The 1851 Christiana Riot involving slave recapture viewed as the propeller of the U.S. Civil War

Michael Eli Dokosi February 05, 2020
The Tragedy at Christiana via

The Christiana Riot which took place in 1851 at Lancaster County, Pennsylvania arose when Southern slave catchers and Northern abolitionists who despised slavery clashed.

In the years before the abolition of slavery in the United States, the free states of the North was swarmed with abolitionists who detested the continuous practice of slavery, describing it as inhumane.

The Free states had laws which protected fleeing slaves who managed to cross into their territory. This incensed slave-owners of the South who pushed for increased federal and state government support for the recovery of escaped slaves. Congress passed the Fugitive Slave Act of 1850, which permitted slave owners or their agents to pursue fugitive slaves in Free states and required state officials to aid in the recapture of the alleged slaves. Those aiding an escaping slave could face six months’ imprisonment and a $1,000 fine.

In 1849, four of Edward Gorsuch’s older male slaves, Noah Buley, Nelson Ford, George Hammond and Joshua Hammond, fled north to Pennsylvania, a Free State. Gorsuch who farmed in Monkton, Maryland and owned 12 slaves believed that they had been enticed away and would willingly return if he only talked to them.

For two decades, local Blacks had organized for self-protection, at times preventing such capture or even rescuing slaves who had been captured.

A slave-capturing expedition in September, 1851 led to the Christiana Riot. John Beard, Thomas Wilson, Alexander Scott, and Edward Thompson (the names they were known by in Pennsylvania) escaped enslavement of the Gorsuch family of Maryland and took up residence in Lancaster County.  Under provisions of the 1850 Fugitive Slave law, the elder Gorsuch swore out warrants on his former slaves. Serving and executing these arrest warrants led directly to the Christiana Riots of 1851 and resulting trials.

The leader of the resistance in 1851 was William Parker, an escaped slave about 29 years old. By then the Special Secret Committee had been formed who gather information and warn those being hunted.

The 1851 Christiana Riot involving slave recapture viewed as the propeller of the U.S. Civil War
1851 map of the area. Note Penningtonville station to the east in Chester County, Christiana itself, and the Pownall tract to the southwest of Christiana, where the Parker house was located (in the western portion) via Wikipedia Commons.

Gorsuch led a party of slave catchers into Lancaster County having been informed his former slaves were on the farm of William Parker.

With the help of US Marshals, they attempted to forcefully enact the arrest warrants. When Gorsuch and his men arrived, Eliza, Parker’s wife, blew a horn which summoned sympathetic neighbors. Armed neighbors including former slaves as well as free black and white abolitionists converged on the Parker farm and confronted the Gorsuch party. Fighting broke out and the elder Gorsuch was killed and his son wounded. The US Marshals and the slave catchers retreated.

Later the Marshals returned with three detachments of US Marines. However, William Parker and his wife Eliza eluded them assisted by Frederick Douglass to escape to Canada as did other abolitionists.  Thirty-eight other men, however, were arrested including four white Quakers. They were all charged with treason.

The first man brought to trial; the Quaker Castner Hanway erroneously thought to be the leader of the anti-slavery men was acquitted as was the other 37 men.

“The acquittal of all of the defendants was hailed by Northern abolitionists as a major victory against slavery and especially against the Fugitive Slave Act.  Southerners, however, felt that their property could not be secured even in the North.  Thus the riot became the first of a series of episodes including “Bleeding Kansas” in the late 1850s and John Brown’s Raid at Harper’s Ferry in 1859 that propelled the nation toward the Civil War.

Last Edited by:Kent Mensah Updated: February 5, 2020


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