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


The Struggle Intensifies

The forces arrayed against Bustill and the captains of neighboring Underground Railroad depots continued to build up strength and improve their intelligence through the next few years. The heady years of daring operations and secret routes in the 1840s were a distant memory as the abolitionists dug in for a long, determined fight against those who saw their activities as a threat to sectional peace. The struggle was bitterly fought on the political front and it was ardently argued in the parlors of many families’ homes. It was regularly reported, in lurid accounts, in the pages of the local newspapers, and it became a subject of local lectures, entertainment, magazine articles, and public events during the years leading up to the bombardment of Fort Sumter. The struggle was also fought with true life and death consequences in the streets of Harrisburg, Gettysburg, York, Carlisle, Lancaster, Columbia, and everywhere else in central Pennsylvania that the advocates and the foes of runaway slaves clashed. These clashes sometimes resembled the calculated moves on a chessboard, and sometimes looked like a bare-knuckle street fight. At their gritty heart, however, was the realization that someone’s freedom was on the line.

In May of 1857, Joseph Bustill dispatched four fugitives by train to Reading, where they were detained in the homes of local activists due to the presence of slave catchers. Bustill held three more fugitives in Harrisburg until the situation become safer. The Reading agent, Grayson Snowden Nelson, wrote to William Still at the end of the month to request advice and assistance with the situation:

I suppose you are somewhat uneasy because the goods did not come safe to hand on Monday evening, as you expected--consigned from Harrisburg to you. The train only was from Harrisburg to Reading, and as it happened, the goods had to stay all night with us, and as some excitement exists here about goods of the kind, we thought it expedient and wise to detain them until we could hear from you. There are two small boxes and two large ones; we have them all secure; what had better be done? Let us know. Also, as we can learn, there are three more boxes still in Harrisburg. Answer your communication at Harrisburg. Also, fail not to answer this by the return of mail, as things are rather critical, and you will oblige us.

William Still must have requested clarification about the nature of the “excitement” from Nelson and Bustill before deciding how to proceed, and Nelson obliged him with a follow-up, writing:

We knew not that these goods were to come, consequently we were all taken by surprise. When you answer, use the word, goods. The reason of the excitement, is: some three weeks ago a big box was consigned to us by J. Bustill, of Harrisburg. We received it, and forwarded it on to J. Jones, Elmira, and the next day they were on the fresh hunt of said box; it got safe to Elmira, as I have had a letter from Jones, and all is safe. 127

The Elmira agent mentioned by Nelson was John W. Jones, a resettled fugitive slave from Leesburg, Virginia. Jones began actively aiding fugitive slaves in 1851, receiving freedom seekers sent by rail from Philadelphia and forwarding them to Canada. After rail service opened from Williamsport to Elmira in late 1854, Jones began receiving fugitives sent from the interior of Pennsylvania, including from Grayson S. Nelson in Reading. The Elmira connection became the primary link between the eastern network in Pennsylvania, overseen by Still, and the settlement of fugitive slaves in St. Catharines, Ontario.

In Reading, Nelson maintained active communications with John W. Jones, and probably sent many more fugitives to the New York agent than is suggested by the brief mention in his letter to Still, above.128 Jones claimed to have aided nearly 800 runaways in his tenure as an Underground Railroad operative at Elmira; many of these freedom seekers would have passed through Harrisburg or Reading, or both. Although Bustill does not record any contact with Jones, he may also have sent fugitives directly from Harrisburg to Elmira.

Not all fugitive slaves who made it to Harrisburg were safely forwarded, however. During the same month that Bustill and Nelson were playing a cat and mouse game with Southern slave catchers, a Maryland slave who had taken refuge in Harrisburg was captured. David Cooper was the slave of William Booth, of Washington County, who bequeathed the young man to his wife Margaret in his will. After William died, Cooper, whom Margaret identified in court documents as “a boy of bad habits,” ran away from the family estate and headed directly to Pennsylvania, eventually ending up in Harrisburg in May 1857, where Margaret Booth encountered “great risk, trouble & expense” in returning him to her local jail.

Some of that expense was the fee she paid to Baltimore slave traders Jonathan Means Wilson and Moses Hindes to capture Cooper in Harrisburg, return him to Baltimore, and imprison him while they arranged to sell him out of state on her behalf.129 There is no record of any effort by Harrisburg anti-slavery activists to help Cooper, so they may have been unaware of his plight.

Even as Wilson and Hindes were hauling David Cooper back to their Camden Street slave pens in Baltimore, Harrisburg residents were still dealing with some of Richard McAllister’s ex-cronies. In May sessions at Dauphin County Court, former McAllister deputy John Sanders and Harrisburg resident Thomas Nathans were convicted and sentenced to five years at hard labor in the Dauphin County prison for attempting to kidnap Harrisburg free black resident Jerry Logan.130

Sanders had eluded capture in the 1853 kidnapping trial in Lancaster County, and then had eluded a guilty charge when he was finally extradited from Maryland for his trial. Like his former associate, Solomon Snyder, John Sanders continued to press his luck in the lucrative business of kidnapping young black men, and in 1857, his malevolent behavior finally caught up with him. Harrisburg’s African American community must have been glad to have this former adversary finally put behind bars, but they must also have wondered how much longer the threat of kidnapping would continue to haunt them.

This persistent specter frightened the town again a few months later when a young boy was reported kidnapped at a religious revival being held near Haldeman’s Town (now New Cumberland). This event, held in the open fields near Haldeman’s Town on the other side of the river opposite Harrisburg, was a huge end of summer attraction for Harrisburg’s African American community. They flocked to the site, crossing the Susquehanna on the steam-powered riverboat aptly named “Enterprise,” and stayed at the temporary camp that was constructed on site, enjoying several days of music, sermons, and fellowship.

The event was also a great attraction for Harrisburg whites, who often attended local African American religious revivals, not so much for the spiritual inspiration, but because they found the proceedings amusing. The Harrisburg Telegraph mentioned the “camp meeting” in its local news column, and reported that it was “very largely attended…by people of all sizes, sexes, condition and color. At one time it is estimated that at least 3000 people were upon the ground, the greatest number of whom were from our city.”

On the evening of 1 September, according to an article in the Telegraph, a man dashed into one of the campsites and reported that he had witnessed a young African American boy being assaulted and tied up.” The fear of a kidnapper in the vicinity immediately aroused those in the camp, who followed the man to the scene. There, sure enough, they found a child gagged and tied to a fence post. After untying the child, suspicion fell upon an African American man who was new to town, and who had been seen earlier that day in the company of “certain white men, whose movements were considered suspicious.” The crowd then located the man near the camp and beat him unmercifully. Later, the Telegraph backed off from its kidnapping story, under suspicions that it had been concocted by the assailants of the beaten man as a cover up. Nevertheless, kidnapping headlines had again frightened the town’s African American residents.131

White residents, although they might have been concerned over the headlines and sensationalized story—the article began, “One of the boldest attempts to kidnap a free colored person into servitude that has ever been our lot to record…--still had no reason to feel the same sense of dread that the threat of kidnapping invoked in Harrisburg’s African American community. This is not to say that violence was never visited upon local white residents and their children. It was, but not with the same regularity, and certainly not with the suspicion that the perpetrators of that violence were streaming across the Mason-Dixon Line with virtual impunity.

Had it been white children instead of African American children who were the regular targets of kidnappings by gangs who spirited them across the border to conspirators in the South, the border war that was threatened by an overzealous Southern newspaper editor in 1850 might have become a reality. But it was not, and Harrisburg residents tended to view their African American brethren as persons worthy of fewer rights and beings possessed of lower moral standards; in short, as persons less worthy of protection.

Indeed, young African American men were regularly harassed and imprisoned for nothing more criminal than a lack of employment. During the summer of 1857, police officer Radabaugh arrested “two juvenile negroes” named John Smith and Peter Shultz, and charged them with “laying around loose, doing nothing.” The policeman took them before Justice Snyder who charged them with vagrancy and sentenced them to thirty days in jail.132

In viewing young African American men as a threat to the established social structure, Harrisburg‘s lawmen were simply reinforcing the general views of the town’s majority white population toward its growing African American community. The “threat” of large numbers of African American residents with no means of support overwhelming local social institutions was a lingering stereotypical fear that had originally been put forth by those opposing the gradual abolition of slavery in the commonwealth, but which saw its widest use as an argument by the proponents of African colonization.

This scheme to rid the United States of its free African American population, like the threat of kidnapping of free blacks, refused to go away. Harrisburg’s free African American community, in a unified voice, had come out in public opposition to the plan as early as 1831. At that time, they met at the Wesley Union Church, under the direction of the Reverend Jacob D. Richardson, and produced a series of resolutions firmly denouncing the plans of the American Colonization Society. Now, more than twenty years later, the colonizationists were still strong and still able to command a public debate in town.

The question took on a renewed interest in Harrisburg in the 1850s, partly due to the advocacy of an intelligent and highly motivated young man named Thomas Morris Chester. Chester, ironically, was the son of restaurateurs George and Jane Chester, who were agents for Garrison’s Liberator, an anti-colonization newspaper.

As a young man, Thomas Chester attended Avery College, in Allegheny City, near Pittsburgh. There, he came under the influence of Martin R. Delany, whose bold defiance of the Fugitive Slave Law inspired many African Americans to resist rather than retreat to Canada. But Delany, embittered by the nearly total lack of improvement in African American rights and social standing in America over the decades, was also, briefly, a backer of an emigration movement that began to gain steam in the years following passage of the Fugitive Slave Law.

The movement was given a significant push in 1853 when an African American minister from Johnstown, Reverend Samuel Williams, visited Liberia and was impressed with the possibilities for entrepreneurship. He helped organize the Liberian Enterprise Company to promote emigration among Pennsylvania’s free African American population. Young Thomas Chester bought wholeheartedly into the concept and publicly debated the issue, taking the pro-colonization side in February 1853, when Harrisburg’s African American community seriously reconsidered the issue. In April of that year, Thomas Morris Chester emigrated to Monrovia, Liberia, to experience the African colony for himself.133

Thomas Morris Chester eventually made several trips back and forth between Harrisburg and Monrovia, each time trumpeting his accomplishments in the far-flung colony. Upon his first return, he visited the editors of the Morning Herald newspaper, a pro-colonization newspaper, who reported:

Thomas Chester, Esq., a colored native of Harrisburg, who has been residing in Liberia for the last eighteen months, called on us yesterday. He bears with him a certificate, under the broad seal, that he is an Attorney-at-Law, in good standing, &c.134

The influence of Mordecai McKinney, in whose household Thomas Chester’s mother worked for so many years, and who encouraged young Thomas Chester toward a law career, was evident in this development. The news article noted that Chester “intends returning in a short time,” which he eventually did, but not before taking time to finish his education at Thetford Academy, in Vermont, where he studied the classical curriculum he would need to be taken seriously as a lawyer in America. He returned to Liberia in November 1856, with the editor of the Morning Herald taking notice of his departure in the paper’s local news column and wishing him “abundant success.”135

The spirit of Thomas Chester, if not his presence, was active in Harrisburg in the late spring of 1857 when a pro-colonization “Lecture on Liberia” by Dr. R. W. Morgan, a missionary, was scheduled in the African American Masonic Hall in Tanner’s Alley. Again, the Herald trumpeted the lecture as a “rich treat,”136 but by this time the colonization argument was growing thin for Harrisburg’s distracted African American residents, who were again experiencing a series of disruptive changes.

There were two major events affecting Harrisburg’s African American community in 1857, and each was highly significant in the changes that it brought about. One event was voluntary, and it split the local spiritual community, the other was involuntary, and it split the neighborhood around which the community was centered, Tanner’s Alley.

Both events were precipitated by the burgeoning growth of the community as more and more freed and self-emancipated southern blacks decided to settle in town. The influx of new residents quickly outstripped the ability of the community to provide suitable housing, so the newcomers made do as best they could, building substandard shacks on the fringes of existing neighborhoods. One of the largest of these shantytowns sprang up in the shadow of the Capitol, to the north of the Tanner’s Alley neighborhood. Few of the occupants of this land held title to it, and in 1857, when real estate developer William K. Verbeke bought significant parcels of land in and around Harrisburg, including the area north of Short and South Streets, on which the shantytown was located, those occupants had to move.

The purchase of this area was a deep blow to the integrity of the Tanner’s Alley neighborhood as the center of Harrisburg’s African American community. Some thirty or forty families were affected, most of whom were dirt poor. But instead of ruthlessly forcing the squatters out and forcing them to crowd into the already overloaded rooming houses to the south, Verbeke offered the displaced families the opportunity to rebuild, with his blessings, on another parcel he had recently purchased in Susquehanna Township, north of the borough limits. This area, a ten-acre parcel that consisted primarily of marshes, woodsy portions and some farmland, dominated by a large pond, was to be known as West Harrisburg. To give the resettled families legal protection for their habitation, Verbeke agreed to rent the land to them for one dollar per week, a sum that must have initially seemed high, but which turned out to be a bargain for those who agreed to the move.137

This new settlement, which centered on present day Calder Street, was dubbed Verbeketown by its new occupants, and it developed its own sense of neighborhood independent of its residents’ old Tanner’s Alley roots. This separate sense of identity was good for the Verbeketown residents, who needed the social cohesion now that they were physically and geographically isolated from the rest of Harrisburg’s African American community, but the move dealt a blow to the vitality and the ethnic consistency of the Tanner’s Alley neighborhood, which until now had been developing and growing as the cultural and social center of Harrisburg’s African American community.

With Verbeke’s purchase of the tracts to the north, the only avenue for physical growth as an exclusive African American neighborhood, with its own cultural identity, had now been closed off. The Capitol described its boundary to the west; Walnut Street, with its commercial development, described its boundary to the south; and the mixed race neighborhoods of Harrisburg’s fast growing immigrant populations, mostly Irish and Germans, pushed hard from the east, hemmed in as they themselves were by the canal and the railroad. Tanner’s Alley, bisected by Cranberry Alley and encompassing Short and South Streets, could no longer expand geographically. If it was to continue to absorb newcomers, and social and political forces dictated that it would, they would have to squeeze into the already cramped houses that lined its narrow dirt streets.

The other event that changed the local African American community was more positive in that it increased the spiritual offerings available to Harrisburg blacks by giving the town an official African American Presbyterian Church. This opportunity presented itself at the expense of the First Presbyterian Church in Harrisburg, which was experiencing the same internal divisions as the national church, between “Old School” and “New School” adherents.

The approaching schism had a variety of causes, mostly theological and only one of which was a sharp disagreement over the church’s official stance regarding the abolition of slavery. In Harrisburg, the slavery issue alone had certainly caused many headaches for the church’s longtime minister, Reverend William Radcliffe DeWitt, who presided over a congregation whose membership embraced both strong, radical abolitionism, and vehement anti-abolitionism. In 1836, he had allowed visiting American Antislavery Society lecturer and minister Jonathan Blanchard to deliver a sermon in the church on Second Street as a guest minister. The choice of Blanchard led numerous congregants to walk out on the services that day.

Reverend DeWitt was a frequent visitor to the home of Charles C. Rawn, with whom he regularly discussed the issues relevant to the slavery question. DeWitt, like Rawn, initially embraced the colonization idea, and then seems to have turned away from it. The issue remained divisive for Harrisburg Presbyterians for several decades.

African American Presbyterians, by 1857, worshipped generally on their own in conjunction with the established church, although they were not recognized as a separate congregation by their church’s General Assembly as such. Late in that year, Joseph Bustill and Mordecai McKinney began discussing the formation of an official African American Presbyterian Church in Harrisburg. Bustill contacted an old friend in Philadelphia, Reverend Charles W. Gardiner, then about seventy-five years old, who visited Harrisburg in September to explore the idea further and to negotiate possible aid and support for the church with Reverend DeWitt.

It turned out to be a bad time, economically, to discuss financing a new church. The nation was in the midst of a financial downturn that had put an end to the economic boom that followed the Mexican War. Plans for the new “Colored Presbyterian Church” were put aside indefinitely through the winter, and only revived when tragedy struck the First Presbyterian Church on March 22, 1858, in the form of a disastrous fire that burned the sixteen year old building to the ground, along with most of its records.

The homeless Presbyterian congregation was forced to hold services in Brant’s Hall, the new four-story public building that had been built by entrepreneur John H. Brant—the employer of James Phillips—in 1855 next to the courthouse.138 It was in Brant’s Hall, while squashed together in a too-small space for Sunday services, that Harrisburg’s Presbyterians realized that a split was imminent. From this arrangement, two new and separate churches would be constructed for the white congregants, and one for the African American congregation.

In April, Harrisburg’s Presbyterian African Americans rented from the Haldeman family the second floor of the building at the southwest corner of Walnut Street and River Alley and prepared to hold temporary services there, under the direction of Reverend DeWitt and his assistant pastor, Reverend Thomas Robinson. Mordecai McKinney agreed to supervise the Sunday school, and in mid-April, Reverend Gardiner returned to Harrisburg from Philadelphia to officially take charge of the new church. Assisting Reverend Gardiner were elders Jeremiah Kelly, a local tradesman, and Hiram Baker.

The charter congregation included the provisioner and caterer Curry Taylor, now in his mid-fifties, and his wife Elizabeth; Matilda Greenly, wife of Harrisburg caterer and oyster restaurateur James Greenly; several more members related to the Kelly family; and Hannah Humphreys, who would shortly become Joseph Bustill’s sister-in-law.

For Charles Gardiner, the Harrisburg appointment was the latest in a series that had taken him to various small African American churches throughout the northeast. He was a highly respected, veteran anti-slavery and African American rights activist, one of two men who had been entrusted to travel to Harrisburg in 1837 to present a petition from African American citizens of Philadelphia to legislators in Harrisburg, protesting the proposition to disenfranchise all African American citizens in the state constitution of 1838. He was also highly active in the Moral Reform movement, headed by Junius Morel and William Whipper, and was a member of the earlier Vigilance Association, in Philadelphia, in which he helped aid fugitive slaves.139 Thus, in 1858, Harrisburg gained not only a new African American church, but also another highly experienced and well connected anti-slavery activist.

Whether Reverend Gardiner took an active part in planning Underground Railroad work in Harrisburg from that point on is not known. As a friend of Joseph Bustill, and with members of Bustill’s family in his church, the likelihood that he actively aided the effort to shelter and feed fugitive slaves is high. Certainly, the need to do so remained strong throughout the end of the decade. Even with Joseph Bustill’s vigilance and the help of old hands like Edward Bennett, William Jones, John F. Williams, and John Wolf, and new help, in the form of Charles Gardiner, Harrisburg remained a very hazardous place for freedom seekers.

At particular risk were those who arrived and decided to remain in the area for a while, working on local farms or at local businesses. William Still, in a 2 November 1857 letter to Joseph Bustill, warned against such practices, telling his Harrisburg agent, “With regard to those unprovided for, I think it will be safe to send them on any time toward the latter part of this week. Far better it will be for them in Canada this winter, where they can procure plenty of work, than it will be in Pennsylvania, where labor will be scarce and hands plenty, with the usual amount of dread and danger hanging over the head of the Fugitive.” Bustill heeded Still’s advice and continued to forward fugitives to Philadelphia as directed “in ‘Small parcels’—that is, not over four or five in a company.”

Not all fugitives were willing to leave the deceptively quiet town of Harrisburg so quickly, though, and often they paid a heavy price. One such person who risked staying within easy reach of slave catchers was a thirty-year-old man from Baltimore named Jacob Dupen, who escaped from his owner in Baltimore County, William M. Edelin, on 1 August 1856. It is not know when Dupen arrived in Harrisburg, but instead of moving on, he decided to find work nearby and spent more than a year in relative safety, unbothered by slave catchers.

By the end of 1857, though, someone passed the word to his owner in Baltimore that Jacob was working on a farm near Harrisburg, and on 14 December, William Edelin went to federal Judge William F. Giles of the U.S. District Court in Maryland and filed a petition for the return of his slave. With petition secured, Edelin then sent his Calvert County friend Thomas John Chew to Philadelphia to obtain a warrant for Dupen’s arrest in Harrisburg. The Philadelphia judge assigned two deputy marshals that frequently took part in slave catching operations, John Jenkins and James Stewart, to accompany Edelin’s agent, Thomas Chew, to Harrisburg, arrest Dupen, and return with him to Philadelphia for a hearing.

Jenkins, Stewart, and Chew arrived in Harrisburg on 17 December, a Thursday, three days after Dupen’s owner first went to a local judge in Maryland seeking a return order. The next day, Friday, 18 December, Dupen was remanded back to slavery by U.S. Circuit Court Judge John Kintzing Kane.140

Harrisburg residents were scarcely aware of Jacob Dupen’s capture and removal from town by the Philadelphia marshals. According to testimony, they arrived in Harrisburg on Thursday and went straight to the place at which Jacob Dupen was reported working, a farm “about four miles from Harrisburg.” The specific farm on which he was captured is not mentioned in the sources, and although there were any number of area farmers located at about that distance from town who might have taken Jacob on as a farmhand, there is a high likelihood that it was one of the Rutherford farms in the Paxtang Valley, to the east of town. The Rutherfords were known to have supplied jobs for fugitive slaves harboring in Harrisburg during this period.

Jacob was approached by Thomas Chew and the Philadelphia marshals while he was in the field, plowing over the soil for the approach of winter, and was captured without a fight. He was very quickly transported to Philadelphia and taken before Judge Kane for an early morning hearing. The Philadelphia Bulletin reported, “There was no excitement about the Court room; indeed there was no one present except the officers of the Court and the parties.”

The reason for the lack of protests by local people on behalf of Dupen becomes apparent from court documents, however. The hearing was held at an unusually early hour, echoing the bad old days in Harrisburg when Richard McAllister held pre-dawn hearings to avoid local excitement. Few people were in the federal courtroom in Philadelphia that morning. In addition to arresting officer James Stewart and Edelin’s agent, Thomas Chew, U.S. District Attorney James C. Vandyke was in the court to present the evidence against Jacob Dupen as a fugitive from labor.

The court first heard Chew testify that he was acquainted with the slaves of William Edelin, and that he could identify Jacob Dupen as one of those slaves because he knew him from a boy. Officer Stewart then testified about the arrest, and further testified that Dupen had made contradictory statements concerning his circumstances. Judge Kane then questioned Dupen, asking him “Jacob, do you hear what is said?” Jacob said “Yes.” Judge Kane then asked, “Do you want to ask him any questions?”

“ I don’t know what to ask him.” Dupen replied. The Maryland fugitive, who had left a wife and four children back in Baltimore, was undoubtedly intimidated by the Philadelphia judge, the courtroom, and the events of the last twenty-four hours. District Attorney Vandyke stood up and began questioning him.

“ Was Mr. Edelin your master?” The question was directed to the heart of the case.

“ Yes, sir,” replied Dupen.

“ Do you want to go home with him?”

“I want to go somewhere.” Dupen’s reply was a plea to end the hearing as quickly as possible, regardless of the outcome. He saw that the deck was stacked against him, and he only wanted to be free of the highly intimidating situation. He was sorely in need of a friend in the room, and in particular, he needed an attorney, but the law did not require that anyone, much less an attorney, needed to speak for him. To his credit, when pressed by the District Attorney to tell how he had been led to Harrisburg and who had aided him, he remained quiet.141 Even backed into a corner, with no escape, Jacob Dupen refused to reveal the Underground Railroad network that had given him his eighteen months of freedom.

Judge Kane then remanded Jacob to the custody of Thomas Chew, who requested that federal marshals be appointed to help take Jacob Dupen back to Maryland because “he feared a rescue…before the fugitive could be removed from Pennsylvania.” The request must have seemed unusual, given that no one in Harrisburg had mounted a protest, and the courtroom in Philadelphia was free of protesters. Judge Kane, however, agreed with the assessment and “directed that the Marshals officers should retain custody of the fugitive until he should be removed into the State of Maryland.”

The reasoning behind this removal order becomes clear in a further account of what happened next in the courtroom. As Judge Kane was signing the removal order, attorney William Meade Bull hurried into the hearing and announced, “that he had been employed by the friends of Jacob to defend him.” Judge Kane told William Bull that he was too late; the case was done, and “that he had remanded the fugitive to the custody of his master.” Bull protested, questioning the judge about the legitimacy of holding a hearing at “so early an hour in the morning,” but Kane defended the early morning hearing, saying “In the fugitive slave cases, there is often an attempt made to interfere with the execution of the law, and for that reason, they should be peremptorily heard.”142 It was over.

On Monday, Jacob Dupen had begun his workweek blissfully unaware that someone had informed on him. Three days later, he was under arrest and on a train to Philadelphia in the company of U.S. marshals, and within hours of his arrival in the City of Brotherly Love, he was back in his master’s legal custody. It had all transpired so fast that local anti-slavery groups had been allowed no time to react. With the Dupen incident, Joseph Bustill, William Still, and the Underground Railroad network in Eastern Pennsylvania were shown how the slaveholding powers in the South could match the anti-slavery activists in efficiency and speed, to reclaim their property. In this struggle, no one was gaining much of an advantage for very long.

In the spring, two more fugitives arrived in Harrisburg and were sent to one of the Rutherford farms in Swatara Township to avoid detection by any possible pursuers who might show up in town. When it appeared that no pursuit was imminent, both were allowed to stay and work until August, by which time arrangements had been made to send them to Canada West. In light of the capture of Jacob Dupen only five months earlier, it is somewhat surprising that these two young men were not immediately hurried on to Canada, but the management of the Underground Railroad had always been a matter of judgment and calculated risk.

The two men who were hidden by the Harrisburg activists with the Rutherford families for three months were from the towns of New Market and Frederick, in Maryland. John Shaw was about twenty-four years old, and had been owned by William C. Hoffman, in Frederick. In early May, Shaw ran away. Either he did so in league with another local slave, twenty-six-year-old Fred Fowler, from New Market, or he and Fowler met on the road near Frederick and joined together for the journey north to Gettysburg.

Fred Fowler had run away from the farm of Dr. W. L. Willis, a New Market physician to whom he had recently been sold, and who provided medical services to Baltimore merchants Bernard Moore Campbell and Walter Lewis Campbell, the highly successful slave trading brothers who had bought Hope Hull Slatter’s slave pens on Pratt Street. According to Fred Fowler’s reminiscences, Dr. Willis would visit the Campbell’s slave prison in Baltimore “once or twice a week to examine and prescribe for the Campbell slaves.”143 It was probably this close association that his new owner had with the notorious Campbell brothers that worried Fowler and caused him to run away, before he could be sold south into the Campbell’s New Orleans operations. The association of Dr. Willis with two of the most powerful slave traders in Maryland also made Fred Fowler an extraordinarily dangerous traveling companion for Shaw, although he probably did not realize that at the time.

Shaw and Fowler left Frederick after dark on the evening of Saturday, 8 May, and, by walking briskly all night, arrived in the borough of Gettysburg by early Sunday morning. They had been given the name of a local contact by a free African American mason who traveled frequently through the border counties of Pennsylvania and Maryland, building barns. The tradesman had said they should seek out a man in Gettysburg by the name of Mathews. This was undoubtedly Edward Mathews, the free African American farmer whose home in the area known as Yellow Hill, in Butler Township, was an active Underground Railroad station.

There are several ways in which the men could have found Mathews. The mill of James McAllister was very active as an Underground Railroad stop during this time and McAllister regularly forwarded fugitives out to Yellow Hill, but it was located south of Gettysburg on the Baltimore Pike and assuming they approached Gettysburg by the most direct route along the Emmitsburg Road, they would not have passed it. It is more likely they made contact with Edward Mathews through African American farmers who rented land along the pike, or from the free African Americans who lived in the blocks at the southwest end of town. Regardless of how they reached his home, Mathews harbored the men in his home during the day, during which time they rested up for the next part of the journey, which led them to Carlisle, and the next night to Harrisburg.

If Fowler’s memory was accurate, the two men would have arrived in Harrisburg on the morning of Tuesday, 11 May. The next day, a runaway ad for Fowler appeared in the Baltimore Sun, and five days later, an ad for Shaw was published in the same newspaper. Bustill, however, did not direct the men to an immediate departure from Harrisburg. Perhaps he saw that, being exhausted from having walked seventy miles in three nights, they needed rest. Perhaps Bustill kept in good contact with agents in Gettysburg, and relied on advance notice if pursuers were spotted there. Either way, he sent them out to the Paxtang Valley, where the Rutherford families provided shelter, clothing and food, and most importantly, the freedom to leave when they wanted, in exchange for their labor.144


The Loners

Even during this same time period, during which a well run covert network to smuggle fugitive slaves all the way from the Maryland border to the New York border existed between most major towns in eastern and central Pennsylvania, there were still fugitives who journeyed far into Pennsylvania completely on their own, without encountering any of the agents who stood ready to provide aid. Caution and fear were powerful instincts that usually worked to the freedom seeker’s advantage by causing him or her to stay hidden most of the time and avoid contact with most strangers—strategies that were vitally important when traveling through the border counties of Pennsylvania.

Many enemies of the fugitive slave inhabited these counties, regularly patrolling the back roads and keeping watch at major bridges, markets, and even train depots. Even in supposedly friendly towns, the need to remain invisible was of the utmost importance. Frequently, all that stood between freedom and recapture was avoiding being spotted by unfriendly eyes. Some fugitive slaves preserved that anonymity so well that even local anti-slavery activists were not aware of their presence.

Such was the case with William Simms, who, early on the morning of 8 April 1858, crossed the Camel Back Bridge into Harrisburg with three traveling companions, only to run straight into some unfriendly local men. William Simms was interviewed in his home in South Danby, Tompkins County, New York in 1884, and he related his story of escape as he remembered it. Simms recalled that they had been traveling since 3 April, hiding by day and walking by night, taking shelter wherever they could find it out of doors in the cold and wet early spring weather.

Originally, Simms’ group consisted of seven slaves, all men, who had run away from the Chestnut Hill farm near Alexandria, Virginia. They followed the Catoctin Mountain range, walking the ridges, until they were able to cross the Potomac River at Point-of-Rocks, continuing north at night until they reached Chambersburg. Between Chambersburg and Carlisle, they lost one member of the group, who fell behind. Believing that he had been captured, they pressed on, stopping just south of Carlisle on Wednesday, 7 April, to form a plan. Two of the group believed they could meet up with an old acquaintance, named Joe, who they thought was in the town, but this plan was met with skepticism by the remaining four.

Unable to come up with a plan agreeable to all, they split up, with two walking straight into Carlisle, two bypassing the town to the west and two bypassing the town by the southeast. The four, including William Simms, who had bypassed Carlisle, met up on the eastern side of town. They waited for their comrades, who had entered town directly, but the two men never made an appearance. Again, believing the two in town had been captured, the surviving four then walked the remaining distance to Harrisburg, arriving early in the morning on Thursday.145

Simm's interviewer wrote, "Here they met some men on the street early in the morning who cried 'Them's runaway niggers, sure as Hell!' The fugitives took to their heels and got away.” Probably their clothing and behavior gave them away. They left Harrisburg, apparently, without ever making contact with Underground Railroad sympathizers, as their food ran out this same day.

They continued moving north, following the Susquehanna River, "nearly starving," and encountering late season snow, begging for food, and striking out cross country, making their way to Pottsville and then Wilkes-Barre before eventually crossing the state line into New York. On his entire journey from Virginia to New York, Simms apparently did not encounter any Underground Railroad assistance, although several of his companions, after becoming separated from him, did find aid before they, too, reached New York.146

One who was not as lucky, if Simms’ experience in getting through Harrisburg unaided could be called lucky, is the unknown fugitive slave buried on Blue Mountain beside the grave of a local free African American loner, George Washington. Although the full story is not known, local lore suggests that this man took his own life while fleeing slave catchers. The date of death on the stone, 1866, is inconsistent with the date of death for a person fleeing slave catchers, as is made clear from the epitaph: “He took the North Star as a guide to liberty, yet in a fitful moment for fear of betrayal he took the deadly cup to save himself from bondage by his fellow man.” The correct date of death may very well be 1856 or 1858, which would be more consistent with the story, and with what is known about local Underground Railroad operations.

Unknown fugitives did pass through town, and if they managed to bypass any local aid givers, would have continued north along this same path, following the mountain ridges to avoid detection, as did William Simms. But the mountain paths could be treacherous, and cold, and mysterious. People were known to get lost and die of exposure and starvation. A fugitive slave who had been cut off from friends, and who found himself turned around in the woods of Blue Mountain might very well have taken his own life out of desperation, believing that the hounds were even then approaching.


Previous | Next



127. Still, Underground Rail Road, 43.

128. There is a good chance that John W. Jones’ relationship with Grayson S. Nelson was forged before their UGRR partnership. They may have known each other as slaves. Both men were born as slaves in Leesburg, Virginia, were of about the same age, and escaped from slavery and settled in free states within a few years of each other. Obituary of Grayson Snowdon Nelson, Christian Recorder, 16 September 1865; “John W. Jones, Slavery to Freedom,” Elmira Telegram, 3 January 1886.

129. "Margaret Booth vs. David Cooper Negro Slave,” MSA T450-1, "Washington County Register of Wills (Petitions and Orders)," Maryland State Archives. Jonathan Means Wilson operated as a Baltimore Slave Trader in league with various partners before joining with his son-in-law Moses Hindes in January 1857. Clayton, Cash for Blood, 112.

130. Gettysburg Compiler, 18 May 1857.

131. Harrisburg Daily Telegraph, 31 August, 3, 5 September 1857.

132. Harrisburg Daily Telegraph, 17 August 1857.

133. Eggert, “Impact,” 561; R. J. M. Blackett, Thomas Morris Chester, Black Civil War Correspondent (1989; repr., New York: Da Capo, 1991), 11-30.

134. “A Returned Liberian,” Harrisburg Morning Herald, reprinted in the New York Times, 3 November 1854.

135. Harrisburg Morning Herald, 25 November 1856.

136. Harrisburg Daily Herald, 8 June 1857.

137. Frew, Building Harrisburg, 45-46.
William Jones’ boarding house at West Alley and South Street must have been excluded from the property transfer to Verbeke, because Jones’ house was still there at least through October 1865, when it was devastated by a seven alarm fire started by one of his boarders. Transcription of unidentified news article posted in Yahoo Groups, “Fire Service History: Message On This Day…October 16.” (accessed 11 December 2009).

138. Frew, Building Harrisburg, 40-41, 52-53.
The construction of Brant’s Hall from 1854-1855, which was located directly east of and adjacent to the courthouse, brings up the question of the location of Chester’s Restaurant. In the 1840s, the restaurant was located in the basement of a frame building that “flanked the county property [the courthouse] to the east.” According to an 1856 Harrisburg Directory, the Chester’s operated the Washington Restaurant, which still specialized in oysters, but also sold chicken, ale, porter and game, in season, and was located at North Third and Market Streets. Whether this is the same location, or the Chester’s relocated in 1854, is not certain. An early reminiscence, in Egle’s’ Notes and Queries, volume 3, describes the life of early Harrisburg lawyer John Kean, and notes his office was “in a frame building fronting on the court house pavement where Brant’s Hall now stands.” (page 113). This is consistent with the early description of Chester’s oyster cellar being in the basement of a frame building that flanked the courthouse property. If so, it appears that the Chesters had relocated by 1854 to the basement of the building at the corner of Third and Market. Another possibility is that the frame building that housed law clerks and other offices on the upper floors and an oyster cellar in the basement was a sprawling building that extended from the courthouse all the way to the corner at Third Street, and that John A. Brant demolished only the westernmost portion of it to build his hall, thus not disturbing the location of Chester’s restaurant.

139. Morgan, Annals of Harrisburg, 293-294; Bureau of the Census, 1850 Census, Harrisburg, Dauphin County, Pennsylvania; Colored American, 10 June 1837; Christian Recorder, 11 April 1863, 3 December 1864.
The “Colored” Presbyterian Church moved from the rented room on Walnut Street to larger quarters in the African American Masonic Hall on Tanner’s Alley, before eventually gaining their own building.

140. Philadelphia Bulletin, 18 December 1857, reprinted as “A Fugitive Slave Case in Philadelphia,” in the New York Times, 21 December 1857, 3; “Petition of William M. Edelin in the Fugitive Slave Petition Book, 09/18/1850-08/01/1856,” 14 December 1857, RG 21, Records of District Courts of the United States, 1685-2004, U.S. District Court for the District of Maryland. (09/24/1789-03/21/1892); “Award of a Certificate of Removal in the Matter of Jacob Dupen, Fugitive Slave, 12/18/1857,” RG 21, Records of District Courts of the United States, 1685-2004, U.S. Circuit Court for the Eastern District of Pennsylvania. (04/20/1818-01/01/1912).

141. May, Fugitive Slave Law and Its Victims, 91-92; Philadelphia Bulletin, 18 December 1857; “Award of a Certificate of Removal in the Matter of Jacob Dupen, Fugitive Slave, 12/18/1857.”

142. May, Fugitive Slave Law and Its Victims, 92. This was one of Judge John K. Kane’s final fugitive slave cases, as he died almost exactly two months later, on February 21, 1858.

143. Baltimore Sun, 12, 17 May 1858; “Some Undistinguished Negroes,” Journal of Negro History 5, no. 4 (October 1920): 476-477; Clayton, Cash for Blood, 112.

144. Baltimore Sun, 12, 17 May 1858; “Some Undistinguished Negroes,” 477-478.
In his reminiscences, Fowler records the name of his Gettysburg contact as “Mathers.” Given the information about known Underground Railroad contacts in the Gettysburg area, I believe this is a transcription error, and that he had actually been directed to find “Mathews.” Historian Debra Sandoe McCauslin notes that the region now known as Yellow Hill was labeled “Pine Hill” on maps of the period. McCauslin, Reconstructing the Past, 1-3.

145. Arthur Charles Howland, “William Simms, Fugitive Slave 1858,” transcribed by Roger Howland, Tompkins County, New York GenWeb, (accessed 25 June 2010).
146. Ibid.

146. Ibid.


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