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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 Six (continued)
No Haven on Free Soil

Every Slave May Be Reckoned
as a Domestic Enemy

With the start of the Seven Years War, the easy access to Indian settlements by freedom seekers ended. The bloody struggle between the warring French and British to control the Ohio Valley shattered whatever goodwill had remained between Indians and European settlers from the Penn family’s legacy. As Native Americans were drawn in on both sides of the fighting, with most in the Susquehanna Valley allying with the French, no remote white settlement or Indian village seemed safe. Raids on back woods farms by combined Indian and French rangers generated revenge raids by colonial militia on Indian settlements. The level of violence was high, and was reported in colonial newspapers in alarmingly gory detail.

One of the most graphic accounts concerned the surrender of Fort William Henry, in New York, to French and Indian forces. According the published account, “All the English Indians and Negroes in the Garrison were seized, and either captivated [sic] or slain.” Further details told of how surrendered men in the garrison were treated, reporting, “As soon as the Indians got them they began to massacre all the Sick and Wounded within the Lines, and before both Armies; next they hawled all the Negroes, Mulattoes and Indian Soldiers, out of the Ranks, butchering and scalping them.”

Such atrocities were not unusual in this conflict, and black slaves on white farms were not immune to the violence. A pitched battle occurred 7 March 1756 at Wiconisco Creek on the Andrew Lycan farm, as Lycan, his son, several neighbors and Lycan’s black slave defended the farm against a raiding party of at least sixteen Indians.

After very close fighting in which several of the raiders were killed, only Andrew Lycan, his neighbor Ludwig Shutt, and a young boy remained in the fight, the others having been wounded. It was decided that the slave should help the wounded men escape, and they slipped away in his care, leaving the three defenders. Eventually Lycan and Shutt were also badly wounded and had to abandon the farm to the Indians. They, along with neighboring settlers and their slaves, relocated to relative safety in Hanover Township. Clearly, the war had taken away much of the guaranteed safety runaway African slaves had depended upon from Native Americans.16

Despite these obvious dangers, slaves still attempted to make their way to Indian villages while the war raged. The previously cited example of four runaway New Jersey slaves who were expected by their masters to make their way toward an Indian settlement on the Susquehanna shows that some slaves saw this risky move as their only option. The freedom seekers traveled well armed, according to the runaway ad, a detail that would not have been lost on local whites who were beset by hostile Indians.

These same feelings would have been expressed for Joe, the “Mulattoe man” who escaped from Berks County iron master Henry William Steigel. Joe was similarly armed with a gun and a tomahawk when he left Berks County to join an Indian settlement. Many white slave owners feared that the weapons carried by renegade slaves would eventually be used against them by their former servants. It was not unusual for slaves to fight with the Indians against European colonists. The fear came out in runaway slave ads from before the war, as in the case of Richard Colegate’s runaway “Molatto Man,…James Wenyam,” who “swore…to a Negro man, whom he wanted to go with him, the he had often been in the back Woods with his Master, and that he would go to the French and Indians, and fight for them.”17

With black slaves running off to join Indian villages during the war, white slaveholders’ suspicion and unease toward their slaves increased, attributing the slaves’ motives to treason and revenge, rather than a desire for freedom. As if to underscore this unease, several alleged plots by slaves in areas surrounding central Pennsylvania were uncovered and reported upon in the regional newspapers, contributing to the high level of anxiety in European settlers toward black slaves.

In the spring of 1753, a supposed plot by slaves in Somerset County, Maryland was discovered. According to reports, the rebellious slaves were led by a free Mulatto, who planned to lead an attack against several of the wealthiest plantation owners in the area, kill them, and plunder their estates. They would then march as a military force on the county seat to seize weapons, and thus well armed would defend themselves against “all that opposed them.” As the story was reported, two days before this plan was to have been put into execution, one slave “whose master was one of those designed for Destruction,” tipped local authorities off to the plot, “Upon which the Mulatto, and about 20 of the Negroes, were taken up, and confined.”

Two years later, a conspiracy by a few black slaves in Maryland to poison their masters was exposed, but only after at least one white slaveholder was killed. The plot went awry when the poison being used was accidentally consumed by two slave children, who died. Two slave women, four slave men and a black “poison doctor” were convicted in Charles County and condemned to die by hanging in chains.

In 1759, a conspiracy between several slaves and local Indians to attack British settlers was discovered in South Carolina. The "Young Twin Plot," named for the Indian leader who was organizing the Native American portion of the plan, was to involve the massacre of the back woods settlers in an attempt to drive out the whites. Two black slaves, who were already imprisoned, were implicated in the plot as accomplices.

All these troubles were reported in great detail in newspapers available in central Pennsylvania. In addition to domestic strife, Pennsylvanians also read or heard about sensational plots by slaves in various Caribbean locations to rise up and kill the white slaveholders. Insurrections were reported in Bermuda (1752 and again in 1761-1762), Antigua (1762), Surinam (1763), and Jamaica (1765) All these plots, insurrections, riots and escapes by slaves to join with hostile Indian forces were reported in the Pennsylvania Gazette and other regional newspapers, and widely read in places such as Carlisle, Lancaster, Reading, York, and Harris’ Ferry.

Local residents learned to keep a fearful but watchful eye on their slaves, whether their fears were justified or not. It seems that Isaac Norris, Speaker of the Pennsylvania General Assembly, in a 1756 open letter to Pennsylvania Lieutenant Governor Robert Morris, was not exaggerating the fears of white Pennsylvania settlers and farmers, when he stated that “every Slave may be reckoned as a domestic Enemy.”18

Indians allied with the French against the British are known, in some instances, to have embraced the enslavement of African Americans. Early in the conflict, four Pennsylvania traders were captured by Caughnawaga Indians near the Ohio River, enslaved by them, and taken into Canada. From there, one of the captives managed to get word of their situation to an official in Albany, who acted as an intermediary between the enslaved traders and Pennsylvania authorities. “The Indians at first demanded a Negroe Boy for each of them, or as much Money as would buy one,” reported the Pennsylvania Gazette, and handed the traders over to the aged Colonel Myndert Schuyler, a former trader and city official, in the expectation of receiving either four young black slaves or the equivalent money to buy four slaves.

Schuyler agreed to pay them a little more than seventy-two pounds, which was not enough to purchase even one slave. The leader of the Indians, Ononraguiete, later complained bitterly in a letter to Schuyler, threatening, “for the future they will bring no living Prisoners, since they do not receive as much for one of them as will buy a little Slave.”19 Such taking of white prisoners in order to ransom them for black slaves does not appear to have been widespread, however.

Although fighting between the organized armies ceased after the Treaty of Paris, in 1763, conflicts between European settlers and Indians continued to plague the Pennsylvania backcountry. In Pontiac’s War, a general uprising of Native Americans against white squatters and British forts along the frontier led to retaliation by colonial vigilante squads. In Paxton Township, modern day Dauphin County, farmers organized a ranger militia to patrol the local farms. Headed by the Reverend John Elder, minister of the Paxton Presbyterian Church, the Paxtonians represented a local response to what was perceived as apathy on the part of Quaker lawmakers in Philadelphia to the continuing violence on the frontier. If the colonial authorities were not going to protect the settlers from ongoing Indian raids, it was reasoned, the settlers would have to protect themselves.

In their most notorious action, the rangers came upon the scene of an Indian raid too late to save the slaughtered farmers. Enraged by the continuing murders, the "Paxton Boys," as they would be known, despite the pleadings of Reverend Elder to reconsider, took out their vengeance upon the nearby Indian town of Conestoga, murdering nearly all the inhabitants, which included many women and children. Some Indian survivors of Conestoga, mostly men who had been out on a hunting detail, were able to find refuge in Lancaster, at the Work House, but when the Paxton Boys got word of their whereabouts, they rode to Lancaster, forced their way into the jail, and brutally finished them off. Word of the atrocity quickly spread, and the Paxton Boys were roundly condemned by city dwellers for their actions, but generally lauded by white backcountry settlers.

In Cumberland County, a similar group of white vigilante rangers known as the "Black Boys" patrolled the passes and trails to try to stop Indian raiders. Their success at stopping the violence was uneven; it was a lot of rugged country to patrol for a relatively small group of men. But the actions of these backcountry regulators in Dauphin and Cumberland counties had a more direct effect on the success of runaway slaves in reaching Indian villages because they directly impeded access by fugitives to these villages. It would not improve much when war came again to the country in 1775.



Local Indian-settler relations deteriorated even more during the Revolutionary War. The brutality of the French and Indian War, and the continued raiding and revenge killings by both sides during Pontiac’s War were very fresh in everyone’s memory. The Revolutionary War as it existed in the Pennsylvania backcountry was a very different affair than the more well-known battles and skirmishes that occurred generally along the eastern seaboard.

With no formal army to protect them from Native American forces that sided with the British in an attempt to regain land lost after the previous war, rural farmers turned to irregular militias who adopted hit and run tactics against Indian villages. “The war on the frontier,” wrote historian Gregory T. Knouff “would be unprecedented for Pennsylvania in its scale and brutality. Pennsylvanians prosecuted a total war, fueled by racism, in which they sought the destruction of entire Indian societies.”20

The brutality was practiced on both sides. In attack after attack, black slaves died alongside their white owners, killed by Indian raiders, unlike in previous decades during which black slaves were often spared and taken away by the Indians. In some cases, renegade blacks fought side by side with Indians against Pennsylvania militia forces, giving credibility to the beliefs of many slaveholders that escaped slaves would turn violently against them. A black man was captured at a skirmish between patriot soldiers and a mixed force of Tory and Indian irregulars in Tioga, New York, in August 1779.

Slaves also fought against Indian raiders in many instances. A late war raid by an Indian force against a remote white settlement a mile inland from the Delaware River resulted in a battle at the house of a Captain Shimer, who was alerted by a slave woman that they were under attack. Shimer positioned two of his male slaves at the front of the house, armed with axes, from which point they successfully defended the house from the raiders, until Shimer received reinforcements that drove the Indians back to the river.

This escalation of the war between white settlers and Native Americans would not end even with the defeat of the British forces at Yorktown in 1783. Violence plagued Pennsylvania farmers until the decisive defeat of Indian forces by General “Mad” Anthony Wayne at the Battle of Fallen Timbers in Ohio, in 1794. With that battle, more than forty years of violence, which began with murderous raids by both sides in 1754, finally came to an end.

During this entire time, slaves found it extremely difficult to take refuge with Indian tribes along the Pennsylvania frontier. Such was the experience of Shadwell, a forty-five- year-old frequent runaway belonging to Thomas Cockey, near Baltimore. Shadwell had spent time away from his master in Conewago and Carlisle, as well as many other places between the Pennsylvania back woods and Baltimore. In late June 1765, Shadwell again made an escape attempt. His master had fitted him with “an Iron Collar, and a Pair of Iron Fetters double riveted” but Cockey doubted that those items would slow Shadwell down very much. He warned, “He seemed inclined to go among the French or Indians in the Time of War, but was prevented.” Cockey last had a report on Shadwell’s whereabouts in September, when he was seen near South Mountain. With the Indian settlements being denied to him as a destination, and with winter coming on, Cockey thought it was “probable he will make for Pittsburgh.”21

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16. Pennsylvania Gazette, 18 March 1756, 25 August 1757.
Lists of British citizens killed in Indian raids also included numbers of unnamed slaves who also died. See the Pennsylvania Gazette, 15 April 1756, 11 August 1757.

17. Pennsylvania Gazette, 31 July 1746, 21 June 1759, 3 November 1763.

18. Pennsylvania Gazette, 7 December 1752, 10 May 1753, 10, 24 July 1755, 13 September 1759, 24 December 1761, 7 January 1762, 3 June 1762, 21 July 1763, 7 March 1765; “Address of the Representatives of the Freemen of Pennsylvania,” Isaac Norris, Speaker of the General Assembly, to Robert Hunter Morris, 11 February 1756, published in the Pennsylvania Gazette, 19 February 1756.
Norris and the Assembly were expressing the fears of common farmers and tradesmen who found their white laborers being pressed into military service by British recruiting details, while black slaves were left alone. Although this had an adverse economic impact, as slaveholders were forced to purchase the more expensive slaves if they wanted a secure work force, the point made by Norris was that black slaves were an inherent threat to the public peace. It was not lost on him or the “freemen” he represented that all the violent plots by slaves against white citizens occurred in places where slaves held a numerical advantage over their white overseers. He argued that, if current recruiting practices continued, “the Growth of the Country by Increase of white Inhabitants will be prevented, the Province weakened rather than strengthened.” This same fear resurfaced during the Revolutionary War, as able-bodied men left their homes to fight for the cause of independence. In July 1776, Henry Wynkoop wrote to the Committee of Safety to request a quarter cask of powder for the rifles of neighbors and Associators in his Bucks County neighborhood, they being “somewhat alarmed with fears about Negroes & disaffected people injuring their families when they are out in the Service.” (Samuel Hazard, Pennsylvania Archives, vol. 4, 1853, 792.)

19. Pennsylvania Gazette, 15 August 1754.

20. Gregory T. Knouff, “Soldiers and Violence on the Pennsylvania Frontier,” in Beyond Philadelphia: The American Revolution in the Pennsylvania Hinterland ed. John B. Frantz and William Pencak (University Park: Pennsylvania State University Press, 1998), 177.

21. Pennsylvania Gazette, 26 September 1765, 12 May, 8 September 1779, 23 May 1781.


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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