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

 

It Was Time a Fuss Was Made

The two-story stone farmhouse that they were approaching was owned by a local Quaker farmer named Levi Pownall, who leased it to Parker and his extended family. William Parker was twenty-nine years old in 1851, married with three young children under the age of five, and he made his living by operating a threshing machine for local farmers. This picture of down-to-earth domesticity hid a lifetime of pain and struggle, however.

Parker was born into slavery on a large plantation in Anne Arundel County, Maryland, and his mother died when he was very young. He was raised without parental support, living with other children in the “Quarter,” a large slave dormitory, constantly competing for food and warmth. When he got old enough, his owner, David McCulloch Brogden, used him as a competitive fighter in matches against slaves from neighboring plantations.

All the while, Parker witnessed the sale of less valuable slaves by Brogden for extra cash during the financially difficult years of the 1830s. Brogden kept Parker around because he was young and strong, and he won money for his master who bet on him in the fighting matches, but when his friend and fellow slave Levi Storax was sold, Parker realized that no one was immune from that fate.

The threat became even more real a few years later when a misunderstanding between Parker and Brogden led to the threat of a whipping. The hard feelings intensified until an incident occurred in which Brogden came at Parker with a stick, intent upon giving him a beating. Parker’s fighting instinct, honed by years of battling his fellow slaves and adversaries from other plantations, kicked in, and he took the stick from Brogden and severely beat the man with it. Although acting in self-defense, his actions left him with no rational choice beyond fleeing the plantation, which he immediately did. It was 1839 and William Parker, at age seventeen, along with his brother John, left the Maryland plantation of his master and set out, in his words, on the “high road to liberty,” as much to seek his freedom as to preserve his life.41

John and William Parker found shelter with free African Americans in Baltimore, but because they were wanted for assaulting a white slave master, they knew the perceived safety of the city was only temporary, and that they needed to get farther away, in particular beyond the reach of Maryland authorities. Pennsylvania was the logical choice because it was known to offer refuge to fleeing Maryland slaves, so they headed north with the intention of getting to a friend’s house in York. They soon learned that being in a “free” state did not guarantee them security.

Not long after crossing the state line, near the small town of Loganville, William’s fighting skills would again serve him well. They were stopped on the road by a small group of slave catchers who had a copy of the advertisement with William and John’s descriptions, placed by their owner after their escape. Fortunately for the Parker brothers, these were not professional slave catchers, but a group of local York County men looking to make extra cash by intercepting fugitive slaves they found on the road and returning them for reward money.

Thinking that they had the advantage, being three men to the fugitives’ two, the York men attempted to grab them, but William quickly went into action with his walking stick club, breaking the arm of his nearest would-be captor. Faced with such unexpected and fierce resistance, the three local men ran away, leaving William and John to continue their journey to York. The attempted capture and sudden fight became hot news, however, and the brothers had to leave the safety of their friend’s house. They were advised to travel northeast toward the Susquehanna River and Wrightsville, where they would be met by a man who would take them across the river into the safer town of Columbia.

On the way to Wrightsville, they learned that they were being actively pursued by men sent by their former master, David Brogden, but they were able to avoid being discovered. An agent of the Underground Railroad, possibly Robert Loney, rowed them across the river near the Wrightsville crossing. They decided not to tarry in Columbia, however, and decided to proceed deeper into Lancaster County, seeking the protection of a Quaker community.42

 

Bitter, Sleepless Vigilance

William and John parted ways in Lancaster County and each found work and settled down to the life of a free laboring man, each working for their own wages and enjoying the freedom to spend off time as they wished. After a few years of living life as a free African American man in a southern Pennsylvania border county though, William Parker began to realize, “by bitter experience” a sobering truth. He wrote in his memoirs “that to preserve my stolen liberty I must pay, unremittingly, an almost sleepless vigilance.”

He found that he was hounded by slave catchers almost from the start, yet unlike most resettled fugitive slaves, Parker did not take great pains to hide, and in fact seemed to welcome confrontation. To counter their actions, which at the time included numerous kidnappings, he organized a mutual protection society “to prevent any of our brethren being taken back into slavery, at the risk of our own lives.” One of their tactics, when word got to them that slave catchers were in the area, was to band together and make a highly visible show of force along the routes favored by slave catching parties, making a point to present a particularly belligerent scene outside of any tavern in the area. This tactic had very desirable results. As Parker noted with satisfaction in his memoirs, “So much alarmed were the tavern-keepers by our demonstration, that they refused to let [slave catching parties] stop overnight with them.”43

Parker’s activists ran into a direct confrontation with county law enforcement officers in August 1845, when a local man, William Dorsey, was taken by Maryland slave catchers and lodged in the Lancaster County Jail to await trial as a runaway slave. Dorsey had been in the area for years, working in the nearby Grubb furnaces, and marrying and settling down to raise a family. When he was arrested, his wife and three children were left with no means of support.

The mutual protection society gathered together at Parker’s command, to draw up a course of action. Since Dorsey was already in jail, they decided that the best way to free him, assuming that he was remanded south by the judge, was to get him away from the slave holders as he was brought out of the court house following the trial.

Dorsey’s trial began on a Saturday, and as he was brought before Judge Ellis Lewis, Parker’s men took their positions. One was inside of the courtroom, where he could observe the proceedings and send word out to the rest, who had gathered in Center Square, around the old courthouse building. The slaveholder presented “conclusive” evidence, according to a report of the trial in the Lancaster Examiner, and Judge Lewis subsequently ruled that Dorsey “be surrendered to his owner.” Parker’s inside man relayed this information to the rescue party waiting outside, and they put their plan into action, forming a column at the courthouse entrance. Parker himself told what happened next:

And when the slaveholders and Dorsey came out, we walked close to them—behind and around them—trying to separate them from him. Before we had gone far towards the jail, a slaveholder drew a pistol on William Hopkins, one of our party. Hopkins defied him to shoot; but he did not. Then the slaveholder drew the pistol on me, saying, he would blow my black brains out, if I did not go away.

Parker drew back his fist to punch the man and someone caught his arm, which “started a fracas,” as he put it. A general melee developed, where “bricks, stones and sticks fell in showers,” around the rioters. The fight engulfed the entire square as the mutual protection activists fought with the slaveholders and local whites who came to their aid. Although they tried their best, Parker’s men could not get William Dorsey away from his captors, and the fight began to go against them. Parker, as the leader, was grabbed by groups of whites several times, but each time he fought free. Seeing the rising numbers of local white men swarming into the square, he feared his band of would be rescuers would soon be overpowered and severely beaten when the lawmen got organized enough to begin making arrests, so he called a general retreat.44

The fight ended with the arrest of one of Parker’s men and with Dorsey still in custody, but this seeming defeat was a crucial turning point in how William Parker viewed his role as an anti-slavery activist. He later wrote, “I distinctly remember that this was the second time that resistance had been made to their wicked deeds. Whether the kidnappers were clothed with legal authority or not, I did not care to inquire.”

Later, while licking his wounds at a friend’s house and seething over the increase in violent kidnappings of local African Americans, he made a decision to put a stop to the raids. He knew that he could not count on support from the majority of local white residents, whom he termed “negro-haters,” and he announced his plans to fight the violence with violence. His host’s wife, fearing the implications of what was being planned in her kitchen, protested, “It will make a fuss.” Parker resolutely replied, “It is time a fuss was made.”45

 

Flourish


There had been a full moon over the countryside around Christiana, Pennsylvania on the previous evening, and even in the early morning hours of 11 September 1851, a waning gibbous moon bared ninety-nine percent of its face to illuminate the lane along which Edward Gorsuch and his party crept as the William Parker house came into view. They kept to the center of the road, flanked on their right by a cornfield and on their left by an apple orchard. The farmhouse, bathed in silvery moonlight, sat serenely just ahead of them in a clearing among the apples trees. There was no movement around it and no light coming from the interior. Dawn was still at least three-quarters of an hour away, and the raiding party hoped to catch the occupants of the house in their sleep, which would make it easy to overpower and capture the two men they believed to be hiding inside. Everything seemed to be unfolding according to their plans.

The men reached the clearing and then spread out, taking positions just at the end of the farmyard and in the shadows of the cornfield and the orchard. Marshal Kline and Edward Gorsuch stayed at the center as if to command the operation, checked the position of their men, then strode purposefully toward the yard and the entrance to the house.46

 

Flourish


In fact, most of the occupants of the house were yet asleep and the slave catchers stood a good chance of success in ambushing the Parker household. At least one of the two men they hoped to catch was inside, fast asleep on the second floor. There were others, in addition to William Parker and his young wife Eliza, in the household. Alexander and Hannah Pinkney, a young newly married couple, shared the house with the Parkers. Hannah, at only eighteen years old, was Eliza Parker’s younger sister. In addition, three persons identified as local residents, Abraham Johnson, Samuel Thompson, and Joshua Kite, were present, having stopped in the night before with alarming news that kidnappers had been spotted in the area and were rumored to be on their way to Parker’s house.

By some accounts, Abraham Johnson, a free African American from the same area as the four hunted men, was actually living in the house at the time, rather than visiting; he was hiding out from local authorities because he was wanted in his native state on theft charges. Thompson and Kite, similarly, may not have been just local residents. Samuel Johnson is believed to have been the fugitive slave Noah Buley, and Joshua Kite was probably Nelson Ford, two of the men sought by the Gorsuch party. Parker, his wife Eliza, and the Pinkneys listened to the stories of approaching kidnappers, which visibly upset Alexander Pinkney, but Parker reassured him and dismissed their fears with a laugh, telling everyone it was all just idle talk.

Secretly, though, he knew something was up. Samuel Williams, a Philadelphia African American businessman, anti-slavery activist, and member of the same anti-slavery intelligence network that would shortly become the Vigilance Committee, had been in the office of Philadelphia Slave Commissioner Edward D. Ingraham on 9 September, where he observed Edward Gorsuch swearing out a warrant against the four fugitive slaves believed to be hiding in the vicinity of Christiana.

Williams owned a tavern on Seventh Street in Philadelphia and had gained a contract to deliver ice to the Federal Commissioner’s office at regular intervals, thus enabling him to keep an eye on the proceedings there. When he learned of the impending raid in Christiana, the Underground Railroad spy immediately contacted one of the city’s leading activists, William Still, who agreed that Williams should be put on the next train to Christiana to warn the local African American inhabitants of the danger.

Unfortunately, Samuel Williams was not familiar with the small rural town or its local Underground Railroad contacts, so upon arrival he ended up alerting several neighbors and spreading a general alarm, but never actually making contact with William Parker himself. Gradually, through various sources, the stories got back to William Parker, and he and his wife took the precaution of sending their three small children, all under age five, to live with neighbors until the danger passed. With the children out of the house, Parker invited the neighbor men to stay the night.

The news that had caused neighbors Johnson, Thompson, and Kite to hurry on over to the Parker house to spread an alarm was also making its way through the local African American community. More importantly, the stories seemed to pinpoint William Parker’s house as the expected scene of trouble. This would not have seemed unusual, as William Parker had already become an important resistance leader in the African American community by now.

After his 1845 unsuccessful attempt to free William Dorsey in Lancaster’s Center Square, Parker had become more convinced that the violence of slave catching must be opposed by a violent resistance. He refined his idea of a mutual protection society and enlisted several trusted friends to counter by force the intrusions of slave catching parties. They had their first encounter in Gap, when they tracked down a Maryland party that had kidnapped a young girl from the house of abolitionist Moses Whitson, who lived just over the line in neighboring Chester County.

Whitson, a Quaker, had long been an advocate for African American rights. As early as 1832, he had been one of the organizers of a meeting at the Sadsbury School House in Lancaster County to “consider a plan to abolish slavery.” Shortly thereafter, he helped organize and was secretary of the very active Clarkson Anti-Slavery Society. He also sheltered and often employed fugitive slaves, many of whom were forwarded to him by Daniel Gibbons.

The woman who was taken, Elizabeth, had been one of these freedom seekers he received from Gibbons. One of Parker’s men, Benjamin Whipper, observed the capture of Elizabeth at the Whitson farm, and alerted Parker, who promptly rounded up six or seven of his followers to track them. They caught up with the Marylanders and the young girl on the turnpike road near Gap. The slave catchers, who were staying at a tavern in Gap, made the mistake of taking breakfast at their tavern after the capture, instead of riding directly home. This allowed Parker and his men to catch up with them fairly quickly, and to set a trap.

Gap was dangerous territory for all African American persons, due to the constant threat of robbery and kidnapping by members of the notorious Gap Gang. Parker and his band of rescuers, however, rode boldly through the area, intent upon their mission. They told Benjamin Whipper to follow the Marylander’s wagon, riding a white horse borrowed from Moses Whitson, to distinguish the wagon from the others that left the tavern that morning. Parker and his men hid in the thick brush that hemmed in the narrow turnpike road on a solitary stretch where it cut through Gap Hill. When they spotted Whipper on his white horse at a safe distance behind a single wagon, they sprang their trap, leaping out of the woods to ambush the Marylanders. The slave owner drew his pistol in defense and fired wildly, but the element of surprise enabled the rescuers quickly to gain the upper hand. The melee was quick and sharp. When Parker and his band retreated from Gap Hill, they had Elizabeth safely in their possession and the Marylanders were left lying in the road, two of them dying from severe wounds. Not long after, the barn of a tavern owner who had aided the men was burned by Parker’s vigilantes. His reputation as a protector of African American residents and as an opponent of the Gap Gang grew significantly after this affair.47

There were other incidents, including one very daring nighttime raid on a Chester County tavern in which a slave catching party had rested for the evening after taking their quarry. Parker and one of his men forced their way, through a hail of bullets, into the tavern, where they forced out the occupants and freed the bound captive slave. They quickly left the tavern, with Parker limping from a bullet wound to the ankle, but as soon as they crossed the doorsill, they were unexpectedly pinned down by heavy gunfire coming from the surrounding houses in the small crossroads town on the West Chester Road.

The two rescuers returned fire, but were clearly outgunned until five more of Parker’s men joined them. The resulting firefight lasted for a quarter of an hour before the shooters in the houses, suffering much from the marksmanship of the African American men, asked for a cease-fire. Parker’s rescue party accepted, and cautiously withdrew into the night with the recovered slave.

In at least two incidents, William Parker plotted the death of local African American men who were known to have provided information that led to the capture of fugitive slaves in the area. The first was a man with whom he was well acquainted, and in whom he had placed his complete trust to shelter runaway slaves. The subsequent capture of these fugitives by slave hunting parties, easily and without warning, raised Parker’s suspicions, and upon investigating, he found that the neighbor, Allen Williams, was betraying the freedom seekers to members of the Gap Gang. Parker shared the information with his men, and they immediately went as a group to Williams’ house, where they beat him senseless. Only the approach of another neighbor saved the spy from being beaten to death.

Later, another African American man, not identified in Parker’s memoirs, was discovered to be luring fugitive slaves to his house and then sending word back to their owner to come capture them. This situation so infuriated Parker, who also attributed the kidnapping of neighborhood free African American children to this same man, that he “thought he should be shot openly in his daughter’s house.” Parker’s men decided to set the man’s house on fire and shoot him as he ran out. The plan almost worked, but their intended victim ran out of a different door than they expected just as the walls of the house fell in, and he got away.48

This combination of vigilante justice, guerrilla raids, irregular militia actions, and publicly stated renunciation of federal and state law was unprecedented. William Parker had raised the level of resistance well beyond petitions and protests, employing a level of violence heretofore unseen to defend his family and neighbors. In the later words of Frederick Douglass, William Parker had simply had enough, and he called together the African American community to “stand ye up like men.” This was the man Marshal Henry H. Kline and Maryland slaveholder Edward Gorsuch were about to confront.

 

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Notes

41. Parker, “Freedman’s Story,” 159; Rettew, Treason at Christiana, 9, 11, 16-17. William Parker was born on Roedown Plantation, the home of Maryland Revolutionary War hero Major William Brogden, who owned more than eighty slaves about the time that Parker was born. After the death of Major Brogden in 1824, Parker became the property of one of his sons, David McCulloch “Mack” Brogden. John Gartrell, “Roedown Plantation and the Christiana Resistance,” Maryland State Archives Online, Roedown Essay, http://www.msa.md.gov/msa/mdslavery/html/casestudies/roedown_essay.html (accessed 10 October 2009).

42. Rettew, 11-13. The Underground Railroad agent who ferried John and William Parker across the Susquehanna River in his rowboat was not identified by name, but the time period, location and method of crossing the river match Robert Loney’s activities during this time. Smedley, History, 49, 51, 77.

43. Parker, “Freedman’s Story,” 160-161.

44. Ibid.; Liberator, 29 August 1845.

45. Parker, “Freedman’s Story,” 162.

46. “Sun and Moon Data for One Day,” 11 September 1851 for Christiana, Lancaster County, PA, U.S. Naval Observatory, Astronomical Applications Department, http://aa.usno.navy.mil/cgi-bin/aa_pap.pl (accessed 14 October 2009). Data shows civil twilight beginning at 5:13 a.m., and sunrise at 5:40 a.m. On page 33 of Treason at Christiana, Author L.D. Rettew reports a “heavy mist lay in the valley” just before sunrise, an indication of minimal cloud cover.

47. Still, Underground Rail Road, 361; Liberator, 3 November 1832, 13 September 1834; Smedley, History, 96-97; Parker, “Freedman’s Story,” 281-283. Barn burnings in retribution for support or denunciation of slave catchers occurred on both sides. W. U. Hensel wrote that Sadsbury abolitionist Lindley Coates’ barn was burned in 1850 for his defiance of the new law. Hensel, Christiana Riot, 16. Historian Thomas P. Slaughter identifies Abraham Johnson as the free African American charged in the theft of wheat from Retreat Farm, the incident that triggered the four slaves to run away. Johnson was a fugitive from justice, wanted in Maryland on charges of receiving stolen goods. He was not a fugitive slave. Thomas P. Slaughter, Bloody Dawn: The Christiana Riot and Racial Violence in the Antebellum North (New York: Oxford University Press, 1994), 57; Rettew, Treason at Christiana, 27-31.
48. Parker, “Freedman’s Story,” 165-166.

 

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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