Western Virginia divided

Abolitionists, slave traders, slaves and freedmen split up Eastern Panhandle

Abolitionists, slave traders, slaves and freedmen split up Eastern Panhandle

February 01, 2004|by ANDREA ROWLAND

A series on the Underground Railroad in the Tri-State area;

Sunday, Jan. 25: An overview of the Underground Railroad

Today: Slavery and the path to freedom in West Virginia.

Sunday, Feb. 8: A look at the history of Washington County and other parts of Maryland as slaves sought freedom.

Sunday, Feb. 15: Fugitive slaves reached free soil when they crossed into Pennsylvania, but that did not mean they were safe from slave catchers.

The issue of slavery - and slaves' efforts to escape their bondage - is far from black and white in the area now known as the Eastern Panhandle of West Virginia.


"There's more gray area to how slavery worked in this community than we thought," said Melinda Day, lead park ranger at Harpers Ferry (W.Va.) National Historical Park.

Some people in the Panhandle's Jefferson, Berkeley and Morgan counties, which were part of slave-holding Virginia prior to July 1863, called for an end to slavery in the years leading up to the American Civil War. Others held fast to the black labor force, which worked the vast plantations in the eastern part of the region and toiled in the transportation systems on and along the Potomac River. And at least one prominent citizen both advocated abolition and tightened the reigns on slavery.

Some Panhandle slave owners treated their human property inhumanely, dividing black families and doling out harsh punishments. Others seem to have encouraged slaves to seek their freedom, historians are now finding. There's even proof of slave ownership among members of religious and ethnic groups commonly believed to have been opposed to slavery.

"They say the Germans didn't have slaves. That's just not true," Berkeley County Historical Society President Don Wood, citing local slaveholders with German heritage. "You get into slavery here and you get into a lot. It's contradictory."

Take the case of Charles James Faulkner. In the 1830s, the politician from Martinsburg advocated the gradual abolition of slavery in Virginia. But Faulkner had changed his tune by 1848, when he introduced a bill that eventually became the Fugitive Slave Law of 1850. The law mandated the return of runaway slaves, no matter where in the Union they were discovered or captured.

While the bulk of the state maintained the slavery status quo, residents of Virginia's westernmost counties began clamoring for an end to slavery - primarily for economic reasons - years before the Emancipation Proclamation.

"We were so divided about slavery up here in Morgan County," said historian Kathern Allemong of Berkeley Springs, W.Va. "Of course it was a rural mountainous area, and there weren't many slaves."

Not so in Berkeley and Jefferson counties, where the flatter terrain was more conducive to large-scale farming.

There were 5,704 slaves and 821 free blacks in the Eastern Panhandle counties in 1860, according to African-American population statistics available through the West Virginia Division of Culture and History on the Web at U.S. Census data from 1860 shows slaves accounting for 27 percent of Jefferson County's population, 13 percent of Berkeley County's population, and 3 percent of Morgan County's population.

A comparison of census data from 1850 and 1860 shows a slight drop in the number of slaves throughout the region: from 1,956 to 1,650 slaves in Berkeley County; 4,341 to 3,960 slaves in Jefferson County; and 123 to 94 slaves in Morgan County.

Robert Brown and his family moved off Berkeley County's slave roster in late 1856 - Brown because he fled north to freedom; his wife and four children because they were sold to a slave trader in Richmond, Va., according to information from the state Division of Culture and History.

Brown, aka Thomas Jones, recounted the tale of his flight after reaching safety in Philadelphia on the night of Jan. 1, 1857. Less than one week before, his family was sold south as punishment for his wife's resistance to the alleged advances of her master, Col. John Franic. Brown recalled forging the freezing Potomac River on horseback on Christmas Day and riding about 40 miles before his faltering horse gave out. He then walked to Harrisburg, Pa., before going on to Philadelphia, his testimony states.

Marking Harpers Ferry

While siphoning the reality of the Underground Railroad from myth as part of her work for the park service's National Underground Railroad Network to Freedom Program, Day has come across similar slave tales with ties to the Eastern Panhandle. She searches for such clues to Harpers Ferry's role on the route to freedom in the writings of fugitive slaves, military records, census data, runaway slave ads, court records and papers from Storer College - a school founded in Harpers Ferry in 1866 to educate freedmen. While searching for patterns in such documents, Day said, "the network slowly starts to creep out."

"Every voice helps," she said.

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