Underground Railroad: Part I, The Beginnings

BY CYRIL ACKERMAN, CTHS SECRETARY / MAY 2020

This is the first of three-part series investigating slavery and the local Underground Railroad.

The colony of Pennsylvania was founded in 1682 by William Penn, one of the original 13 colonies and site of the first and second Continental Congress in 1774-5 that produced the Declaration of Independence. That document gave us the words “all men are created equal… are endowed by their Creator with certain inalienable rights that among these are life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness.”

Prior to 1775, the institution of slavery was legal from Canada to Chile. Pennsylvania at its founding regrettably exhibited many elements of the social class system they knew in England. Notably was the sanctioning of the enslavement of people of African American origin. From the beginning, the first English Pennsylvanians (Quakers) were also the first slave holders. From 1775 to 1825, the slave population tripled in the US. In 1725-6, legislators of PA General Assembly were mostly Quakers and enacted legislation for the debasement of one group of people by another. As other nationalities and religious groups migrated to Pennsylvania the tolerance or acceptance of the use of slaves was common. Many immigrants either brought slaves with them or acquired them once in Pennsylvania.

Opposition to slavery was also recorded while the acceptance of the practice flourished. Quakers who disagreed with their slave holding Brethren continued to the end of the colonial period. By then Quaker domination of the PA legislature gave way to English Anglicans and Scots Irish Presbyterians who were less concerned about human bondage. In fact, many legislators in government held slaves. Despite this reality the opposition to slavery continued and ironically the proslavery majority were actually responsible for a turning point in African American’s legal standing.

In 1790, Pennsylvania enacted legislation to bring slavery to an end. This was a monumental step toward equality but the act was inconsistent in sentiment and insufficient in content. Two consequences of law became abundantly clear: First, abolition was made gradual. A Slave prior to this act would remain a slave for life and those born into slavery would remain a slave until age 28. The intent was to ease financial impact by the slave holding class. Second, the legislation never acknowledged that the people supposedly benefiting from the act were suffering a grave injustice under it. To sum up the 1790 PA slave law, PA did not declare an end to slavery once and for all. Instead PA took steps to strengthen PA slave laws while at the same time ensuring that slaves from other states would be free in this state even in direct opposition to federal laws.

Consequently, slavery continued for several decades after 1791. Owning of slaves was considered a long-term investment. Slave holders in Adams County were most often Scots Irish , English or Dutch. Slave owners predominantly, but not exclusively, lived in Hamiltonban, Liberty and Cumberland Townships. Differences in record keeping makes it difficult to determine actual slave population in Adams County. In 1783, 161 slave owners had 391 slaves. By 1800, we have 80 slave owners claiming 111 slaves. Not all slaves were considered taxable property, too old or too young in good health were not officially considered in tax rolls.

Thus, we see a slow gradual abolition of slavery playing out in the area as a result of the 1790 PA abolition act. After 1800 slavery continued because those born into slavery in PA still had to serve masters until the age of 28. Understanding this background of slavery and the rules that governed it we can now consider the circumstances of slaves (fugitives) wanting to escape through Pennsylvania to freedom in northern states through the covert system referred to as the Underground Railroad.

Cyril Ackerman is the secretary of the Cumberland Township Historical Society. We apologize to our members that we had to cancel our June public meeting featuring Scott Mingus on this topic. We hope to reschedule at a future date.