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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

He Has Some Friends That Are Freemen Living in a Cedar Swamp in That Neighbourhood

With that former haven being increasingly denied to them after the 1750s, fugitive slaves in Pennsylvania sometimes turned to the more dangerous alternative of trying to survive on their own in a remote location. This tactic was in keeping with a precedent set by fugitive slaves for hundreds of years. In Caribbean society, fugitive slaves who banded together and set up camps in the mountains or in swamps became known as Maroons, from the Spanish word Cimarrón. Occupants of these Maroon settlements lived a very harsh life, as they had to be constantly on guard against discovery, yet had to hunt and try to grow enough crops to survive. Frequently they supplemented their supplies by raiding local plantations or by ambushing and robbing travelers.

Maroon settlements usually lasted only a short time before the occupants fell prey to hunger, illness, or were killed by posses of local militia or lawmen. In the North American colonies, Maroon settlements flourished for brief periods in the lower south, particularly in areas where harsh winter weather was not a detriment to survival.

Although runaway slaves in Pennsylvania often hid for days in surrounding woods, and sometimes existed for months at a time in the mountains during spring and summer, the cold winter weather almost always drove them to seek other shelter, thus making Maroon communities impractical. One of the few places used by fugitives in and around Pennsylvania that came close, though, was the swampy and sparsely settled wetlands around Philadelphia and extending into Delaware and New Jersey. These swamps extended for hundreds of miles and were highly valued for the cedar trees that flourished in them, but except for lumbering, they were not heavily cultivated or otherwise used by white settlers, making them perfect hiding places for escaped slaves.

When Lebanon iron master Peter Grubb advertised for his slave Abel, who had run away from the Chester County iron operation of James Sharps, Grubb noted “It is supposed he harbours between New Castle and St. George, or about Appquinimink, in Delaware State, as he has some friends that are freemen living in a cedar swamp in that neighbourhood.” Abel had already obtained a forged pass stating he was a free man, so it seems he meant to stay in the cedar swamp Maroon community.

Abel was also following in the footsteps of countless fugitive slaves before him. Nearly thirty years before he made his escape, a runaway slave called Cato was doing the same thing, according to his East New Jersey master, Richard Stillwell. Cato, who preferred the name Toby, was a Jamaican-born man of thirty years who bore the scars of cruel brandings on his shoulders. A fortuneteller and musician, Toby had boldly made his escape in January 1756 and headed for the cedar swamps with a forged pass. Stillwell had not yet recovered his escaped slave by April of that same year, but with the onset of warmer weather, and the vast expanse of swamps to comb, it is unlikely he did.

Another slave who escaped into the swamps was the “Young Mulatto Fellow” named Frank, who escaped in June 1764 from Thomas Witherspoon, near Philadelphia. Like the New Jersey slaveholder Stillwell, Witherspoon had still not recovered his slave after nearly six months, even though he knew he was hiding “some where in the Cedar Swamps in the Jerseys, down Delaware River, as his Mother, and others of his Acquaintance” were near that area. Witherspoon was also certain that Frank had changed his clothing and his name by the time of the advertisement.

The existence in these ads of clues such as forged passes, family and friends in the area, and the availability of clothing and resources that allow fugitives to hide for months, all give reason to believe that a thriving Maroon community existed in these cedar swamps.

Black slaves were not the only persons who utilized the swamps around this area as hiding places. White bound servants were also believed to hide in the swamplands after escaping from a bad situation. In 1740, the ironmaster at the Nutt ironworks in Chester County advertised for the escape of three white tradesmen who he felt would head for “the Cedar Swamps in the Jerseys.” The men, a carpenter, a laborer, and a tailor, all bore various marks of ill-use. Two of them had been “marked” on the hand with gunpowder, and one of them had a noticeable inward cast to one leg, where the bone had been broken and had healed badly.

The gunpowder marks referred to—each man had his initials marked on his hand—were early, crude tattoos made by piercing the skin and rubbing gunpowder into the fresh wound. This form of bodily marking, which was practiced by both men and women, was popular among soldiers, sailors, bound servants, and others held to involuntary service. Although it was considered a mark of the laboring and servant classes of society, akin to the branding that was inflicted upon slaves and criminals, those who occupied these lower rungs of the social structure wore their homemade marks with pride.

Two other white, bound servants who made their escape into the cedar swamps were fugitives from owner John Kirkpatrick, also in Chester County. The men, who escaped in August 1752, were both of a dark complexion and spoke with a brogue, were probably bound Irish laborers.

In June 1755, John Wright, whose ferry was located on the west bank of the Susquehanna River at Lancaster, lost an English servant man named Henry Cole. Wright believed that Cole was headed for the cedar swamps in the Jerseys, and noted that the man was “used to the sea,” and “has a down look, short black hair, walks with his knees a little bending out, has a large scar on one of his heels just above the shoe, bent forward, and has a rocking walk.” Cole, at age twenty-three, had obviously led a very harsh life to be so broken down at that age.22

All these groups, fugitive slaves, white servants, former seamen, and others, fled bondage to the cedar swamps in the region around Philadelphia, New Jersey and Delaware. There they appear to have lived for varying lengths of time, and evidence indicates that they lived in small communities with friends and families.

Some had connections outside of the swamps. The family of twenty-year-old Frank lived in a nearby town and may have supplied him with whatever provisions he needed to remain in the swamps for so many months. Others may have joined with the remnants of Nanticoke Indians who inhabited the swamps and waterways of Kent and Sussex Counties in Delaware and New Jersey.

The people living in that area came to be known as the Delaware Moors, and although much of their history is not fully known, it is possible that this mixed race community was the result of a cooperative Maroon community of fugitive black slaves, local Indians, and white servants. Watermen of this and other nearby regions would later become important links on the Underground Railroad, and would transport many fugitive slaves out of bondage in Virginia and Maryland and pass them into freedom in Philadelphia and Wilmington.23

Freedom seekers who took to the wild further inland usually found safe harbor, at least temporarily, in mountainous areas. Like the Caribbean Maroons who escaped inland, away from the plantations clustered along the island shorelines, these fugitives were also choosing to take their chances in the remote, sparsely settled and uncultivated central Pennsylvania forests that blanketed the ridge tops of the South Mountain range. Here, among the ancient stands of native hemlock, oak, pine, and ash trees, fugitive slaves fashioned huts and small cabins, usually on or near a summit, as a base from which they could forage for food and supplies.

The higher locations had the advantage of being farther away from established farms, while affording a vantage point from which the valleys could be kept under observation. A constant vigilance against pursuit was necessary, because slave catchers did not always come searching right away. A pursuer could take months or sometimes years before showing up, somehow following an old, cold trail. For that reason, fugitives hiding in the central Pennsylvania hills and mountains limited their contact with neighbors to only those necessary for survival.

The two ex-slaves who lived up in the backwoods of Blue Mountain, above Harrisburg, are a good example of this type of Maroon strategy employed in central Pennsylvania. The local stories about the slave-in-hiding named George Washington, and his companion, whose name remains unknown even to this day, depict a classic example of Maroon survival, except that both men obtained needed supplies by trading a few days of work with a local farmer for what they required, instead of waylaying unwary travelers.

Of course the latter behavior would have drawn immediate and unwelcome attention to their presence, which seems precisely what they were intent on avoiding. By trusting only farmer Umberger as a contact, avoiding census takers, and keeping to themselves, the men maintained a very stealthy existence on the side of the mountain, but by doing so they also cut themselves off from news and the support of the community. That fierce self-sufficiency may have been the undoing of the nameless slave, who, according to the story, took poison after the death of his partner, because he had no one left to depend upon for aid or protection.

A similar case occurred in Union Township, Lebanon County, where a man named Joseph Johns led a solitary life in a rude hut in the Blue Mountains north of Lickdale. Like the fugitive slaves hiding on the mountainside north of Harrisburg, many different stories about how Johns came to inhabit his spot on the mountain have been documented. Some have him arriving as early as 1840, as a young fugitive slave from Virginia, coming to Lebanon by way of Chambersburg. According to this story, Johns was traveling with a companion, with whom he had escaped, until the companion was captured, leaving Johns to continue his journey in search of freedom.

Another story places Johns’ arrival in Harrisburg in the year 1850, at sixty years of age. This story tells of two companions who accompanied Johns as far as the west shore of the Susquehanna River, across from Harrisburg, where slave catchers discovered them. The two companions were both captured, but Johns escaped by jumping into the river and swimming and wading across to safety. He found shelter and work in the mountains above Harrisburg, cutting wood for a living, and after a few years moved east along the mountain to the homestead he established on the John Fehler farm in Union Township.

There are common threads throughout the various stories. All identify Joseph Johns as a fugitive slave who lived alone and performed various odd jobs to make a living. In addition to woodcutting, he was also said to be a collier, and a laborer on the nearby Schuylkill and Susquehanna Railroad. Joseph Johns apparently had more open dealings with local citizens, unlike the two men who kept to themselves in the Blue Mountains above Harrisburg. But Johns also lived much longer than they did, dying in 1906. It is possible Johns maintained a very solitary existence for much of his life, and only expanded his dealings with locals in the last few decades of his life. That would explain the dearth of details about his early life, while explaining his extensive connections to the Moonshine Church, where he is buried. He does not appear in any census listings for Union Township, giving credence to the stories that he intentionally maintained a very guarded existence.24

The facts surrounding Joseph Johns’ early life and origins may never be definitely established, but regardless of whether he was born in 1794, as his tombstone suggests, or in the 1820s, as one of the local stories about his life would have it, his chosen lifestyle provides another example of Maroon behavior among fugitive slaves in central Pennsylvania.



Neither Joseph Johns nor the aforementioned Harrisburg Blue Mountain slaves turned to banditry to support themselves, as did many Maroons in Caribbean culture. It was not a necessary part of their basic survival needs, as they were able to obtain what they needed by bartering occasional labor and products (Johns is said to have produced and sold charcoal for extra money). It also would not have been long tolerated by local authorities, as each was located in an area that was much more settled than the wild mountainous areas of Jamaica or Antigua.

Although they led solitary lifestyles and generally foraged, trapped, fished or otherwise produced what they needed, they did allow certain limited commerce and interactions with neighboring farmers, marking the major difference between this benign form of Maroon lifestyle, with the more predatory style that was common in the Caribbean, South America and in the southern colonies of North America.

But there was at least one instance of some fugitive slaves in the Cornwall area who may have lived, for a limited time, a Maroon lifestyle that included preying on local inhabitants for supplies. In a previous chapter, we looked at the iron industry’s heavy use of slaves and servants, and of the frequency of escape from those same furnaces. The necessity for easy access to iron deposits and large amounts of charcoal to fire the furnaces led to their locations in very large, dense forests, in mountainous land: ideal habitat for Maroon survival. As noted, such areas provided shelter, food, fuel, and lots of hiding places.

Iron masters acknowledged that runaway slaves frequently hid out in the surrounding woods, sometimes for weeks and even months at a time. Very often, the slave owner would not undertake the expense of placing a runaway ad for several months, on the assumption, or hope, that the slave would tire of the harsh outdoor conditions and lack of regular meals, and return on his own. But the lure of freedom kept the growling of many a freedom seeker’s belly from overpowering the urge to return to bondage, and many either stayed in the woods until they were eventually caught, or until they moved on to more hospitable circumstances. Those with a determined Maroon spirit would have stayed to tough it out, trying every possible method of survival before surrendering.

It may have been two such men who ambushed the Lebanon Township collector Benjamin Moore, as previously related, on a spring day in 1787. The two “black coloured Villains” stopped Moore on a lonely, winding mountain path, produced firearms, and forced him to hand over more than 400 pounds in currency, then fled into the hills, presumably back to their hidden lair. Their identity was never established, and no follow-up story of their capture was published. Were these two men, dressed in rags, foragers for a rural Lebanon Maroon settlement? There were no free African Americans living in this area at that time, giving more credence to the thought that they were fugitive slaves, hiding in the thickly wooded low mountain spur, in classic Maroon tradition.

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22. Pennsylvania Gazette, 5 June 1740, 13 August 1752, 3 June 1755, 15 April 1756, 22 November 1764, 25 April 1781.
The escaped slave Toby had been branded while in Jamaica with the letters “BC” on his left shoulder. About that same time, the British army used the same brand, applied to the left side of troublesome and unruly soldiers, for “Bad Character.” It is likely that the brands on Toby, whose owner described him as “sly, artful” and deceptive, were also meant to label him as such.

23. Michael Kolhoff, “Fugitive Communities in Colonial America,” in Archiving Early America, ed. Don Vitale,, (accessed 29 September 2008).

24. Steve Snyder, “Student Tracks Johns’ Legend,” Patriot-News, 20 January 2003, B1-2; Al Winn, “Historical Society Acquires Relic of Escaped Slave,” Sunday Patriot-News, 30 March 1997, B3.
Joseph Johns does not appear in any census records for Lebanon County, from 1850 to 1900. The closest match is a 53-year- old black man named Joseph Jones, who was enumerated in 1870, living in a single person household in neighboring East Hanover Township, Lebanon County. Although the location is close, and the name is very similar, it is more likely that this person was related to the free African American Jones family of East Hanover, and is not the reclusive Joseph Johns. Much of what is known about Joseph Johns was uncovered by Annville, Pennsylvania native Kate Welch, who studied the life and legend of Joseph Johns for her undergraduate anthropology thesis for the University of Pennsylvania. John’s homestead is preserved in its historic location on the grounds of the Camp Bashore Boy Scout Reservation, Jonestown, PA.


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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