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CURRENT ISSUE | FEBRUARY 2002
RESISTANCE AT CHRISTIANA
By Stephanie Anderson

Excerpted from Central PA magazine, FEBRUARY 2002

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"If there is no struggle, there is no progress."
-- Frederick Douglass

On a Sunday evening last September, a smattering of people have gathered at the Lancaster Host Resort to commemorate the 150th anniversary of an event that was a milestone in the nation's headlong plunge toward Civil War. Referred to historically as the "Christiana riot," it is largely unknown today. On September 11, 1851, a group of freed slaves, runaway slaves and local Quakers violently resisted a Maryland slaveowner who had traveled to Lancaster County to reclaim his "property." The confrontation ended with the death of the slaveowner and ignited a storm of controversy in both the North and South.

The commemoration has been organized by the Christiana Historical Society as a "forgiveness dinner." Around tables brimming with hors d'oeuvres, the descendants of the slaves make small talk and sip punch with the descendants of slaveowner Edward Gorsuch. It is their first meeting since their ancestors faced each other in a violent confrontation a century and a half ago.

Four members of Gorsuch's family are in attendance. Karen Hunter of Ohio is on hand with her husband, Thomas, her cousins George and Bill Mayo and their mother, Helen. Hunter couldn't convince her brothers or her daughter to come. "They didn't know what they'd be getting into because we are descendants of slaveowners, and we'd be there with descendants of slaves," she says.

Despite their awkward role, they are welcomed at the dinner and mingle and converse easily with everyone. Doreen Johnson Schaad, a descendant of freed slave Abraham Johnson, traveled to Lancaster County from Canada for the event. "How can you dislike someone you don't even know?" she says. "As far as I'm concerned, we're all God's children."

 

'Freedom Began Here'

Entering the town of Christiana is like stepping into a Norman Rockwell painting -- it is charming, quiet and quaint, with big, old Victorian houses in the center of town and farmland around the periphery. Beyond the glut of outlet stores and franchise fast-food joints on Route 30, Christiana is situated on the eastern end of Lancaster County, bordering on the Chester County line. Underneath a tangle of weeds and brush, in an overgrown field along a creek just outside of town, lies a plaque marking the location of what is now referred to as the "Christiana resistance" -- the home of former slave William Parker, which was torn down in the late 1800s. "Freedom began here," African-American orator Frederick Douglass said of the site. And so, many believe, did the Civil War.

The events that led to the Christiana resistance began in December 1849, when freed slave Abraham Johnson, Schaad's ancestor, tried to sell grain taken from Edward Gorsuch's plantation in Baltimore County, Maryland. Four of Gorsuch's slaves, accused of stealing the grain, fled the Gorsuch farm with Johnson and headed for the Pennsylvania border, 30 miles away.

But Gorsuch had the law on his side. The Fugitive Slave Act was part of the Compromise of 1850, one in a series of attempts to maintain the Union by balancing the interests and political influence of slave and nonslave states, beginning with the Missouri Compromise in 1820. It permitted slaveowners to travel to free states to recapture runaway slaves. Bounties could be placed on the heads of fugitive slaves, and anyone refusing to assist in their apprehension could be fined and imprisoned.

The Fugitive Slave Act caused great controversy. If it were to be enforced, Northerners would have to cooperate with slaveowners who wished to take slaves back to the South -- a direct contradiction of the free states' anti-slavery stance. The South viewed the North's reluctance to enforce the law as defiance of the U.S. government.

In August 1851, Gorsuch received a letter from Lancaster County farmhand William Padgett, who claimed to know the whereabouts of Gorsuch's slaves and offered to lead him to them. The slaveowner formed a posse with his son, Dickinson, his cousin, his nephew and two neighbors. They took the express train from Baltimore to Philadelphia, where they met Deputy Federal Marshal Henry Kline, completed the necessary paperwork and set off for Christiana.

As Southern slaveowners go, Edward Gorsuch was considered by all accounts to be liberal. He was a member of the typically anti-slavery Whig Party. Gorsuch had inherited slaves from his father, and he freed many of them after they completed 28 years of service. He gave the freed slaves the opportunity to continue working on his farm for a wage, and many of them did. Gorsuch is said to have never physically mistreated slaves.

Pennsylvania, though a free state, was by no means free from prejudice against African Americans -- racism was rampant on both sides of the Mason-Dixon Line. With the passage of the Fugitive Slave Act came yet another way for white Americans to profit from the traffic in human life. Southern slaveowners would often pay Northerners large sums to kidnap runaway slaves and return them to the South. One of the most notorious groups of slave kidnappers, the Gap Gang, was based just a mile and a half outside of Christiana.

William Parker of Christiana had known Frederick Douglass when they were both slaves in Maryland. When Douglass and white abolitionist William Lloyd Garrison spoke at an anti-slavery rally in Smyrna, a few miles west of Christiana, Parker was inspired by Douglass' call to blacks to protect themselves against kidnappers by forming self-defense groups. In his memoir, published in The Atlantic Monthly in 1866, Parker wrote: "Kidnapping was so common ... that we were in constant fear.... There was no power to protect them, nor prevent it. So completely roused were my feelings, that I vowed to let no slaveholder take back a fugitive, if I could but get my eye on him."

 

'Civil War -- The First Blow Struck'

The morning of September 11, 1851, was dark and dense with fog. Just before dawn, Gorsuch and his party met their informant, Padgett, and crept quietly along the bank of the Octorara Creek to the Parker house. One of the fugitive slaves from the Gorsuch farm spotted them and ran inside, forgetting to close the door behind him. As Gorsuch and Marshal Kline stepped across the threshold, Parker met them and told them to leave. "I want my property, and I'm not leaving without it," Gorsuch retorted. Parker taunted him, inviting him to peruse the house for any furniture that belonged to him. Kline, growing impatient, threatened to burn down the house. "You can burn us, but you can't take us," Parker responded. "Before I give up, you will see my ashes scattered on the earth."

While the men argued, Parker's wife, Eliza, opened a second-floor window and began blowing a horn, sounding an alarm for the rest of the town. Members of Gorsuch's posse began shooting at her. Townspeople, black and white, picked up weapons -- rifles, pistols, farming implements -- and made their way to the Parker house. Kline pointed to a white man named Castner Hanway, seated atop a horse, and asked him to help arrest the slaves. Hanway, who was married to a Quaker, refused.

As Parker continued to argue with Gorsuch, fighting broke out between the townspeople and the posse. Several guns were fired. Gorsuch's nephew and his son urged him to flee. "My property is here," he replied, "and I will have it or perish in the attempt." His words were prophetic. His son, Dickinson, having fired at Parker, was shot multiple times and stumbled into a nearby cornfield, badly wounded. Minutes later, his father lay dead in a pool of blood on William Parker's front lawn. The rest of the posse retreated. The Christiana riot had lasted one hour.

Word of the resistance soon spread to newspapers across the country. An editorial in a Boston paper blamed white abolitionists for "thirsting for the blood of the Southerners" and inciting the "colored mob." Southern reporters threatened secession if Gorsuch's killers were not brought to justice. A North Carolina editorial stated, "Before God and man ... if you fail in this simple act of justice, the bonds will be dissolved." The front-page headline of Lancaster's Saturday Express read, "Civil War -- The First Blow Struck."

Hoping to alleviate public pressure, federal prosecutors indicted a total of 36 black and five white men for "high treason against the United States." Strangely, several key figures in the riot were not charged, including Abraham Johnson and Eliza Parker. William Parker, who had run away to Canada with Johnson, was tried in absentia. The five white men arrested -- most of whom were Quakers -- had not actively participated in the riot; Castner Hanway and Elijah Lewis were arrested for refusing to help Marshal Kline apprehend Gorsuch's slaves.

The treason trial, the largest ever held in the United States, began on November 24, 1851, at Independence Hall in Philadelphia, with abolitionist attorney Thaddeus Stevens defending the accused, primarily by pleading self-defense. All the defendants were found not guilty. Although some of the black men were extradited back to Lancaster County to face murder charges, they remained in jail for one night and were released. No one was ever tried for the murder of Edward Gorsuch.

The absence of the Christiana resistance in most American history books is something that continues to confound many historians and Civil War buffs. Author Edward Steers of Berkeley Springs, West Virginia, an expert on Abraham Lincoln and the Civil War, says that in the numerous Civil War roundtable discussions he attends, Christiana is seldom mentioned. "You can't even begin to talk about the Civil War without beginning in Christiana," he says. "Christiana was a wonderful example of what was happening in the country. It was an examination of an irreconcilable conflict."

Steers believes Christiana could have been a catalyst for another important moment in our nation's history. Edward Gorsuch's youngest son, Tom, never got over the fact that his father's killer had not been brought to justice. He spoke bitterly of the Christiana resistance to his friend and classmate, John Wilkes Booth, who, 14 years later, would gain infamy for firing a single bullet into the back of President Abraham Lincoln's head.

Gorsuch's murder "had a major impact on Booth," Steers says. The assassination of Lincoln "was an example of Booth's racism and hatred of Lincoln because of his policies. Christiana was a symbol of the Northern attitude toward the South, and Lincoln had become the archangel of that symbol."

 

'A Three-Strand Cord Is Not Easily Broken.'

As the story of the riot has been retold over the years, racial bias has painted the white Castner Hanway as the slaves' savior, sitting astride his horse and refusing to help a federal marshal arrest them. But the real hero of the Christiana resistance is William Parker, who despite his lack of education or worldliness, understood both the intrinsic evil of slavery and his own worth as a human being in the face of an institution that regarded him as nothing more than another man's property. And at the Christiana anniversary weekend, the one man everyone wants to meet is Frank Parker, William's great-grandson. With a gold chain around his neck and a short-sleeved turtleneck shirt exposing a tattoo of a cross on his forearm, Frank sits quietly next to his wife, Darlene, as people mill about in front of him, waiting to shake his hand. He nods and smiles graciously, but he is clearly uncomfortable with the attention.

Growing up in North Buxton, Ontario, Frank Parker had never heard of his great-grandfather William or the Christiana riot. North Buxton is a town of only about 100 people ("there's not even a population sign, it's so small," Parker jokes). Parker knows everyone in town, including the Johnsons, who live a few miles away. But it was only recently that he learned they are descendants of Abraham Johnson, with whom William Parker fled from Christiana after the riot.

A few years ago, Parker, 40, discovered a museum near his hometown that had a local black-history exhibit. He found his great-grandfather's name and a mention of the Christiana resistance, but didn't think much more about it. After his trip to Christiana, Parker speaks of him with disarming modesty. "William didn't do anything that any good man wouldn't have done," he says in a heavy Canadian accent. "It was nothing out of the usual. I don't see him as being a hero. I just see him as being a good man."

Although he knows little about his great-grandfather, Parker says, "He seemed to be the kind of guy who'd stand up for what he believes in. I hope to be that way. I'd rather be hurt than hurt someone else. I see that in him. I see that in my dad." And he sees it in his three children, especially in his youngest daughter, eight-year-old Chelsey.

Though he has not explained the story of William Parker and the Christiana resistance to his children yet, he believes his wife will. She is more vocal and outgoing than her husband. At the forgiveness dinner, she spoke tearfully about how moved she was to be a part of the anniversary. "Darlene will talk to them. She'll carry it on, believe me," Frank says. "The way I carry it on is by my lifestyle."

Many of the descendants of participants in the Christiana riot knew little or nothing about the event. Even though they were found not guilty, the slaves and freedmen involved with the riot were worried about repercussions from racist Northerners or from Southerners who felt slighted by the acquittal. Many of them moved farther north and stopped talking about the resistance.

Karen Hunter's experience is different. At annual family gatherings on the Gorsuch farm in Maryland, she heard family stories, including accounts of Christiana. The subjects of slavery and the riot were delicate ones in her family, she says from her home in Chagrin Falls, Ohio. Members of her family "weren't proud that some were slaveowners. They made sure we knew they treated their slaves well. When Edward came north to get his slaves, he made sure he dotted his i's and crossed his t's. He operated within the law. When my family told the story, it was told that he'd been caught in history. It was a big deal then."

After the forgiveness dinner, members of the Christiana Historical Society address the descendants. Nancy Hess, a Lancaster native, learned about the resistance while researching her family genealogy, attempting to determine whether she is related to David Brown, who assisted Thaddeus Stevens during the treason trial. "I've been incredibly intrigued and inspired by the strength of the human spirit with the Underground Railroad and the resistance at Christiana," she says to the group. "A three-strand cord is not easily broken, with the Gorsuch family, the Quaker families and the slave families. There's something more complete in freedom that comes through forgiveness."

Darlene Colón, the tall, elegant president of the Christiana Historical Society, is a descendant of Ezekiel Thompson, a half Native-American and half African-American slave tried for treason in the wake of the riot. Her eyes bear a resemblance to Thompson's, and looking out at the crowd, she says simply, "We cannot let this die."

The last speaker of the evening is Frederick Douglass IV, the great-great-grandson of the legendary abolitionist and orator, who was a friend of William Parker. Douglass and his wife, B.J., travel across the country, re-enacting his ancestor's speeches. The younger Douglass is a moving, eloquent speaker, evoking the spirit of his great-great-grandfather in every word.

Of the slaves and the Quakers who supported and defended them, Douglass says, "You had a confluence of forces, the combining of two modes of thought, the refusal to continue as slaves, and the action of self-volition and the need to help those who wanted to be free."

B.J. spontaneously hums what sounds like a slow, aching slave song as her husband tells the descendants he'll be taking soil from Christiana home with him, so that he will always remember what happened there. "We cannot have the ocean without the awful roar of its waters," he continues, paraphrasing his great-great-grandfather. "We cannot have cleansing rain without thunder and lightning."

Months later, many of the descendants who attended the forgiveness weekend remain in contact with each other and the members of the organizing committee. They plan to come back to Christiana, and to tell their children and grandchildren the stories that many themselves have only recently learned, so that time and distance will not break the bonds forged there.

"We came to Christiana not knowing what we were facing," Karen Hunter says. "There were no hard feelings. These were people who had a common bond with us. We weren't strangers facing each other."

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© 2002 WITF Inc.
The print edition of Central PA magazine is sold at selected newsstands and is also available as a member benefit of public broadcasting station WITF, Harrisburg, PA, for a minimum contribution of $45 (seniors and students $25). Become a member online.

 

Outside Links

Christiana Historical Society

Frederick Douglass

Compromise of 1850

Missouri Compromise

Whig Party

William Lloyd Garrison

Thaddeus Stevens

Edward Steers

Underground Railroad

 

 

 

 

 

 

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