In the early morning hours of September 11, 1851—ten years before the Civil War and exactly 150 years to the day before the September 11, 2001, catastrophe in New York City and elsewhere—a fight erupted that would rock the nation. It was initially between a Southern slaveholder and some escaped slaves in Christiana, a small town between Philadelphia and Lancaster in Pennsylvania near the Mason-Dixon Line separating North and South, and two miles from Gap, where my father, Charles (Charlie) Coates Walker, grew up.
The Christiana Resistance (sometimes unkindly called the Christiana Riot or Christiana Rebellion) is considered to have been a turning point in the North’s relationship to the South. The outcome was unheard of in those times: a white man was killed and his black attackers were freed in a subsequent jury trial.
Edward Gorsuch, a plantation owner from Maryland on the other side of the North-South border, had crossed over it, determined to retrieve his slaves. He met armed resistance from a small band of blacks, who were just as determined not to let one of their own be taken back into slavery from which they had successfully escaped into a “free” state.
Back then, many freed slaves and freedmen, as well as escaped slaves, were kidnapped and taken back over the line to be sold into the Deep South to work in dreaded cotton plantations. Anyone might be taken who generally fit the description of a particular slave. People of all ages and genders were often taken in the middle of the night, beaten senseless, and dragged across the border. No black was safe.
Determined blacks banded together, held meetings, and pledged to fight before they would allow any of their own to be kidnapped. A man named William Parker, who had escaped from Maryland a few years earlier, emerged as a leader of these impoverished but free blacks. He was muscular, handsome, well-spoken, and intelligent. He had memorized the Bible and was viewed as an upstanding citizen.
William Parker, who lived for a time as a tenant of my father’s Quaker ancestor, Isaac Walker of Gap, later wrote in the Atlantic Monthly in 1866, “I formed a resolution that I would assist in liberating every one within my reach at the risk of my life, and that I would devise some plan for their entire liberation.” Another of my father’s ancestors, Lindley Coates—who was a member of the Anti-Slavery Society, active in the Underground Railroad, and living in Christiana—had great respect for William Parker. Lindley Coates described him as “bold as a lion, the kindest of men, and the most steadfast of friends.”
Exacerbating the kidnapping problem, a band of horse thieves living in an abandoned nickel mine near Gap would also spy on newcomers and ruthlessly turn in fugitives for bounty money. Fields and trees above this mining cave, now closed, are visible across the valley from the Walker family farm. The chief spy for the Gap Hill Gang, William Padgett, was a repairer of clocks, which gave him the opportunity to visit and spy on local farms. He had written to Edward Gorsuch to inform him that his former slaves were residing in Christiana.
Quakers involved in the Underground Railroad often struggled in their consciences over their clear conviction against slavery versus a strong belief in pacifism and the importance of being law-abiding. They supported blacks in their bid for freedom so long as this did not entail violence. Most Quakers felt that laws which went against their consciences, such as those enforcing slavery, could and should be broken. However, some Quaker meetings disowned members who participated in the Underground Railroad, mainly because of the defiance of laws and its connection with occasional violence.
Two Walker relatives, pacifist Quakers Levi and Sarah Pownall, owned the house in which the Resistance took place. This building was rented to William Parker and his family. As reported by Margaret Hope Bacon in Rebellion at Christiana, Sarah Pownall, hearing of approaching violence, went to meet with William Parker the night before the battle. She hoped to dissuade him and his friends from forceful resistance. “I wish thee would consider whether it would not be better to escape to Canada rather than lead the colored people to resistance by force of arms,” she entreated her tenant.
According to R.C. Smedley’s History of the Underground Railroad in Chester and the Neighboring Counties of Pennsylvania (1883), William Parker replied, “If the laws protected us colored men as they do white men, I would be a nonresistant and not fight, but appeal to the laws. But the laws for personal protection are not made for us, and we are not bound to obey them. If a fight occurs, I want the whites to stay away. They have a country and may obey the laws. But we have no country.”
On the foggy morning of September 11, Edward Gorsuch and his party of about 15 men from Maryland arrived in Christiana by train at around 5 a.m. Despite the cover of darkness, they had given themselves away on the train by talking freely. Their cover was further blown when a notorious Negro catcher, U.S. Deputy Marshall Henry H. Kline, whom the Marylanders had hired from Philadelphia to enforce their warrant, drunkenly called attention to himself as he stopped in taverns along the way.
Right before daybreak, Henry Kline and the Southerners strode up the lane to the small, stone house where William Parker lived. One or two watchful blacks outside had run in and warned the occupants of the approaching kidnappers, and a Quaker, Joseph Scarlet, ran by, shouting a warning. But the frightened blacks had inadvertently left the door open, so the slave catchers went partway up the steps, where they found themselves staring up at the barrel of William Parker’s rifle. The Maryland party retreated to the bottom of the steps and partially outside.
Henry Kline read a warrant from the United States government, to which, according to the Altantic Monthly article, William Parker answered that he “did not care for him or the United States.” William Parker stood his ground for several hours, trying to persuade Edward Gorsuch to give up his ill-fated mission. The two held rifles in their hands but—so far—sparred only with Bible verses.
At Edward Gorsuch’s demand that his “property” be turned over to him, William Parker slyly suggested the slave holder look in the house and barn for tables and chairs or farm stock that belonged to him. This angered Edward Gorsuch, and he became even angrier when William Parker’s wife sounded an alarm with horn blasts from an upstairs window. When the Marylanders shot at the window in retaliation, the courageous woman ducked out of sight and continued to sound the horn. This warning brought out many black neighbors armed with pitchforks, corn cutters, and other farm implements; they watched from the corn field and then gathered around the house.
Two whites then appeared on the scene: a Quaker, Elijah Lewis; and his friend Castner Hanway, who—though not a Quaker—was married to one and later become one. They had heard of the trouble at the Pownalls and came to try to help avert violence. Henry Kline, seeing the whites in the group, showed them his warrant. He pointed out that the Fugitive Slave Laws, passed by Congress a year before, permitted anyone to be forcefully deputized to help bring in runaway slaves under penalty of treason. The two whites refused to help the Southerners, saying the blacks had a right to defend themselves. At the same time, they called out to the blacks in the corn field to keep their distance. These two whites then left, to Henry Kline’s extreme frustration.
Edward Gorsuch was thrown off track by William Parker’s demeanor, but he remained stubborn. His son, Dickinson Gorsuch, pleaded with his father to leave, fearing they would be killed by the resolute blacks. The fugitives had not retaliated with guns to the shots fired by the Marylanders, but they made it clear that they would use their weapons if pressed too far.
Edward Gorsuch appeared at first to be relenting, but then he abruptly changed his mind and, according to William Parker’s account in the Atlantic Monthly, reportedly said, “I’ve not had my breakfast. My property I’ll have or eat my breakfast in hell.” The younger Gorsuch shot at William Parker, who ran up to him and struck the gun out of his hands. A melee ensued, during which most of the whites fled in terror, leaving Edward Gorsuch and his son to fend for themselves. When the battle was over, the older Gorsuch lay dead. Dickinson Gorsuch, seriously wounded, was taken to the Pownall’s home and subsequently nursed slowly back to health by the compassionate Pownalls and their two daughters, Eleanor and Elizabeth.
The Pownall family, even with Dickinson Gorsuch recuperating in their home, secretly helped William Parker and his brother-in-law escape from the Pownall house by dressing them in gray Quaker garb. The daughters walked arm in arm with them out the gate to freedom, past the government guards outside, pretending they were young courting men.
The prominent black abolitionist Frederick Douglass also participated in William Parker’s escape to freedom, arranging for him to journey by steamer from New York to Canada. Frederick Douglass later wrote in his autobiography that the Fugitive Slave Law had been decidedly checked at Christiana.
At the conclusion of the Resistance, the state brought three white men to trial for treason (the two who refused to help Henry Kline, and the man who had tried to warn William Parker of the Southerner’s arrival), and it rounded up about 40 blacks in the area to be similarly charged. Along with other Quaker families involved, Lindley Coates’s house was searched several times. However, he was not indicted for any crimes, even though he had hid some of the Resistance fugitives in his corn field and helped them escape to Canada.
The abolitionist lawyer Thaddeus Stevens was instrumental in obtaining a highly controversial acquittal for all the defendants during a nationally publicized trial (the largest treason trial in the history of the United States) at Independence Hall in Philadelphia. According to a trial report, one of the defense lawyers, Theodore Cuyler, said to the judge: “Leveling war against the United States. . . . Sir, did you hear it? That three harmless, nonresisting Quakers, and eight and thirty wretched, miserable, penniless Negroes, armed with corn cutters, clubs, and a few muskets, and headed by a miller, in a felt hat, without a coat, without arms, and mounted on a sorrel nag, levied war against the United States. Blessed be God that our union has survived the shock.”
Outrage in the South over the acquittal, along with many editorials pro and con throughout the nation, exacerbated the growing schism between North and South. Some historians have called the Christiana Resistance the first battle of the Civil War. General Robert E. Lee, when making his attack into southeast Pennsylvania in the next decade, is alleged to have asked where Christiana was so he could burn it down. In Christiana today, proud banners over its streets proclaim, “Freedom Began Here!”
Some historians also believe that the Fugitive Slave Law was a significant cause of the Civil War. If so, then the Resistance at Christiana played a key role in the origins of that tragic bloodbath. It has even been suggested that if the armed resistance and subsequent trial had not taken place, the Civil War might have been put off several more decades, to play out alongside the violent struggles between Native Americans and whites that continued until almost the turn of the 20th century.
Another fallout of Christiana came through Edward Gorsuch’s youngest son, Thomas, who resented the fact that his father’s killer had not been brought to justice. He spoke bitterly of it to his classmate, John Wilkes Booth, who later assassinated President Abraham Lincoln.
Quakers, along with all U.S. citizens, might learn some lessons from that September 11, 150 years ago. Whites have generally felt secure that the U.S. Constitution protects them. But William Parker felt that since the laws did not encompass the protection of blacks, they had no compulsion to obey them. As a white, I have always felt that my country’s laws protect me, and I willingly obey them. They surround and assure me, and so I, in turn, embrace them. But I can imagine how I would feel if I saw my neighbors being protected from murder, rape, and kidnapping—but not me.
As historian Christopher Hill wrote, “Unless freedom is universal, it is only extended privilege.” In this time of great struggle, the United States must demonstrate to all people—here and abroad—that its laws are meant to protect all its citizens. If the country embraces its people, the people in turn will embrace their country. We must all work to stop the hatred and contention between peoples in this country and enforce “liberty and justice for all.” Our future may depend on it.