Home : Quarterly Archives : Volume 11
Tredyffrin Easttown Historical Society
Source: April 1960 Volume 11 Number 1, Pages 14–18
Reminiscences of the Christiana riot
(Taken from a longer essay "Some Recollections of a Long and Unsuccessful Life;" written in 1918 when Mr, Steele, uncle of George P. Orr, Esq., was ninety-one years of age.)
At the time of the Christiana Riot I was running the two forges on the Octoraro called the Sadsbury Forges (which I had rented from the Sproul Estate), making charcoal iron. The forges and the dams have disappeared long ago. The glen no longer echoes the noise of the forge hammers and the Octoraro runs free and hears no sound save its own dashing. I was not at any time interested in the anti-slavery movement, and I knew nothing of the underground railroad. But I had a number of colored men employed cutting wood, burning charcoal, driving teams, etc. I then lived in a small log house, less than half a mile from what was afterwards known as the Riot House. It was occupied by two colored families, Parkers and Pinckneys. They did not work for me.
I knew Parker very well. He told me that, when a slave, his owner was a sporting man and attended fairs and horse races, and big sales, and took him along. He would arrange prize fights between him and some other man's slave, and bet money on him (Parker), and that he always won. Parker tired of this and ran away. His owner never sent for him. Undoubtedly, the colored people of the neighborhood were determined to resist the enforcement of the fugitive-slave law, and Parker was their leader. It is equally certain that some white men who had colored men employed, when it was known that slave-catchers were at Parker's house, said to their men, "Go, and take your gun."
On the day of the Riot (Sept. 11, 1851) I had planned to go to Lancaster on business and to walk over to Christiana to take the cars. I heard the racket at Parker's house and determined to go that way and see what was the matter, but when I got as far as the Noble Road I met some colored men that I knew and they told me what had happened, that one white man was killed and another of the slave-holders badly wounded. They seemed very exultant. I told them that they were in great danger, and if anyone who had anything to do with it had any sense at all he would leave the country before night.
I went to Lancaster and returned to Christiana as soon as I could, and that evening and the next day the greatest excitement prevailed in the neighborhood. The Commissioner who had the enforcement of the fugitive-slave law in charge had his headquarters at Zarracher's Hotel in Christiana and there
were a great many (special constables, I suppose) from Philadelphia and from the neighborhood who were scouring the country around and bringing in colored men to have a hearing before the Commissioner. The principal witness against them was a man named Kline who was one of the party that went to Parker's house to capture the slaves. There was a colored man named Lew Christmas who drove team for me. Some time before, he told me that he was a free man and got me to write to a gentleman at Elkton who knew all about him. The Elkton man replied that Lew Christmas was a free man, that his father was Jerry Christmas, a free man who was a fiddler and in great demand at dance parties and for that reason was named Christmas. Lew's wife sewed this letter in a bag and Lew always carried it around his neck. Christmas and I were together at the mule stable a few minutes after the firing was heard and I knew he could not have been there, but he was arrested. I went before the Commissioner and Lew produced his letter and they let him go.
Anthony E. Roberts, a Lancaster County man, was U.S. Marshal for the district. He had been appointed by Zachary Taylor who was then dead and succeeded by Millard Fillmore. When the fighting was over at the Riot House, Parker hurried over to Pownall's to get a wagon to take the wounded
man where he could be attended to, Parker and Levi Pownall, Jr. ran to get a horse and wagon, but before they geared up a neighbor brought the wounded man over in a dearborn. Levi then told Parker and Pinckney that they were up against the government of the United States, that there was no safety for them in the country. They went away and concealed themselves somewhere until that night. Levi went over to the Riot House where he found a great number of letters relating to the escape of fugitive slaves to Canada. Some of these letters would have incriminated several persons for violating the fugitive-slave law, so he burned them all. George Pownall (who was then a boy) found Parker's and Pinckney's guns. They were loaded and apparently had not been fired off. This would seem to confirm what had been said by someone that Parker had gone out unarmed to persuade the slaveowners to go away.
At night of the day of the Riot, Dickinson Gorsuch, the wounded man, was not expected to live. There were a great many of his friends and neighbors in the Pownall house and the house was surrounded by a crowd, principally the special constables who had come from Philadelphia. They appeared to be guarding the house. Some of them professed to fear that the colored people would attack the wounded man. Elizabeth Pownall, who afterwards became my wife, and her sister Ellen were washing dishes in the kitchen when Parker and Pinckney walked in through the out kitchen door. They had been concealed all day and did not know of the excitement. Fortunately the girls had presence of mind enough to blow out the candles and open the stair door and motion to the two men to go upstairs. Mrs. Pownall who was in the sitting room waiting on the wounded man was sent for, and the family and one of the neighbors went into the pantry. For a few minutes the silence was dense. Then Mrs. Sarah Pownall (who was the best and most capable woman I ever knew) whispered to the girls, "Get a clean pillow case and fill it with bread and meat". There was a whispered remonstrance, "All these people in the house to feed and barely enough bread for breakfast". Mrs. Pownall whispered back, "Mix more bread." The pillow case was filled. Levi Pownall, Jr. went upstairs and provided the men with clothes and hats. George Pownall took the pillow case of food out to the orchard and left it at the foot of the queen apple tree. At a favorable time the two colored men were brought down and charged not on any account to speak a word, and the two Miss Pownalls walked beside them to the gate. If the guard saw them, they supposed them to be callers on the young ladies.
One morning when the Pownall family came down, they found a letter under the front door addressed to Elizabeth B. Pownall. It said Parker is safe in Canada. They never knew who wrote it or where it came from. The same day that they got this letter
Dickinson Gorsuch's brother visited him, and brought a newspaper which had an account of Parker having been caught in New York State and cut into pieces. When he had read the account to his brother and gone out of the room Dickinson called Elizabeth (who was in the room) to his bedside and said, "Miss Pownall, I watched your face while my brother was reading that newspaper, and from your expression I know you don't believe a word of it. I believe Parker is safe in Canada, and I am glad of it, for he was a noble nigger".
The history of the Christiana Riot can hardly be understood without knowing something about a gang of horse-thieves and counterfeiters who had their headquarters at Clemson's Tavern near Mount Vernon. They had started the business of slave capturing. One of them named Padget was nominally a mender of clocks and tramped over the country and cultivated intimacy with run-away slaves and found out where they came from and the names of their owners; then he would write to the slave-owners and guide them when they came to arrest their slaves, and get a reward. Gorsuch's slaves were not living at the Parker house. It is my opinion that Padget guided the Gorsuchs there for the purpose of running Parker into slavery, as he interfered with the business of the Clemson gang. But Gorsuch's slaves came to the Parker house armed with guns and they probably shot their owners. I cannot remember whether it was the day of the riot or the day after that Anthony E. Roberts, the U.S. Marshal, brought a company of marines up to Christiana. They stacked their muskets in front of Zarricher's Hotel and stayed there until the prisoners were taken to Philadelphia.
The scene at Christiana when the prisoners were taken to Philadelphia was one to be remembered. The prisoners were loaded in a car. The marines were getting on the train. Some Philadelphia politician - I forget his name- was addressing the crowd, protesting against the Marshal removing the marines and declaring that the country was in a state of insurrection. No one seemed to be listening to him. The Clemson gang was very much in evidence. Two of them Bill Bair and Perry Marsh, were drunk and quarreling and Clemson was trying to quiet them. Dan Caulsberry, one of the prisoners, was a forgeman who worked for me. I was talking to him at the car window, about taking some care of his family while he was away, and gave him a small amount of money that I owed him. Perry Marsh called out, "Look at Steele, he's giving them money." He came running up to me and said, "If it had not been for the Damned Abolitioners like you and yourself, these men would not have got in this trouble." I said to him, "Perry Marsh, sneak thief and jail bird, what do you want with me and myself?" Amos Clemson came waddling up and took Perry by the arm and led him away.
I visited the prisoners in Moyamensing jail where they were waiting trial. Some one of them told me they heard Dan Caulsberry praying, that he prayed for all his friends and then for Kline who had given false witness against him. He said, "Lord, catch Kline, shake him well, shake him over the fiery pit - but don't let him drop in." I am not certain but I think Dan came out of jail with some disease of the lungs and died soon after.
Col. McClure has said that the Christiana Riot was the first battle of the Civil War. I do not think that it had anything to do with bringing on the war. The Supreme Court of the United States caused the Civil War. When the Dred Scott decision legalized slavery in every state of the union, war was inevitable. The author of Ecclesiastes had said, "One generation passeth away. Another generation cometh, but the Earth endureth forever." We might say, "One Constitution passeth away. Another Constitution cometh. But truth endureth for ever." Also political parties pass away. The Whig party, the party of Webster and Clay and Seward, has passed away, and the Democratic party has changed its principles since 1857. Thank the Lord it is still changing in the direction of becoming truly Democratic.
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