Archival Research on Pinkney, Spradley, and Powell

After completing cursory searches on google and discovering Spahr’s recollections of Noah Pinkney, I continued my research by going to the Dickinson College Archives. I began by searching the card catalog but was unable to find anything relating to Noah Pinkney, Henry Spradley, Jim Powell, Samuel Water, Odd Fellows, or even Spahr.

Letter to Robert Emory on September 23, 1842 against the employment of African Americans at Dickinson College. Courtesy of the Dickinson College Archives.

I then began looking through the card catalog for Dickinson College presidents’ records after Cooper Wingert discovered a letter written to the college’s president in 1842 regarding the employment of African Americans. This means that African Americans were employed at Dickinson as early, if not earlier than, 1842. Unfortunately, this cursory search into presidential files did not result in anything relating to former slaves who were employed.

I then specifically asked the archivists if they had any files on these four former slaves. While there was nothing on Jim Powell or Samuel Water, there was a drop file on Noah Pinkney, a file of images of Pinkney, a front page of The Dickinsonian with the news coverage on Henry Spradley’s funeral, and a first edition copy of Boyd Spahr’s Dickinson Doings. Within Pinkney’s drop file was an article from the Dickinson Alumnus in 1923 about Pinkney’s death, an ad for Pinkney’s ice cream in the Literary Monthly, a few Dickinsonian and Microcosm entries on memories of him, and letters regarding his plaque from the 1960s and 1970s.

After researching in the Dickinson College Archives, I went to the Cumberland County Archives. When I asked if they had any information on these four former slaves, they said I would probably have the most luck researching newspaper articles for more information. They recently subscribed to, so I began combing through newspaper articles for mention of these men. I had, by far, the most success with Noah Pinkney. Pinkney’s articles included everything from ads for his oysters, information on his fine for selling ice cream on Dickinson College’s property, and ads his new place of business when he moved. There was also quite a bit of information on his daily life in the “Personals” section, in which he was commonly mentioned for his involvement in his church.

In addition to researching Noah Pinkney in, I also researched Henry Spradley, who also appeared often. His articles were mostly relating to his death and his appointment as a trustee of the A. M. E. Zion church. However, most significantly was a short article that stated not only that Spradley was remembered in a church service at Dickinson but that he was also important enough to the community that committees were created to draft resolutions on his death.

A search on Jim Powell on resulted in only a handful of articles. The majority of these articles were students’ memories of him as “the little, old colored man who used to amuse people on the streets by making funny faces.” At the same time, he was remembered as being “a Cumberland County Slave” and “who drank croton oil.” A search of Samuel Water revealed no matches.

After this research in the archives, I turned to census searches on This yielded me with quite a bit of information on Pinkney, Spradley, and Powell. There are no records of Samuel Water.

In my search of Noah Pinkney, I came across quite a bit of information that cooroborates Spahr’s recollections of Pinkney. I came across a Microcosm entry on him as well as a Dickinsonian article that claimed him the first to get Dickinson students interested in oyster sandwiches.

Pinkney sells oysters. Courtesy of

Beyond this, I found a Veterans Schedules record from 1890, a death certificate, and Find a Grave entry. These pieces of information stated that his middle name started with an H and that he was born Dec. 31, 1845 in Maryland, was a Civil War veteran, died Aug. 6, 1923, and was buried in the Lincoln Cemetery in Carlisle (Memorial ID number: 152658657). I also found a census from 1910 and a census from 1920. However, in these censuses, there are quite a few interesting changes. In the 1910 census, he was married to Carrie Pinkney, a woman born in Virginia, who was unemployed, was 53 years old, could read and write, and whom he was married to for 35 years. In the 1920 census, Pinkney was married to Nannie J Pinkney who was born around 1880 in Pennsylvania and who could read and write. Both women were supposedly unemployed. Because Spahr’s recollections were published in 1900, the woman who was known as Aunt Pinkney or Aunt Noah would have been Carrie. Another change between the censuses was that despite Pinkney’s listing as employed as a restaurant keeper and as the owner of his house, in 1910 his house was “free,” whereas in 1920, it was mortgaged.

When looking up Henry Spradley, I found two City Directory entries (one from 1882 and one from 1887), a Veterans Burial Card, and Find a Grave entry. Through these sources, I learned that his full name was Henry William Spradley and that he was born in 1833 in Winchester City, Virginia, died Apr. 8, 1897, and was buried in the Lincoln Cemetery in Carlisle (Memorial ID number: 130193369).

Carlisle City Directory in 1882. Courtesy of

According to the bio from the Find a Grave page, he was known in military letters and enlistment as Henry Williams, supposedly to hide his slave status. There were two census records of Spradley: one in 1870 and one in 1880. According to the 1870 census, he was a stone maison who was unable to write. He lived with his wife Mima (36 years old, also from Virginia, and unable to read or write) and their three children: Elizabeth (12 years old, born in Virginia, unable to write but attended school), William (nine years old, born in Virginia, and attended school), and Emma (eight months old, born in Pennsylvania). Between the 1870 and 1880 censuses, the family moved from the Carlisle West Ward to 24 West Main Street. In the 1880 census, Spradley was now listed as not being able to read or write and was broadly categorized as a laborer. His wife was still occupied with “Keeping Home” but their children living with them were Elizabeth who was 22, unmarried, and now unable to read or write and Sherly who was six and could read and write but had not attended school yet.

In looking up information on Jim Powell, there was nothing. However, under James Powell, which was most likely his full name, there was a 1910 census. At the time, he was 68 years old, meaning he would have been born around 1848. He lived on North West Street, had been married for 20 years, was born in Virginia, was a wage earner and laborer on a farm, owned his home and did not mortgage it, and could not read or write. His wife, known only on the census as James Powell, was 65 years old, had one child, and was born in Virginia. She did housework for a private family for which she received wages. She could not read or write either.

From these searches so far, I have uncovered descriptions, birth years, and memories of them for all but Samuel Water. Because I now have a better picture of Noah Pinkney and Henry Spradley, my next steps are to continue to look into them more closely. I will do this by searching for information from the A. M. E. Zion church and the Odd Fellows. However, my information on Jim Powell is lacking and I have yet to find anything so far on Samuel Water, so I plan to search for them next in the Dickinson College Archives to see if they and Spradley appear in the Dickinson College janitor file.


Since drafting this post, I have gone back to the Dickinson College Archives to look through the drop file on custodians at Dickinson. There is still nothing on Samuel Water, but I did find a “Sam” Watts who was a janitor in the 1870s. It seems likely that they are one and the same. I will further look into him at the Cumberland County archives. I also found four main other custodians who were employed as janitors in the 1870s. It seems likely that one or more of them appeared in that picture with Noah Pinkney. I also learned from the drop file that the janitor’s job was to keep vendors like Noah Pinkney from selling on Dickinson property. This rule could explain Pinkney’s fine for selling on the property. I also found a file on the Odd Fellows in personal files of James M. Cook. Between the two pocket book constitutions of the organization, there are two listings for two different Spahr men who were most likely related to Boyd Spahr. In the constitution, one of the first requirements even into the 1920s was that members must be white men over 21 years old. I plan to continue to search for the Odd Fellows at the Cumberland County archives as well as to look into membership at the A. M. E. Zion church. I will also try to find more information on “Sam” Watts. Finally, I will try to identify the picture described in Spahr’s recollection and the janitors who appear in the Noah Pinkney picture.

Research Journal: Dickinson’s Founding Board

Continuing my research on Dickinson College’s early ties to slavery, I turned to the trustees themselves. My first objective was to discover how many founding trustees were slaveholders. To do so, I first found a list of the trustees in A Sketch of Dickinson College authored by Charles Himes.

Fortunately, the 38 founding trustees were prominent men in their time, increasing the likelihood that both records about their lives, and their relations to slavery, exist. Among the first I investigate is Henry Hill. A few brief Google searches inform me that Hill was a prominent wine merchant from Philadelphia. In fact, some of the first hits generated for his name are from Founders Online, a website run by the National Archives that holds transcriptions of the correspondence of George Washington and other Founding Fathers. One such letter indicated that Hill had been providing Washington with “fine wine” for many years. So friendly were the two that in August 1777, Washington chose to encamp his Continental Army on Hill’s country estate near Germantown, Pennsylvania, establishing his headquarters in Hill’s elegant home. [1]

I recommence my search with the added benefit of Hill’s birth and death years, obtained in the editors’ footnotes on Founders Online. I uncover that the Maryland State Archives has a page on the Hill family. There, I learn that Hill was born in 1732 on a tobacco plantation near Annapolis, Maryland, known as “Hill’s Point,” where his father, Quaker Dr. Richard Hill, owned “at least” 40 enslaved people. Dr. Hill, who sold 37 of his slaves in 1737, later willed an enslaved man named Valentine to his son Henry. [2] Knowing that Henry Hill later became a Pennsylvania resident, I sought to verify if Valentine or any other enslaved people showed up on Pennsylvania tax records. To do so, I went to Pennsylvania Archives, a gargantuan series of state records edited and printed around the turn of the 20th century. Fortunately, they are all conveniently available online through Internet Archive, although it’s important to consult an online index beforehand to know which volume is relevant for your research. The first volume I consult shows that in 1774, Hill was taxed for two servants (race not specified). In a later volume, I find he was taxed for one slave in 1783. [3]

Henry Hill, 1732-1798, a founding trustee of Dickinson College and slaveholder. (Letters of Doctor Richard Hill and his Children, 1854).

Although he would later die during a yellow fever epidemic in 1798, Hill’s contributions as a trustee were by no means marginal. Returning to the Board of Trustees Papers in the Dickinson College Archives, Hill surfaces repeatedly. At the very first board meeting held on September 15, 1783, at John Dickinson’s Philadelphia home, Hill formed part of a committee “requested to make enquiry for a proper Lot not less than 12 acres in the Borough of Carlisle for Erecting the College, having a particular attention to the health & pleasantness of the Situation[.]” The committee was also “to prepare a Drawing of the College, & to make an Estimate of the Expense of purchase and building.” [4] True to this task, on March 27, 1793, Hill wrote to General William Irvine, a Cumberland County slaveholder closely associated with the developing college. The subject of Hill’s letter was how to “conduce the compliance” of John Penn (1760-1834) who “holds 3/4 of the property we wish to be accommodated with[.]” [5]

Philadelphia wine merchant and trustee Henry Hill writes to Carlisle General William Irvine about securing land for the building of Dickinson College, 1793. (Dickinson College Archives & Special Collections).

I applied this same method to the other 37 board members. As all were residents of Pennsylvania in 1783, the research is simplified by one commonality—Pennsylvania’s 1780 Gradual Abolition law. Even if tax records contained in the Pennsylvania Archives tomes proved inconclusive, all 38 men—if they owned slaves—would have been affected by the law, which required them to register their human property at their respective county seats. Fortunately, many county archives have taken the proactive step of digitizing those records, including Cumberland and Chester, where I found slave returns pertaining to many trustees. Still, other data can be found through simple Google searches, such as the one I ran for “Bucks County slaves.” The query turned up a University of Pennsylvania-produced spreadsheet documenting slave ownership in Bucks County, drawn from the county’s slave register. There I found trustee Reverend James Boyd, who registered four enslaved people.

Still, not all counties have made their slave registers digitally available. As a result, I turned to another great resource, the Pennsylvania State Archives’ website. The State Archives does not hold original slave registers, but maintains microfilm copies of most county records, many of which they have conveniently posted online. There, I find copies of the Lancaster County register, where trustee James Jacks records a “mulatto child” on August 12, 1788. Using the same resource, I was able to locate one of the board’s largest slaveholders, Col. William G. McCleary of Washington County, who registered 7 slaves in 1782.

Synthesizing this data, I was able to verify that at least 23 of Dickinson’s 38 founding trustees owned slaves at some point in their lives—60% percent of the founding board. However, even more explicit evidence of the board’s relation to slavery came from a 1788 document buried deep in the college archives, which I located using the physical card catalog. Board members John Armstrong, John Montgomery, James Wilson and Stephen Duncan all donated funds to establish a “free school and Sunday evening school” for children of “those people laboring under the unfortunate condition of slavery” in Carlisle–signed by many men who bought and sold slaves themselves. College president Dr. Charles Nisbet, who pledged 20 shillings, was to be one of the “managers,” while donations of one pound each came from slaveholding college trustees such as Montgomery, Duncan, Armstrong and Wilson.  [6]

The school’s stated purpose was to inform the enslaved of “the principles of morality & the Christian Religion” which “can only be obtained by reading and studying for themselves the Holy Scriptures and other good Books.” Demanding such intensive study, however, the “free school” apparently struggled. A subsequent document noted that “bound servants slaves and others are in general precluded (by the necessary attendance during the Week upon the business of their Employers)” from regularly attending. Abandoning the “free school” during the week, the signatories instead decided to “Engage a School Master of good character” to teach “such persons as shall be sent to a Sunday Evening School.” [7]

An interesting name appearing on both school documents was that of John Hunter. I immediately recognized his name from earlier research in the Board of Trustees Papers, where a signed note from Hunter provided trustees with a bid to supply “a sufficient quantity of good and sufficient stone lime for the purpose of building and creating a new College[.]” [8] Hunter was also a slaveholder himself, registering a “Negro slave Tom” in 1780. With that in mind, the subject of future research will be if Hunter was awarded the contract, and if so, was slave labor used in laying limestone for the first college building? Further, the unlikely alliance between Nisbet and slaveholding board members to create a school for enslaved children will require additional research. What were Nisbet’s views on slavery, and were they the source of the underlying tension between the Scotsman and Dickinson’s majority-slaveholder board?



[1]  Henry Hill to George Washington, June 22, 1773, Washington Papers, Founders Online [WEB] ; General Orders, August 4, 1777, Washington Papers, Founders Online [WEB] ; Henry Hill to George Washington, March 4, 1797, Washington Papers, Founders Online, [WEB] ; Harold Donaldson Eberlein and Horace Mather Lippincott, The Colonial Homes of Philadelphia and its Neighbourhood, (Philadelphia and London: J.B. Lippincott, 1912), 257-261, [WEB]; John Jay Smith, Letters of Doctor Richard Hill and His Children, (Philadelphia: Privately published, 1854), [WEB].

[2] Sarah Hartge, “Richard Hill,” Archives of Maryland (Biographical Series), [WEB].

[3] William Henry Egle (ed.), Pennsylvania Archives, (Harrisburg: William Stanley Ray, 1897), Series 3, vol. 14, 271, [WEB]; Egle (ed.), Pennsylvania Archives, Series 3, vol. 16, 651, [WEB].

[4] Minutes, September 15, 1783, Minutes of the Board of Trustees, 1783-1809, RG 1/1 Board of Trustees Papers, Series 3, Box 1, Dickinson College Archives & Special Collections.

[5] Henry Hill to William Irvine, March 27, 1793, Correspondence Related to the “New College,” 1793-1803, RG 1/1 Board of Trustees Papers, Series 5, Box 3, Dickinson College Archives & Special Collections.

[6] Founding of Carlisle Free and Sunday Evening School, 1788, Dickinson College Archives & Special Collections.

[7] Subscription, c. 1788, Dickinson College Archives & Special Collections.

[8] Bid, John Hunter, November 24, 1798, RG 1/1 Board of Trustees Papers, Series 5, Box 3, Dickinson College Archives & Special Collections.

Research Journal: Building Dickinson

As I begin my next project, it is important to organize the research into a coherent structure for the best effect. My task is to document the connections between Dickinson’s founders and slavery, a subject that holds particular relevance today as many colleges and universities such as Brown, Georgetown and Harvard are examining their own ties to the institution.

First, I sought out biographical information concerning four individuals who were crucial in Dickinson’s early years—Benjamin Rush, the college’s founder, John Dickinson, its chief financier and namesake, John Montgomery, a Carlisle resident and early board member and Dr. Charles Nisbet, a Scotsman who served as Dickinson’s first president. All but Nisbet owned slaves at one point in their lives, and with the apparent exception of Montgomery, they all leveled at least some criticism towards slavery, even if their words did not appear to match their actions.

Examining their roles within the college, I found that Montgomery and Rush were particularly close. When problems arose with the new college, Rush frequently leaned upon Montgomery for assistance. A generic search of their names through the Dickinson College Archives’ JumpStart Catalog turned up a student essay from 1982, which further fleshed out the relationship between the founder and the prominent townsman. It was clear, after just some preliminary research, that the stories of Montgomery and Rush might be told best together. Both were slave owners and Dickinson founders, yet each characterized his slaveholding in a vastly different light.

To better understand both men (particularly Montgomery), I began to further explore their connections to slavery in Cumberland County. Montgomery was one of the largest Cumberland County slaveholders, and both men frequently associated with other local slave owners. I started my research in the Board of Trustees papers in the Dickinson archives (RG 1/1), where I found evidence of many slaveholding families—the Montgomerys, the Duncans, the Wilsons to name a few—serving on the board or making important contributions. For instance, in 1800, Revolutionary War veteran William Irvine (another Carlisle slaveholder) was given power of attorney by the Board. [1] The point—Dickinson’s early operating Board was heavily dominated by slaveholders. In order to explain this, I might employ a visual representation of board seats and demonstrate how many were occupied by members of slaveholding households.

Then, Cory Young, a graduate student from Georgetown University specializing in slaveholder migration, shared his newest finding with me—evidence in Dickinson’s financial records (kept by Treasurer John Montgomery) that slave labor was used in constructing the college. On July 26, 1799, records show a single 15 shilling payment made to”Black James, Mr. Holmes’s Negro.” [2] This could be the same “Negroe Boy named Jim” who was about 10 years old when he was registered by William Holmes of Carlisle in October 1780, under the state’s Gradual Abolition Law. Nevertheless, this represents an important point of research. Young informed me that there are many other payments made by the college to local slaveholders, leaving the potential that more enslaved people were involved in building Dickinson. (He has experience in this. As a student at Georgetown, he worked on finding records of Georgetown’s use of slave labor, which included the hiring out of college-owned slaves). As all funds were approved by the Board, an important aspect of my research going forward will be to determine how widespread slave labor was in Dickinson’s construction, and if the Board consistently contracted with local slaveholders.

On July 26, 1799, “Black James,” an enslaved man, was hired out to the college by his master. Dickinson’s early financial ledgers show a 15 shilling payment for work done on the initial college building, which burned down in 1803. (Dickinson College Archives)

Turning to Charles Nisbet, I find that he and college namesake John Dickinson had a less than amiable relationship. Apparently not a fan of Nisbet, Dickinson wrote several disheartening letters to the Scotsman, attempting to put the brakes on his trans-Atlantic voyage to assume the college presidency. The delaying tactics angered Rush and Montgomery, who wondered on paper if Dickinson was seeking to sabotage the school. [3] Nisbet’s views on slavery are often considered set in stone—in 1792, he penned a frequently quoted letter in which he predicted that a “Negro war… may probably break out soon” and would do much to further the anti-slavery cause. [4] Perhaps not surprisingly, once he arrived the cantankerous Nisbet made few friends among Dickinson’s majority slaveholder Board. By 1787, one correspondent claimed that “[t]he whole board of Trustees condemn” Nisbet, for having “reflected upon some persons in Carlisle most grossly maliciously and falsely[.]” According to the correspondent, the Duncan family in particular (a slaveholding family) were “very angry” at Nisbet. [5] One important theme of this project will be to discover what was the source of underlying tension between Nisbet and the Board, and if his reputed abolitionist proclivities played any role in estranging him from men such as the slaveholding Duncans and Montgomerys.



  1. Power of Attorney from Board of Trustees to William Irvine, January 14, 1799, RG 1/1 Board of Trustees Papers, Series 3, Box 2, Dickinson College Archives & Special Collections.
  2. Financial Ledger, RG 1/1 Board of Trustees Papers, Series 6, Dickinson College Archives & Special Collections.
  3.  Lisa Rainier, “Benjamin Rush and his Relationship with John Montgomery in the Founding of Dickinson College,” November 15, 1982, Essays, History, Dickinson College Archives & Special Collections.
  4. Charles Nisbet, quoted in Merton L. Dillon, Slavery Attacked: Southern Slaves and their Allies, 1619-1865, (Baton Rouge: LSU Press, 1990), 48.
  5. Unknown correspondent to Benjamin Rush, September 1787, Photoduplicate in Benjamin Rush Drop File, Dickinson College Archives and Special Collections.

Josiah Henson: A Real-Life Uncle Tom

Published in 1852, Harriet Beecher Stowe’s Uncle Tom’s Cabin was tremendously influential among the American public in the years leading up to the Civil War. The novel’s descriptions of slavery fueled abolitionist sentiment among the American public. Her novel, however, was not pure fiction—it was inspired in part by the life of former slave Josiah Henson.

Born in Charles County Maryland on June 15, 1789, Henson early on had to undergo the trauma of sale.[1] When he was around five or six years old, he was nearly separated from his mother when they were bought by two different men, but because he was distraught and fell sick was sold at a low price to his mother’s new master, a man he refers to as Isaac R. After over twenty years of service for him in Montgomery County, Maryland, financial troubles dictated that Mr. R. have Henson take most of his slaves down to his brother Amos R. in Daviess County, Kentucky. Henson anticipated that they would later be joined by his master, but instead worked three years for Amos with no appearance by Isaac.

Portrait of Josiah Henson sitting next to an unidentified Caucasian man, both facing slightly left. Bradshaw and Godart, photograph, Library of Congress

At this point in the story, Henson’s narrative points to issues of manumission during the antebellum period. By the early to mid-nineteenth century, manumission was rare in the South, requiring legislative approval in the Lower South and with strict rules in the Upper South.[2] Henson, in 1828, got a pass from Amos to go see his real master in Maryland. Unbeknownst to Amos, this was the beginning of an attempt by Henson to buy his own freedom.[3] Eventually, with the help of his mistress’s brother, Henson was able to buy his freedom for $450, and received his manumission papers on March 9, 1829. However, his master was not about to let him go without a fight.

Henson left to return to Kentucky, as his pass allowed (and, likely, as law required, because it was common in Upper South states like Maryland that a manumitted slave had to leave the state).[4] However, Isaac insisted that the manumission papers be sealed and addressed to Amos, expressing to Henson his concern by saying, “You may meet with some ruffian slave-purchaser who will rob you of that piece of paper, and destroy it.”[5] Upon returning to Kentucky, Henson learned that his master had in fact upped the price—Isaac mailed a letter to Amos saying that Henson needed to pay $650 more to purchase his freedom. Unable to make money from Amos’ plantation, Henson seemed to still be trapped after all of his effort.

After this debacle, Henson began to realize that escape may be his only way out of bondage. After an attempt to take him down to New Orleans to be sold failed in early 1830, Henson gathered his wife and children and began their escape.[6] They travelled at night with no assistance until they reached Cincinnati, and from there travelled to Sandusky. From there a boat captain took the family to Buffalo, and from Buffalo they were ferried across the Niagara River to Canada in October, 1830. Though Henson and family did not pass through any of the more “traditional” stops of the Underground Railroad (Philadelphia, New York City, Boston) they were able to find those in free states who sympathized with and assisted fugitive slaves.[7]

One of the more powerful aspects of Josiah Henson’s narrative are his descriptions of the sale of slaves and separations of families that came as a result. The first instance of this occurred when he was only a few years old and his father was sold south to Alabama, a common theme during the antebellum period. Then Henson describes the trauma that occurred a few years later when his master died and the slaves were sold off. His mother, after being purchased by Isaac R., kicked and pleaded for him to buy Henson, but the man would not yield at the time, or even pay her attention.

He next describes it when Isaac R. must sell almost all of his slave except for Henson and his family. Although Henson is not directly personally involved this time, his description is perhaps stronger. “Husbands and wives, parents and children were to be separated forever. Affections, which are as strong in the African as in the European were to be cruelly disregarded; and the iron selfishness generated by the hateful ‘institution’ was to be exhibited in its most odious and naked deformity,” he said.[8]

All of this highlights how central fear of separation and sale South were to the lives of slaves during this time. As Peter Kolchin puts in in his book American Slavery, “The ultimate and most dreaded form of interference in slave family life was the forced separation of family members.”[9] Henson’s narrative shows the complexity of situations like these for masters and slaves. Isaac R.’s attempt to keep the slaves together by sending them to his brother shows that some masters would make efforts to keep families from separating, but his later command to sell them demonstrates that if it came down to slave families or personal well-being, the master’s personal well-being won every time.[10]

Uncle Tom’s Cabin Cover. Credit: Wikimedia Commons

While Henson’s vivid descriptions of his feeling and experiences from life as a slave are important in understanding American slavery, what the narrative inspired is perhaps even more important. His narrative was not published until 1849 and did not gain much attention until after the publication of Uncle Tom’s Cabin and Harriet Beecher Stowe’s confirmation that Henson’s story was one that proved the events in her novel could occur.[11] Uncle Tom’s Cabin has been considered pivotal in gaining the support of the American (mostly northern) support for the war and is even occasionally regarded as a cause of the war.

With inspiration from the lives of Josiah Henson and others, Stowe was able to craft a book that helped lead to the freedom of the enslaved, proving the importance of former slaves like Henson sharing their stories.

[1] Josiah Henson, The Life of Josiah Henson, Formerly a Slave, Now an Inhabitant of Canada, as Narrated by Himself (Boston: A.D. Phelps, 1849), 1-5. [WEB].

[2] Peter Kolchin, American Slavery: 1619-1877 (New York: Hill and Wang, 1993), 89-90.

[3] Henson, The Life of Josiah Henson, 28-33.

[4] Kolchin, American Slavery, 90.

[5] Henson, The Life of Josiah Henson, 33-34.

[6] Ibid., 47-51.

[7] Eric Foner, Gateway to Freedom: The Hidden History of the Underground Railroad (New York and London: W.W. Norton and Company, 2015).

[8] Henson, The Life of Josiah Henson, 27-28.

[9] Kolchin, American Slavery, 125.

[10] Ibid., 139.

[11] Jenn Williamson, “Summary” of The Life of Josiah Henson, Formerly a Slave, Now an Inhabitant of Canada, as Narrated by Himself, Documenting the American South. [WEB]

Paul Jennings: The Madison Staple

After a lifetime of enslavement, Paul Jenning’s achieved freedom in March of 1847 by Senator Daniel Webster of Massachusetts. Jennings had only had two masters prior, the most notable, and with whom he spent the most time, being James Madison; the fourth president of the United States.

Born on the Madison’s Montpelier estate in 1799, Paul Jennings was just a young boy when James Madison was elected president. In 1809 Jennings was moved with the Madisons to the executive mansion in Washington D.C., and had been chosen to be one of the footmen for the president. Jennings’ duties included setting for meal services, and greeting guests of President Madison.[1] Jennings describes Washington D.C. during the first years of the Madison presidency as “a dreary place,” with an unfinished presidential mansion, and and unpaved roads.[2] He lived with other members of the live-in staff at the cellar level of the building.[3]

Paul Jenning’s footman duties in the president’s mansion were fairly routine until war was declared in June of 1812. He notes in his narrative that before war was officially declared that President Madison would have constant meetings with Colonel James Monroe and other members of his inner circle, who Jennings points out, all were in favor of a declaration of war.[4]

When the British invaded Washington D.C. on August 24th, 1824 the British army began their assault on Washington, and Jennings, along with Madison’s and the live-in staff were forced to evacuate the capitol. Jennings had began to set up dinner that was to be ready by 3 o’clock, he recalls, when everyone in the mansion was ordered to clear out. It was in this frenzy, that the story of Dolley Madison saving the portrait of George Washington came about, but Jennings in his recollection debunks the story: “She had no time for doing it. It would have required a ladder to get it down. All she carried off was the silver in her reticule, as the British were thought to be but a few squares off, and were expected every moment. John Susé (a Frenchman, then door-keeper, and still living) and Magraw, the President’s gardener, took it down and sent it off on a wagon, with some large silver urns and such other valuables as could be hastily got hold of.”[5] Jenning’s recollection provides a key insight on what really happened during the British invasion and sheds more light on the decades old folktale. However, some historians and articles still do not recognize this.[6]

For the remainder of the war, Jennings, as well as other slaves of the Madisons, were moved to the home of Colonel John Taylor, who presided in Washington, until the end of the war.[7] He served as the Madison’s footman for the remainder of the presidency, and then was moved back to the Montpelier estate. There, he married another slave named Fanny and started a family. Fanny was from another plantation, however, so it is likely that the Madisons had to give permission to Jennings to marry across plantations.[8] It is also likely that this marriage was not seen as completely legitimate. Historian Peter Kolchin points out that marriages among slaves were allowed by owners to “promote ‘mortality,’ stability and a rapidly expanding slave population.”[9] It is clear that this marriage was not seen as legitimate, because Dolley Madison took Jennings with her to Washington after James’s death in 1836.[10]

Jennings spoke highly, and with great reverence of and for James Madison. In his reminiscences of the president he calls him “one of the best men that ever lived,”[11] and saying that Madison never hit a slave, or allowed an overseer to do so either. Slaves of the Madisons were reprimanded in private, as to avoid embarrassment for either the masters or the slaves, and were never punished with anything past verbal means.[12] Jennings was also at Madison’s side when the former president passed away, and had been acting as his personal caretaker for the final years of his life.[13]

After President Madison’s death, Dolley Madison took Jennings with her to Washington. Though they would still see each other, it is clear that Madison did not see Paul and Fanny’s marriage as legitimate. However, Dolley did make it a point to see that Jennings would be freed upon her death, according to her will. However, Dolley had to sell Montpelier in 1844, and only took Paul Jennings with her. Fanny, and the rest of Paul’s family was left at the estate, as they were sold as property. Fanny died shortly after.

Paul Jennings then returned to the White House under the Polk administration, doing similar duties as he did in the Madison administration, but this time working for pay, which he kept. In 1846, Madison sold Jennings to Pollard Webb. The following year, Webb sold Jennings to Massachusetts Senator Daniel Webster, who immediately freed him and hired him, in order for Jennings to pay Webster back the $120 he had spent for his freedom.[14]

The remainder of Jenning’s life was spent as a free man. He was reconnected with his children from Montpelier, and remarried. He also took part in a movement to free upwards of seventy slaves in Washington in 1848. This movement was ultimately unsuccessful and was named the Pearl Incident, in which slaves from the surrounding area ran away at night and boarded the Philadelphia ship The Pearl. As soon as the morning came, these slaves’ owners found that their slaves had gone missing, and quickly pursued The Pearl, and took back their slaves.[15] Due to lack of evidence, it is unclear whether or not authorities found Jenning’s connection with this attempted escape.

Paul Jennings lived out the rest of his life in Washington, D.C., with his family close to him. He passed away in 1874. His life as a slave, and his journey to freedom is a common one of in-house slaves among wealthier families, however Jennings had the luxury of living in the White House for many years, during, and well after the Madison presidency, and even received payment during the Polk presidency. He achieved freedom at the hands of a Massachusetts senator, and lived out the rest of his days in Washington, D.C. as an abolitionist with his family.

[1] Samuel Momod,. Jennings, Paul (1799-1874) in Black Past. 2012. [Black Past]

[2]   Paul Jennings. A Colored Man’s Reminiscences of James Madison. (Brooklyn. 1865). 6.

[3]  Elizabeth Dowling Taylor. A Slave in the White House: Paul Jennings and the Madisons.  (New York. 2013). [Google Books]

[4] Jennings. 6.

[5] Jennings. 13.

[6] See Jeff Broadwater. James Madison: A Son of Virginia and A Founder of a Nation. (University of North Carolina Press. 2012.). And Taylor. A Slave in the White House.

[7]  Jennings. 11.

[8] Momodu. Jennings, Paul.

[9] Peter Kolchin. American Slavery: 1619-1877. (New York: Hill and Wang. 1993). 123.

[10] Momodu. Jennings, Paul.

[11] Jennings. 15.

[12] Jeff Broadwater. James Madison: A Son of Virginia and A Founder of a Nation. (University of North Carolina Press. 2012). 189. [JSTOR]

[13] Jennings. 18.

[14] Momodu. Jennings, Paul.

[15] Samuel Momodu. The Pearl Incident in Black Past. [Black Past]

A “Doubtful Character”: James Williams and the Authenticity of Slave Narratives

By Cooper Wingert

In early December 1837, James Williams, a fugitive slave from Alabama, found his way to a stable near Carlisle, Pennsylvania. At first offering to hire himself out as “a house-servant or coachman,” Williams was met with a chorus of unsympathetic responses—until, that is, a group of black men approached him. “[T]aking me aside,” Williams later recalled, they “told me that they knew that I was from Virginia, by my pronunciation of certain words—that I was probably a runway slave—but that I need not be alarmed, as they were my friends, and would do all in their power to protect me.” With their assistance, Williams was placed in a wagon and driven some fifteen miles to Harrisburg, where he was informed he “should meet with friends.” He would not be safe in Harrisburg, however, but must travel “directly to Philadelphia” and along the way speak to no white man “unless he wore a plain, straight collar on a round coat, and said ‘thee’ and ‘thou.’”[1]

The Narrative of James Williams, An American Slave, published in 1838, remains a controversial (and often discarded) historical resource. Much of what Williams recounted was soon afterwards proved false, and even the abolitionists who had taken down and published his narrative grew uneasy over Williams, labelling him a “doubtful character[.]”[2] Nevertheless, there are teachable moments in observing what Williams chooses to conceal. Further, abolitionist reactions prompt us to reexamine how anti-slavery propaganda was created and defended (or abandoned) against the attacks of pro-slavery Southerners.

The story which Williams had recounted to his African-American “friends” in Carlisle, Quakers on the route to Philadelphia and, ultimately to influential abolitionists in New York such as Lewis Tappan, James Birney and the poet John Greenleaf Whittier, was a heartrending tale of the domestic slave trade. Born and raised in Virginia, James had been a faithful servant who had accompanied his master (and some 200 other slaves) to Alabama, on the pretense that once his master’s affairs were settled in Greene County, Alabama, he too would return home to Virginia. But on reaching Alabama, Williams was “cruelly deceived,” and left behind at the mercy of a hard-drinking, violent overseer. After remaining “for several years,” he had run away in a dramatic escape through the heart of the deep South spanning multiple months.[3]

Soon after its publication, John Beverly Rittenhouse, editor of the Alabama Beacon, a paper published in Greene County, denounced the Narrative as a “lying abolition pamphlet[.]” Rittenhouse was quick to note that no slaveholder of the name given by Williams had recently moved into Greene County. Nor had a sudden arrival of 200 slaves (as described by Williams) been recorded.[4]

In the wake of Rittenhouse’s attacks, much of Williams’ support melted away. Even Whittier, from his new post as editor of the Pennsylvania Freeman (the official organ of the Pennsylvania Anti-Slavery Society), declared that “[o]ur cause needs no support of a doubtful character[.]” Reluctant to discard Williams altogether, he noted that “we are still disposed to give credit in the main to his narrative,” but from a strategic standpoint, backing Williams would give “the slaveholders of Virginia and Alabama” a critical opportunity to assail abolitionist credibility.[5]

The abolitionist poet John Greenleaf Whittier

John Greenleaf Whittier, an abolitionist poet, took down Williams’ narrative. (National Park Service)

Williams’ account was generally discarded as a fraud, until 2014, when the Narrative was finally reevaluated by researcher Hank Trent. In doing so, Trent was forced to confront a complex reality—he found that while Williams had genuinely been a slave, he had fabricated much of the Narrative. Born as Shadrach Wilkins in Essex County, Virginia, Williams had changed not only his own name, but those of his owners, and the counties in which he resided (Essex County, Virginia, became Powhatan County; Dallas County, Alabama, where he was actually held in slavery, became Greene County). Two reasons prompted these changes—first, Williams’ had been implicated in a scheme to poison the owner of a neighboring plantation. While two other slaves involved were hanged, Williams escaped the noose, and was instead sold south to Alabama. Secondly, Williams sought to cover up his involvement with a huckster. To do so, he changed the date of his escape to the fall of 1837, by which time he was already on free soil. Williams had actually escaped in October 1835, falling in with James B. White, a self-proclaimed abolitionist, although Trent labels him a “con artist.” With White, Williams engaged in a racketeering business—the two travelled, posing as master and slave, with White “selling” Williams into slavery, only to return, aid his escape, and repeat the act at another location. All the while, the two pocketed the money.

Their arrangement unraveled in Baltimore on April 12, 1836, when White sold Williams to James Franklin Purvis, a slave trader. Williams confessed in full, and White was quickly jailed. Returned to his owner’s family, Williams was soon sold, transported to New Orleans, where he was purchased. Intent on freedom, however, Williams made his escape up the Mississippi on the steamer Henry Clay in January 1837, acting the part of a waiter. Once the boat docked near Illinois soil, Williams departed, and disappears from the historical record until the fall of 1837, when he appears in Cincinnati.[6] By early December, Williams was in Carlisle, with a well-developed story of his escape by land through the deep South.

Even falsified, the Narrative offers key insights into abolitionist propaganda. Williams goes to great lengths to portray himself as an obedient servant who was wronged by the slave system, when in fact it was his involvement in a poisoning plot that resulted in his sale south. As portrayed in the narrative, Williams’ story of being “cruelly deceived” by his master was fodder to antislavery activists, cutting right through the heart of Southern paternalistic ideology.[7] The complex truth, however, would not produce such an effect. Williams understood this, and thus incorporated elements of his real life experiences into a framework he felt best suited an anti-slavery message. His breathtaking depictions of going weeks without hearing “the sound even of my own voice,” although placed in a false narrative, came from actual events.[8]

The Narrative also challenges us to reexamine our notions of abolitionists. Williams’ understandable reluctance to disclose his actual life story to the abolitionists he met during the winter of 1837-1838 suggests a more nuanced relationship between anti-slavery activists and the fugitives they helped. Escaped slaves who had something to hide (such as Williams) routinely changed the names, dates and locations of their life stories, to protect against recapture. Abolitionists were faced with the challenge of sifting truth from fiction. In both New York and Boston, Vigilance Committee members trained themselves to spot “discrepancies” in fugitives’ stories that would reveal them as impostors, either seeking money or working as the agents of slaveholders. [9]

Despite its variations between biography and story-telling, Williams’ Narrative challenges us to consider how escaped slaves presented themselves to abolitionists, and also how abolitionists then presented them to the world. It is, therefore, a crucial piece to understanding the production of abolitionist propaganda in the decades leading up to the Civil War.



[1] James Williams, Narrative of James Williams, An American Slave, who was for Several Years a Driver on a Cotton Plantation in Alabama, (New York: American Anti-Slavery Society, 1838), 97-99.

[2] “Narrative of James Williams,” The Liberator, September 21, 1838, quoting the Pennsylvania Freeman.

[3] Williams, Narrative, 68.

[4] James Williams, Hank Trent (ed.), Narrative of James Williams, An American Slave, (Baton Rouge: Louisiana State University Press, 2014), xviii-xxiii.

[5] “Narrative of James Williams,” The Liberator, September 21, 1838, quoting the Pennsylvania Freeman; for a defense of Williams, see, “Narrative of James Williams,” The Liberator, September 28, 1838.

[6] Williams, Trent (ed.), Narrative, xxvi-xxxv.

[7] Williams, Narrative, 68.

[8] Williams, Narrative, 96.

[9] Eric Foner, Gateway to Freedom: The Hidden History of the Underground Railroad, (New York: W.W. Norton, 2015), 106, 174; John Hope Franklin and Loren Schweninger, Runaway Slaves: Rebels on the Plantation, (New York: Oxford University Press, 1999), 65, 118, 131-132, 289.

Harriet Jacobs: Agency of a Slave Woman

By Rachel Morgan

Click here to view StorymapJS on Jacobs’s life


In the 1970s, scholars of American slavery started a historiographical revolution by “bringing the slaves themselves to center stage in the drama of history.”[1] In an effort to reject historian Stanley M. Elkins’ “Sambo thesis,” which promoted the idea of “slave docility,” scholars began to research slaves’ personal experiences, rather than just analyzing their treatment at the hands of their white masters.[2] Today, slave narratives continue to be an important part of this academic field. They allow researchers to recognize some level of slave agency, rather than view slaves as forces that were merely acted upon. Harriet Jacobs’ narrative, Incidents in the Life of a Slave Girl, is one such critical work that gives slaves some level of autonomy and helps scholars to understand slaves as individual, distinct people, rather than a homogeneous group.

Harriet Jacobs

Harriet Jacobs, courtesy of Wikimedia Commons

Jacobs first published her narrative in 1860, with the help of Lydia Marie Child as her editor.[3] To protect her own as well as others’ identities, Jacobs gave fake names to both herself and others mentioned in the narrative. Incidents in the Life of a Slave Girl tells the story of Linda Brent (Jacobs), a young slave born in Edenton, North Carolina. After the death of her mistress, Brent is sent to live in the house of Dr. Flint (Dr. James Norcom), and his family. When Brent turns fifteen, Flint begins to make unwanted sexual advances upon her. In response to his advances, Brent becomes the lover of Mr. Sands (Samuel Tredwell Sawyer), out of the hope that he will eventually free her and any children she may have with him. Brent and Sands do eventually have two children together, Benjamin (Joseph) and Ellen (Louisa). Not wanting Flint to have any control over her children, Brent runs away and spends seven years hiding in her grandmother’s attic, prompting Flint to sell her children to Sands out of frustration. However, instead of freeing the children, Sands sends Ellen to work for his relatives in Brooklyn. This prompts Brent’s escape to the North, which begins in 1842. She eventually reaches Brooklyn, where she reunites with her daughter and eventually sends for her son. She begins working as a nursemaid for the wife of Mr. Bruce (Evening Mirror editor Nathaniel Parker Willis). In 1852, Bruce’s second wife purchases Brent’s freedom from Flint’s son-in-law, finally breaking Brent’s chains of slavery.

For years, historians had grappled with the story of Linda Brent, unsure of how to understand it. This is because, for over a century after the narrative was published, there was not enough evidence to prove that Brent was actually Harriet Jacobs, and that Incidents was autobiographical. For this reason, the narrative was often overlooked or disregarded as fiction. This changed in 1981, when Jean Fagan Yellin discovered and made public various letters Jacobs wrote to Amy Post and Lydia Marie Child, which confirmed that Brent’s story was in fact Jacobs’ story.[4] Post was a Quaker “feminist and abolitionist,” who Jacobs had met in Rochester.[5] Child was the editor of Incidents, and in one letter, Child confirmed that “I have very little occasion to alter the language,” and otherwise made few edits to the narrative.[6] Thanks to Yellin’s research, historians could be certain that Incidents was Jacobs’ way of making her story known. The account was added to the array of narratives being studied in the 1980s, as an extension of the work begun in the 1970s to disprove the “Sambo thesis.”

How do scholars understand Jacobs’ framing of her narrative? What could this narrative teach historians about slave autonomy? Kolchin argued, in 2004, “Some of these arguments [of the 1970s and 1980s] for slave autonomy have been overstated and eventually will be modified on the basis of future evidence.”[7] While Kolchin concedes that slaves like Jacobs exercised some autonomy, they were not completely autonomous. Evidence for this can be seen in Incidents: Brent (Jacobs) chose Sands (Sawyer) as her lover, but only after her master forbade her from marrying a free black man that she actually loved.[8] While she had choices, they were limited by her status as a slave. In choosing to become Sawyer’s lover, Jacobs exerted the little agency that was available to her.


Original Cover of “Incidents of the Life of a Slave Girl,” courtesy of Wikimedia Commons

So how did Jacobs understand her own agency? Did she own her decision to become Sawyer’s lover, or did she try to distance herself from her decision? Incidents was written largely for Northern women, and Jacobs knew that her extramarital affair would possibly offend this audience. Georgia Kreiger argued that Jacobs, during the seven years she hid at her grandmother’s, went through a type of “thanatomimesis,” the process by which animals often “play dead” to protect themselves from predators.[9] Jacobs’ time in hiding was a type of self-imposed death penalty for her actions, “possibly to forestall condemnation of her sexual past by her Northern, white, mostly female readership.”[10] This interpretation focuses on Jacobs’ apologetic tone.

However, despite this tone, Jacobs was upfront about her decision: “I know what I did, and I did it with deliberate calculation…all my prospects had been blighted by slavery.”[11] Jacobs specifically chose Sawyer because she knew she and her prospective children would eventually benefit from the arrangement. In the words of Elizabeth C. Becker, “While a tone of apology admittedly does exist in Jacobs’ recollections, the tone only masks rebellious feelings that Jacobs lets us glimpse through her narrative.[12] Becker argues that, unlike most male slave narratives that would portray slave women as victims, Jacobs portrayed herself as someone who knowingly recognized that, as a slave, she could not be held to the same standards of “true womanhood” as free white women. Consequently, she defied this notion of womanhood by having Sawyer as her lover.[13]

Heidi M. Hanraham, meanwhile, argues that Incidents was written to counteract the “tragic mulatta” trope that was common at the time, a trope which made the slave woman a victim who “is rarely granted voice or agency; she is acted upon rather than acting.”[14] Child, Jacobs’ editor, was guilty of perpetuating this trope in her tale “The Quadroons,” which centers around a young slave woman who suffers and eventually dies after being abandoned by her white lover.[15] According to Hanraham, Incidents is a rejection of this trope. Jacobs made it clear in her narrative that she willingly chose her lover; she did not simply let him do as he pleased with her, as the tragic mulatta normally would. While Kreiger would argue that Jacobs probably felt ashamed of how she exercised what autonomy she had, scholars like Hanraham would argue that Jacobs purposefully acted the way she did so that she would at least be able to say she was in control of her decisions.


Tombstone of Harriet Jacobs. Courtesy of Wikimedia Commons

Incidents in the Life of a Slave Girl is a crucial narrative for scholars to study and understand. It is one of few slave narratives told from a woman’s perspective, and the way in which Jacobs presents the narrative gives enslaved women an agency that had long been denied them. As Becker and Hanraham have argued, Jacobs’ choosing her lover gave her an autonomy that would have been denied enslaved women such as herself in male slave narratives and stories which use the “tragic mulatta” trope. This narrative helps enforce the lesson that, rather as a group of victims who had no say over their lives, enslaved women were individuals who held some degree of autonomy, and even though that autonomy was limited, it was still exercised in ways these women saw fit.


[1] Peter Kolchin, American Slavery 1619-1877 (New York: Farrar, Straus, and Giroux, 2003), 136. Print.

[2] Kolchin, American Slavery, 135-136.

[3] William L. Andrews, “Harriet A. Jacobs (Harriet Ann), 1813-1897),” Documenting the American South, 2004. [WEB]

[4] Jean Fagan Yellin, “Written by Herself: Harriet Jacobs’ Slave Narrative,” American Literature 53, no. 3 (Nov. 1981), 479. [WEB]

[5] Yellin, “Written by Herself,” 481.

[6] Ibid., 484.

[7] Kolchin, American Slavery, 137-138.

[8] Harriet Jacobs, Incidents in the Life of a Slave Girl. Written by Herself (Boston: Published for the Author, 1860), 61. [WEB]

[9] Georgia Kreiger, “Playing Dead: Harriet Jacobs’ Survival Strategy in ‘Incidents in the Life of a Slave Girl,’” African American Review 42, no. ¾ (Fall-Winter, 2008), 607. [WEB]

[10] Kreiger, “Playing Dead,” 607.

[11] Jacobs, Incidents, 83-84.

[12] Elizabeth C. Becker, “Harriet Jacobs’ Search for Home,” CLA Journal 35, no. 4 (June 1992), 413. [WEB]

[13] Becker, “Harriet Jacobs’ Search for Home,” 415.

[14] Heidi M. Hanraham, “Harriet Jacobs’ ‘Incidents in the Life of a Slave Girl: A Retelling of Lydia Marie Child’s ‘The Quadroons,’’” The New England Quarterly 78, no. 4 (Dec., 2005), 604. [WEB]

[15] Hanraham, “Harriet Jacobs,” 602.

William Parker: Runaway Slave and Abolitionist


William Parker was born a slave, lived an abolitionist, and died a free man.  He became well-known after his leadership role in the Christiana Resistance, or Riot, of 1851, an incident in which Parker and his band of runaway slaves and abolitionists beat off slaveholder Edward Gorsuch, a federal marshal, and others seeking to reclaim four of Gorsuch’s slaves.[1]  Published in 1866, one year after the Civil War, Parker’s autobiography is similar to many other slave narratives, as it seems to have been written to “enlighten white readers about slavery” and to showcase “the humanity of black people.”[2]  The reality of slavery can be demonstrated by his detailing of his deep fear of being sold, and it is nearly impossible to deny the humanity and agency of Parker, who claimed to have earned his “rights as a freeman” with his “own right arm,” an expression meaning that he had to fight for his freedom.[3]

Born in 1822 at Roedown Plantation in Anne Arundel County, Maryland, William Parker was the property of Major William Brogdon.[4]  Brogdon died when Parker was very young, so his son, David, received ownership of Parker and moved him to Nearo.[5]  Though Parker states that his masters – David and his brother, William – didn’t have their “hands beaten or abused,” he does note that they sold slaves, sometimes “six or seven at a time,” every year.[6]

Parker recounts the story of one sale in particular that stuck out to him.  When he was ten or eleven, he recalls seeing “negro-traders” one morning and running away to some nearby woods with Levi Storax, “a boy of about [his] own age,” to avoid being sold.  When in the woods, he told Storax that they should “’run away to the Free States’” to ensure that they would never be sold, but Storax reasoned that they would likely be caught.  Though they didn’t run that day, Parker’s instinct to flee shows remarkable initiative for a preteen and foreshadows his later decision to escape. To Parker, slave sales in general were as “solemn as a funeral,” but he feared sale to the Deep South above all, reasoning that slave owners there committed even worse “atrocities” than the more “mild” and “humane” masters of the “Northern Slave States.”[7]

Parker’s terms of and reasoning for escape were relatively common.  He ran away at roughly seventeen with his brother, Charlie.  Many runaway slaves were young men as they often had fewer reasons to stay than parents, with Parker himself noting that he had “no attachments.”[8]  Furthermore, runaways were safest “alone or in pairs,” as it was easier for them to avoid suspicion or detection.[9]  In regards to his desire to run away, he did not want to be sold, and he generally “longed to cast off the chains of servitude.”  However, he felt the need to wait until he and his master had a specific “difficulty” or conflict, which eventually arose when Parker refused to work one day, and Master David attempted to whip him.[10]  This general desire and need for an actual incident to occur fits well with Peter Kolchin’s argument that runaways typically felt “a general hatred for slavery” but did not run away until confrontation “triggered the determination to act.”[11]

Parker and his brother stopped in Baltimore, blending in with its high population of free-blacks, before eventually settling in Lancaster County, Pennsylvania.[12]  Parker found work in Lancaster, and while working for and living with a man named Dr. Dengy, he met a “true friend of the slave,” William Lloyd Garrison, and reunited with Frederick Douglass, who he had known as “a slave in Maryland.”  He seems to have been greatly affected by Garrison and Douglass, who impressed Parker with his “strong speech” and whose “doctrine” was “so pure, so unworldly.”[13]

Parker’s description of Garrison and his feeling that “Garrisonian Abolitionists” were “the poor slave’s friend” is rather ironic.  Garrison was in charge of the anti-slavery newspaper, The Liberator, and for a time was the “major force voice of radical abolitionism.”  Notably, he “rejected all use of force,” but William Parker definitely did not, as he resorted to violence to prevent slave catchers from capturing runaway slaves or kidnapping free blacks.  As such, Parker’s philosophy of securing freedom by any means necessary is more reflective of David Ruggles, founder of the New York Vigilance Committee, who believed that runaways and their allies should “resist even unto death.”[14]  Regardless, it is highly likely that Parker was inspired by Garrison and Douglass to lead a life of abolition

In 1841, Parker and others founded “an organization for mutual protection against slaveholders and kidnappers,” that would resist any attempt to kidnap and enslave their “brethren” at “the risk of [their] own lives.”[15]  Parker and his organization were more than willing to use violence to “protect their very tenuous liberty.”[16]  In the ten years between the organization’s founding and the Christiana Resistance, Parker details numerous instances of he and his followers protecting blacks, some runaways and others likely not, from recapture or kidnapping.  For instance when slave catchers snatched a “colored maid,” Parker’s group followed them to Gap Hill, and they killed three of them during the ensuing confrontation.  On another occasion, they tracked kidnappers to a tavern, and when the owner refused to let them inside, Parker beat the door in.  Parker’s group exchanged fire with the slave catchers and “people from the neighboring houses.”  Parker was hit, but they still rescued the captive man.[17]  By the time of the famous Christiana Resistance,  William Parker and his cohorts were well versed in fighting slave catchers.

Before 1850, the act of recapturing a runaway slave laid with the runaway’s owner, but the Fugitive Slave Act of 1850 “required citizens to assist in the capture of fugitives and overrode local laws” that would hinder “their return,” making rendition a federal issue.[18]  The fugitive slave law angered abolitionists, but it made slave owners more confident that their property would be returned.  However, the act was rarely enforced, as evidenced by the Christiana Resistance.

The fateful day of the riot occurred early in the morning of September 11th, 1851 when Joshua Kite, one of four men who had slept at Parker’s home the previous night, came running inside yelling “kidnappers!”  Kite and the others must have known that they were coming though because they had been warned by the Vigilance Committee of Philadelphia.[19]  Kite was explaining what had happened outside when they burst in the door.  Parker “met them at the landing,” and when a man told him he was a United States marshal, Parker responded that if he took “another step,” he “would break his neck,” exemplifying his willingness to do whatever it took to protect his friends – some of the men at Parker’s house belonged to the leader of the kidnapping party, Edward Gorsuch.[20]

The two groups engaged in a lengthy standoff with neither one willing to make a move.  During this time, Parker’s wife “blew a horn” which notified Parker’s organization and sympathizers that kidnappers had arrived and signaled that they may need help.  While trying to convince each other to give up, Parker and Gorsuch “engaged in biblical debate,” with each reasoning that the Bible was on their side.[21]  According to Parker’s recollection, the fighting began when Gorsuch’s son asked if he would “take all this from a nigger.”  Parker responded that if Gorsuch’s son said that again, he would “knock his teeth down his throat.”  Then, Gorsuch’s group “fired upon” Parker.[22]

The fighting would end with Gorsuch dead, and the slaves still free.  Parker’s men were victorious in defying a federal law.  Over 35 people in total, including Parker, his family, and others “who did not actually participate in the resistance” were charged with treason for violating the Fugitive Slave Act of 1850.[23]  Parker safely escaped to Canada, and everyone else was acquitted, meaning “no one was found guilty in the “murder of Edward Gorsuch.”[24]

This result was celebrated by abolitionists and lambasted by slave owners.  A white man that Parker met on his journey to Canada called Parker “a brave man” and argued that “any good citizen” would have done what he did.   Of course, this man had no idea that he was actually travelling with William Parker himself.[25]  Frederick Douglass, who helped “Parker and two others” flee to Canada, called them “heroic.”  However, Southerners saw the Christiana Resistance as a riot, and viewed the whole situation as “an attack on property rights,” demonstrating the intense sectionalism of the era.[26]

William Parker would continue his anti-slavery in Canada, becoming the “Canadian correspondent for Douglass’ newspaper, the North Star.[27]  Parker and the Christiana Resistance are largely forgotten today, but Parker shows that some abolitionists would fight to the death before allowing themselves or their friends to be recaptured.  The Christiana Resistance was hugely controversial, and it dealt a sizable blow to the Fugitive Slave Act of 1850.  William Parker was a key figure in the abolitionist movement, despite his lack of name recognition.

[1] John Anderson, “Christiana Riot of 1851,” Black Past, last accessed November 5, 2017.

[2] William L Andrews, “An Introduction to the Slave Narrative,” Documenting the American South, last accessed November 5, 2017.

[3] “William Parker, fl. 1851, The Freedman’s Story: In Two Parts,” The Atlantic Monthly, vol. XVII, (Feb 1886), 154.

[4] John Gartell, “Roedown Plantation and the Christiana Resistance,” Legacy of Slavery in Maryland, last accessed November 5, 2017.

[5] Parker, 154.

[6] Parker, 154.

[7] Parker, 154-155.

[8] Parker, 155.

[9] Peter Kolchin, American Slavery: 1619-1877, (New York: Hill and Wang, 2003), 161.

[10] Parker, 157-158.

[11] Kolchin. 163.

[12] Kolchin, 84 and Parker, 158.

[13] Parker, 160-161.

[14] Eric Foner, Gateway to Freedom: The Hidden History of the Underground Railroad, (New York: W.W. Norton & Company, 2015), 63 and 74-75.

[15] Parker, 161.

[16] Ella Forbes, “’By My Own Right Arm’: Redemptive Violence and the 1851 Christiana, Pennsylvania Resistance,” The Journal of Negro History 83, no. 3 (1998): 164.

[17] Parker,161-164 and Roderick W. Nash, “William Parker and the Christiana Riot,” The Journal of Negro History 46, no. 1 (1961): 4.

[18] Foner, 18 and 25.

[19] Forbes, 164.

[20] Parker, 283

[21] Forbes, 164-166.

[22] Parker, 286-287.  For Parker’s full story of the battle and its immediate aftermath, see Parker, 283-288.

[23] Forbes, 164.

[24] Nash, 29-30.

[25] Parker, 289-290.

[26] Nash, 29-31.

[27] Colin McBride, “William Parker,” Black Past, last accessed November 5, 2017.

African Slave Trade

Zong 1781

The Zong massacre, 1781

“Although precise figures must remain elusive, according to the best current estimates a total of 10 to 11 million living slaves crossed the Atlantic Ocean from the sixteenth through the nineteenth century. (Since others died in wars and in transit, Africa’s total population loss was much greater).  As David Eltis has shown, the forced migration of slaves to the Americas significantly exceeded the voluntary immigration there of free persons until the 1830s, and the cumulative total of African migrants exceeded that of Europeans until the 1880s.  America absorbed relatively few of these Africans.  The great bulk –more than 85 percent of the total– went to Brazil and the various Caribbean colonies of the British, French, Spanish, and Dutch.  Others went to the Spanish mainland.  The United States, or more accurately for most of the slave-trade years the colonies that would later become the United States, imported only 600,000 to 650,000, some 6 percent of all the slaves brought from Africa to the New World.  From this small beginning, however, emerged by far the largest slave population in the Western Hemisphere.”  (Peter Kolchin, American Slavery, p. 22)



  • Transatlantic Slave Trade, In Motion: African American Migration Experience, Schomburg Center for Research in Black Culture, 2005 [WEB]


Roots (1977)

Roots (2016)

Amistad (1997)