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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 Eight
Backlash, Violence and Fear: The Violent Decade (continued)

Harrisburg’s Slave Commissioner

Communities across central Pennsylvania almost immediately experienced clashes with the new law and the man charged with enforcing it, Richard McAllister. Twice, in Harrisburg, during McAllister’s first month in his new position, free African American women were grabbed by white slave catchers and taken to his office on Walnut Street for a hearing. The first woman assaulted and nearly kidnapped was Ellen Robison, the twenty-three-year-old wife of Franklin Robison, one of the men who, at the time, were still under indictment for riot in the August unrest.

Ellen, who had a three-year-old child at home, frantically protested that she had documents to prove her free status, but McAllister, adhering to the law, refused to pay any attention to her. Fortunately for the Robison family, a number of her neighbors set up a noisy protest outside of McAllister’s office. Although the Commissioner knew that he had the law to back him up, he was not yet ready to provoke another potential riot, so he reversed his decision and accepted her documents as proof that she was not the person the slave catchers were seeking. She was freed to return to her child.

He had another opportunity not long after, with circumstances almost identical to the Robison case, to remand a free young African American woman south with slave catchers, but again a contingent of neighbor women came to this woman’s rescue and McAllister again backed down.20 These two successes for Harrisburg’s African American community in standing up against the Commissioner and the new law seemed encouraging, but they were the last successes the community would have for quite some time.

During the last few weeks of October, slave catchers and Southern slaveholders brought a number of African Americans to the Slave Commissioner’s office and requested the return of these persons to them as property. In every instance, upon the oath of the owners or their agents, McAllister settled the hearing in favor of the Southerners and sent them home with their alleged slaves. In a number of these incidents, the slaveholders and their newly captured slaves paraded through the streets of Harrisburg to the train station on Market Street to ride the train back to Virginia.21

From the start, the newly appointed Slave Commissioner had been well prepared for his job. He organized an office and assembled a staff of marshals, mostly made up of from Harrisburg’s constabulary force, to assist him in his work. His right hand man was Constable Solomon Snyder, the man originally chosen to round up the accused fugitive slaves that August, and one of the constables caught up in the violence that followed.

Snyder, in turn, provided McAllister with all of his resources for slave catching, which included a cadre of African American informants in Harrisburg. The Underground Railroad network through Harrisburg was far from a secure route. It’s security was in constant jeopardy not only from those who opposed giving any aid or comfort to fugitive slaves, which included most of the town’s white residents, but also from those who stood to profit by providing valuable information to visiting slave catchers or to local lawmen. It was an African American informant, James Millwood, who had provided the initial information that led Maryland slave catchers, along with several unnamed Harrisburg constables, to William Rutherford’s farm five years earlier.

As a waiter in the Union Hotel, kept by Wells Coverly, Millwood was well placed to provide information on the movements of fugitive slaves. The hotel was located on the southeast corner of Market Square, adjoining the house formerly used by Underground Railroad agent Alexander Graydon. Fugitive slaves who crossed the Camel Back Bridge into Harrisburg and took shelter in Dr. William W. Rutherford’s townhouse on Front Street inevitably had to pass the Union Hotel on their way out of town. The Union Hotel was also a favorite of Southern visitors, including many who were in town on slave catching business.

Millwood, however, was only one of several such spies.22 As a veteran constable, Solomon Snyder had long ago learned who he could bribe, blackmail, or intimidate into providing leads toward making an arrest, and he turned these contacts into highly productive informants to expose the hiding places of newly arrived fugitives.

October ended with a foray by U.S. Marshals into Wilkes-Barre, one of the major destination points for fugitive slaves north from Harrisburg. The marshals accompanied a number of slave catchers to town just hours after the arrival of nine fugitives, bearing warrants issued by Richard McAllister for six of the nine, indicating how well informed the federal lawmen were as to their whereabouts. Spies, however, can operate on both sides, and the African American community in Wilkes-Barre, being made aware of the approach of the slave hunting party, immediately took in the nine fugitives and provided hiding places.

Upon making inquiries, the slave catchers quickly determined that Wilkes-Barre residents were not eager to provide voluntary compliance with the Fugitive Slave Law. No one came forward to help, as the law stipulated all free men should. Taken aback by this holdup, the marshals resorted to “threats of intimidation” against the local citizenry, but then decided to ferret out the slaves themselves, which they somehow did.

Locating the fugitives and actually capturing them were two different things, though. The Harrisburg marshals enlisted the “deputy sheriff, a constable, and two or three men” to aid in the capture attempt, but finding the fugitives guarded by a large number of determined African American volunteers, the local lawmen, slave catchers, and marshals wisely determined that a direct confrontation would cause more trouble than they could handle. After an appeal for help to two local militia companies was not taken seriously, they finally resorted to impressing citizens on the streets and in the shops of the town. The marshals ordered the courthouse bell to be rung, to summon help, and as curious and alarmed citizens began showing up, they “ordered them to fall into line.” Despite considerable blustering about the law from the Harrisburg contingent, the Wilkes-Barre citizenry steadfastly, and to a man, refused to comply. Faced with this unified defiance of the law, the entire party of slave catchers gave up in disgust and left Wilkes-Barre without their prizes.23

Such contempt for slave catching was not the norm in Wilkes-Barre. In previous years, the town was publicly much more anti-abolitionist in its overall demeanor, and it gave a cold welcome to visitors who promoted that cause. In 1837, American Anti-Slavery speaker John Cross, one of Theodore Weld’s “Seventy,” scheduled an appearance in Wilkes-Barre, but was denied the use of a public building for his lecture. Unwilling to miss out on Cross’ oration, local abolitionist William Camp Gildersleeve opened up his home as a venue from which the Oneida Institute-trained minister might deliver his anti-slavery lecture.

This private home, located near Ross Street, was a regular Underground Railroad station from which Gildersleeve received and sheltered fugitives from Harrisburg by way of Pottsville. On this day, however, it was filled with persons who had come to hear the Reverend John Cross preach against slavery, but they never got the chance to listen. A large “ruffian-like band of desperadoes” led by “gentlemen of property and standing” disrupted the lecture before it began and demanded that Gildersleeve hand Cross over to them. A number of ladies who had gathered to hear Cross speak went to his aid and stood between him and the unruly crowd. It quickly became apparent to the abolitionists that the crowd was in a much uglier mood than they had anticipated, so Cross was hurried into another room for his protection.

A standoff developed between the mob, who demanded that Reverend Cross be ejected from the house, and William Gildersleeve, who quite dramatically announced that “he would fall a martyr” before he would give up his guest. In response, the agitated mob turned into rioters and made martyrs of Gildersleeve’s shrubberies, his gate, and some household items before exhausting itself and finally dispersing.24

The great mass of white residents of Wilkes-Barre had not significantly changed their attitudes toward abolitionists in the thirteen years that separated their 1837 invasion of William Gildersleeve’s home and their refusal to cooperate with federal marshals to apprehend fugitive slaves in October 1850. If anything, they probably became even more entrenched in anti-abolitionism.

Just two years after the 1837 incident, a well-attended public meeting was held in the spring at the courthouse to express public opposition to “the dangerous and anti-republican doctrines of abolition.” In response, the irrepressible William Gildersleeve again hosted one of Theodore Weld’s lecturers, lawyer Charles C. Burleigh, and again attempted to have the agent of the American Anti-Slavery Society deliver a public lecture from the courthouse. Again, a large crowd of anti-abolitionist activists descended upon the venue and forced a cancellation of the speech, and again, there were threats of violence against both Burleigh and Gildersleeve.

Unfortunately this time, the results were worse for the Gildersleeve family and for the speaker. The crowd again forced their way into the upstairs meeting room but did not stop when those who had gathered to hear the lecture attempted to shield their invited guest. Burleigh was forced to slip quickly out with abolitionist sympathizer, Francis Dana, to stay at his house nearby. After he felt things had quieted down, Burleigh took a room at the Phoenix Hotel to await the arrival of the next stage out of Wilkes-Barre.

The anger of the mob had not diminished much with Burleigh’s departure, but instead of pursuing the agency speaker, they plotted to ambush the man who kept inviting the abolitionist speakers into town. A bogus message was sent to William Gildersleeve’s house that Mr. Burleigh wanted to meet with him at the hotel before leaving. Gildersleeve went to see him, but when he arrived at the hotel in the south part of town, the anti-abolitionist mob was waiting for him. They seized Gildersleeve and doused his face with black ink, then rode him on a rail through town and subjected him to other humiliations. It took the efforts of a local citizen, Andrew Beaumont, and Gildersleeve’s family, who arrived at the scene and clung to the besieged man, to stop the rioters from further humiliating and possibly injuring him.25 It would not be the last time that William C. Gildersleeve, the town’s most notorious abolitionist, was publicly punished for his anti-slavery views.

The resistance, therefore, exhibited by Wilkes-Barre residents eleven years later toward the marshals who were acting in the name of the Federal Fugitive Slave Law was not the result of anti-slavery feelings. It had more to do with their sense of independence and fair play, and it points up one of the biggest flaws of the new law, which was the mandate that, in the words of S. R. McAllister, “made every man a Negro catcher.” This was not a role the residents of Wilkes-Barre were willing to take on. Historian and Underground Railroad participant J. Howard Wert summed up the issue well:

The Fugitive Slave Law of 1850 contained some odious features which aroused a popular feeling of antipathy against slavery itself—an opposition from a large element that had, hitherto, been dormant in the strife. Before this the number of active Abolitionists had been small and their influence little felt in the body politic. The great mass of voters in the North expressed their feelings thus: “We don’t want slavery ourselves. We are glad to be clear of it. But, if the Southern people like it, that is their affair. All they ask is ‘let us alone,’ and we will do so.” Now, however, when the same easy going people were liable at any time to be impressed by a United States marshal into the business of Negro catching with a heavy punishment impending if they refuse, they did not enjoy the dilemma.26

There would be many more organized slave hunts in Wilkes-Barre and in most central Pennsylvania towns in the coming years. Slave catchers accompanied by federal marshals from Harrisburg soon learned to arrive quietly, track down the object of their search quickly, and to subdue them immediately and with enough accompanying manpower to avoid having to rely on local help. This was the general tactic employed by Richard McAllister and his deputies in Harrisburg and throughout the region, and it worked well when it was followed, giving the slave commissioner many trouble-free cases.

Through the end of 1850 and into the first few months of 1851, McAllister extended his reach into all the neighboring counties and became a haunting presence for local Underground Railroad activists, and a symbol of malevolence to abolitionist editors throughout the Middle Atlantic States. To most white residents of Harrisburg, however, he was efficiently enforcing the law, and keeping the peace between the Border States, even if he did seem overzealous in his work.


Some Unsettling Irregularities

In November of 1850, after little more than a month in office, McAllister issued a warrant for four alleged fugitive slaves known to be in Harrisburg, and Solomon Snyder tracked them down to a nearby farm. He and John Sanders, who, although not one of Harrisburg’s regular constables, regularly assisted with runaway captures, arrested the men, but instead of taking them back to town for a hearing, the two lawmen took their prisoners directly south to Baltimore and turned them over to the person who had filed a claim with McAllister. This circumvention of the legal process outraged Harrisburg abolitionists when they got word of it, especially as it seemed to have occurred with the blessing of the Slave Commissioner, but it also raised eyebrows among many heretofore disinterested citizens, particularly when rumors spread that Snyder and Sanders were seeking a reward from the Baltimore slaveholder of one thousand dollars.

Harrisburg’s white residents, like their counterparts in Wilkes-Barre, were anything but anti-South or anti-slavery. During this same month many of them had gathered around the courthouse for the riot trial of William Taylor and his party, only to cheer the Southerners as if they were family when they were found not-guilty of all charges.27 This action by Snyder and Sanders, however, left many feeling unsettled about McAllister’s methods and perhaps even his integrity. It was the first incident of several that cast a shadow on McAllister's character.

The year 1851 began in much the same way, and events seemed to suggest a continuance of business as usual for the Slave Commissioner. In January, he heard the case of David, a young Harrisburg man claimed to be a runaway slave from Virginia. David’s alleged owner brought him to McAllister’s office, accompanied by a large crowd of local white residents who had taken a sudden interest in the case. During the hearing, the young man confessed that he had indeed run away from Virginia as charged, and was hiding out in Harrisburg. Upon hearing the confession, McAllister remanded David to his owner, at which the spectators victoriously accompanied the Virginia slave holder and his recovered slave through the streets to the train station.28

David, seemingly, had little support from the local African American population, which kept most of the potential for confrontation out of the process, but this case would prove to be the last easy one for McAllister. Much of the troubles he and his men encountered came from operations conducted outside of Harrisburg, and often resulted from either the employment of heavy-handed tactics or the acceptance of very flimsy evidence for committing alleged fugitives back to slavery. The latter was the cause of outrage when an entire family was arrested in Columbia, Lancaster County, by Solomon Snyder and his assistant, Harrisburg man Michael Schaeffer.

Columbia, during this time, had a thriving African American population that was comparable in size to the African American population of Harrisburg. Because Columbia was a smaller town, though, the proportion of African American residents was significantly higher as a percentage of the population, than in Harrisburg. At least one hundred and fifty-two distinct African American families can be identified in the 1850 Columbia census, out of a total of seven hundred and sixty-four families in the town, and there apparently were additional African American families not counted in the census.

Sixty-four of those one hundred and fifty-two African American households included at least one other person with a surname that differed from that of the head of the household, indicating the presence of an extended family, relative, friend, boarder, or possibly a servant or apprentice. How many of these persons were fugitive slaves is impossible to know, but their existence in the town during this time is documented.

In October 1850, as Richard McAllister was beginning his operations in Harrisburg, the Underground Railroad operations in Columbia were already well established. Maryland slave owner Edward W. Duval, of Bladensburg, advertised that month for the return of his two runaway slaves, ages twenty-one and twenty-five years, “who were seen on the twenty-eighth of September, going over the Columbia Bridge, in Pennsylvania, in company with a mulatto supposed to be free.” Although the name of the African American guide referenced in that advertisement is not known, the names of other Columbia residents who risked their lives to help fugitive slaves enter the borough are known.


Robert Loney and the Columbia Network

Robert Loney was a thirty-six-year-old laborer in the town who was already famous among abolitionists as "that well known colored man on the Susquehanna...who ferried fugitives across the river in the night at various places below Columbia.” He was in the large group of manumitted slaves from Henrico County, Virginia that arrived and settled in Columbia about 1819, and formed the base of its large and well-established African American community.

Loney worked closely with white abolitionists Jonathan Mifflin and William Wright to aid freedom seekers; fugitives helped by this team were often guided out of Columbia to the house of activist Daniel Gibbons, near Lancaster. Loney was a property owner in 1850, which is a significant accomplishment given that he was illiterate and held only laboring jobs. Cato Jordan, who was about the same age as Loney, was another African American resident who aided fugitive slaves. Like Robert Loney, Cato Jordan could not read or write, but unlike Loney he was a native Pennsylvanian.

In Columbia, as in Harrisburg, the large African American community provided cover for arriving fugitive slaves by allowing them to blend in as if they were local residents. Men such as Robert Loney and Cato Jordan provided the guile needed to smuggle fugitive slaves into town, but it took a concerted effort from the entire community to maintain that cover. For freedom seekers who were only staying a short while before moving on, the community provided food, medical care, a change of clothing if needed, and a place to rest up for the next leg of the journey.

Not all freedom seekers moved on immediately, though, and for those who decided to make Columbia their home, there were different needs. After receiving basic care and a change of clothes, new residents needed long term housing and a job. These were more of a challenge to provide, but the African American residents of Columbia managed to fit most new arrivals into a suitable situation.

But not all former slaves were well suited to the competitive laboring life in a northern community. Those who were illiterate and possessed of no particular job skills faced the most challenges in their new community, and they quickly discovered that a strong back and a will to work were not always sufficient safeguards against the ravages of poverty. Robert Loney and Cato Jordan made the transition and even prospered, but others did not.

The death of a poor southern-born Columbia man in the winter of 1856 shows that even communities friendly to fugitive slaves held hidden dangers, and that their arrival and resettlement in a Pennsylvania border town was not automatically the end of the struggle to escape the legacy of slavery:

Dead!--Many of our readers will remember Jos. Strait, a tall, lean and lank colored man, who made himself useful in doing such "jobs" of work as our citizens had on hand when he was the first one that turned up. He is no more. Jos. has gone to "that bourne from whence no traveller e'er returns." He died on Monday last of consumption, in the county prison, where he had been sentenced six months for an assault and battery.

In 1850, Joshua Strait (Strate) was a twenty-two-year-old laborer living in the household of Charles Bowser, the head of a small African American family. It is not known what, if any relationship Strate had to the Bowsers other than as a boarder. He, like his host family, was born in Maryland, and could not read or write. Competition for jobs in Columbia could be fierce, with a large number of incoming free African Americans, as well as high numbers of fugitive slaves, coming to this small town on the Susquehanna River.With no unique skills, and handicapped by illiteracy, Joshua Strate was forced to turn to odd jobs for support, as noted in his obituary. He apparently did this for at least six years.

His fate–he died in prison of tuberculosis–highlights two distinct problems that faced many fugitive slaves who settled in places like Columbia and Harrisburg, as well as in any urban center: crime and disease. In the case of Joshua Strait, details of his conviction are not stated in his obituary. The assault and battery conviction that sent him to prison could have been an isolated incident, or it could have been the final incident that ended a violent existence born of joblessness and subsistence living.

Tuberculosis (called "consumption" in his obituary) is an infectious bacterial disease that spreads through close and constant contact with another infected person. It develops slowly and is fatal in more than half of its victims when left untreated. Historically, in areas where many people lived close together, shared common living spaces, and had little or no access to medical care, which too often describes the conditions experienced by fugitive slaves in large towns and cities, tuberculosis was endemic. Though Joshua Strate died of the disease in Lancaster County Prison, he probably contracted it from someone in his living quarters before his conviction, as the disease takes a long time to reach the fatal final stages. The term "consumption" was popularly used because the disease seemed to be consuming its victim from the inside. It was also known as "wasting disease."29

Despite these hazards, Columbia quickly developed a reputation as a haven for runaway slaves, much to the consternation of its early white residents. A meeting of white citizens of the borough was held at the Town Hall in August 1834 to “take into consideration the situation of the colored population, and to devise some means to prevent the further influx of colored persons to this place.”

Among the resolutions adopted by this meeting was one to buy up “at fair valuation” the properties then held by African Americans in the borough, to advise existing African American residents “to refuse receiving any colored persons from other places as residents among them,” and most significantly, “in case of the discovery of any fugitive slaves within our bounds, to co-operate and assist in returning them to their lawful owners.”30

Fortunately for the future of Columbia’s free black population, the property owners did not divest themselves of their real estate, and they did not stop taking in people from other locations. In fact, two of the African American property owners of that period, William Whipper and Stephen Smith, were directly responsible for the increased growth and vitality of their community in the face of this attempted suppression by the white majority. Both men were highly successful African American businessmen, making their fortune in the lumber trade.


Stephen Smith and William Whipper

Stephen Smith was born a slave in Dauphin County about 1796, the son of Nancy, a slave of the John Cochran family. In 1801, Stephen was sold to lumberman and war hero “General” Thomas Boude of Columbia, Pennsylvania as an indentured servant. His mother, that same year, ran away from the Cochran's farm to be with her son. In a dramatic episode, a representative from the Cochran family tracked her down to Boude’s household in Columbia and made an aggressive show of getting her back. Boude settled the matter by compensating the Cochran’s for Nancy, thus allowing her to stay with her child in his household.

Young Stephen grew up learning the lumber business from his owner, and became an adept businessman. He borrowed fifty dollars from a friend, John Barber, and purchased his freedom from General Boude on 3 January 1816. On 16 November 1817, he married Harriet Lee, a servant to the Jonathan Mifflin family across the bridge in Wrightsville. Mrs. Smith opened an oyster house in Columbia and Smith began a lumber business with some saved money.

Over time, and because of numerous shrewd business decisions, Stephen Smith became one of the most famous and successful residents of Columbia, Pennsylvania and at one point was said to be the richest African American man in America. About 1835 he became a business partner with William Whipper, the politically savvy abolitionist and organizer who was so active in the Negro Convention movement.

Smith was known for his philanthropic work. In 1832, he purchased a structure for the use of the Mount Zion African Methodist Episcopal Church in Columbia, and in 1838 became an ordained minister of the A.M.E. church. He moved to Philadelphia in 1842 but continued to operate his lumber and coal business in Columbia.31

Like Smith, William Whipper was born into slavery in Lancaster County, in 1804. He received a second-hand education and gained his freedom before his full twenty-eight years of term-slavery were over. He moved to Philadelphia where he met and associated with prominent African American thinkers, and began to gain prominence in the early Negro improvement movement. An active opponent to African colonization, Whipper wrote addresses and essays in support of moral reform and passive resistance to injustices. He organized the American Moral Reform Society and edited its publication, the National Reformer.

In 1835, he moved to Columbia, Lancaster County, and associated himself with the already successful lumber merchant Stephen Smith. There, Whipper and Smith processed hundreds of freedom seekers, sometimes using the assets of the lumber business in the operation. Whipper used his Front Street home, in some instances, to hide fugitives.32

Like Stephen Smith, William Whipper was also known for his philanthropy, and he donated a large tract of land to be used by African American residents of Columbia. The neighborhood that developed became known as Tow Hill which itself became a haven for fugitive slaves. An older African American neighborhood, Sawneytown, was established about 1813 and had already been heavily used to provide shelter, aid, and work for arriving fugitive slaves.

Residents of both neighborhoods actively watched out for each other, and acted in concert to thwart slave hunters. In late October of 1847, a southern slave owner arrived in Tow Hill and tracked down a former slave, whom he chased into a local cornfield, trapped, and captured him. The chase and capture generated considerable excitement in the neighborhood when news got around, and a “large delegation of men and women,” residents of Tow Hill, gave chase. As the southerner was leading his recaptured slave out of the area toward Lancaster, he was overtaken by the residents of Tow Hill, who by force of numbers succeeded in freeing their neighbor from his former master and took him back to safety.33

Such actions were rare, but show the willingness of local blacks to organize a show of force in an emergency. Taken as a whole, the African American neighborhoods and businesses of Columbia became a powerful and effective deterrent to slave hunters, providing not only a hiding place for fugitive slaves, but also a community in which freedom seekers could settle and raise a family.

As was mentioned earlier, Whipper used his business resources to aid Columbia residents who decided to leave town out of fear of being claimed as fugitive slaves under the new 1850 law. That law had severely shaken the sense of security that many had felt in this trade town along the Susquehanna River. Although hundreds of African Americans left Columbia for the security of Canada, hundreds more did not, preferring to take their chances at not being accused as fugitive slaves.

Among those who stayed was the Daniel Franklin family, who had been in Columbia since 1849. The Franklins were married with a child, but had been owned by separate masters in Maryland before their escape and settlement in Pennsylvania. Conveyed along the Underground Railroad to Columbia, the Franklins stopped running and decided to stay in this large African American community, hoping to blend in with the other workers and families. They were successful, even increasing their family with the birth of a child on the free soil of Pennsylvania, until April 1851, when someone betrayed their hiding place to their individual masters, who contacted Richard McAllister in Harrisburg. He immediately issued a warrant for the family members, and dispatched Snyder and Schaeffer to Columbia to retrieve them.


Sol Snyder Rattles the Columbia Network

The Harrisburg slave catchers were, by now, becoming quite experienced in their work. Knowing the history of Columbia, and the reputation of its African American community for protecting its own, they planned carefully, timing their capture of the family for the middle of the night, when an alarm, if given, was less likely to draw enough people to stop them. The strategy worked, and Snyder and Schaeffer successfully abducted the family and took them to Harrisburg under cover of darkness, arriving in the capital before dawn.

The alarm was raised in Columbia and word quickly spread to Harrisburg, where the suddenly aroused African American community again took to the streets in protest, but the marshals had by now already secured the entire family in Commissioner McAllister’s Walnut Street office. Members of the local African American community summoned the two men who had come to their defense in that modest wooden building several times previously, attorneys Mordecai McKinney and Charles Coatesworth Rawn.

Rawn recorded in his journals that he was awakened at six forty-five a.m. to prepare an emergency defense, and he quickly joined McKinney in McAllister’s office, where they requested an hour’s delay in the hearing to prepare a case. The commissioner, however, was under no such mandates for fairness, perceiving that a dawn hearing would hold down protests, and he denied the request. Before anything else could be done the family, minus the baby, who had been born in Pennsylvania, were sent back to their individual masters in Maryland.

The feelings of rage felt by Harrisburg African Americans at seeing a family broken up and sent into bondage was typified by Doctor William Jones, who was observed by a local newspaper reporter rushing around and trying to arrange any sort of aid to the family that he could. The best that could be accomplished, however, was to find a local family to care for the suddenly orphaned baby.34

Things quieted down in Harrisburg for a short while, but Wilkes-Barre was again heating up. This time it was not agents dispatched by Richard McAllister, but rather marshals sent by other Federal Commissioners. In March, agents arrived in search of fugitives, and were aided by a local magistrate, Eleazer Carey, who summoned a militia company to provide protection. The measure was deemed necessary when the slave hunters ran into a very large protective force of two hundred African American residents, some of whom were armed. The militiamen were able to enforce a peace while a search was conducted for the fugitives, but when no fugitives were found, they disbanded, and the marshals left without making an arrest.

In the same month, an agent dispatched to Wilkes-Barre was able to induce several local young men to help in the search for a number of fugitive slaves. When the slave hunting party arrived in the neighborhood at which the slaves were supposed to be hiding, they met a more modest resistance than that encountered by the earlier slave hunters: several African American women brandishing butcher knives and pots of hot water. The short standoff that ensued ended when the women backed down and allowed the men to make their search. Finding no slaves, the local men and the marshal retreated, leaving the women, and presumably the well-hidden freedom seekers, in peace.

Still a third incident occurred across the river in Plymouth Township when two Southerners showed up at the farm of Jameson Harvey in search of a fugitive believed to be employed on the farm. They laid in wait for the slave and surprised him as he was driving a team onto the property. Reacting quickly, the worker whipped the team, which reared at the men and startled them enough that he was able to make an escape. They tracked him to the Harvey farmhouse, where the fugitive slave held them off with a pair of loaded pistols. When Jameson Harvey returned home to find the armed standoff on his property, he ordered the slave catchers off his land. They left, promising to pursue legal action against him, but when the matter came before a grand jury in Williamsport later that year, the grand jury refused to validate the charges against Harvey.

Finally, on 21 June, Wilkes-Barre Marshal George H. Roset took into custody accused fugitive slave Jesse Whitman, as the slave of John Conrad of Loudon County, Virginia. Whitman did not surrender easily to Roset, and in fact put up a fierce fight, which, being a much larger and more powerful man than Roset, he probably would have won had not several other local men aided Roset in the capture. According to an account of the capture in a local newspaper, Whitman “struck Marshal Roset twice upon the head with a heavy cart whip, and drew a large sheath knife, for which he doubtless [would] have used had it not been for the timely and efficient aid of Messrs. Beaumont, Fell, Cooper and Seaman.” Once subdued, Whitman was hustled quietly out of Wilkes-Barre and taken to Philadelphia by Roset and his deputies, where he was received by local marshals and immediately put on a steamboat bound for Baltimore. The Philadelphia Gazette, in its issue of 24 June, reported:

The matter was managed so quietly, as far as Philadelphia was concerned, that very few persons heard of either the arrival or departure of the fugitive. Some of the colored porters, wood sawyers, stevedores, and other employees along the wharves, indulged in threats, but they were overawed by the presence of officers of the law, and made no attempt at rescue. An effort was made to detain the slave by a writ of Habeas Corpus, but the boat shoved off before it could be executed.35

Not only was the matter handled “quietly,” but also its execution hinted at secret pre-arrangements and circumvention of the law. These same issues had already been suspected in Harrisburg, and would be raised anew in regard to Richard McAllister’s operations in the coming months.

The summer of 1851 was relatively quiet in Harrisburg. Elsewhere in central Pennsylvania, the ferreting out of hidden fugitive slaves continued apace. In Lancaster, agents from Philadelphia came to town in late July with a warrant from Commissioner Edward D. Ingraham, acting on the petition of Baltimore County slave owner William M. Risteau for his escaped slave Daniel Hawkins. The federal marshal located Hawkins, who had found shelter and work in town since his escape more than a year earlier, arrested him and took him promptly to his hearing the following Tuesday morning before the commissioner in Philadelphia.

Risteau, the owner, appeared at the hearing and presented his own testimony and proof, including statements from witnesses that Hawkins, described in the petition as “about twenty years of age…very black & about five feet five inches high” was his slave for life, and had escaped in June 1850. The hearing was attended by “some half dozen colored members of the Abolition societies, and the regular committee of the Pennsylvania State Abolition Society,” but no resistance to the proceedings was made, and no protests lodged. In fact, the newspapers thought it notable to report, “There was no excitement.”

Veteran PAS attorney David Paul Brown appeared at the hearing on behalf of Daniel Hawkins, but even this old campaigner, who was called a “steadfast friend, counselor, spokesman and orator for the anti-slavery party,” could not make a difference in the outcome. By two o’clock that afternoon, Hawkins was back in the possession of William Risteau and on his way back to slavery in Baltimore.

The slave owner, in this instance, had come well prepared to make his case for removal, and the defense had little opportunity to show inconsistencies. In a statement to the press, attorney Brown stoically commented, “We are therefore satisfied, though by no means content, to let the law take its course.”

The Hawkins case, in which the owner proved his claim so well that even the advocates for the slave were unable to quibble, was a prime example of how the Fugitive Slave Law was intended to work. The anti-abolitionist press trumpeted it as a success, noting that when “the proofs were ample and the proceedings regular” there was no need to throw “unnecessary difficulty in the way of the master obtaining his legal rights.”36 As such, it was one of the last cases to be settled in Pennsylvania in a civil manner and with no resistance. Troubled times were ahead in Harrisburg, as ample proofs and regular proceedings would become the exception, in Commissioner McAllister’s office, rather than the rule.



But that would not happen immediately. The movement of fugitive slaves through town had been temporarily stifled by the proximity of McAllister and his henchmen, and the Slave Commissioner dealt locally with only a few incidents during the hot summer months.


Summer of a Flanked Resistance

In mid August, a man named Bob Sterling was brought before McAllister by his owner, a Southern woman, who proved her claim to the commissioner’s satisfaction quite easily. And what appeared to be an open-and-shut case, similar to the previous month’s Daniel Hawkins case in Philadelphia, gave an initial appearance that it would not end without the likely prospect of “unnecessary difficulties” for the owner after her slave was returned to her.

During the course of the hearing, two distinct groups of spectators gathered in and around the Slave Commissioner’s office. A group of white residents of Harrisburg were milling around close enough to talk to the alleged slave just before the hearing began. More removed from the proceedings and gathered out in Walnut Street was a group of African American residents who had come to show their disapproval of what was occurring inside the office.

Although the grumblings of the black spectators were largely ignored by McAllister and his deputies, their considerable numbers and menacing disposition so intimidated the Southern slaveholder that she pressed the Slave Commissioner to provide some of his deputies for protection against the demonstrators when she left with her slave. McAllister complied, and because the hour was late, his deputies escorted her and Sterling to a local hotel, where she had the remanded slave lodged for safekeeping during the night. And there the threat to the slaveholder, quite uncharacteristically, ended.

Unlike prior years, no attempt was made by the African American crowd to rescue Bob Sterling on the short trip between the Slave Commissioner’s office and the hotel, a testament to the strangle hold that McAllister, Snyder, and the other constables in his employ had placed on local anti-slavery resistance in Harrisburg. The only resistance offered by Harrisburg activists to the capture and re-enslavement of Bob Sterling came in the dark of night, with a feeble attempt to create a diversion by setting a fire in the hotel. The fire was discovered before it caused much damage, was put out, and any rescue plans fizzled with the quenched flames.37

Anti-slavery resistance in Harrisburg, once sly and ingenious when it was overlooked, and angry and fierce when it was provoked, was now reeling and in serious disarray. After a few stumbles and false starts, Richard McAllister and his cronies had developed a combined tactics approach that utilized threats, spying, and bullying to shut down Harrisburg’s Underground Railroad activity quite effectively in the months immediately following passage of the Fugitive Slave Act.

For those African American activists who had made the choice not to flee to Canada, but to stay and keep resisting, the warning printed months ago by Harrisburg newspaper editor Theophilus Fenn, that “They had better go,” must have haunted them about now. The resistance was not dead, but it was stalled like an exhausted mule. It was going to take a powerful shove to get it going again. That shove came a few weeks later, and it was not only powerful, it was tragic and dramatic and horrifyingly prescient. It came from a small village in Lancaster County named Christiana.


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20. Pennsylvania Telegraph, 16 October 1850; Bureau of the Census, 1850 Census, Harrisburg, Pennsylvania.

21. Samuel May and American Anti-Slavery Society, The Fugitive Slave Law and its Victims, Anti-Slavery Tracts, no. 18 (New York: 1856; Project Gutenberg, 2004),

22. The active cultivation of African American spies to provide information about fugitive slaves in their midst goes back at least to 1820, and probably began decades before that. Documentation is found in an advertisement placed by a Baltimore County slaveholder named John Yellott, Jr., who lost several slaves over the course of a few years. In an advertisement seeking to recover his lost slave Charles, who escaped on 21 April 1820 and crossed the Susquehanna River at Peach Bottom Ferry with the help of local people, Yellott added this incentive at the end of the ad: “I will give a reward of One Hundred Dollars to any person of color, or any other person, who will either give verbal or written information that will lead to his apprehension, and no names shall be exposed.” Lancaster Journal, 26 May 1820. A similarly worded paragraph appeared at the end of another ad that was printed in the same newspaper at about the same time, but from a different owner. James Brady, manager of the Bloomsburg Farm, near Havre-de-Grace, noted, in his ad to recover slaves Isaac and Henry, “Should any information be received in relation to these servants, which may lead to their being taken, it will, on no account, be divulged, or infer to the injury of the person who shall make it, but will be suitably rewarded.” Lancaster Journal, 23 June 1820.

Although only Yellott’s ad specifically mentioned African American spies, both ads offered money and secrecy for information, which was a noticeable break from tradition. From reports of a rise in African American spies in the border counties of Pennsylvania, this recovery strategy seems to have worked. A news story from Pottsville in 1844 tells of “a small riot” that occurred in the neighborhood of Negro Hill when local African American citizens discovered that a man living in that location had “betrayed two slaves, man and wife, who had resided in this neighborhood for some time past, which led to their arrest, and subsequent delivery up to their masters.” The house of the African American informant was stoned by the angry crowd and the windows and doors beaten in. Liberator, 21 June 1844. In Gettysburg, an African American man “of gigantic size” by the name of Eden Devan, according to historian J. Howard Wert and local resident S.R. McAllister, was “very busy” aiding in the kidnapping of fugitive slaves, and “made considerable money at it.” Caba, Episodes of Gettysburg, 58-59, 82. Christiana resistance leader William Parker wrote of two separate incidents in which he led retributive action against African American men known to have been conspiring with slaveholders. William Parker, “The Freedman’s Story,” pt. 1, Atlantic Monthly, 17 (February 1866): 165-166.

23. National Era, 31 October 1850.

24. Friend of Man, 1 February 1837; Myers, “The Early Anti-Slavery Agency System,” 82.

25. There are numerous versions of the 1839 Gildersleeve riot affair, but all have the rioters parading him for a short distance through town on a wooden rail after breaking up the public lecture by Charles C. Burleigh. Republican Farmer and Democratic Journal (Wilkes-Barre), 10 April 1839; F. C. Johnson, “A Wilkes-Barre Abolitionist,” The Historical Record 2, no. 2 (April 1888): 58.

26. J. Howard Wert, “Recollections of the Underground Railroad,” in Caba, Episodes of Gettysburg, 68.

27. Eggert, “Impact,” 546, 560.

28. Ibid.

29. North Star, 24 October 1850; R. C. Smedley, History of the Underground Railroad in Chester and the Neighboring Counties of Pennsylvania (1883; repr., Mechanicsburg, PA: Stackpole, 2005), 49, 51, 77; Columbia Spy, 16 February 1856.
The census of 1850 records 873 African American residents of Columbia--418 males and 455 females--out of a total population of 4140 persons. Harrisburg, by comparison, had 886 African American residents out of a total population of 7,834 persons. Bureau of the Census, 1850 Census, Pennsylvania.

30. Liberator, 20 September 1834.

31. Blockson, Underground Railroad in Pennsylvania, 90-91. William Frederick Worner gives April 1796 as the approximate birth date of Stephen Smith based upon his indenture to General Thomas Boude on 10 July 1801 at age five years and three months. Worner reports that Smith's tombstone in Olive Cemetery, Philadelphia reads “Rev. Stephen Smith. Died Nov. 14, 1873, aged 76 years 9 months.” His date of birth as calculated from the tombstone age at death would have been February 1797. Worner believed that was incorrect, but did not document his sources. A slave list generated in July 1800 for the Dauphin County Prothonotary Office shows a child, Stephen, as a slave in Middle Paxton Township, aged 3 years, which is not inconsistent with the tombstone date of birth. His mother, Nancy, is also listed, although her age is given incorrectly as 65 years, whereas it should have read 35 years. A corresponding record, the 1800 Septennial Census for Dauphin County, gives her correct age. William Frederic Worner, "The Columbia Race Riots," Journal of the Lancaster County Historical Society 26, no. 8 (6 October 1922): 175.

32. Richard P. McCormick, "William Whipper: Moral Reformer," Pennsylvania History 43, no. 1 (January 1976), 23-47.

33. Gettysburg Star and Banner, 5 November 1847.

34. Eggert, “Impact,” 546-547.

35. Pennsylvania Freeman, 13 March 1851; Daily Atlas, 27 June 1851; National Era, 3 July 1851; Alexander Kelly McClure, Recollections of Half a Century (Salem: Salem Press, 1902), 19.

36. “Petition of William M. Risteau in the Fugitive Slave Petition Book,” RG 21, ser. 24M103A, “Fugitive Slave Case Papers,” Records of District Courts of the United States; Baltimore Sun, 30 June 1850; National Era, 31 July 1851; “Obituary of David Paul Brown," in Isaac Grant Thompson, ed. Albany Law Journal: A Weekly Record of the Law and the Lawyers, vol. 6 (Albany: Weed, Parsons and Company, 1873), 49-50.

37. Eggert, “Impact,” 546.


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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