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a book about Harrisburg...

by George F. Nagle

 

Table of Contents

Study Areas:

Slavery

Anti-Slavery

Free Persons of Color

Underground Railroad

The Violent Decade

US Colored Troops

Civil War

 

Chapter Three

Origins ~ May 1749, Harris' Ferry

Imagine leaving your family, your friends, the familiar place of your birth, knowing, or perhaps hoping, you would never return, knowing it would be the last time you saw the fields in which you had played as a child and the streams from which you had fished. How would it feel? Would you be able to do it?

Could you walk casually away from your home, as if you were simply on your way to carry out one more mundane task, wearing a mask of practiced indifference to hide your desperate longing to study for one last time every tree, stump and rock, every cow, pig, chicken and horse, and especially every familiar person that you passed, because you expected never to see them again? Could you bid goodnight to your aunt, your sister, your grandfather, and your cousin, making it sound the same as any other night’s farewell, because you needed them to think it was going to be like any other night? Could you still speak with them in a steady voice, all the while aching to let them hear the sorrow that was clawing its way up from your soul, burning like a hot coal through your chest and into your voice?

Could you give your mother one final kiss, wish her pleasant dreams, and look into her comforting face long enough to fix it forever in your mind, for you would need to keep that image safe in your mind’s eye during the arduous journey ahead, but not gaze long enough to let her suddenly and fearfully recognize the intentions in your eyes? Could you turn away, at last, to hide a gathering tear, listening to her tell you to put on an extra shirt because it was getting cold, and hearing the catch in her voice and the sudden fade into choking silence that told you your ruse had failed, and she knew? Could you still, even then, walk down that familiar path between cabins, through struggling vegetable patches, past the tumble-down wall and out onto the moonlit road without looking back?

Would you be able to do it?

May 1749, Harris’ Ferry

It was the time of year when the Susquehanna River, engorged with spring freshets, typically ran faster and up to twenty feet higher than normal. To travelers passing through this remote portion of Lancaster County, standing on the eastern bank of the river and surveying the broad rush of muddy turbulence that flowed between them and the far shore, it must have seemed a formidable obstacle. A crossing would be treacherous and tricky, but it was also necessary if they wanted to continue their journey westward. That was why they had come to this place. It was here, on the path from Lancaster to Carlisle, that John Harris had built a small post to conduct trade with local Native Americans. A crude but sturdy wooden stockade enclosed his small house, a reminder that the forces of nature were not the only things that constituted a threat to travelers and merchants in these parts.

In addition to trade, there was another business conducted here, and it was the real reason they had come to this spot on the river. As the travelers walked closer to the raging waters to peer at the far shore, which was about two-thirds of a mile distant, they probably looked down the sloping bank to the river’s edge to see a large, flat raft tied securely to the riverbank. This was the conveyance, piloted by skilled ferrymen, which would bear them across the wide river and deposit them, safely they hoped, on the opposite shore. John Harris’ ferry, which had been in existence for little more than a decade and a half by now, was the chief place to cross the Susquehanna, and was well known throughout the colony.

Though its founder, John Harris senior, had died the previous December, his son, John Harris, Jr., now capably operated the business. Someone, perhaps the younger Harris himself, had probably hailed the party from the settlement’s surrounding cultivated fields as they emerged from the woods, trudging along the rutted path that served as a road. The arrival of travelers and visitors to a back county settlement was a big event, even in places that existed to take advantage of their business. Travelers brought news and stories of the larger world to the isolated farmers in Pennsylvania’s hinterlands, and most sojourners would have eagerly exchanged news with anyone who had some to share.

News of any kind was welcome in the backwoods of Pennsylvania, and the trading post was an excellent place to catch up on recent happenings in Philadelphia, Lancaster, Carlisle, Sunbury, which was then called Shamokin, Baltimore, and other locations near and far. Travelers sometimes brought mail, the occasional newspaper, and gossip. All these things were the currency of social exchange to the backcountry farmers, who keenly felt the social as well as physical isolation of the frontier. No bit of information was too insignificant to share.

One item of interest on this particular spring day perchance involved the sighting of a black man whose identity was unknown to either Harris or the travelers, and who had recently appeared at the post. They probably speculated as to who the man was, and from where he had come. All they knew was that he claimed to be free born, and said he was on his way to Philadelphia. He had produced a pass that backed up his claims, but somehow, hearing about it, they doubted his story. He was too far out in the wilderness, too far from his destination. They probably decided, after some debate, that the stranger was a slave who had run away from his master. If that was indeed their conclusion, they were partially correct.

His name was Scipio, or at least that was the name by which his erstwhile master in Prince George’s County, Maryland, had addressed him. The man’s true name, if different, will probably never be known. Scipio escaped in the early spring from the estate of Captain Thomas Prather, a wealthy Maryland landowner who claimed him as property with no more say in the matter than that given to a horse or a cow. Scipio, as we now know, had other ideas, and lit out on his own.

Some months after Prather discovered that Scipio was missing, probably after the news finally got back to him of the unknown black man spotted at the remote ferry on the Susquehanna, he placed an advertisement in a regionally popular newspaper, the Pennsylvania Gazette. In the text of squire Prather’s advertisement is our only clue to Scipio’s appearance and personality. Prather described his missing man as being “of short stature,” and even stated that the he “plays on the banjo and can sing,” as if the fugitive was prone to haul out a musical instrument and break into song at any point.

The ad further told of the encounter at Harris’ Ferry, and of the pass, and noted, in an almost disdainful aside, that Scipio “pretended to be a free man.” Actually, Prather was wrong on that point. There was no pretension. Scipio, or whatever this early freedom seeker’s true name was, obviously did not acknowledge the legitimacy of his enslavement. He had clearly demonstrated his own view of the situation by choosing to leave. By seizing his freedom he was shouting to his would be owner, and the world, that he was indeed a free man.1

Scipio’s story is important, even though he probably was not the first formerly enslaved African American to pass through this area on a flight from bondage. It is significant because it establishes a time, a place, and a description. But most of all, it puts a name and a personality behind this early Underground Railroad escape that took place on the banks of the Susquehanna at the future site of Harrisburg. Scipio had a pass and an intended destination, both of which suggest a planned escape, rather than a sudden opportunistic flight from bondage.

Merely heading north to escape slavery was not a strategy in 1749, as Pennsylvania was still a slaveholding colony, but this man’s decision to head for Philadelphia shows awareness of the possibilities of concealment there, among the growing free black population. How did he know that? Who supplied the pass? How did he successfully find his way to Harris’ Ferry from Prince George’s County? We may never know the answers to those questions, and we may never even know if Scipio had any help at all. However, we do know he was a real escaped slave who successfully made his way here long before more organized escape routes and safe houses were established. The advertisement placed by Thomas Prather, seeking Scipio’s return, is evidence that purposeful, prepared freedom seekers, of which Scipio is an example, were escaping through this area at a very early date, long before the town of Harrisburg was even established. They would continue to do so for the next 116 years, and in ever-increasing numbers.

Scipio was not the first black man to reach this area. As the travelers in 1749 might have noticed, there were others of African heritage, if not actual birth, at the trading post. One man in particular might have impressed them because he had been there long enough to become a regular part of the operation. He would have been much older than Scipio, but was, even at that point, a man of imposing stature. He was a vital part of the operations at the trading post and ferry, at least in his earlier days, and had probably been the elder John Harris’ right hand man. He led an eventful life on the frontier, witnessed many historic changes, and his descendants established the foundation of what would be a thriving free black community in Harrisburg; a community that would play a major role in helping future fugitive slaves find safe harbor. But even more intriguing is the idea that, if not for the quick thinking and fast actions of this man, there might not even be a Harrisburg, as we know it today. This man, newly freed, was once a slave to the elder John Harris, and his name was Hercules.

 

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Notes

1. Pennsylvania Gazette, 13, 27 July 1749, Accessible Archives, http://www.accessible.com/accessible/. Information on the seasonal river height is from Hugh Hamilton, The Sanitary Conditions of Harrisburg, Pennsylvania (Harrisburg: Edwin K. Myers, 1886), 3.

 

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.

Pick up your copies at the Mid-Town Scholar Bookstore, Civil War and More Books, the National Civil War Museum,
or at the 2010 Harrisburg History Center.

Both volumes also available on Amazon.

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