Share |
 

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 Five (continued)
Dogs, War, and Ghosts

Ghosts

The trail to freedom for a fugitive slave was thick with life-threatening hazards. Wild animals, vengeful pursuing slaveholders, vicious dogs, exposure to freezing weather, drowning, human predators, wars and many more perils had to be avoided, survived or overcome before safe harbor was reached. These very physical threats injured or killed an untold number of freedom seekers, some of whom perished in remote locations in or on the way to Pennsylvania, never to be known or discovered. Some died anonymously and were buried without ever revealing who they were, or where they came from.

One such incident occurs in the folk tales along the Blue Mountain range south of Blaine in Jackson Township, western Perry County. This very remote and lonely area was once locally known as Pandemonium—dwelling place of the devil—possibly for the hard luck life it forced on its hardy inhabitants. It was this remote nature, however, that made it an ideal route for fugitive slaves to travel north, following along the mountain ranges that ran south to north, west of Chambersburg. Some followed in an informal track that ran from iron forge to iron forge, getting food and supplies from the free blacks who worked in that industry.

One hapless female slave, heading north out of western Virginia or Maryland and traveling by night, made it all the way to the place known as Pandemonium, when she heard the terrifying sound of approaching dogs. Knowing the reputation of the fearsome Negro Dogs, and fearing the worst, she climbed a tree to escape being attacked by the pursuing dogs, only, according to local lore, to be mistakenly shot by the dogs’ owners, who in the darkness mistook her for a wild animal treed by the hunting hounds. The woman died before her name or story could be determined, and the local people buried her outside of the northeast corner of Pioneer Cemetery, near a large white oak tree.69 Documentation and independent confirmation of this story is scarce, but it is a well-known story from Perry County folklore.

Even if this story is more folklore than fact, it is one of the best examples of the iconic lost wanderer (usually a woman), alone and afraid in a strange land, beset by terrifying dangers, ultimately dying far from home, family and friends, her anonymity making it impossible to make her fate known. This is the danger faced by Stowe’s Eliza as she vaulted from the shore to the passing ice chunks. When she left the shore, she left safety, home, and friends. A single misstep or slip would lead to a quick death, and the bodies of Eliza and her child Harry would eventually surface far downriver as anonymous corpses. This was also the danger faced by the nameless slave mother of John Collins’ poem, which opened this chapter. The lurking panther, poisonous snakes and thick brambles all conspired to make sure she would never emerge from her wanderings in the “gloomy wild,” but would die anonymously, never to be found.

Anonymity and a grave are all that remain of a fugitive slave who died in Dauphin County, just north of Harrisburg. A substantial stone, placed many decades ago by Dr. Charles H. Smith, of Linglestown, records the death of an unknown freedom seeker. The grave and footstone are located on Blue Mountain, near an old path of the Appalachian Trail. The marker may have been moved when it was reset into concrete along with another gravestone for George Washington (not to be confused with the fugitive slave George Washington who came to Harrisburg along with the Ninth Pennsylvania Cavalry), a supposed escaped slave who died in 1863.

Local legend says that the two men lived together in a remote cabin on the side of the mountain and occasionally worked at the neighboring Umberger farm, exchanging labor for supplies. The grave for the unnamed man reads “Unknown. Here in the solitude of God’s acres lies one whose life was filled with pathos and suffering and who had a tragic end. 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.” It also records the year of death as 1866, which creates the unlikely scenario that the man committed suicide to avoid re-enslavement a year after the end of the Civil War.

Some local historians have hypothesized that the man went into seclusion after the death of his cabin mate, George Washington, in 1863, and killed himself under the delusion that he was about to be returned to slavery because his hiding place had been revealed by someone he had previously trusted. The more likely possibility is that the date of death is an error, and he died sometime in the late 1850s or early 1860s. Like the story of the Pandemonium fugitive slave girl, few solid facts are available, and the story is best taken as an example of the extreme dangers faced by fugitives even on the free soil around Harrisburg.

The companion headstone for George Washington includes an inscription that describes him as “an honest colored man who lived and died on this mountain.”70 Census records from 1860 West Hanover Township, which might have recorded such a person, do not contain listings for anyone named George Washington, although they do record the household of George and Charity Hacket, an African American couple living in this general area. According to the census records, both were forty-eight years of age. George, whose occupation was given as “day laborer,” was Pennsylvania born, and Charity was born in North Carolina. Neither could read nor write.71

If George Washington was an escaped slave who was hiding out in a cabin on the mountain, it is not surprising that he would have avoided the census taker, although Charity Hacket did not hide from them, nor did she hide her North Carolina birth. This is surprising in light of the high state of anxiety among Pennsylvania’s settled escaped slaves and freeborn African Americans alike, which was due to the 1850 Fugitive Slave Act. Perhaps George Washington was not yet living on the mountain when the census enumerators passed through. Or perhaps there was another reason he might have preferred to remain invisible to government eyes.

According to local lore again, George Washington was an Underground Railroad agent who used his remote cabin as a way station from which he conducted fugitive slaves on their way out of Harrisburg. This possibility has been dismissed by local historians, who believe Washington was simply a runaway slave who felt safe enough on Blue Mountain to stop running. However, there are good reasons to believe Washington may have been more than just a day laborer who kept to himself. Consider the inscription on his tombstone, which includes an eloquent statement on the equality of man: “Friend, pause and think of the brotherhood of God, one man may have a few more grains of pigment beneath his skin. Looking into the portals of eternity teaches that the brotherhood of man is inspired by God’s word. Then all prejudice of race vanishes away.”72 Clearly, these are sentiments in accord with the abolitionist viewpoint.

And then there is the origin of the tombstones themselves, both substantial in size and elaborately inscribed, costing much more than would have been economically feasible for most people in the vicinity. Dr. Charles H. Smith, who either paid for or raised money for the stones, was the son of Dr. William Smith, of Linglestown, whose strong pro-Union sentiments during the war led him to raise money for the erection, in 1866, of a substantial monument to the Union dead in Linglestown’s Willow Grove Cemetery. It seems unlikely that the younger Dr. Smith would have spent a considerable sum, or effort, to mark the graves of two poor African American fugitive slaves, unless he had reason to hold their lives in particularly high regard.

The remote location may also be significant. Fugitive slaves from Harrisburg were sent to the William Rutherford farm, east of town, and from there they were taken by African American conductors to the Joseph Meese farm in Linglestown. Meese, in turn, sent the fugitives to Harper’s Tavern, in East Hanover Township, Lebanon County. It is entirely possible that George Washington was one of the conductors used either by the Rutherfords, or by Meese, to take runaways from Linglestown, via the mountain roads, to Harper’s Tavern or even to the next stop in Lickdale. The remote location of his cabin on Blue Mountain, although it was not on the most direct path from Linglestown to Harper’s Tavern, might have offered the safest and most covert method of covering the distance between the two stations.

This possibility, that local lore is correct and that George Washington’s cabin was indeed a part of the local Underground Railroad network, can only be viewed as conjecture. Because the names of only the most prolific African American participants were ever recorded by their white contemporaries, most remain to this day completely anonymous, like the name of the fugitive who died somewhere nearby by his own hand.

African Americans who conducted fugitives along overgrown farm roads, winding country lanes, and old Indian paths, were a vital component of the Underground Railroad network. Farmers who sheltered fugitive slaves were not always available or able to guide the fugitives themselves, or to take them in a wagon to the next stop. Often, fugitives were given verbal directions to the next station and allowed to guide themselves. This worked well when the route was relatively straightforward and marked by distinctive landmarks, such as existed between the Harrisburg station of William W. Rutherford and the country farm stations maintained by his relatives east of Harrisburg. But the chance that fugitives would lose their way en route increased considerably when they had to navigate along numerous barely discernable back roads, or worse, to venture cross-country, particularly at night. It was here that knowledgeable guides, the activists later known as “conductors,” were indispensable. They would know not only the roads, but also the hiding places along the way, if needed, the hostile farms, the dangerous terrain, the friendly and unfriendly dogs, and even the haunted spots to avoid.

The last was an important consideration to nineteenth century travelers. Physical hazards were abundant and presented obvious dangers; severe weather, wild animals, unfriendly humans, vicious farm dogs, and harsh terrain all took their toll on unwary travelers, causing injuries and even death. Fugitive slaves had good reason to fear all those things. However, the imagined hazards were often just as real, and just as great a threat in the minds of those who had to venture into the dark unknown, far from home and help. They were also real, vivid dangers in the minds of those who led them. The fields and woods of central Pennsylvania were filled with legends of ghosts—many more than exist in the present day—and most people who had heard the tales gave certain spots wide berths when venturing out into the night.

Many of these superstitions originated within the sturdy imaginations and cultural traditions of the local German American farmers, whose longstanding beliefs in hexes and witches was collected in an influential and locally published manual, Long Lost Friend (Verborgne Freund) as early as 1820. Other ghost stories originated with the English and Scots-Irish settlers of earlier decades. They were, regardless of origin, widely held beliefs that were somberly communicated as a warning to anyone who might chance an encounter.

The area in Swatara Township that once held so many of the Rutherford farms, reliable Underground Railroad stations, seemed to be thick with troublesome ghosts. William Franklin Rutherford documented many of the most well known stories for historian William Henry Egle’s “Notes and Queries” newspaper columns in the late 1800s. Rutherford described the hills of Swatara Township as being “fringed with ghosts,” although “some localities,” he noted, “were more prolific than others.” He cited the portion of Chambers Hill between Churchville and Fiddlers Elbow, a region heavily traversed by fugitive slaves journeying from Harrisburg to the outer Rutherford farms, as being particularly active:

And here, had we the time, we might stop to express our admiration of the great law of compensation which operates throughout the universe. What this region lacked in material resources, was abundantly made up in ghosts.73

Locals reported regular promenades of disembodied souls from one graveyard “wending their way through the woods to visit friends in some neighboring yard,” and “one instance is related of a general muster of all the ghosts of Chambers’ Hill and the country southward, to attend some great gathering held somewhere to the northward. The rendezvous was near the place where the church now stands.” Of particular concern to any night traveler—and fugitive slaves generally traveled by night—were “the somber shades of suicides and murderers,” according to Rutherford. “They were such disagreeable and dangerous customers that it was not deemed prudent for either man or beast to cross their paths.”74

Several of the Rutherford farms were located along present day Derry Street, which was then known as the turnpike road, as it was a toll road out of Harrisburg to points southeast. It ran through the valley between the heights of Chambers Hill and the rolling hills of Paxtang, and it was relatively clear of malicious spirits, but once fugitives had to leave the safety of the Rutherford farms and make the journey over wooded hill and swampy dale toward the next station near Linglestown, additional supernatural hazards lay in wait.
The safest route through the Harrisburg area, for all fugitive slaves, was always that in which they could pass quickly and unobserved, because unfriendly and opportunistic eyes were everywhere.

One such route, “a solitary bridle path forming a short cut between the valley and Linglestown,” threaded through the thickly wooded hills between stations. Rutherford does not accurately pin down the exact location of this path, and modern development has changed the landscape so drastically that determining where it once was is almost impossible. He describes it only as a spot “where three ravines meet, down each of which a small rivulet wends its way through tangled bushes and the decaying trunks of fallen timber. Near the junction of these ravines is an old graveyard in a sad state of neglect. Not far away is another, and between the two, each in his narrow house, away from all others, lie two suicides and ‘a crank.’”75

Whether the conductors who guided the many fugitive slaves northward from the Rutherford farms through this area avoided the haunted ravine, in the same way that they would have avoided pesky farm dogs, or guided their charges straight through it because it was quicker, is not known. But surely, they would have known its reputation, because the local farmers with whom they lived and worked would have shared the stories, at least as entertainment, if not as a warning. Perhaps the guides used the ghost stories to their advantage and took their chances with the haunted path, knowing the route would be little used precisely because of the supposed haunting, and their passage would probably be unobserved.

The ghost stories, as Rutherford noted, “however ridiculous and nonsensical they may be, once carried with them the force of verities.” It is only because they were so well known in his family—a family that regularly sheltered many of the fugitive slaves that made their way through this area in their journey toward freedom—and were regarded as genuine hazards among so many people, that they would have influenced the routes used by the Underground Railroad conductors who worked in close cooperation with the stationmasters. A threat was a threat, and whether is came from trained “Negro dogs,” freezing weather, overzealous jailors, ice floes on a frozen river, hostile enemy troops, or imagined malicious supernatural spirits, it had to be faced and overcome. With so many hazards potentially barring the road to freedom, it is amazing that so many fugitive slaves survived the journey. That they did is a testament to their courage and determination in the face of such daunting and terrifying obstacles.

 

Previous | Next

Notes

69. Judith Bookwalter, “Perry Co., Pandemonium,” 12 September 2000, RootsWeb, PAPERRY-L Archives, http://archiver.rootsweb.ancestry.com/th/read/PAPERRY/2000-09/0968778550 (accessed 23 August 2004).
I first heard the Pandemonium story from Robert Davidson, of Mechanicsburg, who heard the story from his father. Davidson grew up in Perry County.

70. Dick Sarge, “Freedom Quest: 2 Slaves Followed Star to Midstate,” Patriot-News, 14 January 1989, B5.

71. Bureau of the Census, Eighth United States Census, 1860, West Hanover Township, Dauphin County, Pennsylvania.

72. Sarge, “Freedom Quest.”
It is also possible that George Washington died considerably later than the 1863 date given. An intriguing entry in “Records of Wenrich’s Reformed Church,” compiled by Nevin Moyer and Earle W. Lingle in the 1930s (found in the Pennsylvania State Library, Genealogy Room, in “Dauphin County Church Records, Volume 8”) gives this note on page 58 in a section on unmarked graves: “George Washington, our last slave, buried on the mountain by Rev. Brownmiller.” If this is the same person for whom the mountain tombstone was intended, he probably died in the 1880s, which was when Rev. Brownmiller was active in this area. More likely, the date was incorrectly transcribed. In an article on the Underground Railroad in the Harrisburg area, Samuel S. Rutherford, writing in the early 1900s, gives the date on the tombstone as 8 April 1868. S. S. Rutherford, “The Under Ground Railroad,” in Historical Society of Dauphin County, Publications of The Historical Society of Dauphin County (Harrisburg: Historical Society of Dauphin County, 1928), 8.

73. William Franklin Rutherford, “The Ghosts of Swatara and the Region Round About,” in Egle, Notes and Queries, vol. 2, 68: 368.

74. Ibid., 368-369.

75. Ibid., 371.

 

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