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 Six (continued)
No Haven on Free Soil

It Becometh Not Us
to Counteract His Mercies

The Germantown Protest of 1688, brought just four years after the first large “parcel” of African slaves was brought to Philadelphia’s port, began a grand tradition of agitation against trafficking in human beings. It was not fashionable to oppose slavery at first, and anti-slavery advocates faced a considerable uphill battle to convince the wealthy landowners and businessmen to give up their human stock.

One of the first and most notable, although eccentric, anti-slavery voices was Benjamin Lay, of Abington. Lay was an English-born Quaker merchant who was horrified by the treatment and conditions of slaves that he witnessed while living in Barbados. In response to his violent denunciations of the system, which he directed toward local plantation owners, he was forced to flee the island, and he ended up in Philadelphia. There, he found the hated institution intact and railed against it at Quaker meetings in the period before slavery was rejected by that religion. John Greenleaf Whittier described Lay as the “irrepressible prophet who troubled the Israel of slaveholding Quakerism, clinging like a rough chestnut-burr to the skirts of its respectability, and settling like a pertinacious gad-fly on the sore places of its conscience.”

Stories about Lay’s unorthodox life abound, including that he lived in a natural cave in Abington, just outside of Philadelphia, and that he made his own clothes of natural fibers, was a vegetarian, and, as a precursor to the “free produce” movement of the next century, refused to use or own any product that had been produced by slave labor.

Lay had a flair for the theatrical, and he employed it liberally to call attention to his beliefs, from his frequent fasts, to a spectacular appearance at the Quaker Yearly Meeting in Philadelphia, where he attempted to shame those in the congregation for keeping fellow humans in bondage. He stormed into the building and challenged all slaveholders to “throw off your Quaker coats as I do mine,” and with that he pulled aside his traditional plain coat to reveal a soldier’s coat with a sword strapped to the waist. He drew the sword and shouted, “In the sight of God, you are as guilty as if you stabbed your slaves to the heart, as I do this book!” With that, he plunged the sword into a large book resembling a Bible he had brought, and in which he had hidden a bladder filled with crimson pokeberry juice. The blood-red liquid burst out of the book, bespattering several people in the congregation.

In another incident popularly attributed to him, but more possible a romantic myth, Lay supposedly kidnapped the young son of an Abington slaveholder, and hid the child for hours in his cottage while the entire town searched for him. He then produced the child and lectured his neighbors on the grief experienced by slave parents when their children are forcibly taken away.38

Benjamin Lay’s most enduring influence, however, is in his anti-slavery tract All Slavekeepers That Keep the Innocent in Bondage, Apostates, published in 1737 by his acquaintance, Benjamin Franklin. One of the first anti-slavery tracts published in North America, Lay’s text, though rambling at times, severely denounced slaveholding among Quakers. Among the points Lay made was the hypocrisy of espousing non-violence while promoting the violence of slave-catching:

What…can be greater Hypocrisy, and plainer contradiction, than for us as a People, to refuse to bear Arms, or to pay them that do, and yet purchase the Plunder, the Captives, for Slaves at a very great Price, thereby justifying their selling of them, and the War, by which they were or are obtained? (page 11)

The corrupting influence of slave holding:

Long Custom, the Conveniency of Slaves working for us, waiting and tending continually on us, besides the Washing, cleaning, scouring, cooking very nicely fine and curious, sewing, knitting, darning, almost ever at hand and Command; and in other Places milking, churning, Cheese-making, and all the Drudgery in Dairy and Kitchen, within doors and without. And the proud dainty, lazy Daughters sit with their hands before ‘em, like some of the worst idle Sort of Gentlewomen, and if they want a Trifle, rather than rise from their Seats, call the poor Slave from her Drudgery to come and wait upon them. These Things have been the utter Ruin of more than a few; and yet encouraged by their own Parents, for whom my Spirit is grieved, some of which were and are Preachers in great Repute as well as others. (pages 28-29)

The support of piracy:

Those that are employed in this Trade, are some of the worst of Men, and withal some of the worst of Thieves, Pyrates and Murtherers, from whence our lesser Pyrates have proceeded. And many of these lesser Pyrates have been punished with Death, and some other ways; but the much greater Villains by far, not only go free but are encouraged… by buying of their cursed Hellish-gotten Ware, at a very great Price. And all this Time pretending to the most holy pure Religion in the whole World. (pages 75-76)

The violent imagery and fire-and-brimstone rhetoric of Lay’s book, coupled with his colorful personality and exploits, eventually influenced many people to question their basic beliefs about slaveholding, even if they were not welcomed at the time. A contemporary of Benjamin Lay’s was Ralph Sandiford. Like Lay, Sandiford was a Quaker merchant who also penned an anti-slavery tract, titled A Brief Examination of the Practice of the Times, which was also published by Benjamin Franklin.

In his book, Sandiford took many commonly accepted reasons for the acceptance of the slave trade, most being biblically based, and refuted them. “Neither can these Negroes be proved, by any genealogy, the seed of Ham, whom Noah cursed,” he reasoned, a justification often given for the slave trade, because “the curse is not so extensive, as you would have it, but is thus expressed, Cursed be Canaan, a servant of servants shall he be.” Sandiford stymied slavery apologists who chose a few select passages for their justification by forcing a closer examination of the passage, asking: “How then can these Negroes or Indians be slaves to Christians, who are the Lord's freemen? But if these Negroes are slaves of slaves, according to the curse; Whose slaves then must their masters be?” (page 4)

Ralph Sandiford’s views, like those of Benjamin Lay, were not easily tolerated at the time by the Philadelphia slaveholding elite. Sandiford was forced to distribute his “Negroe Treatise” for free, even through a second printing,39 in order to spread his beliefs. He died in 1733, before seeing his views take hold, but his supporters, mainly from the white laboring class, memorialized his efforts by having his tombstone inscribed “He Bore a Testimony against the Negroe Trade.”

An even more important role was played by a person who was a young man in Philadelphia during the years that Lay and Sandiford were most active. The influence of these two firebrands on young Anthony Benezet is seen in his adult work as an educator, philanthropist and anti-slavery author and agitator. Anthony Benezet arrived with his family in Philadelphia in 1731, the London educated son of a wealthy French Huguenot merchant. In London Benezet had been impressed with the Society of Friends, and joined before leaving for America. In Philadelphia, he turned to teaching, and in his spare evening hours tutored black slaves from his home.

At about the same time that he began educating slaves, Benezet began publicly urging his neighbors to give up slaveholding. In addition to educational ventures—Benezet established the first public school for girls in 1754, and in 1770 was instrumental in the establishment of the Negro School of Philadelphia—he carried on a regular correspondence with British abolitionists Granville Sharpe and John Wesley. This British connection allowed his eventual writings to see a greater distribution, ultimately reaching Thomas Clarkson, who worked with William Wilberforce for the abolition of slavery in Great Britain. Benezet’s first work, Observations on the Inslaving, Importing and Purchasing of Negroes was published in Germantown in 1759.

Much of the power of Benezet's writing comes from his presentation of African Americans as a people fully equal to whites in natural abilities, a concept that, although hinted at in biblical terms, had been little explored by his anti-slavery predecessors. His biographer, Roberts Vaux, wrote “Among other important facts concerning the dispositions and mental capacities of the negroes, which his intercourse with them as a teacher, had afforded him the best opportunity to establish, was, that they possessed intellectual powers by no means inferior to any other portion of mankind.” In Benezet’s own words, “The notion entertained by some, that the blacks are inferior in their capacities, is a vulgar prejudice, founded on the pride or ignorance of their lordly masters; who have kept their slaves at such a distance, as to be unable to form a right judgment of them.”40

All this building intellectual ferment would probably have been for naught without the eventual support of the Quaker religious establishment. Similar anti-slavery sentiments were sparked with the First Great Awakening, as the Reverend George Whitefield, under the concept that “the ground is level at the base of the cross,” preached to slaves as well as to slaveholders in Philadelphia, and through the backcountry of Pennsylvania. This was not an appeal for abolition, however. “Whitefield’s concern for the bondage of slaves,” as historian Gary Nash notes, “was for their souls, not their bodies.”41 Except for pockets of anti-slavery sentiment among evangelicals and Methodists, most of the Protestant church leaders ignored or resisted the promotion of abolition. The chief proponent of “new light” theology in Pennsylvania, William Tennent, who trained many of the First Great Awakening preachers in his Bucks County “log college,” was an unreformed slaveholder.

Outside of the agitations of people such as Benjamin Lay, true anti-slavery reform from inside of the Society of Friends in Pennsylvania began with individuals such as William Southeby, who submitted papers protesting the trade in slaves, to the Philadelphia Yearly Meeting late in the seventeenth century. The petition from Germantown, in 1688, has already been cited, and other attempts were made in the following decade. Many more petitions began to come in the first few decades of the eighteenth century, with much of the push coming from congregants in the Chester Quarterly Meeting. These rural Quakers had less of a stake in the thriving slave trade than did the merchants and importers who dominated the Yearly Meeting. For that reason, the frequent petitions from the Quarterly Meeting received only lukewarm enthusiasm from the ruling members of the Yearly Meeting. When, in 1729, Ralph Sandiford published his treatise against slaveholding, he was formally condemned by the Yearly Meeting. Benjamin Lay’s sensational theatrics and writings brought only similar condemnation the following decade.42

In the 1750s, however, a new generation of reform-minded Friends began to replace the older leaders. Citing the violence on the Pennsylvania frontier as a sign of God’s dissatisfaction with how the colony was straying from Quaker ideals, the reformers turned from the acquisition of worldly goods and placed their emphasis on piety. The anti-slavery activists found a much warmer welcome among these newcomers, and soon Anthony Benezet and shopkeeper-turned-abolitionist John Woolman found themselves in position to influence Yearly Meeting policy.

In 1754, the Philadelphia Yearly Meeting published Woolman’s essay Some Considerations on the Keeping of Negroes, which warned of God’s wrath against the practice of enslaving people who were created with the same natural rights as whites, for the purpose of material gain. In that same year, the Yearly Meeting issued a paper written by Anthony Benezet, titled An Epistle of Caution and Advice, Concerning the Buying and Keeping of Slaves, which was a stern rebuke of slave importation and slave holding. The following year the Yearly Meeting took a more active role and decided that the monthly meetings should discipline members who imported or bought a slave. By 1758, this decision was strengthened and clarified to exclude buying or selling slaves, and it urged members to manumit their slaves.43

The process had begun, albeit slowly, whereby the Quakers were turning from being the dominant slaveholders in Pennsylvania, to the dominant force behind abolition. It would take two stormy decades of war and economic strife to solidify that position, but once the change occurred, it put in motion another series of events that would shape the next eighty years.

William Southeby had gone further with his emancipation schemes than simply presenting anti-slavery papers to the Philadelphia Yearly Meeting in the earliest decades of the colony. He had also petitioned the Pennsylvania General Assembly in 1712 for the immediate emancipation of all slaves in the colony. The General Assembly, being dominated by the same Quaker leaders who had already reviewed his papers in the Yearly Meeting, rejected Southeby’s petition. However, they did pay attention to a competing petition that sought to slow the importation of slaves into the colony through a £20 tariff on the head of each imported slave. This prohibitive duty act, as discussed earlier, was partially in response to the New York “Negro Plot” of that spring, but as noted, it also conflicted with the mercantile designs of Queen Anne and the Asiento, and the extremely high duties were nixed in favor of less economically painful imposts.

After the rejection of Southeby’s petition, no other plans to eradicate slavery in Pennsylvania were presented to the General Assembly for the next sixty-six years. Slaveholding, during this six-decade period, moved out of the city and into the countryside, out of the hands of wealthy Philadelphia Quaker merchants, into the hands of backcountry gentlemen farmers, Chester County iron masters, Cumberland County innkeepers, Lancaster County millwrights, and York County artisans.

Then in 1778, at the insistence of Council Vice President George Bryan, the Supreme Executive Council presented an abolition bill to the General Assembly for consideration. Bryan, a Scots-Irish abolitionist, sent his thoughts on the importance of the subject to the General Assembly in a 9 November letter that accompanied the draft of the bill, stating:

The late assembly was furnished with heads of a bill for manumitting infant negroes born of slaves by which the gradual abolition of slavery for life would be obtained in an easy mode. It is not proposed that the present slaves, most of whom are scarcely competent for freedom, should be meddled with…In divesting the state of slaves, you will equally serve the cause of humanity and policy, and offer to God one of the most proper and best returns of gratitude for his great deliverance of us and our posterity from thralldom. You will also set your character for justice and benevolence in a true point of view to all Europe, who are astonished to see a people, eager for liberty holding Negroes in bondage.44

The last point was one made earlier by Thomas Paine, the newly arrived radical patriot responsible for the pamphlet Common Sense, which helped to ignite the revolution. Payne’s earlier (1775) essay, “African Slavery in America,” had asked Americans to consider “With what consistency, or decency they complain so loudly of attempts to enslave them, while they hold so many hundred thousands in slavery; and annually enslave many thousands more, without any pretence of authority, or claim upon them?” George Bryan worked closely with Payne in the revolutionary government in Philadelphia, and no doubt incorporated the English essayist’s observations on the inherent conflict of moral values that seemed so evident to outsiders, but was so far conveniently being ignored by the American rebels.

Several months were spent in debate, and in 1779, the General Assembly took up the authorship of an abolition bill in earnest. The proposed Preamble to the bill was released for publication in the Philadelphia newspapers, although it appears only the Pennsylvania Gazette ran it. The release of the Preamble alone, prior to the body of the bill, served to inform the public as well as the assemblymen of the intentions of the proposed law. In some aspects, the enslavement of Africans was compared to the bonds patriots envisioned being forced upon them by the crown. This was a familiar theme from the patriot press, which harped on the “enslavement” of free men through royal decrees. The opening sentence of the Preamble set a similar tone, beginning “When we contemplate our abhorrence of that condition to which the arms and tyranny of Great Britain were exerted to reduce us.” But from there the tone changed to one of gratitude and humility. Differences in peoples were addressed not as marks of worthiness, but as part of an unknowable divine plan:

We conceive it our duty, and rejoice that it is in our power to extend a portion of that freedom to others which has been extended to us, and a release from that state of thralldom to which we ourselves were tyrannically doomed, and from which we have now every prospect of being happily delivered. It is not for us to enquire into the reasons why, in the creation of mankind, the inhabitants of the several parts of the earth were distinguished by a difference of feature or complexion. It is sufficient for us to know, that all are the work of his hands, and that he who created all is no respecter of persons. We see in the distribution of mankind that the most fertile, as well as unfertile parts of the earth are inhabited by men of different complexions with ourselves, from which we may reasonably as well as religiously infer, that he who placed them there bestowed on them equally with others a portion of his care and protection, and that it becometh not us to counteract his mercies.45

Despite Bryan’s soaring and enlightened rhetoric, Pennsylvania lawmakers were not all sufficiently imbued with the necessary gratitude and humility to restore to “those persons, who have hitherto been denominated negroe and mulatto slaves,” the “common blessings to which they were by nature entitled.” Many were slaveholders themselves, and they struggled with the choice of acting out of benevolence and supporting the bill, or opposing it and thereby keeping their very valuable human property.

Of course, right from the start, certain slaves were placed out of reach of the bill’s provisions. It made the distinction of bestowing eventual freedom only on the children of slaves, born after its passage. In addition, those children would be held in bondage to age eighteen for females and age twenty-one for males. All slaves would have to be registered with the proper local authorities so that a record of slave ages and ownership could be kept, in order to facilitate the eventual manumission of those who were deemed eligible.

Slave owners who failed to register their slaves risked losing them, a clause that took its cue from colonial property law provisions crafted to settle property disputes: unregistered property was not recognized as legal property. Unregistered slaves, therefore, were not going to be recognized as property, and would therefore be free persons. Other provisions of the abolition bill did away with the pernicious 1726 slave codes, but kept prohibitions on interracial marriages.

Immediately, opposition to the bill began pouring in from citizens in the outlaying counties, particularly from Berks, Chester, Lancaster, Northampton, and York counties. Iron masters in particular, heavily reliant on slave labor, were opposed to the bill. Some opposed just specific aspects of the bill, such as the person who directed his complaints to the printers of the Pennsylvania Gazette and identified himself only as “A Whig Freeholder.” This writer objected to the restrictions on importing slaves into the state as being too restrictive on persons who wished to relocate to Pennsylvania with their slaves.

Others found fault with the age at which the children of slaves would be manumitted, arguing that slaveholders could not recover the expense of raising these same slaves by the time they were to be liberated. The ages of twenty-eight for females and thirty for males was proposed as a more realistic age by these critics. A group of Chester slaveholders argued that emancipated slaves would, due to their nature, never again engage in useful work, and would be a drain on state resources.

Faced with considerable opposition, George Bryan backed down from some of his original provisions and made changes. The largest concession was to those who argued for longer terms of bondage for slave children. The compromise age of twenty-eight years for both male and female slaves was agreed upon, a huge increase in the time of bondage for persons whose life consisted mostly of extremely harsh, physical labor. Historians Gary B. Nash and Jean R. Soderlund summed up this change by observing, “By this extension of the years of servitude the costs of gradual emancipation were transferred from slave owners to the children of slaves.”46

The Gradual Abolition Act became law on its third reading, on 1 March 1780, which also set the date dividing enslaved African Americans in Pennsylvania into two distinct groups: those born before that date and forever to be held in bondage, and those born on or after that date, and who would be held to twenty-eight years of servitude. Those in the latter group have become known to modern historians as “term slaves,” or slaves held to a term of years. Slaves in the former group, however, were denominated from that point on as “slaves for life,” a phrase that sounds as forlorn as their situation.

Slaveholders were given until 31 October 1780 to register all of their slaves with the county prothonotary, or other designated authority, or risk having their slaves be automatically declared free. The process of registration began in the summer, allowing a few months for county clerks to get organized to receive the records, and allowing time for slaveholders around the state to get word of their obligation. It started out very slowly. In Lancaster County, for instance, the first registration was recorded on 22 July, when store keeper Christopher Crawford, who lived in town, registered his “Negro male” Bill, aged ten years and six months, and his “Negro female” Esther, aged nineteen years and six months, with county Clerk of the Peace John Hubley. There were no other registrations in July, but in August nine slaveholders showed up, one at a time, to register their slaves. The first Harrisburg area slaveholder to travel to Lancaster to register slaves was Elizabeth Carson, who on 1 September registered her “Negro Male,” Pompey, aged fourteen years, as a “slave for life.”47

As the end of October deadline neared, there was a noticeable last minute rush to register slaves. The Lancaster County registrations show one slaveholder registration in July, nine in August, thirty-three in September, and a staggering two hundred and seventy-eight registrations in October, the last month legally allowed. Tuesday, 31 October 1780, the final day of registrations, must have been a very busy day for county clerk John Hubley, as thirty-four slaveholders showed up, lists of slaves in hand, to have him laboriously record the names, sex, age and other details for each of ninety slaves in his register for that day.

Not everyone made it on time: five slaveholders registered slaves on 1 November through their attorneys.48 This late registration should have triggered the release from bondage of these slaves due to their owners’ failure to meet the deadline, but there is no evidence that the owners were so penalized. No doubt, the use of lawyers by these late slaveholders to file the required paperwork had something to do with the lack of repercussions, as the lawyers probably presented legal arguments to defend the tardiness of the registrations.

The last minute rush to register slaves can also be seen in the surviving registrations from Cumberland County, where two slaveholders registered their slaves at Carlisle with county clerk John Agnew in August 1780, eight slaveholders registered in September, and the rest throughout the month of October. Unlike the situation in Lancaster County, where the rush to registration increased with each passing day until the deadline, Cumberland County slave registrations appear to be more evenly spaced in the final month, with a larger number of October registrations falling between the tenth and thirteenth of the month than in the final week of the month.

No one appears to have showed up on November first to register late, however two slave registrations are dated in mid-December 1780: William Geddis of West Pennsboro Township registered the forty-five-year-old slave Ham on 12 December, and two days later John Gemmil, the clock and watchmaker who in 1764 had advertised for the runaway named Abraham, registered forty-year-old York and forty-two-year-old Flora. No explanation for the late registration from Gaddis is included in his record, but Gemmill provided a written excuse for the tardiness of the registration. In his statement to the county clerk, in which he listed slaves York and Flora, Gemmill added “both of which Negroes he holds Slaves for Life, and desires they may be registered by the Clerk of the Peace for Cumberland County, having heard only this Day of the Law requiring such registry to be made.”49 County clerk John Agnew apparently accepted the late registrations without comment.

Although slave registrations proceeded without major problems throughout the state, slaveholders frequently voiced their disapproval and sometimes complied only under protest. This general unhappiness with the law is seen more in the rural counties and backcountry regions of Pennsylvania, where there was far less support for abolition among the general populace. The final vote to approve the 1780 law was thirty-four to twenty-one, with nearly half of the nays coming from the representatives from the counties of Lancaster, York and Berks.50

Comment on the law was sometimes included in the form of personal opinions about the law expressed by disgruntled slaveholders in the text of their registration statements. One unhappy slave owner, George Stevenson, of Carlisle, sent his list of slaves to John Agnew with the following note:

Above are the Names, Sex and Ages of my Slaves, to be entered in Books to be provided for that Purpose by said Clerk in Obedience to an useless Act of the General Assembly of the Commonwealth of Pennsylvania entitled 'An Act for the gradual Abolition of Slavery' for registering the above, I hope he will be paid Six Dollars, which is the only good thing in the Act, for it will help to pay his Tax.51

Another unhappy slaveholder, Francis Campbell of Shippensburg, sent his lists of the children of slaves to the county clerk with his complaints that the law was fraught with “difficulties,” was “frivolous,” and burdened slaveholders with unnecessary expenses.52

A surprisingly large number of Pennsylvania slaveholders simply ignored the law, and refused to comply with the registration requirements, which proved to be unfortunate for them, and highly fortunate for their slaves, some of whom were legally freed by their owners’ negligence. Hundreds of formerly enslaved African Americans suddenly added to Philadelphia’s free black community, as the courts enforced the registration requirements of the new law. The newly freed slaves, however, often had to fight for their release from bondage, and they faced a sudden, grave threat to their new freedom the following year, as the state Assembly considered challenges to the law that sought to overturn the deadline and return to slavery those who had been freed for want of registration.

Many of the same disgruntled slaveholders who lost slaves, and who had waited until the last minute to register their slaves, out of protest, voted many of the pro-abolition representatives out of office, replacing them with representative more attuned to the wishes of the slaveholders in their districts. These new assemblymen promptly considered a bill to extend the registration deadline to 1 January 1782 and to re-enslave those freed by their former owners’ negligence.

A full-scale campaign erupted on both sides of the issue, as abolitionists and free blacks petitioned the Assembly to uphold the law as it stood, and slave holders and anti-abolition advocates agitated for the revision of a bill they considered onerous, even going so far, in a published editorial, as to defend slavery from a biblical point of view.53 In the end, pro-abolition lawmakers successfully defended the 1780 law by a single vote, thus securing the freedom of those who had been freed, and making Pennsylvania a destination for freedom seekers in nearby states.

Being free, and proving freedom turned out to be two entirely different things, however. Persons illegally held to bondage found little comfort if they had no access to lawyers, courtrooms and legal decisions to enforce their rights. Those who had no knowledge of their rights under the new law, and were not likely to question their status, were even less likely to benefit from it if their master decided to interpret it to his or her own advantage. The slaves of William Geddis and John Gemmil, registered in Cumberland County more than a month after the deadline, are examples of this. Had there been active advocates of the enslaved in Carlisle when this registration occurred, Gemmil and Geddis may have found themselves facing a legal challenge to their continued ownership of these people, but as it appears, no one stepped forward on their behalf.

In Philadelphia, however, there were people who would give legal aid to the wrongly enslaved, and bring court challenges against owners. In fact so many cases presented themselves that abolitionists in that city found in necessary to revive a defunct organization, The Society for the Relief of Free Negroes, in order to effectively respond to as many cases as they could. Led by the crusading Quaker abolitionist Anthony Benezet, the old society was revived in 1784, reorganized in 1787 as the Pennsylvania Society for Promoting the Abolition of Slavery, and was later known simply as the Pennsylvania Abolition Society.

Although it began as a Quaker organization, it quickly expanded its membership base to include a diverse range of denominations, income levels, and occupations. When it expanded and reorganized in 1787, it elected Benjamin Franklin as its president, and included in its membership Thomas Paine, Benjamin Rush, James Pemberton, and Caspar Wistar. Society lawyers began to take on a variety of cases, from those who claimed to have been wrongly enslaved from the start, to those who claimed their freedom under provisions of the new 1780 law.

Some cases were much more urgent than others were. Particularly critical were cases involving slaveholders who found the courts unreceptive to their excuses of ignorance of the law as a reason for non-compliance, and who subsequently tried to sell their slaves out of state, which was also illegal, rather than risk losing them through court order. Society lawyers were frequently able to get court orders to stop such sales before the slaves changed hands. In what would prove to be a more controversial tactic, they also became the defenders of slaves who entered Pennsylvania from other states, seeking their freedom. These runaways were often bound out to local owners for a period of years, usually to age twenty-eight, with the new owner paying their former owner a set compensation.54 Though it was not complete and immediate freedom, to the fugitive slave from Virginia or Maryland, a term of bondage to age twenty-eight in Pennsylvania must have seemed preferable to a lifetime of slavery in the south. When word of these arrangements filtered to the slave communities below the Mason and Dixon line, runaways directed their course toward the Keystone State.

By 1790, the free African American population of Pennsylvania had grown significantly. More than 1,800 free blacks lived in Philadelphia and its environs, with another thousand or so in neighboring Bucks and Chester Counties. The rural counties generally had smaller free African American populations, although the border counties of York and Lancaster had almost as many free blacks as the suburban Philadelphia counties, with Cumberland and Franklin counties not far behind. Newly formed Dauphin County only had about fifty free blacks, most of whom were scattered through the county.55

It is reasonable to assume that the large numbers of free blacks in the border counties and rural interior counties included freed slaves moving into Pennsylvania from Virginia and Maryland, as well as fugitive slaves assuming the identity of free persons. Advertisements from southern slaveholders for runaway slaves in the mid to late 1780s and early 1790s mention Pennsylvania as an assumed destination, much of which had to do with the new laws and the actions of the Abolition Society. In 1785, Loudon County, Virginia slaveholder Leven Powell offered a reward of up to thirty dollars for the return of his “Negro Fellow” Dick, who had run away from a neighboring farm in the spring of that year. Powell stated “It is supposed he is making for Pennsylvania, as he was heard to say that the Negroes in that State had been set free.” Powell’s reward began at ten dollars if Dick was captured less than twenty miles from home, and topped out at thirty dollars if the slave made it out of Virginia on his way to the freedom he had heard about.

A servant’s familiarity with the large trading town of Philadelphia could pose a problem for his owner, as slave owner Lewis Ellzey, of Fairfax County, Virginia found out. Ellzey, a prominent local citizen and French and Indian war hero, was hoping to capture his forty-year-old slave Will before he got out of the region, noting in his 1784 ad, “said fellow has been twice to Philadelphia, where I am apprehensive he will go again if not apprehended.” William Wilkinson, of Charles County, Maryland, lost two older slaves, Walle and an unnamed female, who escaped into Cumberland County on horseback in 1787. Wilkinson thought that they would change their names and noted that the man “is a very artful fellow, and will endeavour to pass as a freeman.”56

Virginia statesman George Mason and his son, George Mason V, advertised for the return of two slaves who ran away in September 1786 from their Fairfax County plantation. Dick, “a very lusty well made mulatto fellow, about 25 years of age,” got away with Watt, who Mason described as “a stout negro fellow, remarkably black, about thirty five years of age.” Both men, thought Mason, would “perhaps change their names and pass for free men.” He also believed they had secured a forged pass and would head for Pennsylvania. A few years later the same type of plan was probably serving for escapees Sam and Squire, and two unnamed companions, as they all made their way north from Menan Mills’ farm in Albemarle County, Virginia. Both men had been sold numerous times before escaping from Mills, who was their most recent owner. Mills described the twenty-four-year-old Squire as a “dark mulatto” who was traveling with his wife, a woman Mills described as “a low, black, well set wench,” but whom he did not name.

The slave named Sam was the older of the two men belonging to Mills. At twenty-eight, he was relatively young, and exactly the age at which young slave men in Pennsylvania would normally be manumitted, but from the description provided by his owner, Sam had thus far lived a very rough and pain-filled life. He was described as “a bright mulatto, about 6 feet high,” who “dresses well,” but a previous owner had him cruelly branded on each cheek. Unwilling to bear these highly visible marks of ownership and control, Sam “either cut or burnt out the brand, which has occasioned a scar on each cheek.” He bore another mark from previous abuse or neglect: the scars from having been “shot with large Bristol shot in the right knee and thigh.” As if these ugly marks of a hard life are not enough to identify him, Mills added that Sam “has been once badly whipped.”

The trio of escaped slaves were headed north “as free people,” according to Mills, who believed they had procured forged passes attesting to that status. Their owner also noted, almost as an afterthought, that a fourth man, “a likely black fellow who can read and write,” had apparently joined them in their trek toward freedom in Pennsylvania. Perhaps they were all of the same mindset as Anthony, a “young and lusty” slave who ran away from Colonel Alexander Quarrier of Richmond, in December of that same year. Anthony used various names, but favored Rap Gowin, and posed as a free man and a preacher in his travels. Quarrier, a Scottish immigrant who had lived for some years in Philadelphia, supposed that Anthony was “on his way to Pennsylvania where he has been informed, by those who now call themselves ‘Friends to Liberty,’ he will find an asylum.”57 Pennsylvania’s reputation as a haven for freedom seekers was growing.

Virginia and Maryland slaveholders continued to lose slaves to the “asylum” in Pennsylvania in even greater numbers for several more years. Joshua Hudson, of Amherst County, Virginia, advertised for his carpenter slave named Prince, “a large, likely Negro man, nearly 6 feet high, about 30 years old, of a very black complexion.” Hudson assumed Prince would ply his trade for a while in Richmond, Manchester, or Petersburg, he having taken carpenter and joiner tools with him, before attempting “to reach Pennsylvania, and pass as a freeman, which no doubt is his intention.”

Little more than a month later, a family of six was reported missing from the plantation of Ambrose Knox, of Nixonton, North Carolina. Entire families escaping together were a rarity due to the difficulty of caring for and traveling with small children. This group was headed by the mother, Maria, “a woman about 33 years old.” Maria was shepherding her daughters Theney, age fifteen, and Lucy, age eight, sons Primus, age thirteen, Jack, age five, and Jolle, “a boy two years old.” The owner, Ambrose Knox, believed they had received help or encouragement from the father, Jack Cotton, who belonged to another slaveholder. Jack Cotton had run away the previous year, and “has been in Philadelphia since that time.” Witnesses had spotted Cotton in the vicinity of Knox’s plantation recently, and the slave owner assumed “they are all together, traveling to the northern states.” 58

Previous | Next


38. James Grant Wilson, John Fiske and Stanley L. Klos, eds., Appleton's Cyclopedia of American Biography, 1887, Virtual American Biographies, “Benjamin Lay,” (accessed 4 November 2008); John Greenleaf Whittier, “Introduction,” The Journal of John Woolman (1871; repr., Boston: Houghton Mifflin, 1909), 14-15.

39. Pennsylvania Gazette, 22 December 1730.
For those who did not receive a free copy of his work, Sandiford allowed distribution through his printers, Franklin and Meredith, who had them “ready for Sale at 12d. a piece, at the New Printing Office near the Market.”

40. Roberts Vaux, Memoirs of the Life of Anthony Benezet (Philadelphia, 1817), 13, 29.

41. Gary B. Nash, Forging Freedom: The Formation of Philadelphia’s Black Community, 1720-1840 (Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 1988), 19.

42. Nash and Soderlund, Freedom by Degrees, 41-49.

43. Ibid., 51-56.

44. Burton Alva Kunkle, George Bryan and the Constitution of Pennsylvania, 1731-1791 (Philadelphia: William J. Campbell, 1922), 165; Pennsylvania Packet, 28 November 1778.

45. Pennsylvania Gazette, 3 March 1779.
The editor of the Pennsylvania Gazette, in a note following the published “Preamble,” suggests that the competing Pennsylvania Journal publisher, William Bradford, refused to run the text of the “Preamble,” charging, “Mr. Bradford declared he had burnt it.” This is a curious statement. Bradford was a slaveholder, but so were the editors of the Gazette. Bradford had established the London Coffee House, one of the prime locations in Philadelphia for the public inspection and sale of slaves, but he was also an unquestioned patriot and devoted to the ideals espoused by George Bryan.

46. Nash and Soderlund, Freedom by Degrees, 102-103; Pennsylvania Gazette, 26 January 1780.
One of the other important changes that made it to the final reading was a repeal of the law prohibiting interracial marriages.

47. Nash and Soderlund, Freedom by Degrees, 103-105; "Slaves in Lancaster County in 1780."

48. "Slaves in Lancaster County in 1780."

49. “Register of Negro and Mulatto Slaves--Cumberland County, Pennsylvania, Cumberland County Clerk of Courts,” Microfilm, Pennsylvania State Archives; “1780 Slave Registrations,” "Slave Returns Listings in Cumberland County;” “John R. Miller Collection, 1750-1914 (Cumberland County Records),” MG-90, microfilm roll 1, no. 2261, Microfilm, Pennsylvania State Archives.
Unlike the slave registrations for Lancaster County, those of Cumberland County are scattered over several different locations, and researchers believe that not all the original registrations have survived.

50. Nash and Soderlund, Freedom by Degrees, 105-110; John Alosi, "Slavery in Post Revolutionary Cumberland County, 1780-1810" (master's thesis, Shippensburg University, 9 December 1994), 8.
Opposition to the bill was particularly vociferous among citizens of Lancaster County, who submitted a petition to lawmakers on the eve of the final vote for the bill. Language in the petition, however, was so crude and inflammatory that it was summarily discarded by the representatives. A copy of Alosi’s thesis is in the library of the Cumberland County Historical Society.

51. “Register of Negro and Mulatto Slaves--Cumberland County, Pennsylvania.”
The fee to register slaves was two dollars per slave. Stevenson registered three male slaves in 1780: Mills, Phil and Dick.

52. Alosi, “Slavery,” 60.

53. Nash and Soderlund, Freedom by Degrees, 112-113.

54. Ibid., 120-123.

55. Bureau of the Census, First Census of the United States, 1790, Pennsylvania.
Although the first census specifically counted slaves, it did not differentiate African Americans from other non-whites, therefore figures are estimates taken from the county totals for “All other free persons” (i.e. non-white).

56. Virginia Journal and Alexandria Advertiser, 2 September 1784, 26 May 1785; Carlisle Gazette, 24 September 1787.

57. Maryland Gazette, 5 October 1786; Virginia Independent Chronicle, 13 March 1790; Virginia Gazette and General Advertiser, 1 December 1790.
Although he was a slaveholder, George Mason was in the curious position of adamantly opposing the slave trade and the spread of slavery, believing it to be a “slow poison” to the country. He contributed much to the design of the United States Constitution, but refused to sign the finished document, partially because it did not forbid the further importation of slaves.
The “large Bristol shot” that had wounded and scarred the escaped slave Sam was large lead shot produced in a British shot tower and imported into America for hunting game. The escaped slave Anthony also used the name Anthony Gilliet.

58. Virginia Gazette and General Advertiser, 4 April 1792.


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