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Free in the North but not always safe

In Franklin County, Pa., runaway slaves found both helpers and bounty hunters

In Franklin County, Pa., runaway slaves found both helpers and bounty hunters

February 15, 2004|by ANDREA ROWLAND

Editor's note: This is the fourth and final part of a 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.

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

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





andrear@herald-mail.com

Slaves fleeing north to freedom through the Tri-State area encountered both help and hostility when they crossed the Mason-Dixon line from Washington County into Franklin County, Pa.

Freedom seekers might have found aid at sites such as the Quincy, Pa., farm of Hiram Wertz, who historians say sheltered fugitives before pointing them to white-run Underground Railroad stations in more northern sections of the county and in the free black villages clustered on the fringes of white society. Slave catchers such as Wertz's neighbor, Daniel Logan, would have made trekking through Franklin County an especially dangerous enterprise.

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While more evidence of anti-slavery activity exists in Franklin County than anywhere else in the Tri-State area, southern Pennsylvania remained a perilous place for runaways long after the state abolished slavery in 1780, historians say.

"I crossed the line into Pennsylvania, with a heart full of gratitude to God, believing that I was indeed a free man," fugitive slave James Curry of North Carolina wrote in 1840. "At dinner, I ate in the kitchen with a colored woman. ... Said she, "I didn't know but you came from Virginia, or Maryland, and sometimes, some of our colored friends come from there hither, and think they are free, but the people about here are very ugly, and they take them and carry them back; and if you haven't sufficient free papers, I would advise you not to stay here to-night."

Slave bounty hunters regularly crossed the invisible line between slaveholding Maryland and free Pennsylvania, and some southern Pennsylvanians' ties to their neighboring state's slaveholders created a lasting tension between the races, according to information from the Valley of the Shadow Web site at www.valley.vcdh.virginia.edu. The scholarly research site's extensive digital archive includes original letters and diaries, maps, census data, church records and other material detailing life in Franklin County and Augusta County, Va., from the eve of the Civil War through the era of Reconstruction.

The diaries of William Heyser, who was born in Chambersburg, Pa., in 1796 and died there in 1863, provide evidence of this racial tension. An entry from Dec. 28, 1862 - digitized on the Valley of the Shadow Web site - reads: "Rev. Harbaugh has three colored boys in his class. Brought back from Virginia as contraband by our volunteers. ... I hope they do not fall under the influence of many of the debased Africans now filling up our towns." And from Jan. 1, 1863: "This day Lincoln issued his Emancipation Proclamation. I think it will do more harm than good. Little can be done with it, but to make more enemies."

Local antebellum newspapers also document the tenuous relationship between many white Franklin Countians and their black neighbors, who often were accused of theft and other crimes, said historian Jim Wolfson of the Franklin County Heritage Scholars. The Valley Spirit newspaper, for example, urged the county's court to devote an entire term to trying cases involving blacks - a session that would "crowd our petty Court House with a crowd of drunken, worthless darkies, who can ornament the building by poking their heads out of the windows, standing around in every hole and corner, and squirting tobacco juice on the passers by." This article and others are cited on the Valley of the Shadow Web site.

Franklin County's free black population tallied nearly 1,800 in 1860, with the greatest concentration of blacks living in the South Ward of Chambersburg and in Montgomery Township outside Mercersburg, Pa., according to census data. Old maps show clusters of black villages along the bases of the region's flanking Allegheny and Tuscarora Mountains, commonly considered freedom routes for fugitive slaves, Wolfson said.

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