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Oliver C. Gilbert's Passage to Freedom, 1848

Recounted to The Inquirer by Oliver C. Gilbert

First person narratives of the route, hardships and aid received by freedom seekers is rare. Many passed away before seeing their stories documented. Oliver Gilbert, a resident of various northern states and later Philadelphia, related his story to audiences across the country as part of his family's musical performances as the Gilbert Family Jubilee Singers. The account below is from a Lancaster newspaper in 1887, nearly forty years after the events that took him from enslavement in Howard County, Maryland, to freedom and community, ultimately settling in Philadelphia. His story not only documents the route taken by a large group of men in 1848, two years before the federal Fugitive Slave Law took effect, but includes the names of several key individuals who worked as Underground Railroad activists. The story below was printed word-for-word in at least three Lancaster newspapers over a span of a few weeks, and large parts of it appear to have been lifted verbatim from a much longer and more detailed account that appeared in the Harrisburg Telegraph a year earlier. The version below neatly summarizes his story.

Headlines of 1887 news feature telling the story of freedom seeker Oliver Gilbert.

How Oliver Gilbert Escaped from Slavery's Clutches.

In the year 1848, on the day of the execution of the two colored men in this city, sixteen suspicious looking negroes entered Lancaster on the Columbia road.

"We're going to see the hanging," they said when questioned concerning their business and destination.

But, finally, meeting a man who impressed them as a friend, they asked him where they could get something to do.

He told them that they had better go to No. 45 South Queen street. There they would probably find a friend who would assist them.

There they went. Without asking many questions the gentleman they met gave them a letter addressed to Daniel Gibbons at Bird-in-Hand, and told them how to find the place. That same evening they reached the Gibbons' homestead. Mr. Gibbons was sitting on the porch with his wife. He received them as cordially as though they had been expected guests. After a short conversation they were given an excellent supper, and put to bed, the best, one of them recently said, they had ever slept in. The next morning they gave him the letter they received in Lancaster, when they learned it was written by Thaddeus Stevens, the friend of the colored man. After breakfast Mr. Gibbons sent the party in a covered wagon to Chester. There these fugitive slaves, for such they were, separated after a plucky break for liberty and a safe journey on the "underground railroad" from Lancaster to Chester.

What became of fifteen of these fugitives whom Thaddeus Stevens put on the broad highway to freedom THE INQUIRER does not know. But the sixteenth is not less a personage than Oliver Gilbert, the head of the Gilbert family, that entertained so many communities in Lancaster county during the past year with their concerts and musical exhibitions. Mr. Gilbert is now living in Philadelphia. When a slave he was the property of Dr. Watkins, in Howard county, Maryland. The escape was made from a camp meeting where all of Dr. Watkins' slaves had been taken to listen to an harangue by a Rev. Mr. Brown, a minister who held pronounced pro-slavery views and who delighted in selecting for his text: "Exhort servants to be obedient unto their own masters, and to please them well in all things, answering not again."

At 8 o'clock on Sunday evening the 16 struck for freedom. The next morning they managed to pass safely around Hanover where a fugitive slave patrol held forth. Pretty soon they found that horsemen and dogs were on their track, and they took to the cornfields. While in the cornfield, "Ben," who was their leader, ordered the boys all to examine themselves and be ready, if necessary, to kill every white man who attempted to arrest them. Oliver says he had a large dirk knife given to him by his uncle, who had obtained freedom at the death of his master, and two revolvers. Happily they did not have occasion to shed blood. By stealthy marching they reached the Columbia bridge tuesday night and crossed the river. Then, indeed, they thought they were safe. All along their belief had been that Canada was only ten miles from York, just the other side of the river. So, presuming themselves to be safe in Canada, they laid down in the sand on the river bank and went to sleep. They slept soundly until after daylight, when they were aroused by some one, who informed them that it was not safe to be there. Then they learned for the first time that Canada was more than five hundred miles away. After spending the last cent for something to eat, they started in the direction of Lancaster. They told every person they met that they were hunting work, until some one inquired if they were going to see "that man hung." They caught the idea than an execution was to take place in the city, and gave that as the object of their mission.



Oliver Cromwell Gilbert was born enslaved in Clarksville, Maryland as Oliver Cromwell Kelly. His father, Joseph Kelly, was a free Black man in Owingsville, Maryland, but his mother, Cynthia Snowden, was enslaved, and Oliver shared that status upon birth. He produced important writings and documents on his experiences, many of which are archived at the University of Maryland, the Maryland Historical Society and the University of New Hampshire. A descendant, Stephanie Gilbert, maintains an excellent website devoted to his life and work, "Olver Cromwell "O.C." Gilbert, at

Oliver Kelly took the surname "Gilbert" from Lancaster County farmer Amos Gilbert, one of the Bart Township Quakers that aided him in his escape. In the fugitive slave advertisement below, he is listed by his enslaver, Dr. William Watkins, as Oliver Kelly.
1848 ad for Oliver Kelly, freedom seeker from Maryland.
Text of the ad above:

$600 REWARD will be given for the delivery in Baltimore or Howard District Jail, or $200 for either, of the following described NEGRO BOYS, who left the Camp-Meeting at Hobbs' School House, Howard District, on Sunday evening, 20th instant:
BEN, a tall Black Boy, about 20 yeares of age.
SAM, a tall Mulatto; impediment in speech; brother of Ben.
OLIVER KELLY, a stout, thick set Black, about 20 years of age, 5 feet 7 inches high. Address Clarksville, Howard District.
After settling in Philadelphia with his family, O.C. Gilbert and his children began performing classical and traditional songs. They met with considerable success and formed the Gilbert Jubilee Singers, touring the region. The advertisement below is from an 1885 appearance in Madison, New Jersey.
1885 Newspapaper ad promoting the appearance of the Gilbert Family Jubilee Singers in Madison, New Jersey.

For the shorter version of Oliver Gilbert's story appearing in Lancaster area newspapers in 1887, see this page.


  • The Baltimore Sun, 23 August 1848.
  • The Inquirer (Lancaster, Pennsylvania), 26 February 1887.
  • The Lancaster New Era (Lancaster, Pennsylvania), 26 February 1887.
  • The Telegraph (Harrisburg, Pennsylvania), 04 December 1886.
  • The Madison Eagle (Madison, New Jersey), 09 May 1885.
  • Life & Legacy, O.C. Gilbert,, accessed 14 May 2024.

Now Available on this site

The Year of Jubilee

Vol. 1: Men of God and Vol. 2: Men of Muscle

by George F. Nagle

Both volumes of the Afrolumens book are now available on this website. Click the link to read.

The Year of Jubilee is the story of Harrisburg'g free African American community, from the era of colonialism and slavery to hard-won freedom.

Volume One, Men of God, covers the turbulent beginnings of this community, from Hercules and the first slaves, the growth of slavery in central Pennsylvania, the Harrisburg area slave plantations, early runaway slaves, to the birth of a free black community. Men of God is a detailed history of Harrisburg's first black entrepreneurs, the early black churches, the first black neighborhoods, and the maturing of the social institutions that supported this vibrant community.

It includes an extensive examination of state and federal laws governing slave ownership and the recovery of runaway slaves, the growth of the colonization movement, anti-colonization efforts, anti-slavery, abolitionism and radical abolitionism. It concludes with the complex relationship between Harrisburg's black and white abolitionists, and details the efforts and activities of each group as they worked separately at first, then learned to cooperate in fighting against slavery. Read it here.

Non-fiction, history. 607 pages, softcover.

Volume Two, Men of Muscle takes the story from 1850 and the Fugitive Slave Law of 1850, through the explosive 1850s to the coming of Civil War to central Pennsylvania. In this volume, Harrisburg's African American community weathers kidnappings, raids, riots, plots, murders, intimidation, and the coming of war. Caught between hostile Union soldiers and deadly Confederate soldiers, they ultimately had to choose between fleeing or fighting. This is the story of that choice.

Non-fiction, history. 630 pages, softcover.



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