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 Four:
Legacy of Slavery

Life, "Our Colored People"

For more than a century, published histories of Pennsylvania have downplayed the role that slavery played in the development and growth of the state, and have portrayed the treatment of black slaves by white masters as humane and kind. A typical example is from History of Cumberland and Adams Counties, published in 1886, which opined:

It is said that "slaves were generally allowed to share in all family and domestic comforts, from long residence in families they attained to much consideration and affection, and seldom were made the subjects of cruelty. In many respects their position in the families to which they belonged was preferable to that which was awarded to hirelings for only brief terms of service." 81

A similar description can be found in Ellis and Evans’ History of Lancaster County, published in 1883, which argued that:

The system which permitted slaves to be held for life was no more rigorous, nor were they treated any more severely than were the "redemptioners," who were sold into servitude to pay the cost of their passage from Europe to America. The records of our courts fully attest the frequency of runaway redemptioners, who, in many cases, were harshly treated. Slavery as it existed in Pennsylvania was rather of a mild type, and her citizens did not care to carry on a traffic in slaves, and make profit by breeding them for another market.82

Both texts quoted above go well beyond merely soft-pedaling the subject of how slaves were treated. Instead, they reject outright any notion that local slaveholders used cruel measures to manage and control their slaves. The first text hides behind an anonymous quotation that posits the “preferable” lives of slaves with families who showed them “much consideration and affection” as opposed to the less desirable lives of hired workers. This sentiment is echoed in the passage from the Lancaster County history printed above, which notes that the lives of black slaves “was no more rigorous, nor were they treated any more severely than were the ‘redemptioners.’”

The truth is that both European indentured servants and African slaves were generally treated horribly by their owners. The argument that slavery was not so bad when compared with the system of indentured servitude, which flourished in this area at about the same time, is an old fallacy that attempts to pit one type of bound labor against the other in order to establish a relative scale of abuse and therefore vindicate those who practiced one or the other. But the second text goes one step further by broadly proclaiming, “slavery as it existed in Pennsylvania was rather of a mild type.” Regardless of how it compared with the treatment of white servants, slavery as it existed in Pennsylvania was anything but mild. It was at best cruel and unjust. At its worst, the practice of slavery in Pennsylvania exhibited feats of spectacular barbarity, inhumane treatment, and utter rejection of the basic humanity of those enslaved.

Myths about the nature and persistence of slavery in Pennsylvania are not limited to antique texts. Several relatively modern local histories perpetuate the myth of well-treated local slaves who returned the kindness of their masters with intense loyalty. In This Was Harrisburg, published in 1976, authors Steinmetz and Hoffsommer completely ignore the existence of slavery in central Pennsylvania, with the exception of recounting the tale of the rescue of John Harris by his “devoted slave Hercules,” noting, “Harrisburg owes its existence to the faithful devotions of a black slave.” Throughout the remainder of the book, not a single mention is made of the contributions of any other African Americans to the settlement of the frontier or the development of the city, leaving the reader to assume that the only role played by blacks in Harrisburg’s early history was that of the “devoted slave.”

A nearly identical portrait of black enslavement is found in A History of Paxton Church, in which the author at least acknowledges that a significant number of local families owned slaves, but then erroneously reports, “slavery had been outlawed in Pennsylvania with the passage, in 1780, of the ‘Act for the Gradual Abolition of Slavery.’” The master-slave relationship is mischaracterized and oversimplified in the book as a very benevolent one, instead of the complex interplay of dynamics involving power, control, trust, fear, and loyalty, that it actually was. Even modern, official sources tend to repeat old misinformation. An official state website, viewed in 2008, in an article titled “What Was Life Like in Pennsylvania” states, “By 1800, Pennsylvania also had abolished slavery.”83 With no additional details, this statement falsely prompts the reader to imagine a land that by 1800 was free of bondage for blacks.



Cruelty exhibited by white slave holders toward black slaves took many forms. At its most basic level, the very idea that one person could own another person—which is itself inherently unjust and cruel—was the foundation upon which the rest of the practice rested. If one accepted the premise that ownership of a human being was just, it was but a small step to also accept the premise that this “property” must be a lesser specimen of being than the owner, and therefore not worthy of the same treatment.

In Pennsylvania, this second step was almost mandatory in order to continue the justification for slavery. The notion of equality was very strong, bolstered by the Quaker teachings that every human being contained an “inner light” that guaranteed their basic humanity. This spiritual equality extended to everyone, male and female. Women in the Society of Friends enjoyed an equality of public speech, travel, and personal finances. The traditions of equality from English law were encoded in William Penn’s Charter of Privileges, signed in 1701.

Into this atmosphere came other groups of people—German, Scots-Irish, English, and Welsh—who celebrated their individuality and self worth, even as they were often forced to indenture themselves for years to pay for their passage from Europe. These were the same notions of equality that later sparked and fed the fires of revolution. Such ideas were strong in the minds of Pennsylvanians, so it took a lot of rationalization to justify the enslavement for life of other people.

That rationalization took root and blossomed in the notion that skin color was a clear delineation of value. It was an idea that, once conceptualized, did not fade away easily. As late as 1852, this idea was being propounded in the hall of the House of Representatives, in the Capitol in Harrisburg, by advocates of African colonization as a reason to remove free African Americans from Pennsylvania and resettle them in Liberia, on the west coast of Africa, at state expense. In an address to the governor and both houses of the legislature, William V. Pettit, of the Pennsylvania Colonization Society, characterized blacks as “a race with whom it seems in the order of Providence there can be no amalgamation, no homogeneousness—a race which must always be a distinct and incongruous people—to whom our climate is not congenial, who seem not to be of us.”

Pettit set up a clear “us” and “them” dichotomy in which whites were meant to occupy the United States, and blacks clearly, in his view, were not. But in his speech, he took this idea even further, by portraying the enslavement of Africans by whites as merely one step in a heavenly plan to establish the United States as a great white Christian nation:

That the all wise and just One should permit these people to be forcibly and wickedly torn, even from their heathen homes, to be carried to distant shores, and there in bondage and degradation to be made the instruments of opening a land which He designed to bless, even to the enlightening and healing of the nations; and there, in return, to receive the light of the Gospel, with all its attendant blessings of civilization and liberty, in order that they, or their descendants, might carry it back to bless the land of their forefathers. Wonderful as it is, it may nevertheless be so, and exhibit one of His ways of bringing good out of evil.

Pettit’s fellow speaker, Reverend John P. Durbin, added the voice of religious authority to Pettit’s argument, quoting from scripture, “God hath made of one blood all nations of men,” but then expounding, “God gave Africa to the race from which our colored people come.” In that single sentence, Durbin neatly divorced all African Americans from being God’s people, and instead made them derivations and property, as in “our colored people.” Again turning to scripture, Durbin seized upon the phrase “God…hath determined the bounds of their habitation,” asking “Who can doubt but the ‘bounds of the habitation’ of these people are in Africa?” In begging the question of why, then, God permitted Africans to be enslaved, Durbin provided the tidy answer:

Perhaps this wise and mysterious Providence has permitted their bonds in order to prepare them to be the instruments of Christian civilization and religion to their vast and populous country. Had they remained in their own country, they would have remained pagans; in their slavery and exile, they have become Christians in their ideas and feelings, …Return them to Africa, and they will form a Christian republic whose light and civilization will illuminate and reform the western part of that great and gloomy continent. …And if such be the designs of Providence, who shall estimate the guilt and punishment of our people, if we refuse to send home these prepared missionaries, now that God, by the signs of the times, is intimating His will that we not enter upon the work.

The argument that people of African descent benefited from slavery because they were introduced to Christianity in the new world is not original with Pettit and Durbin. Both speakers were merely using that old rationalization as a starting point and tacking on colonization as the solution that would bring the “designs of Providence” to fruition. In essence, Pennsylvania slaveholders had been doing God’s work all along, though they did not know it. The real guilt should come not from owning slaves, as Reverend Durbin would have it, but from refusing to purge the shores of America of their descendants. It was an intricate bit of rationalization to justify not only owning a person, but believing that ownership was also just.84

You had to believe that. Because owning a slave in Pennsylvania meant more than just owning that person’s labor. You also owned their freedom of movement, their daily routine, and their evening repose. You owned the food they ate, the clothes they wore, and the tools they used. You owned their spiritual life, their social life, and their love life. You owned everything from the cloth that swaddled them on their day of birth, to the pine board that marked their grave, on which, written with a stick of your charcoal, was the name that was not even theirs, because it had been chosen, and therefore owned, by you. If white slaveholders believed that black slaves had souls, they would have laid claim to those too, but that acknowledgment would have undercut the rationalization that made this system of labor viable. In short, you owned and controlled everything about a slave except his nightly dreams.

Denied physical possessions, robbed of a history as well as a future, and faced with the same bleak prospects for all future generations, Pennsylvania slaves, like slaves throughout the New World, endured the waking nightmare of total bondage. It was no less mentally cruel, no less crushing to the human spirit, to be held as a human slave in Pennsylvania than in any other place that the wretched trade touched.

Such mental abuse was acknowledged from the very start by those who could see through the economic and social rationalizations for slavery and witnessed the horrible wrongs being imposed upon blacks. The words of four Quakers, writing from the Germantown meeting on 18 February 1688, amply summed up the fear of bondage found in all human hearts with this opening question for members of the monthly meeting to consider, “Is there any that would be done or handled at this manner? Viz., to be sold or made a slave for all the time of his life?” The protesters, Garret Hendericks, Derick Up De Graeff, Francis Daniell Pastorius, and Abraham Up Den Graef, saw the question as a simple extension of the Golden Rule to racial equality, arguing, “There is a saying that we shall doe to all men like as we will be done ourselves; making no difference of what generation, descent or colour they are.” To the antislavery men of Germantown, the horror of slavery could be conveyed by asking their audience to imagine themselves being forced into the same condition. No mention was made of the physical torments or deprivations. The Germantown Protest was based upon the human need for “liberty of ye body” as much as for “liberty of conscience.”



The passage of years brought an increased anti-slavery sentiment to the free people of Pennsylvania. In 1780, lawmakers enacted legislation to gradually dismantle the institution of slavery in the commonwealth. The actual legislation referred to Pennsylvania slavery as abhorrent, and acknowledged “the sorrows of those who have lived in undeserved bondage,” while the actions of the slave holding class has “cast them into the deepest afflictions.” Like the Germantown protesters of nearly 100 years earlier, the framers of Pennsylvania’s new law also sought to convey the mental pain of slavery, “the greatness of which can only be conceived by supposing that we were in the same unhappy case.” Clearly, slavery was not viewed at the time as “rather of a mild type,” or as a condition in which those in bondage were treated with “much consideration and affection.”

Nor did it improve much in the decades after the gradual emancipation law. An antislavery writer, identified only as A. Ploughan, produced a lengthy editorial against the practice for the premier issue of the Farmers’ Instructor newspaper in 1800. This three-column denunciation of slavery sought to be “a warning to avoid those rocks upon which almost every nation have split.” The writer continued in very vivid language:

A state of slavery, of all conditions, is the most infernal; language cannot paint the deplorable state of a slave—Ignorance, despondency, and meanness of soul, are the certain consequences of slavery,--a condition wherein the people must submit to the most horrid abuses, the most cruel insults and contempt; in a word, a slave is an inhabitant of the deepest region in the abyss of misery, and the place of torment is his abode.85

Despite this strong anti-slavery missive in its premier issue, the Farmers’ Instructor was not a newspaper devoted to the anti-slavery cause. Subsequent issues would include plenty of advertisements from slaveholders attempting to sell slaves, or to recover escaped slaves.

The emotional pain of slavery was evident from the families torn apart. We saw earlier how Lancaster slaveholder Matthias Slough sold a young woman as punishment for the crime of “breeding fast.” His words in the advertisement, “She has a likely child, which will not be sold with her,” must surely have masked a world of torment for the unnamed young mother. Although some Pennsylvania slaveholders made efforts to keep slave families together, there were no legal guarantees. Even after passage of the 1780 Gradual Abolition Act, the Pennsylvania Antislavery Society found it necessary to lobby for stronger legislation to prevent the breakup of slave families and fought against the practice of sending pregnant slaves out of state so that their newborn children would not be born under provisions of the gradual emancipation law.

But any legal protections were contingent upon the family being together in the first place. A great many slave families in Pennsylvania were divided among two or more different owners. The mere existence of an adult male slave and an adult female slave in a household did not guarantee the two were married, and researchers cannot assume that enslaved children in the same household are related to either of the enslaved adults. In examining the slave registration records of Chester County, historians Gary B. Nash and Jean Soderlund determined that “at least 36 percent of Chester County slave children lived in households without their parents.”86

In addition to the mental and emotional cruelty inherent to slavery, Pennsylvania slaves were also subject to physical cruelties, some of which are quite shocking for their brutality. Shackles, fetters, and iron chains were liberally used to control the movement of slaves, sometimes to keep them moving or working together, as when two or more slaves were chained together, or more frequently to restrain individual slaves from moving at all.

One of the most frequently mentioned restraint devices associated with Pennsylvania slaves are iron collars. These barbaric devices were generally made of two half-rings, each large enough to fit half-way around the neck, hinged together at one end so that they could be closed around the wearer’s neck, completely encircling it in a solid iron collar. The joint where the two halves closed would then be secured with rivets or locked in a manner that was not easily undone. Often the collar included a ring to which a chain could be attached and sometimes they included one or more protruding prongs. They were a very distinctive item, easily distinguished from similar looking iron hardware, as shown by a 1782 inventory of the estate of Mary Buchanan of Carlisle, which included “1 Negroe Collar” among an assortment of old tools.87

In later years, the iron collar came to symbolize, for anti-slavery activists, the cruelty of slavery. William Lloyd Garrison published in 1837, without further editorial comment, the following brief advertisement from a New Orleans newspaper: “$25 REWARD.— For the black woman, Betsey who left my house in the Faubourg, McDonnough, about the 12th inst., when she had on her neck an iron collar.” To the readers of The Liberator, any extra commentary was unnecessary. The words of the slaveholder himself were indictment enough. The same paper reported years later on the punishment handed down by a New Orleans tribunal against a slave named Smith, who was convicted of robbery. In addition to seventy-five lashes, Smith was sentenced to wear a three-pronged iron collar for six months.88

The iron collar was not a southern peculiarity, though. As already seen in many advertisements for runaway Pennsylvania slaves, iron collars were in common use in the Keystone State as a punishment device. Isaac Whitelock, of the Borough of Lancaster, sought the return of his black slave Will, who had run off in the summer of 1750 along with a white servant named Mearns. The slave could be identified in part, Whitelock noted, by “an iron collar about his neck.”

It is very possible that this was not the first time that Will had tried to run away. The “collar about his neck” was more than a simple restraining device, and more even than a sign that the wearer was a slave. Most Pennsylvania slaves were not encumbered with iron collars. They were, after all, an extra expense in an age when the spending of every penny was carefully weighed for its necessity. They caused the wearer considerable discomfort and eventually pain, where the soft flesh eventually chaffed raw against the hard metal. The resulting wound was subject to infection, and the wearer risked injury by trying to remove the collar with crude methods and tools. The iron collar, therefore, was much more than a standard method of controlling slaves. It was simply too expensive, risky and cruel for everyday use, but was reserved for special circumstances. It signified that its wearer was a rebellious slave, and in particular, one who was prone to running away.

Such might have been the case with “a Negroe Lad named Abraham” who ran away from Carlisle clock and watchmaker John Gemmill in the autumn of 1764. The teenaged Abraham was born in the North American colonies but carried the visible marks of his African heritage, being “cut in both ears,” according to Gemmill. In addition to the African tribal markings, the young man ran away wearing few European clothes, being outfitted simply in a blanket coat and buckskin breeches. He did wear stockings and buckled shoes, a wise protection against the rocky South Mountain ground. Gemmill thought that the young man had run off in the company of a local army deserter, and that the pair had broken into the shop of a local tailor on the night of their escape. Regardless of the truth of the clockmaker’s allegations, Abraham must have proved himself rebellious in other instances, because his owner had fastened an iron collar around his neck prior to his escape.89

Rebelliousness certainly describes the cases of several other slaves in central Pennsylvania. Lancaster butcher Christopher Reigart reported the loss, in December 1763, of his eighteen-year-old slave named Jack. The forty-shilling reward offered by Reigart must have been effective, as Jack was soon back in his possession, but not for long. In the early summer of 1764, Jack had again made his escape, but Reigart again captured his rebellious slave despite lowering the reward to thirty shillings. After the July escape attempt, Reigart had an iron collar with a pointed prong fitted around Jack’s neck as punishment. The prong was a vicious improvisation added to the iron collar, intended to increase the amount of suffering endured by the wearer. Slaves who wore these devices described how they made it impossible to rest comfortably or to sleep lying on your back or stomach. In his advertisement, Reigart described the prong as “short” and “a little crooked at the point.”

Exactly what length a prong had to be to constitute being described as short is not known. Surviving images of iron slave collars with prongs show prong lengths of between about six and twenty inches. None of these prongs would probably be considered “short,” and these do not show pointed prongs, but rather devices in which the ends have been turned. Points on prongs of medium or long lengths would have presented an unnecessary danger to others who got close to the slave, so points probably only appeared on collar prongs of a few inches or less. In fact, Reigart wrote that the prong “might be pretty easily hid or covered,” thus reinforcing the idea that the prong on this collar was less than a few inches in length.

The device, it turns out, did not deter Jack from again running away the following month. In August of that same year, Reigart was forced to buy yet another ad in the Pennsylvania Gazette, offering a twenty-five shilling reward for Jack’s return. This time, Jack was not alone. He ran away with another teenaged slave named October, who belonged to a man named Henry Helm. It is not known if Reigart ever recaptured Jack after his third escape, but the following spring Henry Helm offered for sale a slave who matched October’s description. Being sold was yet another type of punishment for rebellious slaves.90

Another central Pennsylvania slaveholder who employed the use of an iron collar after a slave repeatedly ran away was Curtis Grubb, iron master at Cornwall Iron Furnace. In the early 1770s, Grubb purchased a slave named Jack, a young man belonging to Robert Craig, in Donegal Township, Lancaster County. Jack had apparently caused his Lancaster master considerable grief, as he had been confined in the Lancaster workhouse near the time that he was purchased by Grubb. But the ironmaster was apparently not deterred from adding this rebellious slave to his industrial work force. It was not long before Jack took a strong dislike to the hard, lonely work in the remote woods of Cornwall, and took off on his own. Grubb, being accustomed to having to chase after wayward slaves and indentured workers, soon had Jack back in his possession, this time with an iron collar around the young man’s neck as punishment. Three months later, Jack again attempted to get away, still wearing the punitive collar. He remained at large for at least six months, more than doubling the time he was able to elude capture, but Grubb eventually found him and returned him to work at the furnace.

Jack’s experience at Cornwall was not atypical. At Hopewell Furnace, near Reading, ironmaster Mark Bird had a similar situation at about the same time with a highly experienced and trusted slave named Cuff Dix, who Bird described as “a hammerman by trade.” In September 1774, Dix made his escape, already fettered by “a lock and chain about his leg.” This type of restraining device was also quite common among Pennsylvania slaveholders, and though it might not have been as inhumane as an iron collar, it was still more punitive than utilitarian in use.

Bird captured Cuff Dix, or the slave returned of his own volition, but he ran away again the following year. The ironmaster again placed an advertisement in the Pennsylvania Gazette, but after five months and no results was forced to place yet another ad. In each advertisement, Bird made mention of the iron collar around the slave’s neck, placed there as punishment for his earlier transgressions, but noted “it is likely that he soon got that off.”

This acknowledgment of the experienced hammer man’s metalworking skills is also a hint that the earlier use of iron fetters was equally ineffective once the man gained his freedom. In fact, Dix may indeed have made short work of the iron collar once he got away. He was captured a short while after the appearance of the second ad, in Chester County, and the jailor there made no mention of an iron collar around the neck of the captured slave.91 Dix was eventually returned to the Hopewell Furnace, but as noted in the next chapter, he did not stay long.

The use of iron collars was not limited to male slaves, nor was its use spurned by men of the cloth. The respected minister John Roan, of Londonderry Township, resorted to using one of the cruel devices on his twenty-three-year-old slave Pero, who ran away in the spring of 1773. This might not have been Pero’s first attempt at freedom, as Roan had already clapped a collar on his neck before the young man made his escape.

At the time of Pero’s escape, Roan was pastor of the Newside Presbyterian Church, in what is now Lower Paxton Township. The New-Siders, being strongly influenced by the charismatic Great Awakening preaching of evangelist George Whitefield, broke away from the established congregations at Paxton and Derry, and established their own congregation and church between the two places. Though the schism was eventually repaired, hard feelings existed between those adherents of each congregation, which might account for Roan’s note in the runaway ad that “he had an iron collar about his neck, but it is supposed the collar is taken off by some ill-disposed neighbour.”

Samuel Martin, another Dauphin County slaveholder, offered to pay forty shillings reward to anyone who returned his eighteen-year-old “Negroe wench,” who had run away in June 1769. The young girl, who Martin said “was formerly the property of Mr. Samuel Kennedy, near the Cross roads,” had been away for more than eight months by the time Martin placed his ad. Whether the young slave, who is not named in the ad, was upset by being sold away from her former master, was otherwise unruly, or simply caused the Dauphin County slaveholder to be suspicious is not known, but he had taken the precaution of placing an iron collar around her neck. The teenaged girl had not been able to remove it before making her escape and Martin thought the possibility was good that she was still wearing it when he composed the ad eight months later.

Another teenaged girl, although not a Pennsylvania slave, is also documented as being punished by wearing an iron collar at about this time. A Baltimore owner, William Payne, advertised for his fourteen-year-old slave Hagar in Pennsylvania newspapers, indicating that she may have been hiding across the Mason and Dixon line. Even at age fourteen, the enslaved child appears to have had experience with taking to the open road, as Payne wrote, almost indignantly, “she is supposed to be harboured in some Negroe Quarter, as her Father and Mother encourage her in these Elopements, under a Pretence that she is ill used at home.” His use of an iron collar to restrain and punish her was noted, as was her clothing, which he described as “very much patched, and … ragged.” As if these conditions were not enough, Payne also described another too-common type of abuse: “a Scar under one of her Breasts, supposed to be got by Whipping.”92

Though the use of iron collars by Pennsylvania slaveholders seems to have been most common in the two decades leading up to the Revolutionary War, there is ample evidence that this spiteful form of punishment persisted well into the post-war decades. Lancaster County slaveholder Jonathan Royer, a Leacock Township farmer, acquired an African American slave named Thomas Morgan sometime after 1790. Morgan showed his discontent with his condition by running away from the Royer farm, first in the summer of 1805, at which time Jonathan Royer offered a thirty-dollar reward for his escaped man. At some point, he recovered Thomas Morgan, but the slave bided his time until the same time the next year, almost to the day, when he again ran away. Royer offered a somewhat reduced reward this second time, advertising a twenty-dollar reward to “whoever apprehends the said run-away.”

Morgan’s third escape try came in the late winter of 1808, at which time Royer, advertising in the Lancaster Journal, offered just ten dollars for the return of his slave. This advertisement offered up a new bit of information on Morgan, noting that he had “lost one of his fore teeth.” Although we do not know if this was due to dental decay, or was an intentional wound inflicted upon the slave as punishment for his frequent escapes, we do know that the latter possibility was a less common punishment for runaways in previous decades.

When he finally got his hands on the elusive Morgan, Royer resorted to a more vicious means of punishment by having an iron collar with two prongs secured around the man’s neck. Thomas Morgan was still wearing the brutal iron collar when, in August of 1809, he made his fourth and final escape from the Royer household. The last ad placed by Jonathan Royer to find his persistently wayward slave offered a mere five dollars as reward.

This advertisement, which made particular note of Morgan’s “iron collar with two prongs around his neck” was placed nearly three decades after the State of Pennsylvania sought to ameliorate “the deepest afflictions” of people exactly like Thomas Morgan with its Gradual Abolition law.93 Clearly, the sentiments of the Philadelphia-based legislators did not coincide with those of such rural slave holders as Thomas Royer. It seems as if the life of a slave in Pennsylvania, even as late of 1809, was closer to the “abyss of misery” described by Harrisburg’s A. Ploughan in 1800, than to the slave-free state claimed by a state-run website in 2008.

As previously hinted, Pennsylvania slaveholders sometimes resorted to much more violent punishments, inflicting whippings, beatings, and worse, upon those slaves unfortunate enough to be recaptured. In 1773, Reading jailor John Whitman reported that he had imprisoned a man named Will, whom he suspected of being a fugitive slave. The man, who Whitman thought belonged to a Frederick, Maryland owner, had a scar on his forehead and a back “full of scars, by severe whipping.”

Whippings were not confined to states below the Mason-Dixon Line, however. Slaveholder John Campbell, of Mount Joy, Lancaster County, suspected that his missing slave, John Lewis, had absconded with a mare from his farm. He offered a reward of fifty dollars for the slave and mare, or forty dollars for the slave alone, noting the young man “is somewhat marked on the back with the whip, and stutters in his speech.”

Farmer John Bolton, of Chester, advertised for the return of his twenty-five-year-old slave, Will. In addition to wearing an iron collar, Will’s back, Bolton wrote, was “cruelly scarred with severe whipping, for running away,” but, he noted, lest he be accused of cruelty, that the brutal whipping had been meted out to the slave “before I got him.”

Ironmaster John Patton, of Centre Furnace, near present day State College, advertised for two slaves who had escaped from his industrial operation. The two young people, John and Flora, apparently ran away together. John, who was twenty-two years old, probably did the talking for the pair, as Flora spoke only “bad English,” and “a little French.” It is in the description of Flora, however, that we find evidence of severe abuse by someone in her enslaved past. Patton described the eighteen-year-old girl as having “a scar on her upper lip,” and in acknowledgment of a much more despicable practice, “letters branded on her breast.”

While these tortuous punishments were commonly used in the 1740s, 1750s and even 1760s—decades leading up to the more enlightened years of the Revolution—the brutal punishments noted above occurred much later. The hapless Will, with a back full of scars, was captured in Reading in 1773. John Lewis, from Mount Joy, was only twenty-six years old, yet he bore scars from the whip when he escaped in 1798. Will, from Chester, was even younger, at age twenty-five, and was so horribly scarred that his master felt it necessary to add a disclaimer that he was not the one responsible for the terrible scars. That occurred in 1783; and Flora, at eighteen years of age—barely out of childhood—was cruelly scarred on her face, possibly from beatings, and had been branded with searing irons on her breast. Flora showed the signs of these atrocities in Pennsylvania in 1799, just a year shy of the new millennium.

Whippings and beatings inflicted upon slaves for offenses could be extremely brutal, and occasionally resulted in the death of the slave. In April 1800, William McAllister of Mifflin County was visiting his brother, John McAllister, in Tyrone Township, then Cumberland County. In the late morning of 14 April, William McAllister discovered that someone had cut the strap that secured his saddlebags, and seven French Crowns and five dollars were missing from the bags. McAllister immediately accused his brother’s slave, Caesar, of taking the money, but the slave denied both cutting the strap and taking the money. McAllister did not believe the slave’s denial, and he was determined to punish him. In court testimony, his brother John described how William “took [Caesar] to an apple mill, fastened a rope about the negro's neck & put him over the sweep of the mill. Then he stripped off his clothes and whipped him and told him to give back the money.”

William continued beating the slave through his denials, and after a while brought the broken man back to the farmhouse and left to conduct some business in the nearby town of Landisburg. By the time he returned, after dark, Caesar had died of his beatings. Cumberland County authorities prosecuted both men for the death of the slave, and the trial, held that September, received press coverage at least as far away as Philadelphia, as Philadelphia merchant Thomas Cope commented on it in his diary. Both men were found guilty of murder, and were sentenced by Judge John Joseph Henry to five years each in the Philadelphia penitentiary.94

Previous | Next


81. History of Cumberland and Adams counties, Pennsylvania: containing history of the counties, their townships, towns, villages, schools, churches, industries, etc., portraits of early settlers and prominent men, biographies, history of Pennsylvania, statistical and miscellaneous matter, etc., etc.. (Chicago: Warner and Beers & Co., 1886), 222.

82. Franklin Ellis and Samuel Evans, History of Lancaster County, Pennsylvania (Philadelphia: Everts & Peck, 1883), 69.

83. Richard H. Steinmetz, Sr., and Robert D. Hoffsommer, This Was Harrisburg (Harrisburg: Stackpole Books, 1976), 24; Morton Graham Glise, History of Paxton Presbyterian Church, 1732-1976, With Paxton Church Marriage Record, 1901-1976, and Selected Sermons (Harrisburg: Paxton Presbyterian Church, 1976), 34; Commonwealth of Pennsylvania, Department of Environmental Protection, “Heritage: What Was Life Like in PA,” http://www.depweb. (accessed 1 May 2008).

84. Pennsylvania Colonization Society, Addresses Delivered in the Hall of the House of Representatives, Harrisburg, PA, on Tuesday Evening, April 6, 1852, by William V. Pettit, Esq. and Rev. John P. Durbin, D.D. (Philadelphia: W.F. Geddes, 1852) , 17-18, 39-40.

85. Egle, History of the Counties of Dauphin and Lebanon, 50; Farmer’s Instructor, and Harrisburgh Courant, 8 January 1800.

86. Gary B. Nash and Jean Soderlund, Freedom by Degrees: Emancipation in Pennsylvania and its Aftermath (New York: Oxford University Press, 1991), 39.

87. “Inventory of the Estate of Mary Buchanan, Dec’d, Exhib. Feb. 21, 1782,” Folio B-041, Microfilm no. 1, Cumberland County Estate Inventories, Cumberland County Historical Society.

88. Liberator, 21 July 1837, 27 October 1843,

89. Pennsylvania Gazette, 16 August 1750, 11 October 1764.

90. Ibid., 22 December 1763, 12 April, 26 July, 13 September 1764. Images of slave collars with prongs may be found at the website of the Smithsonian Institution, (accessed 15 June 2008), Harper’s Weekly, 15 February 1862, and as the fronts piece of John W. Blassingame, ed., Slave Testimony (Baton Rouge: Louisiana State University Press, 1977).

91. Pennsylvania Gazette, 16 July, 4 November 1772, 23 November 1774, 24 May, 11 October, 15 November 1775.

92. Ibid. 6 November 1766, 5 February 1770, 28 April 1773; Presbyterian Church in the U.S.A, Presbytery of Carlisle, The Centennial Memorial of the Presbytery of Carlisle, vol. 2 (Harrisburg: Meyers Printing, 1889), 2:37-38.

93. Alex Bontemps, The Punished Self: Surviving Slavery in the Colonial South (Ithaca: Cornell University Press, 2001), 119; Bureau of the Census, First Census of the United States, 1790, Manheim Township, Pennsylvania, 147; Lancaster Journal, 9 August 1809.
The knocking out of runaway slaves’ fore teeth as punishment is noted in the Liberator, 16 April 1841, “Extract of a Letter from George Thompson,” which describes some punishments of American slaves, noting, “They are … made to wear round their necks iron collars with armed prongs, to drag heavy chains … their teeth are torn out or broken off, that they may be described and detected if they run away.” Researcher Alex Bontemps, who studied punishments inflicted upon runaway slaves in colonial America, notes that the large number of runaway slave ads that mention missing fore teeth invites suspicion.

94. Pennsylvania Gazette, 20 October 1773, 14 May 1783; Lancaster Journal, 28 April 1798, 10 August 1799; Kline’s Carlisle Weekly Gazette, 10 September 1800; Schaumann, Indictments--1750-1800, 271, 280; Eliza Cope Harrison, ed., Philadelphia Merchant: The Diary of Thomas P. Cope, 1800-1851 (South Bend, IN: Gateway Editions, 1978), 19.


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.

About the AP | Contact AP | Mission Statement | Archives