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CHAPTER III. Conditions Along the Border.
    On the Different Sides of Mason and Dixon Line—Conflicts of Ideas and of Citizenship—Lower Lancaster County a Gateway—Terror of the “Gap Gang”—The Underground Railway—Outrages by the Slave Catchers and Kidnappers.

Formal legislation and statutory enactments could not repress the instincts of humanity. Involuntary bondage of men, women and children was not consistent with either the spirit of free institutions or the instincts of a progressive citizenship. As it was impossible to prevent reckless and degenerate men from abusing the processes of the law by kidnapping and other forms of crime against the colored race; and as it was impossible for the most humane and philanthropic elements of slaveholding citizenship to prevent constantly recurring barbarities and horrors resulting logically from the legal recognition of property and traffic in human flesh and blood, so it was impossible to forbid thousands of good men and women throughout the North—in all other respects law-abiding people—to secretly aid and even to publicly promote the escape of slaves fleeing from slavery. Nor could those who thus kept their conscience while they broke the law discriminate between the worthy and the unworthy in slave or master. There was no time in the quick trips between the stations of the Underground Railway to ascertain with precision whether the passenger was fleeing from just or unjust treatment, whether he had the character of a criminal escaping deserved punishment, or of a bondman aspiring to a condition of freedom; nor to judge and determine the individual merits and the legal rights of the owner. Behind lay Slavery—beyond blazed the North Star of Freedom.

[Pg 14]Lower Lancaster County was at the gateway of this path. For a comparatively short distance—only about five miles—the Mason and Dixon line forms its Southern boundary. Only two of its townships are in contact with Maryland, Fulton and Little Britain, and the last named barely touched the edge of the Southland of Slavery. In its citizenship Lancaster County represented all the principal elements which enter into our composite commonwealth. The more numerous and important strain of blood, occupying the wider and richer upper domain, was composed very largely of the so-called Pennsylvania German sect and church people, who had little fellowship with the negro race, little interest in or sympathy with its cause and very slight personal contact with its members. In the lower townships the principal elements were the so-called Scotch-Irish Presbyterian and the Friends; between them there was considerable friction, if not antagonism; they had for nearly a century represented different views of society and government. Their variance was very distinct in their respective early attitudes toward “the Indian question.”

It has been made the subject of forcible contrast that the prevailing Quaker settlement of Fulton and Western Drumore townships took on the more placid aspect of the Conowingo, whose smooth meadows and flowery banks characterized these localities; while the eastern end of Drumore, Colerain and Little Britain had peculiarly the type illustrated by the more turbulent flow and rugged hillsides of the Octoraro. Both streams find their outlet in the Susquehanna, and at very nearly the same sea level. But in the days of the Fugitive Slave Law and of local defiance of it the North bound bondsman generally made his way to the Chester Valley by Pleasant Grove and Liberty Square, rather than by Kirkwood and Nine Points.

Of the two “schools” the Hicksite branch of Friends was not only the more numerous in the Lower End, but its[Pg 15] members were the more aggressive in their hostility to slavery. The Presbyterian works out his humanitarianism rather more directly through the law than around or under it; and, while in many households of this faith, colored servants and farm hands found trusted and long continued employment, the general attitude of the Scotch-Irish to the slavery question was different from that of the Quaker; socially the blood of the negro was more offensive to the more aggressive race.

There were, of course, far more than enough exceptions to “prove the rule.” Rev. Lindley C. Rutter, long the beloved pastor of Chestnut Level Presbyterian Church, was one of the most fearless and outspoken of the local Abolitionists. Likewise “Father” William Easton, of the Octoraro United Presbyterian Church. In the neighborhood of Quarryville, where the German and Scotch Irish elements seemed to meet, intermixture of colored and white blood was not infrequent; and, contrary to the general laws of miscegenation and degeneration, many of the mulatto, quadroon and octoroon people sprung from these racial intermarriages were very respectable, honest and industrious citizens.

On the north side of the Mine Ridge, that range running westward from Gap across Lancaster County, during the “fifties” there was a considerable amount of outlawry on the part of an organized “gang,” whose depredations now took on the form of kidnapping and again the less illegal, but by no means more popular, practice of aiding the recapture and return—regularly or irregularly—of fugitive slaves. If their raids and robberies were the terror of the farmers, millers, butchers and storekeepers of the peaceful Pequea Valley, on the south side of which their strongholds then lay, their incursions into the homes and haunts of colored laborers beyond the Octoraro hills were no less cause for alarm among the free or fugitive colored people than they were of intense resentment and indignation on the part[Pg 16] of the white friends, employers and protectors of the blacks.

While then one trail of the Underground Railroad ran by Columbia and Bird-in-Hand, whereon friendly hands passed the fugitive from Stephen Smith to Daniel Gibbons; and a branch led from Joseph Taylor’s, at Ashville to Penningtonville and Christiana, another had a continuous line of stations from the Gilberts and Bushongs around May, in Bart, or later Eden township, out “the valley” to and past the scene of what was to be the deepest tragedy which ever thrilled this little community.

Popular feeling was not wholly unprepared for it. The conflagration was not a sudden outbreak. Combustibles had been accumulating. Local incidents, such as escapes, man hunts, kidnappings and other like events had occurred to an extent sufficient to excite popular interest; and by rumor they had been exaggerated enough to further inflame it; numerous persons supposed or known to be ex-slaves resided and worked in the neighborhood and were the subjects of a qualified popular protection. There had been outrages on one side and some reprisals on the other.

In 1850 it was alleged that an innocent and free colored hired man named Henry Williams had been seized without right or legal process and sold into perpetual slavery South. William Dorsey had been taken from his wife and three children and lodged in the jail at Lancaster. A gang of three, who tried to take a maid servant from Moses Whitson’s across the line in Chester County, were forcibly resisted by a lot of colored men under the lead of Ben. Whipper. The girl was rescued and her captors terribly, if not fatally, beaten on the Gap hill. A negro known as “Tom-up-in-the-barn,” living near Gap, was said to have been captured one morning on his way to thresh at Caleb Brinton’s, and never got back. The barn of Lindley Coates, in Sadsbury township, was burned in 1850 by miscreants angered at his denunciation of slave catchers and kidnappers.


[Pg 17]It was also related that an industrious negro fence-maker had been violently carried off from his home on John McGowen’s place in the valley, near Mars Hill, between Christiana and Quarryville. The narrator of this (Forbes’ “True Story”) does not tell whether the man was free or a fugitive slave; and to his outraged neighbors this distinction made little difference.

The incident of most note occurring in the immediate neighborhood, the influence of which lasted longest, the feeling about which was most acute, and which figured largely in the “Treason Trials” was what was stigmatized as “the outrage at Chamberlain’s.” Its scene was on the “Buck hill,” in the northwestern part of Sadsbury township, on what is now known as the “Todd place,” west of the back road from Gap to Christiana and in what was a sort of middle ground between the operations of the “Gap gang” and the refuge territory of the fugitives. Here in March 1851 a posse, claimed to be led by a rather notorious member of the “Gap gang,” entered the Chamberlain house, severely beat a colored man named John Williams employed there, who made desperate resistance, terrified the members of the family, and carried off their bleeding victim in a wagon. It seems he was an escaped slave; but his captors exhibited no official warrant of arrest nor made any claim of authority except to declare they were acting for his master. It was believed he died from their ill treatment of him.

And there were reprisals! William Parker—of whom this narrative will have more to say—admitted years afterwards that he had helped to beat, fatally he believed, the captors of a colored girl; that he had tried to kill Allen Williams on suspicion that he had betrayed Henry; that he recaptured a kidnapped man on the West Chester road, after shooting at his captors and being himself shot in the ankle; and that he and his associates went to the home of a decoy negro, burned it down and watched to shoot him[Pg 18] with smooth-bore rifles “heavily charged” if the flames drove him into the open.

The leading people of this neighborhood were not only anti-slavery in sentiment, but they resented what seemed to be lawless invasion of their peaceful community; they were not afforded means of verifying the authenticity of the claims made for escaped slaves; the local people engaged in the business of aiding in slave hunting and slave nabbing were generally disreputable and sometimes themselves outlaws and criminals; farmers and mechanics were disturbed in their domestic service by the frequency with which attacks were made upon their many and useful colored employees and by the apprehensions to which they were all constantly exposed. Withal a sense of protection was felt in the fact that the most powerful leader of the bar of Lancaster County, and its representative in Congress Thaddeus Stevens, was outspoken in his denunciation of the Fugitive Slave Law. Political discussion and sentiment in this immediate locality, far more than in any other part of Lancaster County, was focusing upon open defiance of and even physical resistance to the enforcement of the Fugitive Slave Law. As early as October 11, 1850, at a public meeting in Georgetown, Bart Township, four miles from the later scene of the riot—William L. Rakestraw presiding and Elwood Cooper Secretary—a committee consisting of Thomas Whitson, Elwood Cooper, Cyrus Manahan, Elwood Griest and Joseph McClelland, reported and published vigorous resolutions denouncing the fugitive slave bill, and declaring that they would “harbor, clothe, feed and aid the escape of fugitive slaves in opposition to the law.”


This was the state of popular feeling and these were the social and political conditions prevailing in lower Lancaster County, when the Gorsuch party set out from Maryland to retake their escaped slaves by due and orderly processes of law—from which mission the elder Gorsuch returned a[Pg 19] mangled corpse and his son with a shot-riddled body; in the attempt to execute which the officers of the law were put to flight; out of which grew the arrest of two score men and the indictment of more persons for treason than were ever before or since tried for that crime in the United States; the acrimonious relations of two neighboring commonwealths for years; the open exultation of many persons over the killing and wounding of citizens engaged in a lawful undertaking, and the chagrin of many other orderly and law-abiding people that the law of the land had been violated in bloodshed and its officers successfully resisted.


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