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a book about Harrisburg...

by George F. Nagle


Table of Contents

Study Areas:



Free Persons of Color

Underground Railroad

The Violent Decade

US Colored Troops

Civil War


Chapter Four
Legacy of Slavery

Tradesmen and Others

Beyond farms and iron furnaces, slaves in central Pennsylvania could also be found working at inns, employed as house servants, and even plying skilled trades. Unlike the agricultural and industrial slaves, who spent much of their lives on isolated farms or in small industrial communities, these slaves were usually found in towns, living and working in proximity to other slaves, bound servants, both black and white, and free persons of color. They generally experienced more freedom of movement, action, and most importantly, association, as they moved through their daily chores. They were generally well informed on regional events and on local gossip, and frequently had friends and family in nearby towns, with whom they sometimes were able to keep in contact.

When Pennsylvania law required all residents to register their slaves in accordance with the 1780 Gradual Abolition Act, the Harrisburg area was still known as Harris’ Ferry, and was a part of Paxton Township, Lancaster County. All slaveholders in this area were required by the new law to travel to the county seat in Lancaster to enter the names of their slaves into a register kept by the county clerk there. Slaveholders had to provide the names and ages of slaves that they owned, and give their own place of residence and occupation.

From the surviving Lancaster County slave register, transcriptions of which are in the collection of the Lancaster County Historical Society, we can get an accurate picture of the persons who owned slaves in present day Dauphin County, and their occupations at that time. Sixty-nine Lancaster County slaveholders, who had places of residence that would correspond to present day Dauphin County, registered 162 slaves. Forty-five of those slaveholders listed their occupation as “farmer,” and held sixty-eight, or forty-two percent, of the slaves in present day Dauphin County. The rest of the slaves were registered by persons with varied occupations and situations.

Jacob Awl, a tanner, held six slaves at this time. He would register more at a later date. Surveyor John Clendenin registered three slaves that might have been a family: a man, a woman, and a child. Also listed are two millers and two blacksmiths, with three slaves each; a “clerk,” John Montgomery, who was actually a legal clerk and who would, in 1785, be commissioned a Justice of the Peace for the newly formed county of Dauphin. Montgomery held two slaves: Tom, aged twenty-five years, and Margaret, aged fifty-five years. Harrisburg tradesman Mary Smith listed her occupation as “gloverist” when she registered her twenty-two-year-old slave, Sussanah, at Lancaster. Her registration is typical of the format used by most slaveholders in complying with the new law:

PAXTANG, October the 14th, 1780.
In pursuance of the act of the Assembly for the gradual Abolition of Slavery, Mary Smith, Gloverist, of Paxtang Township, in Lancaster County, Do hereby Enter with the Clark of the Sessions of said County the following Person, a Sleave during her life, viz: Shusanah, a Negro Wench about twenty-two years of age and owned by me.
To John Hubley, Esq'r. Clark of the Sessions of Lancaster County.

The “gloverist” Mary Smith was one of four females from what would become Dauphin County registering slaves in Lancaster Borough, and she was the only female tradesman to register a slave. One female listed no occupation and the other two women registered as widows. One slaveholder, William Plunket, listed his occupation as “Dr. of Physick.” Plunket married Esther Harris, daughter of trading pioneer John Harris I. Plunket was a doctor and an officer of the provincial service, and was suspected of being a loyalist during the Revolutionary War. Blocked from joining the Continental Army, Plunket remained a civilian throughout the war. He retired to Sunbury, where he died and is buried. On 25 October 1780, Plunket registered the slaves Toby, age twenty-five, and Ben, age twenty-three.

In addition to the occupations listed in the register, we know that there were at least three operators of ferries: Maxwell Chambers, who registered four slaves; John Harris II, who registered three slaves; and William Kelso, with four slaves. John Gilchrist, who listed his occupation as farmer, was also a successful miller, and Archibald McAllister, who has already been discussed above, ran several businesses at which his slaves were employed, including a dairy, an inn, a sawmill, and a distillery.34

A subsequent clarification of the Gradual Abolition Act, passed in 1788, required that all children of slaves had to be registered as well. This act to “explain” the 1780 act called for the registration of all children born to previously registered slaves before 1 April 1789, or within six months of their date of birth. Because Dauphin County had since been organized as a separate county, this register was kept in Harrisburg.

One-hundred-and-ninety-four children of Dauphin County slaves were registered over a period of thirty-seven years by ninety-seven slaveholders, providing an additional source of information about the occupations in which slaves were engaged in Dauphin County.

From this new list, among other occupations, we find three doctors, one judge, and a merchant. Jeremiah Sturgeon, who registered the slave child Dinah, operated a still. John Capp, who registered slave children James and Hannah, ran a lumber and iron business in Harrisburg. David Patton, of Lower Paxton Township, had a well-known tan yard. Patton registered the slave child Isabella, and a year later registered a child named Rachel. Although Patton does not appear on the 1780 slave registration lists, an 1800 tax list of slaves in Lower Paxton Township shows him as owning a twenty-four-year-old female slave named Hagaor [Hagar], who he probably acquired sometime after the registration period. It is likely that Hagar was the mother of the two female children that Patton later registered in Harrisburg.

Those children would not have been listed on the 1800 tax list of slaves for two reasons: as children of slaves due to be manumitted by law at age twenty-eight, the state did not recognize their condition as that of a slave, but rather, they were classified as bound servants. Even if they had been considered true slaves by the local authorities, the 1800 listing was compiled from the Septennial Census, which only counted slaves over the age of twelve, for tax purposes.

The fate of these two young girls is called into question, however, because in late 1781 Patton sold his farmland and tannery in Londonderry Township, and although the advertisement listed, along with the 197-acre “plantation” and land, “a strong and healthy Negro Wench about 24 years of age (a slave for life.),”35 it made no mention of any slave (or servant) children.36

These tradesmen slaveholders nearly always used their slaves as laborers in the business, and the slaves, by necessity, became skilled in the various occupations. When slave William Keith escaped from his owner William Chesney at John Harris’ ferry in 1769, Chesney advertised that the missing slave was “a Cooper by Trade,” and “is well acquainted in Philadelphia, having learnt his trade there.” The tanner Jacob Awl trained at least one of his slaves, Peter, in the tanning business. Unfortunately, Peter was not able to make great use of his skills to avoid the indignation of being publicly auctioned, along with a woman named Grace, as part of the estate after the death of his owner in 1800:

Will be exposed to Public Sale on Monday the 27th Day of January inst. at 10 o'clock in the Forenoon, at the Dwelling-House of Mrs. Awl in Lower-Paxton. A NEGRO MAN called Peter, about 22 years of age, an excellent Tanner to trade, a Negro Woman called Grace, likewise horses, a Sleigh, Plow, a quantity of Leather, and a number of Household and Kitchen Furniture. Taken in execution as the property of Jacob Awl, and will be sold by Henry Orth, Sheriff, Harrisb. January 2d, 1800.37

Jacob Awl registered a total of ten slaves during his lifetime, but only two, Grace and Peter, remained with the family by the time his estate was liquidated at a sheriff’s auction in January 1800. It appears, though, that Peter was not auctioned off to the highest bidder, because a few months later he was still listed on the tax roles living with Awl’s widow, Sarah. The female slave Grace, however, is not found anywhere on county tax lists,38 and although Grace dropped from view after this sale, Peter remained with the Awl family for quite a few more years, gradually making the transition into freedom.

The eighteenth-century tanning business was very unpleasant and workers were exposed to harsh chemicals and very strong odors. Of all the skilled trades, tanning seems to be mentioned the most frequently in slavery documentation. In 1765, an unnamed Chester County tanner decided he had had enough of the business and offered his entire “Stock of Soal [sic], Upper and Saddle Leather” to be sold. In addition, he offered for sale “A Strong likely Negroe Man, about 25 Years of Age, has had the Small Pox, and been used to work in a Tanyard, will suit either a Tanner or Farmer; is not sold for any Fault, but I having declined the Tanning Business, have no further Use for him.” The Marcus Hook tanner boarded the slave at Matthias Slough’s house in Lancaster, so that local tanners could examine the man as a possible addition to their work force.

Tanning was also the trade of Bill Bevis, slave of Middletown tan yard owner John Croll. Croll came from York to settle in Middletown, and although the tan yard is long gone, the Croll house still stands at 163 West Main Street in the borough. Croll used Bill, who he described as “a strong built fellow, about 5 feet 10 inches high, rather stoop shouldered,” in the tan yard next door to the house, but in June 1805 Bill ran away. It is not known if Croll ever recovered him.

Another tanner who taught the trade to his slave was John Patrick, of Lancaster and later of Baltimore. Patrick’s slave Paul ran away or was seduced away some time in late 1771, and showed up in Amherst County, Virginia, where he and a white companion were jailed. Paul described himself to the Virginia jailor as “a tanner by trade.” Similarly, tanner Emmanuel Reigart, who operated a tan yard on East King Street, and later on Queen Street, in Lancaster, advertised that his runaway “Mulatto servant man, named Larry…has worked three years at the tanning business.”39

Very often, proof of special skills was revealed in the runaway advertisements placed by slaveholders, because they believed the fugitive slaves would seek work that utilized their special skills. Benjamin Clark, who lived near Jonestown, advertised for his escaped slave, Anthony Welsh. Welsh, he noted, “is a butcher by trade.” The fugitive, who was born in New Jersey and had a facility for languages, speaking both English and Dutch, took a butcher’s steel and a hone with him when he left in July 1772. Welsh made it back to New Jersey, but was captured and imprisoned in Gloucester by September.40

Elsewhere in central Pennsylvania, Carlisle shoemaker William Blair registered two slaves, including Philip, who was about eight years old in 1780 and probably just learning the shoemaking trade. In 1799, Blair decided to get out of the shoemaking business and put his property and slave up for sale, advertising in the local newspaper, “To Be Sold, By the subscriber a Negro Man duly registered, about Twenty-six years old, a Shoe maker by trade, a very good workman, as his master intends to leave off trade.” In the same newspaper Blair offered for sale the “half lot and buildings whereon he now dwells.” The ad to sell Philip ran at least through 11 December 1799, but he was not immediately successful. We know this because “Phill the slave of William Blair” was indicted in March 1800, along with two other slaves, for riot and mayhem, when they attacked a local man and knocked out one of his teeth.41

Thomas Butler, a Carlisle blacksmith, owned a slave named Abel, “of middle age and size.” Abel was not a content worker, however, and repeatedly ran away, making an escape in September 1763, and again in August 1770. By the time of his second escape, Abel’s master had moved his smith business several miles outside of town. Each time he ran away, Abel, whom Butler described as “a smith by trade,” was captured and returned.42

Carlisle watch and clockmaker John Gemmill lost a slave named Abraham in September 1764. The teenaged Abraham was “this country born” according to Gemmill, but also had both ears cut with African tribal markings, indicating that African tribal traditions persisted with slave communities in this region. Gemmill had apparently trained the young man to a certain extent in the trade before he ran away, as the slaveholder advertised that the runaway could “do a little in Silver Work,” skills that would have constituted a portion of the clock and watch making trade.

Abraham had probably run away from Gemmill before, or was mistrusted by the clockmaker for some reason, because the slave was wearing an iron collar, a form of punishment usually reserved for habitual runaways, when he escaped. This time, Abraham was not alone, but went off with an army deserter. Years later, in 1780, John Gemmill registered two slaves at Carlisle: York and Flora.43 Abraham was not among the slaves registered, so it is possible he was successful in his 1764 escape, although it is also possible Gemmill captured him, then sold the runaway after recovering him.

John McCune, of Southampton Township, Cumberland County, was a successful farmer and miller. He taught at least one of his slaves, Levi, the trade of miller. When Levi ran away in 1802, McCune noted that skill on the runaway advertisement, in case Levi tried to find employment in a mill.

Other ads reveal a rich variety of skills among slaves. Slaveholder Jonathan Jones, of Manheim, advertised that his young runaway slave, Nathaniel Nixon, was skilled as “a very active hostler.” Lancaster merchant Christian Wirtz noted of his runaway slave Dan, “he can work a little at the saddler trade.” Prominent lawyer George Ross, also of Lancaster, lost two bound servants that ran off together and would “probably pass for man and wife.” They were twenty-year-old Ann Bourghton, a white serving girl, and a thirty-year-old “Negroe man, named Bob… a Skinner by Trade.” Bob was one of eight slaves registered in Lancaster from the Ross household.44 Farmer John Williams, who lived along the Yellow Breeches Creek in Allen Township, noted of his absconded slave Aleck that he was “very fond of… shewing his exploits in arithmetic,” and that he “has followed stilling.” In addition, Aleck could read and write in English and German, and “endeavours to excel in whatsoever he undertakes.”45 With such math and language skills, as well as the drive to excel, Aleck was a significant loss to Williams.

Another large group of slaves in central Pennsylvania worked as domestic help in the many inns and public houses that appeared on the corners of town squares and along the turnpikes of the region. Because of its centralized location in the river valley between the populous eastern and western parts of the state, the Harrisburg area has always been an important stop for those passing through, whether they were settlers crossing the Susquehanna at Harris’ Ferry, drivers taking a Conestoga Wagon loaded with goods from Reading to Pittsburgh, lumbermen piloting huge rafts between the state’s northern forests and a market below Middletown, or travelers pausing in their journey from New York to Virginia.

After 1812, Harrisburg became a destination for state lawmakers when the capital was moved from Lancaster to the borough. Public roads connecting nearby towns, bridges, stage lines, canals, and later, railroads, quickly developed, and all contributed to the need for places in which weary travelers, legislators, and businessmen could rest. Harrisburg, as well as Carlisle, Middletown, Reading, Lancaster, and York, could all boast of numerous inns. Helping the owners of these public houses to accommodate this increasing numbers of travelers were hired servants and, frequently, slaves.

Early travelers through this area might have stopped at the inn of Tobias Hendricks, on the road that led from Harris’ Ferry to Carlisle. Upon his death in 1799, an inventory of Hendrick’s possessions included five slaves, David, Prince, Betty, Charity, and Violet, all valued between £100 for the men and up to £500 for the women. All these slaves probably worked to some extent in the inn, with the women probably assuming the bulk of the cleaning, fire tending, cooking, and laundry, which may account for their higher value.

George Hook kept a tavern in Carlisle at the southeast corner of Pomfret and Bedford Streets. A 1762 inventory of his estate listed a black slave, Juk, as well as two white indentured servants. The Sign of the Turk Tavern, on Main Street in Carlisle, was run by various proprietors, including Robert White, from 1774-1779. In February 1778, White advertised to sell his sixteen-year-old slave, noting she could “cook, wash, and do most sorts of house-work.”46

In Hampden Township, David Briggs ran the Silver Springs Tavern for several years, and employed several African Americans there in various roles. One of the slaves was Philis, a slave who would have been born prior to 1780, and had probably been with the family for many years. She was the only slave-for-life listed on Briggs’ estate inventory after his death. In August 1804, a few months after David Briggs died, his widow, Hannah Briggs, put Philis up for sale, probably to help settle some of the estate debts:

FOR SALE, A Strong Healthy Mulatto Wench, a good cook and excellent house maid, she is duly recorded a Slave for Life, and sold for no other fault but the want of a Master. Apply for terms to HANNAH BRIGGS, Silver Spring, August 2.47

The White Swan Inn, in Lancaster, was a well-known public house run by Matthias Slough, who was associated with more than nineteen slaves during his lifetime. Slough was a Revolutionary War officer, politician, and very highly respected local citizen, and at one point was proprietor of a stagecoach line that ran from Lancaster to Harrisburg.

One of the most famous slaves at Slough’s inn was Dinah McIntire, a slave woman who served Slough as much as forty years before gaining her freedom by 1800. According to her obituary, she was born in Princess Ann County, Maryland circa 1706, and was purchased by Matthias Slough circa 1759. Census records show that by 1800 she was free. She engaged in fortune telling at Slough's White Swan Inn, and eventually owned a house at West Vine and Strawberry streets.

Throughout his career, Slough bought and sold many slaves, sometimes boarding slaves at his inn for potential buyers who wished to inspect them, as he did for the Marcus Hook tanner, discussed earlier. At another time, Slough sold a female slave who was becoming pregnant too frequently, selling her apart from her children:

To be sold, By the Subscriber, in the Borough of Lancaster, A Likely Negroe Wench, fit for Town or Country Business, about 27 Years of Age. She has a likely Child, which will not be sold with her; her breeding fast being the only Reason of her being sold. Matthias Slough.

The inn run by Slough was the scene of at least one public auction of slaves. On 28 July 1769, the property of Thomas Smith, James Wallace, and James Fulton, including "several slaves," were sold at a public sale by Sheriff James Webb.48

In Harrisburg, the Golden Swan Inn (not to be confused with Matthias Slough’s White Swan Inn, of Lancaster) was located near the ferry, “just on the edge of town,” according to traveler Margaret Van Horn Dwight. Its actual location was given by William Henry Egle as “at the foot of Second Street and Paxtang [Paxton] Street,” and was apparently known as The Buck Hotel, or Sign of the Buck, at the time.

Rees’ public house is mentioned in Dwight’s book A Journey to Ohio in 1810. Dwight wrote of staying at Rees' house in November 1810, while waiting to cross the Susquehanna to their next stop in East Pennsboro Township on the way to Ohio. While there, Dwight's party was accused by Rees' black servant of theft:

Sunday eve-- East pensboro' township-- P--
We left Mr. Rees' yesterday ten o’clock-- & after waiting some time at the ferry house, cross'd the Susquehanna with considerable difficulty-- The river is a mile wide & so shallow that the boat would scrape across the large stones so as almost to prevent it from proceeding--. . .I should like to have staid at Mr. Rees' till we reach home if it was possible, notwithstanding we had like to have all lost our characters there-- While we were at breakfast, the black wench miss'd nearly 4 dollars of money, & very impudently accused us with taking it, in rather an indirect manner-- I felt at first very angry, but anger soon gave place to pity for the poor girls loss-- It was money she had been saving to buy her a dress-- but she left it about very carelessly in the closet where any one might have taken it who was so disposed-- But had I been inclined to steal, I could not have stolen from a poor black girl-- I would rather have given her as much-- I never felt so queerly in my life-- To be suspected of theft was so new & unexpected to me, that I was wholly unprepar'd for it-- We went to Mr. Rees & begg'd him to take some method to satisfy the girl we were innocent but we could not prevail on him to, tho' we really wish'd it-- He gave the girl a severe scolding & desir'd us not to remember it against them, or to suffer ourselves to be made a moment uneasy by it, & both himself and Mrs. Rees were extremely sorry any thing of the kind had happen'd-- The girl continued crying & assuring us her money had been safe all summer till then & nobody had been near it but us-- I, nor any of us had any doubt that the landlord's sister, whom I before mention'd, had taken it.

Dwight gives the name of the sister as "Babby;" Rees had a sister named Barbara. Dwight also mentions that the money was not found before they left Rees' inn.49 Although the black servant girl was not identified by name in Dwight’s account, surviving records allow us to speculate on her identity. Jeremiah Rees (or Reese) was born in Cumberland County, where his father, also named Jeremiah Rees, dabbled with inn keeping (he briefly ran Tobias Hendrick’s public house after Hendrick’s death), but it wasn’t until the younger Rees moved to Harrisburg about 1800 that he entered the business in earnest by marrying the daughter of Caspar Smith, then owner of the Golden Swan Inn. Rees inherited the Golden Swan upon the death of his father-in-law, and continued the business of sheltering travelers at the inn, under “The Sign of the Buck,” who were waiting to cross the river at the ferry. As there were no bridges yet spanning the Susquehanna at this time, Rees’ inn did a brisk business and he employed several people, including his sister-in-law, in addition to slaves, to run the inn.

In 1792, a Jeremiah Rees, innkeeper, of East Pennsboro Township, Cumberland County, registered the slave child Phillis, daughter of Tira. Since Jeremiah Rees, the later owner of the Golden Swan Inn was only sixteen years old in that year, this slaveholder was probably his father. There are no known records showing that the younger Rees registered any slaves or children of slaves during his lifetime, but he apparently did buy slaves for use in his business. Some time after 1788, farmer Richard Dearmond of West Hanover Township registered the child Rachel, daughter of one of his slaves-for life, probably Dinah. Dearmond subsequently sold Rachel to Jeremiah Rees, and although the details and date of this transaction are not known, it is documented in Harrisburg’s 1821 registry of free African Americans, which was compiled from 1821 to 1826. In that registry, Harrisburg resident Rachel Thomas is listed as being "brought up by Mr. Dearmon and Sarved her time with Jary Rees."50

Because diarist Margaret Dwight was only nineteen years old at the time she recorded her experiences at Rees’ inn, it is unlikely that her reference to his “poor black girl” was for the older slave Tira, mother of Phillis. It is more likely that one of the slave children, either Phillis or Rachel, both of whom were closer in age to Margaret Dwight, was the black servant who lost her savings.

The opening of the Harrisburg Bridge, in 1817, may have dampened Rees’ business at the Sign of the Buck Inn for a while, but he took advantage of the new route to cross the Susquehanna by taking a post as toll collector, first at the western end, from 1819 to 1839, and later at the eastern end from 1847-1856. As toll collector, Rees was in a strong position to interact with fugitive slaves who arrived at his tollhouse, seeking to cross the Camel Back Bridge to a temporary haven in Harrisburg. The complicity of toll takers in allowing fugitive slaves to safely cross the Camel Back Bridge is not fully understood at this time, although it is reasonable to assume that their attitude toward the Underground Railroad and fugitive slaves played a large part in how Underground Railroad conductors used the bridge.

Other inns in Harrisburg that were run by known slaveholders include the house on the southeast corner of Market Square, kept in 1796 by Andrew Lee, who registered three children of slave mothers: Hannah, Ellis and Becky. Lee’s establishment was also the starting location for a stage line that ran from Harrisburg to Lancaster and Carlisle. That same year, John Elder, who had registered the slave child William, operated a tavern. Slaveholder John Gilchrist, who had registered twenty-one-year-old Rachel, “a slave during life,” at Lancaster on 5 October 1780, kept a public house in addition to his farm and mill. By July 1800, Gilchrist was also recorded as the owner of thirty-six-year-old Tobb.

Leaving Harrisburg along the road that led to Reading, the next location at which regular inns could be found was Hummelstown. An inn at Hummelstown was kept by John Fox, who had come to the town about 1799 and started a family that would be prominent in politics and the law. In 1807, Fox was recorded as the owner of Eve, age 45. North of Harrisburg, Archibald McAllister, at Fort Hunter, used some of his slaves to run his tavern, The Practical Farmer.

Even after the period of slavery ended and African Americans began making the difficult transition from bondage to various levels of freedom, many remained employed in varying capacities at local public houses. At first, most lived at the inns in which they were employed. Even if they were no longer held as slaves, free blacks who worked as waiters, laundresses, stable hands, and porters often lived in a room in the inn as a condition of their employment. Later, as the free African American community in Harrisburg developed, free black hotel employees found lodging with local black families, or in one of the boarding houses kept by a few African American entrepreneurs.

Regardless of the time period, however, slaves, black servants, and free blacks who were employed at Harrisburg area inns and taverns would play a valuable role in their community, owing to their proximity to the many travelers, workers, politicians, distinguished hotel guests, and white servants with whom they interacted each day. As local historian Benjamin Matthias Nead wrote, “The taverns of the towns and inns of the roadsides were the social, military and business centers of the community, as well as the news-depots.”51 It was this news, gossip, and knowledge of who was in town that these hotel and inn workers shared with their neighbors, all of which was invaluable intelligence to those who would aid the fugitive slaves who came to them for aid and protection.

A category of slaves related to those who worked at the inns, and equally valuable at collecting gossip, news, and knowledge of local events, were the slaves who were owned by wealthy families and employed strictly as domestic servants. The heads of these families, who grandiloquently listed their occupations as “yeoman” or “gentleman,” viewed the ownership of black slaves in a different light than many of the farmers, ironmasters, and innkeepers who kept slaves, as opposed to European bound servants, out of perceived necessity. Many of the wealthiest landowners in central Pennsylvania, in what was considered very rural country, were well read and kept up, albeit belatedly, with the latest fashions, news, and gossip from the cities of Europe. The physical isolation of the frontier, and the time that it took for news to filter down to places like Harris Ferry, Middletown, and Carlisle, took its toll, and the wealthiest landowners felt cut off from the social institutions and titles that had provided status in Europe as well as Philadelphia.

Wealth was increasingly seen, in the new world, as the measuring stick whereby a person could establish his place in society. Symbols of wealth included a country house situated on a 250 to 300 acre plantation, an elaborate wardrobe, a riding horse, and according to historian Allen Tully, “by the late 1720s the black slave.”
A good example of this category of slaveholding is seen in the advertisement from Bucks County blacksmith William Hart, who in March 1783 sought to reclaim his runaway slave, Cuff. The twenty-three-year-old Cuff ran away on Christmas Day 1782. Hart described his slave as “an active fellow with horses, has been used to driving a carriage and tending race horses.”52 Losing the man who looked after his racehorses and drove his carriage was probably not the type of surprise that Hart expected on Christmas Day. These criteria for respect in the thickly populated counties around Philadelphia—black slaves to tend a stable of horses, staff a well-appointed country house, and drive a shiny barouche—would also hold up in the lightly settled townships of Paxton and Derry, and would establish the pattern of slave ownership among the landed elite through the 1780s.

Change in these attitudes came slowly to the Susquehanna Valley. Unlike Chester County and the settled regions close to Philadelphia, in which the influence of Quakers was bringing about a substantial erosion of support for slaveholding by the 1750s, rural Lancaster and Cumberland Counties still depended upon black slaves to fill a great variety of labor roles that, in the east, were increasingly being filled by European immigrants and white indentured servants. These white bound laborers generally stayed in the east, forcing rural slaveholders to keep their slaves. Even as late as 1783, three years after passage of the Gradual Abolition Act, a survey of slaves in Lancaster Borough shows that the fifty-five slaves held there were domestic servants to the households of that town’s wealthier citizens.53

A similar pattern can be observed among the slaveholders of Dauphin County, many of whom, despite listing themselves on the slave registration papers as “farmers,” were the most politically powerful and socially situated persons in the region. John Carson, who inherited his father’s substantial estate, Carson Hall, was a state assemblyman and a county judge. He registered no less than ten slaves during his long and influential life. He married Sarah Duncan, sister of another very influential Cumberland County jurist, Thomas Duncan.

James Cowden, a respected member of the Paxton Presbyterian Church, where he and many of his family members are buried, is another example of a locally prominent person who consolidated social status through marriage. Born in 1737, James Cowden commanded a company of men in the Revolutionary War. He married Mary Crouch, daughter of James Crouch, on 20 March 1777. In 1793, he was appointed Justice of the Peace for Lower Paxton Township, and in 1795, Governor Thomas Mifflin appointed him an Associate Judge of Dauphin County. In 1809, Cowden was a presidential elector. James Cowden died 10 October 1810 at age sixty-four. In his will, dated 22 September 1804 and proved 31 October 1810, Cowden left his wife Mary her "choice of the black girls.” This could mean any one of the four females he registered as slaves, out of a total of six.

One of these girls apparently chosen by Cowden’s widow was Dinah, who was born about 1788 and served the Cowden family for many years in many capacities, including that of a wet nurse. Dinah lived a long life, and has the unusual distinction of being buried in Paxton Presbyterian Church Graveyard, in Paxtang, along with many of the most influential and powerful people of the region. Her tombstone gives her date of death as 1 April 1878. Historian William Egle records Dinah's tombstone epitaph as "Dinah / Died April 1, 1878 / In the 90th year of / her age / 'Well done good and faith- / ful servant.’”

Born outside of Harrisburg at Coxestown, later called Estherton in honor of his mother Esther, Cornelius Cox was a slaveholder who held the rank of colonel as a commissary officer in the Continental Army during the Revolutionary War. He served as an elector from Pennsylvania during the 1792 presidential elections and voted for George Washington. He was buried in the city graveyard behind Fourth Street, but when that graveyard was sold for redevelopment, his substantial family obelisk was removed to the newly established Harrisburg Cemetery, where it may still be seen today. He owned, at various times, at least fourteen slaves, although by 1800, the county tax list listed only two slaves-for-life still living with him.

David Elder and John Elder belonged to one of the most distinguished Dauphin County families, as sons of the Reverend John Elder, of Paxton Presbyterian Church, and registered one slave apiece. Brothers Thomas and Joshua, however, each held more slaves as befitted their political importance and social rank.54

As the son of John Elder, the "Fighting Parson" of Paxton Church, it should not be a surprise that Thomas Elder first made a name for himself in the military. His involvement with local militia led to participation in the Whiskey Rebellion, after which he was appointed to the rank of Lieutenant Colonel. He commanded the Sixty-Sixth regiment of Pennsylvania Militia from about 1799 to 1804. Though his militia experiences were confined to his early years, people in Harrisburg would refer to him as "Colonel" for many years. Even before his short-lived military career, Thomas Elder was busy establishing himself as a lawyer. He was educated in Philadelphia and upon his return to Harrisburg, studied law with John Hanna, being admitted to the Dauphin County Bar in 1791. His legal career would span more than forty years, during which time many young men would in turn come to Harrisburg to study law under him.

He developed an intense interest in public improvements as he watched Harrisburg grow from a frontier trading post to a bustling town. He played an important role in the creation of both the Harrisburg Bank and the Harrisburg Bridge Company, and served long terms as the leader of each institution, holding the office of president of the Harrisburg Bridge Company from its creation until 1846, and serving as president of the Harrisburg Bank from 1816 until his death in 1853. As Harrisburg's leading banker for almost forty years, Thomas Elder was the man responsible for developing most of the town's economic infrastructure. He had maintained a correspondence with Joseph Heister for over two decades prior to Heister's election as Governor of Pennsylvania. That relationship led to Heister's appointment of Elder as state attorney general in 1820, a post he held until 1823.

The biographical details above constitute most of what is said about Thomas Elder during tours of the Harrisburg Cemetery. Seldom is the subject of Thomas Elder's slaveholding brought up. The practice of owning people was not uncommon in Pennsylvania during the early decades of his lifetime, and quite a few of the Scots-Irish families that worshipped with his father at Paxton Presbyterian Church held slaves. Thomas was thirteen years old when Pennsylvania passed its Act for the Gradual Abolition of Slavery in 1780. That act, together with a supplemental act in 1788, required that all slaves, and children of slaves, be registered with the county clerk. From those surviving registries, we know that Thomas Elder registered two slaves, Lydia and Henry, both children born after 1 March 1780. By law, both would be manumitted on their twenty-eighth birthday.

Other members of the Elder family owned slaves. As noted above, his brothers John and David had each registered one slave. His brother Robert, a farmer in Swatara Township, placed a young Negro boy up for sale in 1808, advertising:

He is stout, healthy, and active, and understands all labour on a farm, as well as any of the colour. He is likewise a good waggoner, and careful of horses, knowing very well how to feed, & to take care of them --Any person wanting such a boy, by calling on Samuel Elder, in Harrisburg, may know his price, or on the owner living in Swatara township, Dauphin county.

Note that his point of contact, Samuel Elder, a family member, was Harrisburg's constable at the time.55 Another brother, Joshua Elder, was a judge, having been appointed by Governor Mifflin, who recorded the loyalty oaths for this part of Lancaster County. He campaigned vigorously for the formation of Dauphin County from Lancaster County, later held the position of prothonotary, and in 1810 was elected burgess of the Borough of Harrisburg. He registered at least a dozen slaves over several years, including one man named Charles, who escaped in November 1804. Joshua Elder advertised for Charles' return in the 11 January 1805 issue of the Lancaster Journal, describing the man as:

Forty years old, about 5 feet 8 or 9 inches high, a stout made fellow, has some scores down his cheeks common to the Guinea negroes, and is fond of strong liquor. He went off in a drunken frolick, and took with him only his wearing clothes, which were an old blue cloth coat with large metal buttons, broad striped swans down jacket, coarse shirt and trowsers, half worn shoes, yarn stockings, and a good fur hat.

The Elder family was connected by marriage to other Pennsylvania families that enslaved people, including the Cox, McAllister, and Simpson families, and thereby defined its relationship to local African Americans through this institution. Like many Pennsylvania slaveholders, Thomas Elder and his brothers kept slaves until the practice became economically impractical in this area. They had grown up with enslaved persons in the family, and apparently saw nothing wrong, either morally or legally, with the practice.56

The Elder family slaves, like those African Americans held as domestic slaves in the mansions of many of Dauphin County’s most influential persons, saw the famous and the powerful pass through those doors, and interacted with those persons at various levels. Some, such as the Cowden’s slave Dinah, were like members of the family, and maintained an intimate relationship with the family and children. Others, like Charles, who took off from Judge Elder’s estate, may have only known the family in a very impersonal way. All these domestic slaves, however, like their counterparts at the inns and taverns, were in a position to learn valuable news, make contacts with other black slaves and white servants, and establish communication networks that, in the coming decades, would prove invaluable to the anti-slavery struggle.

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33. “Slaves in Lancaster County in 1780”; Egle, Notes and Queries, 89:41.

34. “Slaves in Lancaster County in 1780.”

35. "Children of Previously Registered Slaves”; “Slaves in Lancaster County in 1780”; “Tax Lists, Inhabitants and Slaves, 1800, 1807;” Farmer's Instructor, and Harrisburgh Courant, 25 November 1801.

36. U.S. Direct Tax of 1798: Tax Lists for the State of Pennsylvania, 4th Direct Tax Division, 3rd & 4th Assessment Districts (Dauphin County), Microfilm no. 372, roll no. 11, Pennsylvania State Archives.
David Patton was also listed as owning one slave in the 1798 U.S. Direct Tax Roll lists. Persons being held until age twenty-eight were not regarded as slaves for tax purposes, so this individual might be the unnamed female, probably Hagar, who was sold as part of his estate in November 1801. This tax record lists the number of taxable slaves owned by township and owner in three categories: "Whole number of Slaves of all ages," "Exempt" and "Number of Slaves above the age of 12 and under the age of 50, subject to taxation."

37. Pennsylvania Gazette, 15 June 1769; Farmer's Instructor, and Harrisburgh Courant, 8 January 1800.

38. “Tax Lists, Inhabitants and Slaves, 1800, 1807.”

39. Pennsylvania Gazette, 6 June 1765; Lancaster Journal, 12 July 1805; Middletown Borough, “Historic Homes in Middletown,” (accessed 22 March 2008); Virginia Gazette, 10 January 1771; Lancaster Journal, 18 September 1807.

40. Pennsylvania Gazette, 12 August, 9 September 1772.

41. "Slave Returns Listings, Cumberland County, Pennsylvania, Board of County Commissioners--Returns for Negro and Mulatto Slaves, 1780-81, 1788-1811, 1813-21, 1824-26, 1833," Typewritten copy of original records, Microfilm, Pennsylvania State Archives; Kline's Carlisle Weekly Gazette, 27 November, 11 December, 1799; Merri Lou Scribner Schaumann, Indictments--1750-1800, Cumberland County, Pennsylvania (Lewisberry: W & M Printing, Inc., 1989), 172.

42. Pennsylvania Gazette, 13 October 1763, 30 August, 5 September 1770.

43. Pennsylvania Gazette, 11 October 1764; “Slave Returns Listings, Cumberland County, Pennsylvania.”

44. Lancaster Journal, 14 August, 1802, 20 June 1806; Pennsylvania Gazette, 30 January 1766, 14 July, 18 August 1779.
George Ross later served in the Continental Congress as a representative from Lancaster and in 1776 signed the Declaration of Independence.

45. Kline's Carlisle Weekly Gazette, 24 June 1801; “Slave Returns Listings, Cumberland County, Pennsylvania.”

46. Schaumann, Taverns of Cumberland County, 13, 56, 60, 121; Pennsylvania Gazette, 14 February 1778.

47. Schaumann, Taverns of Cumberland County, 13, 119, 120; Carlisle Herald, 10 August 1804.

48. Intelligencer & Weekly Advertiser, 15 May 1819, in Lancaster County Historical Society, The Wealth of Years--From Slavery to Freedom: Middle Class African Americans in Lancaster County, (accessed 24 June 2005); Pennsylvania Gazette, 23 April 1761, 13 July 1769.

49. Margaret Van Horn Dwight, A Journey to Ohio in 1810 (New Haven, CT: Yale University Press, 1912), 25-28. Information on Jeremiah Rees is from Egle, Notes and Queries, 3rd ser., vol. 1, 13:71 and 18:107.

50. "Children of Previously Registered Slaves”; “Slaves in Lancaster County in 1780”; "Harrisburg Registry of Free African Americans, 1821-1826," Archives of the City of Harrisburg, Pennsylvania.

51. B(enjamin) M(atthias) Nead, “ Legislators in the Long Ago, 1,” in Egle, Notes and Queries, vol. 1, 42:297.

52. Allen Tully, “Patterns of Slaveholding in Colonial Pennsylvania: Chester and Lancaster Counties 1729-1758,” Journal of Social History 6, no. 3 (Spring 1973): 285-293.

53. Jerome H. Wood, Jr., “The Negro in Early Pennsylvania: The Lancaster Experience, 1730-1790,” (paper presented at the Annual Meeting of the Association for the Study of Negro Life and History, 24 October 1970), in Tully, “Patterns of Slaveholding,” 296-297; Pennsylvania Gazette, 12 March 1783.

54. “Slaves in Lancaster County in 1780;” “Tax Lists, Inhabitants and Slaves, 1800, 1807;” "Slaves and Indentured Servants in Dauphin County Wills," Typescript, n.d., Abstract of names and slavery data from Dauphin County Will Books, A-D, researcher unknown., "Slaves" folder, library of the Historical Society of Dauphin County; Egle, Note and Queries, 3rd ser., vol. 1, 52:414.

55. Dauphin Guardian, 12 July 1808.

56. Commemorative Biographical Encyclopedia of Dauphin County, Pennsylvania (1896; online edition,, Dauphin County Pennsylvania Transcription Project, 2000-2002), (accessed 25 October 2002).


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.

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