Underground Railroad, Part II: Foundation

BY CYRIL ACKERMAN , CTHS SECRETARY / JUNE 2020

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

In Part I, we looked at the background of slavery and the rules that governed it. We can now consider the plight of slaves (fugitives) wanting to escape through Pennsylvania to “freedom” in northern states through the covert system referred to as the Underground Railroad.

Not operating in a social vacuum, fugitives from Maryland, Virginia and the Carolinas had chosen to migrate to Pennsylvania in search of freedom (one of the escape possibilities for fugitives to achieve freedom).

The local residents in south central Pennsylvania found themselves in a dilemma whether to treat fleeing slaves as members of free society or continue to maintain the status of “the peculiar institution” of slavery and return runaways back to southern neighbors.

Escaping slavery to Pennsylvania was inherently dangerous to fugitives seeking freedom and fraught with many difficulties. Free or a slave, a black person could be stopped and asked for a pass by white citizens.

A priority for escape north was a change of clothing. Plantation apparel was easily identified by anyone on the trek north. If fugitives ended up in county jails they could be sold back into slavery.

Slave owners in the area would run ads in local newspapers for runaways and offer rewards for their return. The 1793 Fugitive Slave Law passed by US Congress encouraged local residents to view escaped slaves as property.

The federal law viewed slaves as slaves even beyond state lines. Because of this loophole free slaves might be taken and sold back into slavery in the south.

Anti-slave sentiment led to the formation of the Pennsylvania Abolition Society. In the 1800s the society served as a watchdog for slave holders who disregarded state and federal laws concerning slavery. The significance of the Pennsylvania Abolition Society founding is that we now have a foundation for the Underground Railroad in Adams County and its operation within its specific townships.

Documentation is weak at best on activities and function of the underground railroad in terms of black and white participation, however it is clear there had to be cooperation between them to achieve freedom for black fugitives moving through the area.

There were no absolute guarantees for slave catchers seeking bounties to return slaves nor for the slaves trying to evade the guile of motivated slave catchers.

Several networks of abolitionist’s families lived in the southern part of Adams County. Most notably were William Young, Adam Wert and James McAllister. Also worthy of mention are Robert Middleton and Thaddeus Stevens. Stevens was elected to the Pa State Legislature in 1833 and supported the local anti-slave movement. He was a trustee of Pennsylvania College (now Gettysburg College) and counsel for Bank of Gettysburg. Middleton was a close ally of Stevens and editor of the Gettysburg Star and Republican Banner (local abolitionist newspaper).

On the 60th anniversary of American independence, July 4, 1836, a group of freemen gathered at James McAllister’s mill on Rock Creek. James was the chairperson; William Young and Adam Wert were secretaries for the group. They read and adopted 14 resolutions dealing with abolition of slavery citing the Declaration of Independence as its foundation.

This meeting led to the establishment of the Adams Anti-Slavery Society in December 1836. However, by 1850, plagued by a decline in membership and travel woes the society lost its influence and viability. To the credit of the Adams Anti-Slavery Society, no one had spoken so consistently against slavery in the area.

It is important to note that several local African Americans also aided in the movement of fugitives through the area, Jack Hopkins, Basil Biggs and others operated at extreme risk to facilitate underground railroad activities.

The next installment will take a closer look at that situation.

Cyril Ackerman is secretary of the Cumberland Township Historical Society.