Monday, June 11, 2012

A Visit to Christiana, Pennsylvania

Since reading Thomas P. Slaughter's Bloody Dawn: The Christiana Riot and Racial Violence in the Antebellum North about a year ago, I have wanted to visit the site of this little known fugitive slave battle.  Saturday, I finally got the opportunity when Michele and I made a short detour on a journey to visit with her parents in Pennsylvania.

With the help of the internet I had scouted out the location of a couple of historical markers commemorating the event. The most obvious marker in the area is an obelisk in the town of Christiana that was placed in the 60th anniversary year (1911) as a memorial to the event. 

To give an abbreviated version of the story; in August 1851 Maryland slaveowner Edward Gorsuch received word that two of his slaves that had fled two years previously were spotted near Christiana, Pennsylvania. On September 11, 1851, Gorsuch, his son, a deputy marshal and some others attempted to apprehend the two fugitives who worked on the farm of free man of color William Parker.   
Gorsuch had obtained a warrant to arrest the fugitives and return them to Maryland, but apparently the community had been warned that Gorsuch and his posse might be on the way. When Gorsuch and his party arrived and demanded the fugitives, they were denied and a warning horn was sounded by Parker's wife Eliza, which brought black and white neighbors within hearing distance to assist the resistance. The Parkers' neighbors came with whatever weapons they could find; including firearms and farm tools.
In the ensuing argument gunfire was exchanged and Gorsuch fell mortally wounded and his son Dickinson was hit too. The slave-catching party quickly retreated and Parker, his brother-in-law and the fugitives fled north to Canada. 38 community members were indicted for treason in resisting and refusing to uphold the Fugitive Slave Law. Castner Hanway, a white neighbor of Parker and the supposed community leader, was defended in court by abolitionist and U.S. Representative Thaddeus Stevens. Hanway was found not guilty after conflicting testimony was received by the court. 
This small marker to African American resister William Parker is near the 1911 obelisk.
It was interesting to see how the current community is choosing to commemorate this historical event. These banners were on electric poles throughout the small town. What 161 years ago a treasonous crime, is now celebrated. This is partly what makes history so fascinating to me; learning how things change over time.
A historic photograph of the William Parker House where the riot occurred. The house is no longer standing, but an archaeological study was completed a few years back and the foundation was located.
We searched in vain for this highway marker which is supposedly near the actual location of the riot outside the town of Christiana. According to the information I had we were in the right location, but the sign was not to be found.

This late-nineteenth century engraving of the Christiana Riot was printed in William Still's book on the Underground Railroad.

Here is short video of a local historian describing the event:


  1. Well done. I've followed the occasional developments in this story over the years. I get the impression that the community downplays the location of the William Parker "riot" house in deference to the owner of the farm on which it once stood. In fact, supposedly the house was torn down at least in part because the farmer who owned the property at the time got tired of trespassers. This could explain why the street marker is no longer by the location where the house stood.

  2. Thank you for posting this interesting information and for your deep affection for history. I'm a bit of a buff also.

  3. Thank you for reading. Please come back often!