February–March 1866 The Civil War

The Freedman’s Story

An escaped slave recalls his violent showdown with slave-catchers.

A reward poster from Monroe County, Missouri, dating from the 1850s. With the enactment of the Fugitive Slave Act in 1850, even residents of free states and territories were obligated to return escaped slaves to Southern slaveholders. (Kean Collection/Getty Images)

Even fervent abolitionists often spoke patronizingly of slaves—portraying them as the hapless beneficiaries of white assistance. But black Americans like William Parker had long been taking bold and effective action on their own. Born into slavery in Maryland, Parker escaped to the free state of Pennsylvania in 1842. He joined forces with fellow freedmen to fend off the slave-catchers who regularly ventured into Pennsylvania.

In September of 1851, a year after the passage of the Fugitive Slave Act (which made harboring runaway slaves a serious crime), a Maryland slaveholder named Edward Gorsuch came north in search of his four escaped slaves. A showdown ensued when Gorsuch’s posse knocked at Parker’s door in the town of Christiana. The “Christiana Riot” garnered nationwide attention—as both a challenge to the legitimacy of the Fugitive Slave Act, and a harbinger of conflict to come.

In 1866, Parker wrote about his life for an Atlantic article; in this excerpt, he recalled the infamous events in Christiana.

—Sage Stossel

A number of us had formed an organization for mutual protection against slaveholders and kidnappers, and had resolved to prevent any of our brethren being taken back into slavery, at the risk of our own lives … Kidnapping was so common … that we were kept in constant fear. We would hear of slaveholders or kidnappers every two or three weeks; sometimes a party of white men would break into a house and take a man away, no one knew where; and, again, a whole family would be carried off. 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 …

I was not at this time aware that in the city of Philadelphia there was a band of devoted, determined men,—few in number, but strong in purpose,—who were fully resolved to leave no means untried to thwart [slave-catchers] … This little band of true patriots in Philadelphia united for the purpose of standing between the pursuer and the pursued, the kidnapper and his victim, and, regardless of all personal considerations, were ever on the alert, ready to sound the alarm to save their fellows from a fate far more to be dreaded than death. In this they had frequently succeeded, and many times had turned the hunter home bootless of his prey …

Thus matters stood in Philadelphia on the 9th of September, 1851, when Mr. Gorsuch and his gang of Maryland kidnappers arrived there. Their presence was soon known to the little band of true men who were called “The Special Secret Committee.” They had agents faithful and true as steel; and through these agents the whereabouts and business of Gorsuch and his minions were soon discovered …

The trusty agent of this Special Committee, Mr. Samuel Williams, of Philadelphia,—a man true and faithful to his race, and courageous in the highest degree,—came to Christiana travelling most of the way in company with the very men whom Gorsuch had employed to drag into slavery four as good men as ever trod the earth. These Philadelphia roughs, with their Maryland associates, little dreamed that the man who sat by their side carried with him their inglorious defeat …

The information brought by Mr. Williams spread through the vicinity like a fire in the prairies; and when I went home from my work in the evening, I found [a group of local men] at my house, all of them excited about the rumor … This was the 10th of September, 1851. They stopped for the night with us, and we went to bed as usual. Before daylight, [one of the men,] Joshua Kite rose, and started for his home. Directly, he ran back to the house, burst open the door, crying, “O William! kidnappers! kidnappers!”

He said that, when he was just beyond the yard, two men crossed before him, as if to stop him, and others came up on either side. As he said this, they had reached the door. Joshua ran up stairs, (we slept up stairs,) and they followed him; but I met them at the landing, and asked, “Who are you?”

The leader, Kline, replied, “I am the United States Marshal.”

I then told him to take another step, and I would break his neck.

He again said, “I am the United States Marshal.”

I told him I did not care for him nor the United States. At that he turned and went down stairs …

My wife came to me and asked if she should blow the horn, to bring friends to our assistance. I assented, and she went to the garret for the purpose …

It was a custom with us, when a horn was blown at an unusual hour, to proceed to the spot promptly to see what was the matter …

When the white men ran, they scattered. I ran after Nathan Nelson, but could not catch him. I never saw a man run faster. Returning, I saw Joshua Gorsuch coming, and Pinckney behind him. I reminded him that he would like “to take hold of a nigger,” told him that now was his “chance,” and struck him a blow on the side of the head, which stopped him …

Having driven the slavocrats off in every direction, our party now turned towards their several homes. Some of us, however, went back to my house, where we found several of the neighbors.

The scene at the house beggars description. Old Mr. Gorsuch was lying in the yard in a pool of blood, and confusion reigned both inside and outside of the house …

The riot, so called, was now entirely ended. The elder Gorsuch was dead; his son and nephew were both wounded, and I have reason to believe others were,—how many, it would be difficult to say. Of our party, only two were wounded.

Read the full text of this article: Part I and Part II. Also see this note on authorhsip.

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