Persons of Color
Backlash, Violence and Fear:
The Violent Decade (continued)
Up Like Men
fugitive slave now known as Joshua Kite was the
first person in the Parker house to rise and depart for his home
in the early morning hours. It was still quite dark as he descended
to the first floor of the fieldstone house and then stepped out
of the front door into the front clearing. Moonlight flooded the
yard with a thin, silvery light. If anything was amiss, he did
not immediately notice it as he walked through the yard, past a
peach tree, toward the small farm lane that ran alongside the cornfield.
he reached the edge of the clearing, several men emerged out of the
shadows of the orchard on one side and the cornfield on the other,
and two men, probably Kline and Gorsuch, blocked his path to the lane.
They grabbed at Kite but, startled, he jumped back, eluding their grasp.
The great sense of alarm for which he had come to the house the previous
evening flooded back into him as he recognized the moonlit face of
Edward Gorsuch. He dashed back into the farmhouse, shouting as loud
as he could, “Kidnappers! Kidnappers!” Edward Gorsuch,
realizing they had to act quickly, ordered his men to follow him.
Parker was still upstairs, having risen a few moments before, and was
near the top of the stairs when Joshua Kite burst back in, shouting
for him. Kite barely had time to tell his host that there were men
in the yard before the Southerners were at the doorway, and then just
as quickly were inside the house. Kite dashed up the stairs to the
sleeping quarters and some of the men ran across the room to follow,
with Marshal Kline in the lead. Parker stood defiantly at the top of
the stairs and confronted Kline as he was ascending the stairs. He
immediately challenged the lawman, demanding, “Who are you?”
am the United States Marshal,” Kline snapped back. Parker told
the marshal if he took another step up the stairs that he would break
his neck. This was not the reaction that Kline was expecting, but after
another angry exchange with Parker, the lawman, finding himself to
be in a vulnerable position on the stairs, carefully backed down to
the first floor.
his way down, Kline overhead Alexander Pinkney beginning to panic,
asking Parker what the use was in opposing the lawmen, because “they
will take us.” Kline, seeing an opening and hoping to break up
their unity, called to Pinkney, “Yes, we can and will take you.” But
William Parker quieted his brother-in-law and the others, who were
hunkered down and trapped with him on the second floor, rebuking them
for wanting to give in so easily. “Fight until death,” he
told them. The Philadelphia lawman, hearing the exhortation to remain
stalwart, taunted them, bragging, “I have heard many a negro
talk as big as you, and then have taken him.”
Gorsuch, meanwhile, was becoming impatient with the banter and exhorted
Marshal Kline to do his duty and stand up to what he considered insolent
and illegal behavior. “Follow me,” he told him, starting
up the staircase. “I’ll go up and get my property. The
law is in my favor.”
sizing up the man who claimed two of his guests as property, addressed
the slaveholder for the first time. In a disdainful voice he warned
him, “See here, old man, once up here you are mine.”
in Parker’s voice caused Gorsuch to pause. Perhaps he detected
in Parker’s tone a burning hatred, born of two centuries of chains,
whips, iron collars, rapes, murders and kidnappings, all now directed
straight toward him, toward the man who had invaded his home and was
now climbing brazenly and defiantly up his staircase with the intent
to trespass in his bedroom.
Mr. Gorsuch.” The voice was Kline’s. Now William Parker
had a name to put with the hatred. Unfolding
a document, the lawman said, “I will read the warrant, and then,
I think, they will give up.” At
that point, the bloodshed that was about to occur was inevitable. Nothing
either party could do or say would stop it, because each was incapable
of comprehending the other’s position.
Gorsuch glared at the man blocking the top of the stairs, standing
between him and his living, breathing, thinking property. The Maryland
slaveholder was considered a pillar of his community, a church leader
who was looked upon as possessing high moral standards, and a benevolent
master of slaves. In fact, he prided himself on his kindness toward
the people he kept as property, and he could not understand why they
would have run away, except through a misunderstanding. He felt that
they really wanted to go home and would do so if they only knew that
he did not intend to punish them much, and he intended to tell them
so. He really had no idea why this black man was being so stubborn,
and ignoring his right to drag his slaves off the property and back
home to Retreat Farm, as was his legal right.
H. Kline, too, could not comprehend the will that was sustaining William
Parker in his defiance. He had clearly identified himself as a federal
marshal, twice, and had demanded the surrender of the fugitives. In
his experience, it was natural for fugitive slaves to put up a fight.
They were acting out of fear and anger at being caught. He understood
that. It was also expected that anti-slavery men would act disgruntled
and protest when he forcibly entered their property, bearing a warrant,
but the word of the law always served to cow them into sullen silence.
this Parker fellow, Kline must have figured, simply did not understand
the full consequences of his actions. Why else would he deliberately
stand in the way, barring a federal lawman from carrying out his duties?
The deputy marshal’s solution was to fall back on the law, to
read the warrant aloud. Surely, that would end it. Unfortunately, he
had no idea what he was up against this time.
Have No Country"
Parker listened to the reading of the warrant for Noah Buley, Nelson
Ford, Joshua Hammond, and George Hammond in stony silence. Buley (Samuel
Thompson) and Ford (Joshua Kite) were crouching on the floor a few
feet away from him, and the two Hammond men were in a farmhouse a few
miles away, probably still unaware of the presence of their former
master. Together the four men were guilty of no crime, as Parker saw
it, other than having been born on Retreat Farm to a black mother.
He recalled hearing an address by Frederick Douglass, who had spoken
at an anti-slavery meeting in nearby Smyrna some years earlier, when
Parker had first arrived in the free North. The young Parker was enthralled
by the truth of his words, and “listened with the intense satisfaction
that only a refugee could feel.” From that moment on, he knew
that the fight could only truly be carried by African Americans, an
epiphany that molded his future plans and deeds.
hours before the dawn confrontation, Sarah Pownall, whose husband Levi
owned the farm on which the Parkers lived, had come to the farmhouse
to share her concerns over the rumors of a raid, and she had urged
him not to resist the law. But he no longer had any faith in laws that
did not protect people equally, telling her, “If a fight occurs,
I want the whites to keep away. They have a country and must obey the
laws. But we have no country.”49 The
words of the document Marshal Kline was reading did not impress him
because he did not recognize the United State of America as his country,
and therefore, in his eyes, the laws did not pertain to him or to anyone
in his home.
next few minutes were marked by a tense standoff during which Marshal
Kline, having failed to make any headway with the reading of the warrant,
threatened to burn the house and all its occupants. Parker turned aside
the threat with bravado. One last attempt by the two slave catchers
to gain forced access to the second floor was attempted, with Gorsuch
calling to “Nelson,” (Joshua Kite), whom he had almost
captured outside a few minutes before. The slave holder and the marshal
were halfway up the stairs when a fish gig came hurtling down the staircase
with murderous velocity, narrowly missing the men, followed by the
unmistakably ominous sound of bullets being loaded into guns.
two men retreated down the stairs and back into the front yard. There,
in the south Lancaster County darkness, the confrontation took a sudden
turn into surrealism. Heavily armed men were posted around the house,
covering it and its equally heavily armed occupants from all sides.
One man had climbed a peach tree for a better view of, and to get better
aim at, the house’s second story.
Maryland men outside felt an unpleasant tightening in the gut as they
anticipated having to rout out the desperate people inside, just as
the besieged occupants, crouched uneasily next to their spouses, relatives,
and friends, weighed the prospect of having to defend themselves and
their family from a foe who finally had them cornered. They cradled
long, murderously sharp, machete-like knives called corn cutters, and
in this predawn drama was a passenger on a runaway train, eyeing the
fast approaching end of the line and bracing for an imminent violent
collision. Yet even as the expectation of violence hung in the air,
nothing happened to trigger it. Men fidgeted nervously, listening as
the night songs of crickets began to give way to the rising morning
songs of birds. The comforting smell of damp, fertile Lancaster County
soil filled their nostrils. It seemed to be the awakening of a typically
beautiful late summer day.
this air of normality, the chief antagonists chose to face off, not
with weapons, but with words. Gorsuch and Parker began bantering with
each other, citing biblical verses to justify their stances, arguing
over the law, and renewing threats. Each countered the other’s
arguments, treating the standoff like a grammar school debate, and
grudgingly tendering the respect due an academic opponent. For a brief
time, slaveholder met slave in an equal contest of wills. But this
incongruous juxtaposition of murderous intent with academic testing,
of lilting birdsong with the click of a gun’s hammer being drawn
back, and of the promise of a normal day with the intense dread of
impending mayhem, was about to end.
gentle twilight from the approaching dawn taunted the slave catchers,
who realized that they were quickly losing time. Their pre-dawn raid
had bogged down into a philosophical debate and they were becoming
frustrated and angry. At that point, both hunter and hunted seemed
to come to the same chilling realization that there was going to be
no peaceful resolution; that neither side was backing down, neither
was going home without a fight.
came the trigger.
stillness of the predawn hour was suddenly pierced by the sound of
a fish horn, coming from a window of the farmhouse. The long, low tone
of the horn carried loud and far into the quiet valley. Eliza Parker
had sounded the blast, after asking William if it was time to do so.
This was a warning signal that had been prearranged by Parker among
the valley’s African American residents. It meant that some sort
of danger threatened, and that they should “proceed to the spot
promptly to see what was the matter.”
badly startled the jumpy Maryland men, one of whom fired a shot at
the window from which Eliza sounded the alarm. She ducked down immediately
below the sill of the window and continued to blow blasts on the horn,
even as more bullets ricocheted murderously off the stone wall around
her. All aspects of the surrealism that had settled briefly on the
yard vanished in the puffs of black powder smoke. Reality had returned
to demand a ruthless resolution to the standoff. More than a dozen
shots were fired at Eliza, but she kept to her post and sounded what
would become the clarion call to war.50
his analysis of the Christiana Resistance, historian Thomas P. Slaughter
stated, “In this war against slavery, there were no black noncombatants.” Eliza
Parker is the best proof of that statement. She was born into slavery
in Maryland as Eliza Ann Howard, and she escaped about 1844 or 1845
with her younger sister Hannah and came north into Pennsylvania. She
was barely sixteen at the time of her escape, and Hannah was about
the sisters made it safely to the house of abolitionist Daniel Gibbons,
who forwarded them to the farm of Dr. Obadiah Dingee, at which place
William Parker was working. Parker and the plucky teenage girl were
attracted to each other, were married shortly thereafter, and they
eventually settled down on the Levi Pownall farm. There, they were
joined by Eliza’s sister Hannah, who was newly married to Alexander
and Hannah were joined in the area by other family members, all fugitive
slaves, including their brother and their mother, Cassandra Harris,
in whose care Eliza’s children were placed during this crisis.
Now, barely out of childhood, this twenty-one-year-old girl was a partisan
in the resistance against slavery, calling in reinforcements as enemy
bullets splintered the stones above her head. She would go to battle
shortly, as would other women and men of the neighborhood.51
Harrisburg, attorney Charles Rawn awoke on the
morning of 11 September to the typical sounds of a late summer
dawn in the river town: delivery wagons clattering noisily through
the hard-packed dirt ruts of Second Street, distant horns and whistles
sounding the approach, or departure, of canal boats and trains,
the squawking of chickens, barking of dogs, and the ever-present
cursing of Pennsylvania-German wagoners who were already ensnared
in traffic jams around the busy market houses on the square. Nowhere
in this predawn din was there a hint that anything unusual was
afoot, anywhere in the land. Another hot day loomed in the sunrise
miles away, in sleepy Christiana, residents were
also waking to a hot morning, but it was not heat generated by
the early morning rays of a late summer sun that was threatening
to scorch the land. It was the white-hot heat of a long simmering
hatred. Edward Gorsuch and his men suddenly found themselves surrounded
by tens, then dozens, then scores of local residents, all of whom
came running at the sound of Eliza Parker’s fish horn.
of the assembling men and women were African American farmers and laborers
from nearby properties, and most carried farming implements, but it
was obvious they were not on their way to work in their fields or workshops.
They carried menacing-looking axes, knives, scythes, and clubs, and
some of them were openly brandishing guns. A few white men began appearing
as well, and Marshal Kline approached them immediately as rescuers,
demanding that they aid him, in accordance with the Fugitive Slave
Law, in capturing the slaves within the Parker farmhouse. But instead
of help, he received warnings to leave the area.
of the men, Quaker Elijah Lewis, reportedly told him, “Thee has
come to the wrong place for assistance.” On his way to investigate
the sounding of the horn, Lewis had alerted his neighbor, Castner Hanway,
a Quaker community leader, who arrived on horseback shortly after Lewis.
Again, Kline appealed for help, telling both men, “You are required
to help me,” but he was getting nowhere and could see the situation
becoming increasingly unstable as more and more agitated African American
minutemen arrived on the scene. The men in Gorsuch’s party had
been ordering the local residents away at the point of their guns,
but the sheer size of the gathering crowd, many of whom also carried
guns, soon took the authority out of those threats.
told Kline to look around at the gathering threat, and the Philadelphia
lawman, realizing that he had lost control of the situation, switched
from demanding that the whites obey the law to pleading for their help.
It was too late, though. Hanway rode away, Lewis walked away, and a
line of African American vigilantes moved in to close off the lane.52
49. Slaughter, Bloody
50. Ibid., 57-62;
Rettew, Treason at Christiana, 33-36; Parker, “Freedman’s
Story,” pt. 2, 283-284.
51. Slaughter, Bloody
Dawn, 60; Hensel, Christiana Riot, 28.
52. Rettew, Treason
at Christiana, 36-37; Parker, “Freedman’s Story,” pt.