from their own experiences with white colonists. Local Indians had been enslaved by the earliest Dutch settlers, and English colonists recorded a few Indian slaves in records, although many of the slaves of Native American heritage in Pennsylvania had been captured and enslaved in the Carolinas and imported into the northern colony.

William Penn, cognizant of the need to maintain good relations with local Native Americans, discouraged the holding of Indians as slaves. In 1705, this policy was written into a law that prohibited the importation of any Indian slaves into Pennsylvania. At the same time, however, the law specified that no Indian slave who fled into Pennsylvania to escape bondage should be considered to be sheltered by the law.8

Pennsylvania’s colonial assembly was working from recent experience, in barring safe harbor for slaves among Native Americans. In 1699, four Indian slaves traveled down the Susquehanna from New York and ended up with local tribes. Two stayed under the protection of a Shawnee leader and two went further south to the Indian village of Conestoga, which was near present day Pequea. The four had apparently been captured in the Carolinas and brought north into enslavement in New York under white colonists.

The local Shawnee leader sought to protect his two runaways and eventually return them to their homes. Before he could do so, a Pennsylvania fur trader named Sylvester Garland rode into the village and gruffly demanded the return of the runaways. The leader of the Shawnee, a headman named Meealloua, refused to bring the runaways out of hiding. Garland left the Shawnee village and headed to Conestoga, where he was similarly confounded by villagers, particularly women in the village, who steadfastly protected their charges.

When Garland was rebuffed by the women in the tribe, he threatened to return with forty men and enslave everyone in the village. The women of the camp stood firm, and Garland left in a huff, but not before drawing his pistols and killing two dogs belonging to the tribe. When he returned, he brought a local landowner, James Read, in an attempt to fool the villagers into releasing the slaves. After much bluster in the Shawnee settlement, with no results, the whites finally threatened to bring six hundred men to kill all the people in the village. Meealloua could not risk such a catastrophe for the lives of two slaves, and he reluctantly surrendered the runaways.

In Conestoga, Garland and Read again tried to coerce the inhabitants into turning over the slaves, but finally resorted to violence, securing the other two runaway Indian slaves only after grabbing one of the women elders and threatening to force her into slavery.9 Garland’s heavy-handed tactics raised tensions among settlers and Indians along this local stretch of the Susquehanna River.

It was incidents such as this that forced William Penn to codify the slave laws, not only to protect local Indians from enslavement, but also to clarify the laws regarding the harboring of fugitives. This history of enslavement and mistreatment by white settlers played heavily into the relationship between Native American settlements and colonial governments. Was it any wonder that escaping black slaves, with few other resources, found sympathy, shelter and often a new life among Native American villagers?

By 1722, Pennsylvania’s back woods had become a notorious haven for African freedom seekers. The pressure being exerted upon Native American tribes by European colonists to move further from white settlements had not yet reached the point of open hostilities—there was still room for all, and Native American villages were located remote enough from white towns to provide a hiding place, yet close enough to be reached by a day’s travel.

Although the 1705 law prohibited Native Americans from sheltering fugitive slaves of any type, Indian or black, local authorities seldom bothered to chase into Indian settlements looking for escaped slaves. So it became possible for men such as Sampson, the slave of Silas Parvin, to live for long periods among Indian hosts, marry a Native American woman, and father a child, all while still being enslaved in Philadelphia. But the colonial councils were moving to put an end to such cozy arrangements.

Virginia Governor Alexander Spotswood, in 1722 was working to broker peace arrangements among the various Native American entities. Having just gotten a peace treaty with the Five Nations, at Albany, to stop raids into the Carolinas, Spotswood was eager to arrange a similar deal between the Indians of Virginia and Pennsylvania. While returning from his October 1722 peace negotiations in Albany, Spotswood stopped in Philadelphia. While there, he sent a letter to Pennsylvania Governor William Keith, imploring him to aid in having Pennsylvania’s Indians join in the agreements. But Spotswood had additional issues to present to Keith regarding the Native American villages in the colony. A significant portion of the letter was devoted to the protection of Virginia runaway slaves by Pennsylvania Indians. Spotswood wrote:

I have also a Demand to make of some Negro Slaves belonging to Virginia, which I understand are harboured among the Shuannoes and said to be set free and protected by those Indians. This is a proceeding that must so dangerously affect the Properties of his Majesties subjects in these parts, that I greatly depend on the Earnest Application of this Government to discourage your Indians from such a Practice.10

Although Pennsylvania Governor Keith agreed with his Virginia counterpart on the need for treaties between the various tribes, he was unable to convince the rest of the colonial council on the matter. Spotswood was put considerably off by the treaty rebuff, but persisted in leaving a belt of wampum for the Pennsylvania Indians as a token of his sincerity. He was also very interested in pursuing the runaway black slave issue, leaving a second belt of wampum at Philadelphia for Keith to present to local Indians on behalf of the Colony of Virginia, as a request for the return of fugitive slaves.

Even though William Keith could not convince council to join Virginia in urging Pennsylvania tribes to join the treaty talks voluntarily, they did agree to send Governor Spotswood’s message to the village at Conestoga. Bearing the message and belts of wampum was trader James LeTort, who translated a lengthy greeting from Governor Keith. The message detailed the recent treaties, and outlined dire warnings should Pennsylvania tribesmen venture south of the Mason and Dixon line. It finished with the slavery issue, stating, “I must also further inform you that the ffive Nations have agreed in the same Treaty, that neither they nor you shall receive or harbor any Negroes on any accot. whatsoever, but if any of them be found by the Indians in the woods, they shall be taken up and brought to the Governour that they may be returned to their masters, for you know the Negroes are Slaves.”11

To sweeten the deal, the message promised “one Good Gun and two Blankets for each Negro,” returned to provincial authorities. In addition to simply requesting the return of fugitives that were being sheltered at that time, the document seemed to go one step further by attempting to enlist Native Americans in capturing fugitive black slaves still at large, stating, “And the same value you will receive, from time to time, for every Runaway Negro that you shall take up and deliver.” If this added appeal smacked of callousness, the final sentence attempted to alleviate the harsh realities of human trafficking, which colonial authorities were trying to force on the Conestoga people, by appealing to their sense of pride: “But to entertain our Slaves is not only scandalous to the Indians but an injury to the English, and is contrary to the Treaty’s [sic] already made.”12

The appeal seems to have worked to some degree, as some slaves were returned, but there is no evidence that Native Americans in Pennsylvania actively hunted fugitive black slaves for the bounty of two guns and a blanket. Ten years later, a similar appeal was included in the speech of Thomas Penn to the Representatives of the Six Nations Indians. Penn, along with his brothers, had acquired proprietorship of the colony in 1718 upon the death of his father, but the son did not have the same commitment to good settler-Indian relations that had been so important to the elder Penn. He did not even visit Pennsylvania until August 1732, at which time, by way of introducing himself, he composed a speech to be delivered to the representatives of the Six Nations at Philadelphia. In his speech he underscored the need to maintain peaceful relations with neighboring tribes, urged them to spurn relationships with the French, who were gaining influence and power in the western territories, and:

Particularly…bring not away nor harbour any Negroes: for those Negroes are the Support & Livelihood of their Masters, and gett them their Bread. That if any Negroes should run away from their Masters, and the Warriors or Hunters should find any of them in the Woods, they should take them up, and delivering them to the Sheriff of some County in the nearest English Government, when their Masters come for them they shall be paid whatever can be received from their Masters, for the Indian’s Service and Trouble.13

Despite his attempt to place slave recovery in an economic context by noting that African slaves were the support and livelihood of their masters, and despite the bribery inherent in the offer of rewards for captured runaways, Thomas Penn’s new entreaty to Native Americans to give up their practice of sheltering African American freedom seekers generally did not work.

One of the few documented instances of Native Americans giving up a fugitive black slave that they had previously sheltered occurred in May 1764, after the French and Indian War. The Senecas in New York state delivered to British commander Sir William Johnson “a Negroe they call Tony, who formerly run [sic] away from Maryland, and has lived about 20 Years at an Indian Village on the Susquehannah.”

The former slave might have remained with the local Indians the rest of his life, never coming to the attention of white authorities, but he apparently made the mistake of inflaming Indians against the white settlers by claiming, “that the English designed to destroy all the Nations in a short Time.” Such a claim, even though it would ultimately prove more true than false, came at a bad time. The recent war had left relations between whites and Indians in a shambles, and memories of atrocities committed in the name of war were fresh in everyone’s mind. Tony’s inflammatory rhetoric spread beyond the Susquehanna Native American villages and eventually reached the ears of Sir William. Concern for the fragile peace moved Johnson to send for the fugitive Tony, and the formerly settled slave was imprisoned by his former hosts, passed to neighboring tribes, and brought to New York.14

Such circumstances went well beyond the simple capture-and-return scenario set out by Thomas Penn. The local Native Americans, as well as the tribes northward, seem to have been convinced that Tony’s claims of English annihilation presented a greater danger to themselves and to the tenuous peace they had established.

In addition to Tony, Sir William Johnson had also received some black slaves from the Genesee Indians as part of his peace negotiations the previous month. Representatives of the Native American tribe promised “to deliver up all the Prisoners they have, Deserters and Negroes, amongst them” to British authorities at Fort Niagara. Although the blacks were designated as prisoners for return to the British, it is likely they were not regarded in the same light by the Indians as the other prisoners. Indian raiders sometimes spared black slaves in their attacks upon the farms of white settlers, choosing instead to take the slaves along with them, while killing the white family members.15 Whether these slaves were integrated into the tribal community, or kept in similar conditions of servitude is not certain, but the British authorities welcomed their return along with the other captives.

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7. Pennsylvania Gazette, 1 October 1747.

8. Pennsylvania Archives, 1902, 290.

9. This incident is well documented in Merrell, American Woods, 107-110.

10. Pennsylvania Archives, Colonial Series, vol. 3, Minutes of the Provincial Council, 206.

11. Ibid. 211.

12. Ibid. 211-212.

13. Pennsylvania Archives, Series 4, vol. 2, Papers of the Governors, Thomas Penn, 657-658.

14. Pennsylvania Gazette, 17 May 1764.

15. Pennsylvania Gazette, 19 April 1764.
Published reports of Indian raids usually listed casualties, including prisoners taken. For reports in which black slaves were taken prisoner while whites were killed, see the Pennsylvania Gazette, 15 May 1746 and 3 May 1764. For a similar report of Indians turning over black slaves along with other prisoners to white authorities in western Virginia, see the Pennsylvania Gazette, 8 July 1762.


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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