Persons of Color
The Underground Road: To and From
1845 incident at William Rutherford’s farm illustrates
the workings of one link in the Underground Railroad network in the
during that time. It is not typical
of operations that took place earlier or would take place later, most
of which involved different locations, agents, and routes. Although it
shared certain key characteristics with earlier and later operations,
notably the secrecy, use of African American conductors to guide fugitives,
and use of outbuildings as shelters, even these could vary considerably
depending upon the situation and the principle actors. Yet it is useful
to examine the story because it reveals details of how the veteran stationmaster
responded to a crisis during what should have been a routine operation.
also shows the working relationship between Harrisburg’s white
anti-slavery activists and their African American counterparts in this
covert and illegal activity, and it generally defines the roles played
by each in the network. To flesh out those roles and further define this
very complex relationship requires a closer look at what was happening
behind the scenes in Harrisburg, from which place the party of fugitive
slaves was sent to Rutherford’s, and in the Underground Railroad
stations to the north of Harrisburg, where the surviving freedom seekers
were eventually sent.
slaves who arrived in Harrisburg generally traveled north from the
Mason and Dixon Line over a multitude of routes through York
Adams Counties, converged on Carlisle, and then made their way to
Harrisburg via one of a few possible routes, to cross the Susquehanna
the capital of Pennsylvania.
a large number of fugitives traveling north through York County made
the river crossing at Peach Bottom Ferry, right
the state line into Pennsylvania, or went further north to Wrightsville
and crossed the river into the friendly haven of Columbia, in Lancaster
County, before traveling further north from there. Both the Peach
Bottom and Wrightsville crossing sites had the advantage of being
manned by African American operatives who would assist in the crossing.
others entered Pennsylvania through Lancaster County or Chester
County and headed in a generally northwest direction to Harrisburg.
were major south to north corridors, but most routes overlapped here
and there, especially as dictated by circumstances. The Susquehanna
River, though, remained a major barrier to most of the northbound
runaways, with only a few good crossings available south of Harrisburg.
crossings, including the bridge at Harrisburg, were closely watched
by both the friends and the hunters of the fugitive slaves. Continued
on the path to freedom, particularly where it led through south
central Pennsylvania, often depended upon who spotted you first.
of fugitive slave sightings often made their way relatively quickly
back to owners. John Yellott, Jr. of Baltimore County
advertised in the
3 September 1819 edition of the Lancaster Journal for his lost
slave Isaac, adding a note at the bottom of the ad that “Isaac was seen
on the bank of the river Susquehanna, near Peach Bottom Ferry, on the
8th June last, and no doubt crossed the river there.” His
ad gives a glimpse of the network of fugitive slave watchers
who reported sightings
along the border counties.
freedom seekers, the counties of Cumberland, York, Adams, Lancaster,
Adams, and Perry frequently constituted the most
of their journey. Slave catchers operated with relatively
few legal restraints in those counties much of the time, were generally
supported, by the local white communities, and could usually
the assistance of local law enforcement officials if a situation
turned nasty. Very few white farmers, innkeepers, or property
willing to lend support of any kind to suspected fugitive
and were more
likely to inform the local sheriff if they observed strange
persons, particularly African American sojourners, moving
dearth of aid in the long stretches between large towns, where few
African American “settlements” existed, kept runaways constantly
fearful of discovery and mistrustful of strangers, even those who appeared
friendly. It was misplaced trust that nearly doomed Wesley Harris, mentioned
earlier, who escaped in company with the Matterson brothers from Harpers
Ferry, only to be captured just south of Gettysburg because they trusted
a man who offered them shelter in his barn and food to eat. Then, after
they relaxed and let down their guard, he brought eight slave catchers
to ensnare them. Smiling faces, fugitives learned, often hid greedy hearts.
The Mattersons were returned to slavery, but Harris, left to die after
being shot by the slave hunters, found his salvation in the local African
American servants who nursed him to health then led him to Gettysburg
and put him in the hands of true agents of the Underground Railroad.
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