what happened in christiana, pennsylvania, in 1851?
Within minutes, neighbors, both black and white, began to appear. And as the confrontation escalated, shooting began. Men on both sides fired weapons, and Edward Gorsuch was killed. His son was seriously wounded and nearly died.
A crowd had gathered at the courthouse hoping to hear Thaddeus Stevens sum up for the defense. But perhaps sensing that he might become a lightning rod for criticism, Stevens chose not to speak.
As Northern states abolished slavery, most relaxed enforcement of the 1793 law, and many passed laws ensuring fugitive slaves a jury trial. Several Northern states even enacted measures prohibiting state officials from aiding in the capture of runaway slaves or from jailing the fugitives. This disregard of the first fugitive slave law enraged Southern states and led to the passage of a second fugitive slave law as part of the “Compromise of 1850″ between North and South.
In Christiana, Pennsylvania, a group of African Americans and white abolitionists skirmish with a Maryland posse intent on capturing four fugitive slaves hidden in the town. The violence came one year after the second fugitive slave law was passed by Congress, requiring the return of all escaped slaves to their owners in the South. One member of the posse, landowner Edward Gorsuch, was killed and two others wounded during the fight. In the aftermath of the so-called Christiana Riot, 37 African Americans and one white man were arrested and charged with treason under the provisions of the Fugitive Slave Law. Most were acquitted.
But, as the event proved, the descendants of the two opposing sides no longer felt so trapped; their dinner of reconciliation proved to be a friendly social gathering, full of hugs, speeches, and some tears. Since then, the Christiana descendants have taken bus tours to the northern Baltimore County land still owned by a relative of Edward Gorsuch. There, they’ve eaten more meals together. Somehow, the people whose families once clashed have crafted an understanding, a peace.
On September 11, 1851, the bounty hunters were met by a large crowd of free blacks and escaped slaves who’d settled in Lancaster County, a key way station on the Underground Railroad. Aided by white Quaker townspeople, they fought back. Gorsuch was shot, hacked with corn knives, and died in a bloodbath that became national news.
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In the immediate aftermath of the Christiana Riot, Parker and two other men, presumably fugitive slaves, escaped for Canada. U.S. officials hastily arrested anyone possibly connected with the riot, including a white miller from Christiana named Castner Hanway (1821-93). Hanway, who rode to Parker’s home on the day of the riot, was mistakenly identified as the mastermind of the riot. Along with forty-one other men, Hanway was charged with treason for “wickedly and traitorously” intending “to levy war” against the United States. Hanway’s trial began on November 24, 1851, at the old Pennsylvania State House in Philadelphia (Independence Hall) with Supreme Court Justice Robert C. Grier (1794-1870) and U.S. District Court Judge John K. Kane (1795-1858) presiding.
William Parker, a 30-year-old tenant farmer born in Maryland, had escaped slavery just a few years prior, and had found refuge, if not full acceptance, in this quiet corner of Pennsylvania. Despite encountering sympathy from the Quaker community, Parker still feared for his safety. He joined other African Americans in the area to form mutual aid societies to defend against kidnapping, and established networks of lookouts to keep track of the movements of known kidnappers and their allies. One such network tipped off Parker that Gorsuch and a small band of relatives and supporters, accompanied by a notorious Philadelphia constable named Henry Kline who had been deputized as a U.S. marshal for the occasion, were hunting for Thompson and Kite. The black community of Christiana was on high alert.
Archaeologists know that communities create and preserve deep knowledge of their local history. Often, stories of the past help communities create an identity of which they can be proud. This was certainly the case at Christiana.