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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

The Underground Road: To and From

The 1845 incident at William Rutherford’s farm illustrates the workings of one link in the Underground Railroad network in the Harrisburg area during that time. It is not typical of operations that took place earlier or would take place later, most of which involved different locations, agents, and routes. Although it shared certain key characteristics with earlier and later operations, notably the secrecy, use of African American conductors to guide fugitives, and use of outbuildings as shelters, even these could vary considerably depending upon the situation and the principle actors. Yet it is useful to examine the story because it reveals details of how the veteran stationmaster responded to a crisis during what should have been a routine operation.

It also shows the working relationship between Harrisburg’s white anti-slavery activists and their African American counterparts in this covert and illegal activity, and it generally defines the roles played by each in the network. To flesh out those roles and further define this very complex relationship requires a closer look at what was happening behind the scenes in Harrisburg, from which place the party of fugitive slaves was sent to Rutherford’s, and in the Underground Railroad stations to the north of Harrisburg, where the surviving freedom seekers were eventually sent.

Fugitive slaves who arrived in Harrisburg generally traveled north from the Mason and Dixon Line over a multitude of routes through York and Adams Counties, converged on Carlisle, and then made their way to Harrisburg via one of a few possible routes, to cross the Susquehanna River into the capital of Pennsylvania.

Alternatively, a large number of fugitives traveling north through York County made the river crossing at Peach Bottom Ferry, right after crossing the state line into Pennsylvania, or went further north to Wrightsville and crossed the river into the friendly haven of Columbia, in Lancaster County, before traveling further north from there. Both the Peach Bottom and Wrightsville crossing sites had the advantage of being actively manned by African American operatives who would assist in the crossing. Still others entered Pennsylvania through Lancaster County or Chester County and headed in a generally northwest direction to Harrisburg.

There were major south to north corridors, but most routes overlapped here and there, especially as dictated by circumstances. The Susquehanna River, though, remained a major barrier to most of the northbound runaways, with only a few good crossings available south of Harrisburg. All those crossings, including the bridge at Harrisburg, were closely watched by both the friends and the hunters of the fugitive slaves. Continued success on the path to freedom, particularly where it led through south central Pennsylvania, often depended upon who spotted you first.

Reports of fugitive slave sightings often made their way relatively quickly back to owners. John Yellott, Jr. of Baltimore County advertised in the 3 September 1819 edition of the Lancaster Journal for his lost slave Isaac, adding a note at the bottom of the ad that “Isaac was seen on the bank of the river Susquehanna, near Peach Bottom Ferry, on the 8th June last, and no doubt crossed the river there.” His ad gives a glimpse of the network of fugitive slave watchers who reported sightings along the border counties.

For freedom seekers, the counties of Cumberland, York, Adams, Lancaster, Adams, and Perry frequently constituted the most dangerous part of their journey. Slave catchers operated with relatively few legal restraints in those counties much of the time, were generally tolerated, if not supported, by the local white communities, and could usually count on the assistance of local law enforcement officials if a situation turned nasty. Very few white farmers, innkeepers, or property owners were willing to lend support of any kind to suspected fugitive slaves, and were more likely to inform the local sheriff if they observed strange persons, particularly African American sojourners, moving through the area.

This dearth of aid in the long stretches between large towns, where few African American “settlements” existed, kept runaways constantly fearful of discovery and mistrustful of strangers, even those who appeared friendly. It was misplaced trust that nearly doomed Wesley Harris, mentioned earlier, who escaped in company with the Matterson brothers from Harpers Ferry, only to be captured just south of Gettysburg because they trusted a man who offered them shelter in his barn and food to eat. Then, after they relaxed and let down their guard, he brought eight slave catchers to ensnare them. Smiling faces, fugitives learned, often hid greedy hearts. The Mattersons were returned to slavery, but Harris, left to die after being shot by the slave hunters, found his salvation in the local African American servants who nursed him to health then led him to Gettysburg and put him in the hands of true agents of the Underground Railroad.


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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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