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CHAPTER I. Introductory.
I propose to write the history of the so-called “Christiana Riot” and “Treason Trials” of 1851, as they occurred—without partiality, prejudice or apology, for or against any of those who participated in them. As is inevitable in all such collisions, there were, on either side of the border troubles of that period, men of high principle and right motive and also rowdies and adventurers, disposed to resort to ruthless violence for purposes of sordid gain. There were slave-masters who sincerely believed in the righteousness of an institution of ancient origin, while even the more sagacious of their class recognized it as at variance with the divine law and the trend of Christian civilization, and inevitably doomed to extinction. There were on this side of the line many who, believing themselves humanitarians, were mere mischievous agitators, lawless in deed and treasonable in design, reckless of those rights of property which are as sacred in regard of the law as the rights of man. There were, too, in the North wicked slave catchers and kidnappers whose brutalities aroused the just resentment of the communities in which they operated, even when they kept within the limits of strict and technical legal rights.

It was of course impossible, as Mr. Lincoln pointed out, for the republic to endure forever half slave and half free—to run a geographical marker through a great and complicated moral, economic and political issue—especially in[Pg 2] view of the far flung border line and the rapidly increasing development of communication and transmission.

If, however, all the great statesmen, economists and churchmen who had struggled with the slavery question since the formation of the union were unable to solve it, without the awful carnage of a tremendous and long lasting civil war, can it be the cause of special wonder that a handful of Marylanders in lawful search of their escaped property, and a larger group of free and fugitive negroes, with the “embattled farmers” who sympathized with them, should have made the hills of this peaceful Chester Valley echo with gun shots and stained its soil with blood, when Man and Master met in final and fatal contest for what each had been taught was his right?

Numerous attempts have been made to publish reports of this incident which would serve the purposes of permanent history; and, while they have all been helpful, none has been complete. On his return to Maryland after his failure to convict Hanway and the others of treason, Attorney General Robert J. Brent, of Maryland, made an elaborate official report to Governor E. Louis Lowe, who in turn submitted it, with extended comments of his own, to the General Assembly of Maryland, January 7, 1852. From the standpoint of the lawyer and the chief executive of a slave state, both are able deliverances. Aroused by their version of the affair, and especially by their comments on the treason trial, and impatient over the delay in publishing the official report of it, W. Arthur Jackson, junior counsel for the defendant, printed a pamphlet review of it, which shows much ability, has great value and has become very rare. The official phonographic report of the trial, by James J. Robbins, of the Philadelphia bar (King & Baird, 1852), is of course a copious fountain of exact information—as well as an interesting exhibit of the “reportorial” efficiency of that day. From all of these I have felt at liberty to draw largely.

[Pg 3]“A True Story of the Christiana Riot,” by David R. Forbes, 1898, tinged with sectional prejudice, has much matter that was well worthy of preservation, and the new facts it contains, if verified, I have freely used. All of the general political histories of the period refer to the Christiana tragedy as having significance in the intense agitation of the issue raised by the Fugitive Slave Law of 1850. Fred. Douglass’ stories of his life and time; William Still’s “Underground Railroad,” and Dr. R. C. Smedley’s “History of the Underground Railroad” have also been subjects of my levy for aid. To them, however, have been added the personal reminiscences of Dr. J. W. Houston, Thomas Whitson, Esq., Ambrose Pownall, Charles Dingee, Gilbert Bushong, Peter Woods, William P. Brinton, Cyrus Brinton and many other residents of the neighborhood in which the riot occurred and from which the prisoners in the trials for life were taken. Access has been had to the diaries and family records of the Pownall, Hanway, Lewis and Gorsuch families; and many other original sources of information, including the local and metropolitan newspapers of that day, whose enterprise and impartiality were somewhat variable. Some of them published full reports of the trial.

For the first time, however, I think, the subject has been studied with some care and consideration for the facts as disclosed and from the point of view occupied at the home of the Gorsuches. The family of Dr. F. G. Mitchell, whose wife is a daughter of Dickinson Gorsuch, and who now owns the property then of her grandfather, Edward Gorsuch, from which the slaves fled, have been especially gracious and helpful, withal fair and generous in their attitude toward an event which brought brutal death to one ancestor and long suffering to another.

J. Wesley Knight, long resident of the neighborhood of Monkton and Glencoe, Maryland, and who was under the roof of the Gorsuch homestead when the slaves escaped, has[Pg 4] given me much accurate information as to their previous condition of servitude.

If their contribution to the history of the encounter and the events preceding it presents the relation of the Southerners to it in a far more favorable light than has hitherto attended its narration, no fair-minded student of history can object to the whole truth, even at this late day. That the Gorsuch runaways were not heroic and scarcely even picturesque characters; and that their owners were humane and Christian people, and not the brutal slave traders and cruel taskmasters who figured in much of the anti-slavery fiction, can no longer be doubted. But if the Lancaster County Historical Society exists for any purpose it is illustrated in its apt motto: “History herself as seen in her own workshop.” Every such shop must show some chips and filings; and occasionally the more these abound the better will be the craftsman’s product. I cannot hope—and I certainly do not desire—this should be the “last word” about the “Christiana Riot”; but the occasion of its Sixtieth Anniversary and the Commemoration seemed to call for a historical review up to date; and the story of its few survivors had to be caught before it was lost.

It may be confidently predicted that when our long-looked-for local Stronghand in imaginative literature shall seek for a theme near at home, he will find it in the dramatic story of the “Christiana Riot”; or when some gifted Lancaster County Son of Song shall arise and strike the trembling harp strings, the scene of his epic will follow the winding Octoraro and lie along the track of the Fugitive Slave.


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