A treacherous gateway

Washington County, with its slaveholders and traders, offered slaves a risky avenue to North

Washington County, with its slaveholders and traders, offered slaves a risky avenue to North

February 08, 2004|by ANDREA ROWLAND

Editor's note: This is the third part of a four-part series on the Underground Railroad in the Tri-State area:

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

  • Sunday, Feb. 1: Slavery and the path to freedom in West Virginia.

  • Today: 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.

For fugitive slaves fleeing north along escape routes through the area now known as West Virginia's Eastern Panhandle, Washington County must have seemed an alluring yet slippery stepping stone on the path to freedom.

Maryland's skinniest section lay on the route from the Potomac River north of then slave-holding Virginia's Jefferson, Berkeley and Morgan counties to the Mason-Dixon line into free Pennsylvania. The county's thick forests and mountains could offer cover from slavery supporters in a state that didn't abolish the institution until 1864, and the county's busy roads might have enabled runaways to blend into the area's free black populations, historians say.


And while there is limited evidence of abolitionist activity in Washington County, the area was far from a safe haven for fugitive slaves.

County roads were patrolled for runaways, and blacks caught without documentation often were held at the county jail on Jonathan Street in Hagerstown until their status was resolved. Hagerstown was known as a hub for slave trading, and there also were slave auction blocks in Sharpsburg and Williamsport, historians say.

The Blackford family's Ferry Hill plantation southwest of Sharpsburg, just across the Potomac from what is now Shepherdstown, W.Va., was a roadblock on the route to freedom, said James Perry, a historian at C&O Canal National Historical Park.

Though the family seems to have been relatively lenient with its own slaves - whipping bondsmen who tried to escape but trusting slaves to operate the family's profitable ferry between Maryland and Virginia - the Blackfords weren't so soft on runaways, Perry said.

Blackford family journals document cruel treatment toward slaves fleeing along the Potomac: On July 29, 1829, plantation owner John Blackford captured a female runaway and whisked her off to the Hagers-town jail to await return to her slave-trader master; on June 1, 1839, Franklin Blackford collected $200 for turning in five runaways he found hiding near the canal - including a pregnant woman, a man, two girls and a child.

The Fugitive Slave Law of 1850 - which legalized the pursuit of runaways into states where slavery was illegal - fueled the slave-catching profession. Slave catchers seized blacks on the streets and in their homes and workplaces, and hastened them south after giving local justices of the peace or courts evidence - often flimsy or false - of prisoners' fugitive slave status, according to information from the National Park Service's National Underground Railroad Network to Freedom Web site at

Hiram Wertz of Quincy, Pa., a captain on the Underground Railroad, recalled Hagerstown's reputation as a slave-trading center during a speech he gave to members of the Kittochtinny Historical Society in 1911.

"There were frequent sales of fugitive slaves in Hagerstown, men buying them there for plantation owners in the South and being altogether unscrupulous as to whether the Negroes bought were bond or free," Wertz said.

Similarly, Thomas J.C. Williams' "A History of Washington County, Maryland," first published in 1906, notes the "many 'professional' slave catchers who would capture them just as they were about to reach the promised land" or invade free Pennsylvania soil to catch and hurry the fugitives back into Maryland "before they had any opportunity to appeal to the laws of (Pennsylvania) for protection."

The general penalty for attempted escape was a one-way ticket to the cotton fields of the deep South - a fate that prompted some slaves to harm themselves rather than endure that punishment. Williams' book recounts the story of a young slave woman - the property of Susan Gray of Boonsboro - who chopped off her left hand with an axe so she would be less desirable to Southern buyers.

So evil was the institution of slavery that enslaved blacks attempted flight despite the inherent dangers. Local antebellum newspapers published countless fugitive slave ads.

"I'm absolutely floored by how many runaway slave notices there are," said Mindy Marsden, executive director of the Washington County Historical Society, pointing to one of more than a dozen such ads in an 1825 edition of Hagers-town's The Torch Light and Public Advertiser newspaper. A few years later, a religious revival would prompt some Washington County slave owners - including William Price, a former resident of Hagers-town's historic Miller House - to free their slaves, Marsden said.

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