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Resistance at Christiana: Precursor to the Civil War

Oct 13, 2014 08:15PM ● Published by Erica Shames

Gallery: Resistance at Christiana - Fall 2014 [7 Images] Click any image to expand.

By Andrew H. Martin

Edward Gorsuch was a Maryland farmer known for generally treating his slaves well, including freeing them after they turned 28. His status as a slave owner, and one who ran his farm with ultimate authority, made him a formidable figure.  

In the fall of 1849, four of his slaves, Noah Buley, George Ford, Nelson Ford and Joshua Hammond, believed they would be blamed and punished for five bushels of missing wheat, so they fled to Pennsylvania.

PA roots

Pennsylvania gradually abolished slavery starting in 1780, and was completely free by the time the Fugitive Slave Law of 1850, giving slave owners federally recognized rights to enter Free states to re-capture runaways, was passed. This law only magnified issues of slaves as property and human liberty.

Just north of the Mason-Dixon Line, Christiana, which sits in Lancaster County, was frequented by runaway slaves, who often received assistance from sympathetic allies. One of the most prominent was William Parker, a mulatto former escaped slave who had a reputation for vigorously defending not only his and his family’s rights, but of those seeking freedom. Accordingly, he was one of a number of conductors involved in the Underground Railroad. 

Parker’s activism and the Fugitive Slave Act formed a perfect storm, resulting in a clash in Christiana that rapidly gained national attention and was a precursor to what split the country in the coming years. 

Away from the fighting

The four Maryland slaves lived and worked in various places in southern Pennsylvanian before eventually seeking shelter at Parker’s farm. Gorsuch, who had unsuccessfully followed a number of leads over the previous two years, was tipped off, obtained warrants under the new law and set out with a posse to capture them.

Parker had heard the group was on its way to his home and had prepared accordingly. Legend has it that Eliza, Parker’s wife, sounded a trumpet to notify the community they needed help defending themselves.

Early in the morning of Sept.11, 1851, Gorsuch and five others rode up to Parker’s farm, demanding the surrender of his four slaves.  Asked to leave peacefully, Gorsuch allegedly responded, “I will have my property or go to hell.” 

A standoff ensued and approximately 30 to 50 of Parker’s neighbors, mostly black, appeared with a general hodgepodge of guns, farm tools and other items of defense. The black members of the community had particular reason to be wary of slave catchers, as two other suspected runaways had been kidnapped and returned to slavery in the past year. Not surprisingly, tensions mounted quickly, and before it was all over Gorsuch was dead and his son Dickinson was seriously wounded.

After the carnage unfolded, the posse retreated as Parker’s neighbor, Castner Hanway, helped defuse the situation, including leading the wounded Gorsuchs away from the fighting. 

Parker left Christiana later that day. He first went to Rochester, New York, where Frederick Douglass, an acquaintance from when they were both previously enslaved in Maryland, helped him enter Canada. He and his family eventually settled in Buxton, Ontario, where they started a new farm.

As the first large-scale resistance to the Fugitive Slave Act, the Christiana Incident made immediate headlines. A Lancaster newspaper article titled the event, “Civil War—the first blow struck.” 

Those in the South demanded justice. The victory of runaway slaves and their sympathizers was a major blow to their dying way of life. 

“Ridiculously absurd”

The government, wanting to appear strong on upholding the new law, launched an inquiry. Pres. Millard Fillmore sent 40 Philadelphia police officers and 45 Marines to Christiana to round up suspects. After a preliminary investigation, 38 men, (34 blacks and four whites), were arrested, placed in Moyamensing Prison in Philadelphia and charged with treason. A grand jury indicted them all, but the peace-making Hanway was the only one sent to trial. White resistance to slave laws was seen as the ultimate danger, so making him an example was designed to send a strong public message.

The 29-year-old Hanway was not an outspoken abolitionist but believed his role in the incident was just, writing his wife from prison, “I do not regret my course; I have simply done my duty.”

He went on trial in Philadelphia on Nov.15, 1851 for treason, resisting arrest and conspiracy. Among his lawyers was noted congressman and abolitionist Thaddeus Stevens, who declared it was “ridiculously absurd” to think the farmer had acted treasonously by standing up for his neighbors. The argument worked, as a not-guilty verdict was returned in less than 10 minutes—ending the attempts to prosecute the prisoners, who were eventually released.

Closer to a clash

The resistance at Christiana and subsequent acquittal of Hanway angered Southerners and moved the country closer to its inevitable clash. The Civil War was a terrible price to pay but steered the country on a new path. The defense of basic rights and liberties by members of a small community opposing an unjust law was one of the first unofficial shots fired in the conflict—and took place in the unassuming farmland of Christiana, Pennsylvania.

If you go

The Landis Woodland Preserve, 610 Zion Hill Rd., Atglen, PA, located close to Christiana, Is expected to be the future home of the replica of the Christiana Resistance House.

Andrew H. Martin has written about sports, history and sports-history for a variety of Web sites and publications.

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