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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 Seven

Underground Railroad in Harrisburg and Central Pennsylvania

Aside from the public battle against the pro-slavery powers, a battle that ebbed and flowed according to national events, state political changes, and locally dependent social alliances, Harrisburg’s anti-slavery activists were also waging an intense and relatively steady covert operation to thwart the designs of slaveholders. This operation provided food, shelter, medical attention, and other necessities to fugitive slaves who were found in Harrisburg. In addition, the care providers also protected the freedom seekers from recapture and took steps to make sure they could safely continue their journey out of slavery.

The activists that engaged in these efforts were both African American and white, and their efforts were sometimes coordinated, and sometimes not. Nor did they follow the same procedures, take the same roads, or communicate with the same persons during the course of a year’s time, or sometimes even from day to day. It was an operation that remained very fluid, with shadowy contacts and an overall network that was kept nebulous by necessity, because it was all highly illegal.

Fugitive slaves were defined by the Constitution of the United States as the legal property of their owners, and the right of those owners to pursue and recover runaway slaves was guaranteed since 1789 by the fugitive from labor clause of the Constitution, which stated “No person held to Service or Labour in one State, under the Laws thereof, escaping into another, shall, in Consequence of any Law or Regulation therein, be discharged from such Service or Labour, but shall be delivered up on Claim of the Party to whom such Service or Labour may be due.” It was a clearly defined right, although the specifics of how this process was supposed to work were a constant source of friction between Pennsylvania and its southern neighbors.

To intentionally thwart the efforts of a slaveholder to capture a fugitive slave was illegal, regardless of the moral beliefs held by the parties involved. So publicly, anti-slavery activists in Harrisburg gathered in meetings to dissuade people from condoning slavery, and joined local, state and national societies that sought to outlaw slavery, but privately, a few of them willingly and deliberately broke those same laws.

To white anti-slavery activists, it was a matter of disobeying what they considered an immoral law. To African Americans who aided fugitive slaves, it was much more personal. Most understood that, regardless of where or when they were born, whether slave or free, their own liberty was always at risk. Many, if not most, felt duty-bound to provide some form of aid, some degree of help, to fugitives that crossed their paths, because one day they might find themselves also in need of shelter, food, or encouragement.

There is a distinction that must be made between aiding a fugitive slave, and willingly participating in the operations of the Underground Railroad. Some Harrisburg area residents aided fugitive slaves without ever being aware of other persons or resources to which they could have directed the slave for more help. The acts of such Good Samaritans, especially when they were a singular occurrence, are just that: simple acts of kindness with no connection to a wider network. Fugitive slaves later recorded or told of many such encounters, which might have involved a kindly word of warning from a black farmer to avoid the next farm, or a meal and a bed for the night provided in exchange for a day’s worth of work, with no questions asked. Frequently, the provider may have known or suspected that the wayfarer was a fugitive slave, yet he or she helped out anyway, not out of defiance of the law, but out of simple human kindness and the recognition of another human being in need. Such humanitarian acts, even if they helped a freedom seeker to survive for another day, are not considered a part of the vast Underground Railroad network.

On the other hand, many residents of Harrisburg, especially African American inhabitants, provided regular aid to fugitive slaves for decades without being cognizant of a wider network, yet their help in the form of food, shelter, jobs, and clothing was very much a part of an informal network by which fugitives disappeared, or blended in, to existing African American communities—communities that took overt steps to protect these persons from recapture when slave catchers rode into town.

Coordinated strategies could be extremely subtle, as when Harrisburg entrepreneurs Ezekiel Carter, Edward Bennett, and James McClintock provided housing and employment to newly arriving young men, or when the Reverend David Stevens exhorted his congregation to strive for self-reliance and community, ideals that they put into practice by taking in the needy, feeding them, treating their illnesses, and minding their children; these were all distinct Underground Railroad strategies that were practiced daily by an entire community. It did not have to be overtly hostile and disruptive, as when crowds of agitated young men with clubs and cudgels gathered outside of the courthouse to protest the capture of a freedom seeker, although that, too, was part of the network.

In these ways, Harrisburg’s African American community was actively participating in the Underground Railroad before it officially existed. They had been doing this for decades, comprising a link in an African American network that included sympathizers at dozens of iron forges, large “plantations,” churches, solitary mountain huts, river routes, and docks from the Maryland border to the New York border. Their “agents” included waiters, barbers, preachers, forge men, colliers, stevedores, and river men—people who would willingly conceal, feed, and forward their charges, all under the noses of white employers or local authorities.

This should be understood, because the network that evolved into being in the 1820s or 1830s, depending upon the account, used many of the same routes, resources, methods, and people, except that the exertions, properties, and resources of white residents came to play an increasingly valuable and prominent role.

Mary Ellen Graydon wrote of an incident that she witnessed in her Market Street home about 1835, in which she awoke to hear a peculiar call, then saw her mother leading a group of African Americans through the house to a hiding place somewhere nearby, from which the family provided care until “some dark starless night would find my father and other faithful friends leading them many a mile, in silence, before reaching the boat that would take them farther on their road to safety.”88

Her description implies that a well-known route and network was already in place by that time, in and out of Harrisburg, and although she does not indicate the race of the “faithful friends” who helped pilot the fugitives to the next stop, they could very well have been local African American residents. The network in Harrisburg had involved the cooperation of African American with white activists for more than ten years prior to that incident. The Rutherford family, in particular, was identified as having aided fugitive slaves since about 1820, from their extensive properties in nearby Swatara Township.


Rutherford Family Farms &
The Paxtang Valley Haven

The Thomas Rutherford family owned about 400 acres of land in present day Swatara Township and Paxtang Borough in 1755. The original family farm was divided between two sons, William and Samuel, upon Thomas’ death in 1804. William’s portion became the prosperous farm from which a Harrisburg-based fugitive slave operation was staged, making it one of the first Underground Railroad stations operated by whites in the area, and it may have been operating as such as early as the first decade of the 1800s.

A large barn on the property, built by William Rutherford, Sr. in 1805, was utilized as a place of shelter for freedom seekers who arrived at the farm. As the family grew and acquired land, the entire region became a potential haven for fugitive slaves forwarded to the family from agents in Harrisburg. The farms of Samuel S., John B., and Abner Rutherford, all located near William Rutherford’s farm, were similarly used, especially when it was perceived to be too dangerous to send fugitives directly to William’s farm. Many of the farms were interconnected by small, private lanes that bypassed the main road that passed through the valley in which they were located, making it easier to move fugitives from one point to another without arousing the suspicion of unsympathetic neighbors.

In October 1845, the William Rutherford farm received a large group of ten fugitive slaves, but was surprised by a raid from a party of slave catchers that had been tailing the runaways. The details of this story, as recorded by a grandson of William, William Franklin Rutherford, reveal much about the local operations and particularly the cooperation that existed between the African American operatives and the white agents in and around Harrisburg. The ten fugitives, Rutherford wrote:

Arrived on Thursday night and were to be kept secreted until the following Saturday night, by which time arrangements for their further progress would be perfected and conductors sent to pilot them onward. The party consisted of an elderly man and his six sons—all mulattoes, the youngest of whom was a youth of eighteen. Two brothers of a darker hue, remarkable for their stalwart proportions—and a short thick set black man…Mr. Rutherford quartered them in his barn and supplied them with eatables which were carried to the barn from time to time in a large basket.89

It is likely that the agent who brought the ten men to William Rutherford’s farm, which was located along the turnpike road that is modern day Derry Street, on the hill where the housing development Lawnford Acres is now located, was an African American “conductor,” to use the language of the Underground Railroad, as he was not named by Rutherford. Although William Franklin Rutherford may have witnessed this incident, being about six years old at the time, the details of the story were probably told to him by his father, Abner, whose farm was located further east along the turnpike road. He gave the names of all the principle white characters in the story but left all the African American characters but one nameless.

As to the choice of a hideout, his grandfather used the large barn to shelter the fugitives, probably because it was commodious enough for the large group. Keeping them in the house would have been impractical, due to their numbers, and dangerous, since they were expected to stay for three days, during which time neighbors or other visitors were likely to stop by. It is worth noting that the conductors who brought the fugitives to the farm did not bear instructions regarding their next stop. It apparently was the duty of the “stationmaster,” or property owner to whom the fugitives were entrusted, to make arrangements with the owner of the next station to be used. This helped to preserve the security of the network, so that each stationmaster was aware only of who sent the fugitives to him, and to whom he would send them.

Rutherford also reported, “A large portion of the colored men who sought freedom by flight, traveled either singly or in pairs, pushing forward at night and hiding by day,” a statement that agrees with the first-person accounts related here in earlier chapters. He added an important note that is often overlooked: “These usually succeeded in gaining their object without much assistance from the ‘Underground Railroad.’”

Two vital points can be made in reference to this statement: First, the majority of fugitive slaves received little or no aid from agents of the organized Underground Railroad. Prior to the rapid disappearance of slaves laboring in the Pennsylvania countryside, this was especially true, because most runaways encountered in central Pennsylvania were escaping from other Pennsylvania slaveholders, with little or no aid from anyone involved in an organized resistance. However, Rutherford is referring to the era between the 1820s and 1840s, in which most runaway slaves were from Maryland or Virginia. The majority of these runaways had to make it at least as far as the Mason-Dixon Line before they ecnountered organized aid, a feat that often involved traversing hundreds of miles of hostile and difficult terrain. Many trekked much farther north before running into someone who would guide them to a sympathizer.

This was an incredibly difficult journey to undertake with no resources beyond their own wits and determination, which brings up the second point: Most slaves who made an escape attempt did not achieve their goals, but were captured and returned to slavery before even leaving the limits of their home county. The two points are very closely related, because they address simultaneously the difficulty of making a successful escape, and the difficulty of locating trustworthy aid. Those that accomplished the first part, and who made it into Pennsylvania, often survived only by being highly suspicious of everyone they met, and of every situation they encountered. This behavior may have served them well by helping them avoid the ever-present slave catchers and pro-slavery sympathizers who would turn them in, but it also may have kept them from trusting a local activist who would provide assistance and an entrance to the network.

Rutherford was probably keenly aware that most fugitives were successfully run down and recovered by their masters before they got far from the slaveholder's estate, so his statement probably refers to those who succeeded in making it at least to the free soil of Pennsylvania. Even here, though, many fugitives were recovered by Southern slave hunters and masters with little trouble. It is only when problems occurred—violence, local protests, broken laws—that the incident was recorded in newspapers or in court documents.

Another aspect that Rutherford might not have made allowances for was the aid provided to fugitive slaves by African American agents who had no connections to the white agents. Operatives drifted in and out of service according to opportunity, motive, and circumstance, with a few actors that operated on the fly, with no plans beyond getting a few fugitives out of imminent danger. Such operations were usually isolated and highly guarded because they tended to operate in remote, dangerous territory close to the southern border, where the probability of discovery and capture was high.

One such independent operative who piloted fugitives, in this case for monetary gain, was Archibald Smith of Liberty, Maryland, a free man, described in newspaper accounts as a mulatto. At a camp meeting in the summer of 1843, Smith made the acquaintance of several slaves belonging to local slaveholder Emory Jarrett, and determined that they desired to get to freedom in Pennsylvania. In the course of making plans, a few other slaves overheard, and the group plotting its freedom grew to ten men. Smith agreed to pilot them to the interior of Pennsylvania for a mutually agreeable fee.

The group met Smith near Woodsboro, Frederick County, one night and paid their guide, who led them north on back roads as far as a farm outside of Emmitsburg, where they stopped as dawn approached. Several members of the group lost their trust in Smith when they noticed he had been drinking, and they accused him of being intoxicated. Nevertheless, they remained hidden in a cornfield with Smith during the day, unable to do much about the situation. When night again brought cover for travel, the runaway slaves decided to try to find freedom on their own and left their guide behind, striking out for the Pennsylvania border without Smith’s knowledge, leaving him behind near Emmitsburg.

They traveled rapidly, and had almost reached Gettysburg when trouble occurred. Although the runaways came to mistrust Archibald Smith, and accused him of drinking to the point of endangering them, he had succeeded in keeping them safe up to the point at which they abandoned him. Without his guidance, the large group of runaways became careless. The group was apparently spotted and reported somewhere near the border. They had not gotten very far north of the freedom line into Adams County when a party of pursuers found them and a pitched fight ensued.

Fortunately for the fugitives, the slave catchers who overtook them had miscalculated the will of the group to put up a determined resistance. When faced with imminent capture, the runaways, apparently realizing they were now in Pennsylvania and close to their goal, fought ferociously and drove off the pursuit. The former slaves, thus temporarily secure, gathered their wits, continued walking, and eventually found someone, probably in Gettysburg, who put them in touch with the local Underground Railroad operatives.

They were then forwarded along a route that ultimately put them in a barn just outside of Harrisburg. Here, their luck finally ran out. It was to this barn that the fugitives were finally tracked by their dogged pursuers. Though the slave hunters had been surprised and bested in the fight south of Gettysburg, they were better prepared when they trapped their quarry in the barn. The freedom seekers still put up a good fight, but in the end the slave catchers succeeded in capturing all but two of them, and took them back to enslavement in the south.

Also rounded up by the slave catchers was Archibald Smith, who, without the knowledge of the fugitives, was following them along the route all the way to Harrisburg. Smith was effectively able to elude his pursuers, but when he joined the men in Harrisburg, he was also captured and jailed in town. Smith was held until a Baltimore police officer, Archibald G. Ridgely, arrived from that city to escort him back to Maryland on a warrant from Governor Thomas, to face trial.90

Returning to Rutherford’s story, which took place two years after the incident related above, the ten men were hidden in the large barn on the Rutherford family farm on Derry Street, and were to be piloted on Saturday night by some local African American guides to their next stop. All did not go as planned, however:

For some reason, now forgotten, the conductors failed to appear at the appointed time. Mr. Rutherford could have easily forwarded the party to some other station, but not wishing to interfere with plans already perfected, and no intelligence of pursuit having reached him, he deemed it safe to allow them to remain over Sunday.

As a “stationmaster,” William Rutherford had complete control over his portion of the operation. From the time that the fugitives arrived at his door, to the moment they left in the care of one or more conductors, he had the flexibility to change plans and make decisions based upon the existing situation. The expected conductors were to take the ten fugitives to Pottsville, in Schuylkill County, a trip that would span several evenings of travel and cover more than fifty miles of difficult and remote terrain. Their absence on the scheduled night of departure created a problem, and called for a decision on the part of Mr. Rutherford.

He could not send the fugitives on this next leg of the journey by themselves—it was too far and the route was complicated, but he could alter the plans and send them with someone else, probably someone closer at hand such as a trusted neighbor or a family member, to a different station. From the narrative, he apparently considered this option, but decided against it, preferring to wait.

His decision was based partly on not having received any intelligence regarding the presence of slave catchers in the area. That intelligence would have come primarily from agents in Harrisburg, and specifically, from persons whose main role as Underground Railroad operatives was to keep their eyes and ears open for news of newly arrived strangers from the south. News of suspicious men lurking around town and inquiring about fugitive slaves would have been quickly relayed to the Rutherford family, whose farm was located far enough away from town—about five miles—to allow time to put alternate plans into action. Such plans might involve hiding the fugitives in the fields, moving them to another farm, or even starting them quickly on their way to the next station.

Not having received news of any danger, William Rutherford, who by this time was a veteran anti-slavery partisan with several decades of experience in foiling the plans of slave catchers, relaxed and allowed the men to stay an extra night. In this instance, that proved to be a mistake.

The morning and afternoon passed uneventfully, but about five o’clock in the evening someone noticed two carriages and four mounted men “moving slowly down the turnpike road, like a funeral.” The Rutherford homestead was located on a hillside in the Paxtang Valley, through which the old Downingtown, Ephrata, and Harrisburg Turnpike ran. This main road connecting Harrisburg with points east was easily observable from the Rutherford farm, a quarter of a mile away at the end of a narrow private lane.

When the carriages and horsemen reached the lane leading to the Rutherford farm, which was easily identified by the presence of a huge locust tree growing at the entrance—a local landmark—the strangers suddenly “wheeled in the lane at full gallop.” One of the Rutherford grandchildren at work on the farm ran to alert his grandfather, who sent him to the barn to tell the fugitives to keep out of sight. They had apparently already been warned, or had themselves observed the approach of the slave catchers, and were nowhere to be found.

The horsemen were the first to reach the farm at the end of the quarter-mile driveway. Two of them rode straight to the barn while the other two rode to the house. All the riders dismounted and took up positions as guards until the carriages made their way uphill to the farmhouse. William Rutherford recognized the driver of the first carriage as a Harrisburg liveryman named John W. Fitch, who had supplied the slave hunters with their horses and possibly a carriage, and drove them to the farm.

Fitch introduced the apparent leader of the slave hunting expedition, a Mr. Buchanan, from Maryland, who spoke with William Rutherford and presented his paperwork from a Pennsylvania magistrate, as required by law. He also informed Rutherford that he intended to search the farm for the missing slaves, and pointed out the presence of several local constables who had accompanied him to the farm to aid in the capture. Altogether, twelve fugitive slave hunters were now on the Rutherford farm, at least three from Maryland, and the rest from Harrisburg.

After a quick look around, the slave catchers found evidence that the fugitives were hiding in or around the barn, and they promptly surrounded it and began calling for them to surrender themselves. The men also kept Rutherford’s sons from leaving the premises, “lest some one might slip off and alarm the neighborhood.” Although the Maryland slaveholders had found plenty of willing helpers in Harrisburg, this particular part of the countryside was less sympathetic to slave hunts, and they knew it. The neighboring farms belonged to other members of the Rutherford family, or to neighbors who, although they might not have been involved in aiding fugitive slaves, would not hesitate to aid their neighbor if a cry for help got out.

One barrier to an easy search of the barn was the time of year. By October, the haymows were stuffed full and the threshing floor of the barn was full of stored grain. It seemed apparent to the slave catchers that the fugitives were hiding in the hay loft, but “there was but one way of ascending from the floor to the mows, and that lay through a small opening in the threshing floor loft about four feet square.” When one of the slave catchers started up the ladder to the mows, he was confronted by one of the fugitives at the top, threatening to “brain the first man who came within his reach.” This show of resistance, coupled with the onset of evening’s shadows, caused the Marylanders to send a horseman to Harrisburg for additional help.

Along with the nightfall came more visitors to the farm. Four African American conductors arrived just as the slave catchers were settling down to await reinforcements. These were the activists who were expected the night before to accompany the fugitives to Pottsville. Two of them walked straight to the barn and inadvertently into the arms of the constables, who promptly arrested them. The situation was getting worse by the hour. Fortunately, the other two guides slipped unobserved into the farmhouse where Rutherford told them about the raid and then sent them quietly to Harrisburg to find help.

Not long after they disappeared back into the night, the slave hunters received their reinforcements in the form of two more carriages holding several more Harrisburg men, one of whom was chosen for his intimidating size and strength. With this force, the Marylanders were able to force the surrender of their wayward slaves, although they only recovered six of the ten men. Two of the fugitives had wisely escaped into the nearby fields when they observed the party of slave catchers approaching on the farm lane earlier that evening. They hid until it was dark enough to make their way to the neighboring farm of Abner Rutherford, which was located further east and across the turnpike road. Two more fugitives hid themselves deep enough within the recesses of the barn to avoid recapture.

By the time Buchanan and his party were satisfied that they had found all the hidden slaves, it was midnight, so they halted further searches, loaded the captured fugitives in the wagons, and drove back down the farm lane to the turnpike. This time, instead of turning right and returning to Harrisburg, they turned east on the turnpike road and heading toward Hummelstown to take a more direct route home.

Their timing and route were quite fortunate, as they barely missed running into a large rescue party from Harrisburg that was heading east on the turnpike road from town toward the Rutherford farm. This group of forty men, described by Rutherford as mostly African American and “armed with all sorts of weapons,” had been hastily summoned by the two conductors who had earlier escaped arrest at the farm.91

Like their predecessors of twenty years before, who had surrounded the county courthouse in Harrisburg to demand the release of a remanded fugitive slave, they were intent upon the defense of their enslaved brethren. It was only by chance that the Rutherford farm in Swatara Township escaped being the site of a violent confrontation between several grim Maryland slaveholders, backed by about a dozen Harrisburg men, and forty fight-hungry anti-slavery vigilantes.

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88. Graydon, Memoirs of His Own Time, 55-56.

89. William Franklin Rutherford, “The Underground Railroad: A Chapter in its Local History,” in Egle, Notes and Queries, 3rd ser., vol. 2, 137:325-326.
This account was, with the addition of some extra material, delivered as an address by Samuel S. Rutherford before a meeting of the Historical Society of Dauphin County, and published under the title “The Under Ground Railroad,” in Publications of The Historical Society of Dauphin County, 1928, 3-8. William Franklin Rutherford identified the date of this incident as October 1845. It is tempting to speculate that he made a mistake on the date, and that the fugitives in his story were the ten men identified in the Archibald Smith incident in the summer of 1843, eight of whom were captured in “a barn near Harrisburg.” The inconsistencies in the story are minor, but at this time, the two stories cannot be reconciled. In fact, there are other reported news accounts during this time of large groups of fugitive slaves on the roads toward central Pennsylvania, so coincidence cannot be ruled out.

90. Although Archibald Smith’s charges mistrusted his judgment enough to leave him behind, even after paying him, and tried to reach freedom on their own, it is noteworthy that neither Smith nor any of the fugitives were caught while he was conducting them through the countryside. It was only after he lost control of the operation that the fugitives were run down not once, but twice, by their pursuers. At his trial for aiding and abetting the escape of slaves, held in Frederick County, Archibald Smith was convicted and sentenced to five and a half years in the state penitentiary. Liberator, 11 August, 17 November, 1 December 1843.

91. William Franklin Rutherford, “The Underground Railroad,” 326-329.


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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