Extraordinary Stories

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Thursday, April 27, 2017

The "Was This The Breaking Point? Story

It was an ordinary day.  Standing in front of the exhibit which tells the story of the Christiana Riot in 1851.  The display is located in the LancasterHistory.org buiding at 230 West President Ave. in Lancaster, Pennsylvania.  Making my second visit to the display to make sure I had all the facts about the riot before I tried to understand it as well as write about it.  The more I read about what happened on September 11 of that year the more I wonder how important the event was to the start of the Civil War.  The display is titled "Freedom: To Secure The Blessings of Liberty" and is the second display they have presented to the public in their new building since opening it.  There are a few artifacts that remain from the riot that are on display in the museum.  Posters showing some of the scenes in the riot tell the story of William Parker and Edward Gorsuch, the two principle characters in the riot.  
William Parker's farmhouse in Christiana, Pennsylvania
All started in 1850 when the federal Fugitive Slave Act strength- ened the position of slaveowners seeking to capture runaway slaves.  Mr. Gorsuch, a Maryland farmer, had lost four slaves when they fled over the Mason-Dixon line into Pennsylvania.  They found their way to Parker's farm in Christiana, Pennsylvania.  Parker was a former slave who had himself escaped to Pennsylvania where he became an abolitionist and anti-slavery activist as well as a leader of a black self-defense organization.  By that time in history, some 3,000 free African Americans and fugitive slaves lived in Lancaster County, which was one of the easiest routes north for slaves to escape slavery from the south.  Lancaster had a highly organized Underground Railroad with close to fifty permanent safe haven "stations" scattered across the landscape.  
Abolitionist and Temperance leader William Whipper
was born in Drumore Twp., entered into partnership
with Stephen Smith of Columbia, PA, to create one
of the most successful lumberyards in PA.  He was
an operative on the Underground Railroad leading
many slaves from Virginia and Maryland to freedom. 
Parker was known well in Christiana for his bravery and for providing safe haven for escaped slaves.  His place was one of the stops on the Underground Railroad.  Also, in the area was a fairly large population of Quakers who were also in favor of freedom for the slaves.  At one point, he gave aide to four slaves in his home.  Eventually Gorsuch led a party of slave catchers into Lancaster County.  After hearing they were on the farm of William Parker, he and his son Dickenson, as well as Deputy Marshal Henry Kline and a few other helpers headed to the farm.  Word spread and Parker knew of what was coming.  His wife Eliza blew a horn out the window of their home to notify the neighbors and members of the self-defense group of the emergence of the group that was coming.  Some fifty to one hundred African Americans, as well as Quakers, armed with guns, pitchforks and other weapons ran to the house. Among the first to arrive was Castner Hanway, a white miller and Parker's closest neighbor, who, after the slave catchers arrived, tried to calm the mob and warned Gorsuch and Kline to leave before things became violent.  
Artist rendition of the tragedy at Christiana.
Gorsuch refused to leave without his "property" and the slaves refused to surrender.  So, "all hell broke loose" as they say.  As the gunfire began Gorsuch fell, mortally wounded.  Then, as his son ran to help him, Parker's brother-in-law shot him.  Deputy Kline and the rest fled for their lives with the mob in hot pursuit.  A few days later vigilantes tried to round up Parker and his brother-in-law, but they already, along with the slaves, fled to Canada.  
Peter Woods, left, and Samuel Hopkins pose with the corn
knife used in the Christiana Resistance in front of the ruins
of the home of William Parker.
The law was swift with 38 men indicted on 117 counts of treason inclucing Castner Hanway, whom Deputy Kline accused of leading the mob and refusing to aid, as the federal law required, in the recapture of the escaped slaves.  It was at this point that Thaddeus Stevens, Pennsylvania's Congressman and lawyer, defended Hanway.  The eighteen-day trial, which began on November 24, 1851, found Hanway, and all others, not guilty of treason due to the fact that Deputy Kline, the leading witness, was shown to have been hiding in the cornfields and didn't see a thing.  
This knife was primarily used for harvesting corn
on Pennsylvania farms, but became a weapon
during the battle with Gorsuch and his men on
September 11, 1851.  This knife and the above
photographs are on display at Lancaster's Museum.
In the riot's aftermath tensions and violence escalated along the Pennsylvania and Maryland border.  Castner Hanway became an abolitionist after the trial and inspired others to join.  The Underground  Railroad continued to help fugitive slaves escape to freedom.  Then in 1857 another fugitive slave law trial, the Dred Scott case, once again stirred up public opinion on both sides of the Mason-Dixon Line.  The Civil War did not officially begin for another ten years after the Christiana Riot, but I wonder if the Christiana Riot wasn't one of the main reasons the war began.  The display in the museum leads one to think that may have been the case.  It was another extraordinary day in the life of an ordinary guy.     


  1. I have an almost exactly alike..but in poor shape. Never knew what is was for or why I had it. My Gr father would have been around 12 at the time.

  2. Chip, I'm sure they were used mostly for farming, but did make a great weapon when necessary. Any blood stains on the one you have?

  3. Mot mentioned...My Grfather & three brothers fought in the CW. I thought that relevant. No blood stains.