Tredyffrin Easttown Historical Society
History Quarterly Digital Archives

Source: 1943 Volume 5 Number 4, Pages 83–90

The Christiana Riot

George P. Orr

Page 83

While the enactment of the Fugitive Slave Law of 1850 gave rise to much argument and litigation, the right of a slave-owner to follow and retake his slave in free states was recognized from the adoption of the Constitution, Article IV of which provided:

"Sec. 3: No person held to service or labour in one State under the laws thereof, escaping into another, shall, in consequence of any law or regulation therein, be discharged from such service or labour, but shall be delivered up on claim of the party to whom such service or labour may be due."

Probably no union of the Colonies could have been effected without this agreement. The Fugitive Slave Act of 1793 impressed upon the executives of the several States the duty of arrest and upon their magistrates the obligation to try and commit fugitives for return.

Pennsylvania, however, in 1826, passed an Act which gave the State Courts jurisdiction over all claims to fugitives and forbade the Justices of the Peace (Magistrates) to exercise these powers. This Act also made it a felony punishable with from 7 to 21 years imprisonment at hard labor, to carry off, sell, or detain a free Negro in Pennsylvania. This gave rise to much trouble in southern Chester and Lancaster Counties, as the nearby Mason & Dixon Line was the division between slave and free territory. Under the laws of Maryland a man might be a slave, while under those of Pennsylvania he would be free.

For example, if a slave gave birth to a child in Pennsylvania, the child was free under Pennsylvania Law, but a slave under the Maryland Law, which held that, a slave being a chattel, the rule that "the brood follows the dam" applied.

The U. S. Supreme Court in the case of Edward Prigg reported in 16 Peters (U. S. 539 - 1842) held that the owner of a fugitive slave could retake him wherever found, and that his rights must be enforced by the Federal, not the State, Government; that the Federal Government could not impose a duty on the State Magistrates, and therefore the Fugitive Slave Act of 1793 was in this respect unconstitutional.

This left a right with no way of enforcing it, and the Fugitive Slave Law of 1850 was adopted which placed its enforcement in the hands of U. S. Marshals, with powers to deputize bystanders into a posse, and place heavy penalties on those who obstructed the capture and return of fugitive slaves. This not only stimulated slave-hunting, but encouraged illegal kidnapping.

In 1850 a free Negro, Henry Williams, was taken near the Chester County border at Gap, and sold into slavery. Across the line in Chester County a maid servant of Moses Whitson was taken by a gang, but the captors were overtaken by a group of Negroes on Gap Hill (near Mt. Vernon Hotel on the present Lincoln Highway) and beaten - one, I believe, fatally. The maid was rescued and returned to the Whitson home. Another free Negro was taken on his way to work at Gap and was never heard of thereafter.

Page 84

These incidents, together with the fact that their Congressman, Thaddeus Stevens, was the most outspoken enemy of the Fugitive Slave Law, made southern Lancaster and Chester Counties predominantly "Abolitionist" - and there seems to be little doubt but that the Quakers, while opposed to force, saw no objection to arming the Negroes for their own protection. Through the aid of local citizens, the Negroes were organized and armed to defend against illegal - and possible legal seizure.

It was only natural, therefore, that one of the main branches of the Underground Railway should pass through this neighborhood, and one of the stations was a tenant house on the farm of Levi Pownall, great-grandfather of the writer. This farm is in the Great Chester Valley, Lancaster County, approximately two miles west of the Chester County Line.

The Gorsuch Corn House

It was here that on September 11, 1851, occurred the Christiana Riot - by some called the first bloodshed of the Civil War. Three of the Valley's foremost citizens, Casner Hanway, Elijah Lewis and Joseph P. Scarlet were tried for high treason (but acquitted) for their alleged participation therein.

Page 85

The riot and trials are reported by Hon. W. U. Hensel, ex-Attorney General of Pennsylvania, in his book "The Christiana Riot and Treason Trials of 1851". The story as hereafter related is taken partly from Mr. Hensel's narrative, partly as related by Elizabeth Steele, great-aunt of the writer, and partly from the story told by William Parker for the Atlantic Monthly in 1869. Parker lived in the "Riot House" and maintained it as a station of the Underground Railway.

Edward Gorsuch, a slave-owner living at "Retreat Farm" between Monkton and Glencoe, Baltimore County, Md., lost four slaves who escaped through a skylight. This was during "corn husking" in the Fall of 1849. About two years later he received the following letter, dated Aug. 28, 1851, which was found upon his body after he was killed:

"Lancaster Co. 28 August, 1851.
Respected friend, I have the required
information of four men that is within
two miles of each other. Now the best
way is for you to come as A hunter
disguised about two days ahead of your son and let him come
by way of Philadelphia and get the deputy Marshall John
Nagle I think is his name. Tell him the situation
and he can bring a force of the right kind it will take
about twelve so that they can divide and take them
all within half an hour. Now if you can come the 2d or 3d
of September come on and I will
meet you at the gap when you get there
inquire for Benjamin Clay's Tavern let
your son and the marshal get out
Kinyers" (probably Kinzers')" hotel now if you cannot come
at the time spoken of write very soon
and let me know when you can
I wish you to come as soon as you possibly can
Very respectfully thy friend,
William M. P.
(in pencil "(Wm. H. Padgett)".)

Mr. Gorsuch's nephew, Dr. Thomas Pearce, also from Baltimore County, was at the same time informed by a visitor as to the whereabouts of his escaped slave.

Edward Gorsuch, his son Dickinson, his nephews, Joshua Gorsuch and Dr. Pearce, Nicholas Hatchings and Nathan Nelson, neighbors, came to Philadelphia and on September 9, 1851, obtained warrants directed to Henry H. Kline, deputy Marshal, to apprehend the slaves.

About midnight, September 10, the above party, together with Marshal Kline and his deputies, arrived at Gap (a station on the Main Line of the P. R. R. approximately one mile west of the Chester County Line) and met Padgett who guided them to the Parker house.

Page 86

Samuel Williams, a young colored man from 7th & Lombard Streets, Philadelphia, was in Penningtonville (now Atglen), recognized Kline as the slave-hunting Marshal, and gave the alarm. So when the hunting party arrived about daybreak they were seen by two pickets who fled into the Parker house, and a conch shell was sounded to call those in the neighborhood to the defense. Marshal Kline announced his errand and went into the house, but was driven out. By this time the Negroes began to arrive in considerable numbers (estimated at 75) armed with guns.

The evidence as to what followed is not entirely clear but apparently Dickinson Gorsuch fired at Parker for some insult to his father. Edward Gorsuch and his son and nephew started for the house when the Negroes opened fire, Edward Gorsuch was killed, his son terribly wounded, his nephew and others less seriously. Marshal Kline and his deputies retreated. During the confusion the Negroes escaped, and at least two hid in Levi Pownall's barn.

Prior to the shooting a number of the citizens - including the three later tried for treason - came to the scene, some apparently counseling peace, but all refusing to help the Marshal.

The Marshal went to the North Bend on the P. R. R. (between Penningtonville - now Atglen and Christiana) where a track gang was laying the new track. Mrs. Steele said they were Irishmen brought to this country. These men were deputized and assigned to picketing the Pownall homestead where Dickinson Gorsuch was being "nursed back to life" by Mrs. Pownall.

From here I shall try to relate the story just as told me by my great-aunt, Elizabeth Steele, who was about twenty years of age at the time of the Riot and an eye-witness thereto:

"That evening the deputies were all around our house, and some were inside. They were apparently very tired, and those inside lay down on the floor and were soon asleep.

"After dark I went through the dining room to the south porch which ran the full length of the house. As I reached the end I heard a noise and saw two crouching figures who proved to be Parker and another darkey. They whispered that they were surrounded and asked to be hidden in the attic. I had them follow me back to the dining room door, where they waited until I blew out the candles. They then crawled past the sleeping pickets and up to the attic.

"I then saw Levi (her brother) and told him where Parker and his friend were hidden. Levi and George (another brother) gave up their high beaver hats and frock coats to the darkies who thus clad (and I believe powdered) walked out through the picket lines with sister Ellen and myself as though they were young gentlemen who had called on us. We walked with them to the end of the lane, Parker had no difficulty in making his way, as he was one of the guiding hands in the Underground Railway, and reached Canada, as we later learned when he returned after the Civil War.

"Later that night Levi came up to our room with his coat and pockets bulging with papers he had rescued from the "Riot House". They were records and instructions, plans and road maps used in guiding the fugitives and involved many of the finest people in the North. Levi burned them in the fireplace."

Page 87

While Aunt Ellen had helped in the escape of these slaves, she would never speak of it, as she realized that they had violated the written law of the land, and was not proud of it.

Dickinson Gorsuch recovered, and died thirty-one years later. It is recorded that "his body was prepared for burial pitted like a sponge with the marks of the Christiana Riot". Casner Hanway, Elijah Lewis, and Joseph P. Scarlet were tried for treason for their alleged part in the Riot, were defended by Thaddeus Stevens, and acquitted.

The "Riot House" was demolished about 1900 by the then owner, Marion Griest. It stood in a large field - the floors and roof had caved in; it was no longer useful. The Lancaster County Historical Society tried to buy and save it, but lack of funds prevented. Later a monument was erected in Christiana and may be seen just across from the Christiana Machine Works.

* * * * * * *

A far more picturesque and intimate story of the Riot was told by Parker upon his return from Canada, and published in the March, 1866, issue of the Atlantic Monthly.

The Riot House was the home of an energetic and intelligent Negro named William Parker, his brother-in-law, Pinckney, and their respective wives, who were sisters. Parker was born in Anne Arundel County, Md. His mother was one of seventy field hands of Major William Brogdon of "Rodown" plantation. She died when Parker was a mere child. A few years later Major Brogdon died and Parker passed to David Brogdon who was apparently a kind master. But while there Parker saw a slave sale with the cruel separation of the families. This stirred in him a desire for freedom, and with his brother he escaped to Columbia, Penna. Later he was employed by Dr. Obadiah Dingee - ancestor of the Rose Growers at West Grove - who was an abolitionist. While there he read anti-slavery periodicals - no doubt the ones referred to in the minutes of the Wilberforce Anti-Slavery Society - and heard Wm. Lloyd Garrison speak. He was thus inspired to organize his fellow Negroes to resist attempts at recapture, and to assist them to freedom. According to Samuel Hopkins there was an apple-butter boiling at Parker's the night before the Riot, and the Negroes danced around the kettle singing "Take me back to Canada where de cullud people's free".

Parker was large, powerful and courageous. He was involved in many clashes with slave-hunters, one on the streets of Lancaster City, and did not hesitate to kill in defense of his people. His home was unquestionably a station of the "Underground Railway", and his cunning and courage made it a popular and efficient one. Here he kept records and guides, and from it he warned the Negroes in the neighborhood of approaching danger. He called them together by blasts of the conch shell, which could be heard for miles up the valley on a still day or night.

The following is his narrative, as published in the Atlantic Monthly, with unimportant details eliminated:

"Sam William's information" (that Marshal Kline was in the neighborhood) "spread like wild fire; when I got home in the evening my brother-in-law and

Page 88

Retreat Farm Home of the Gorsuches

three others were there, greatly excited. I laughed and told them it was all talk. They stopped for the night. Before daylight Joshua Kite rose and started for home, but ran back crying, 'Kidnappers! Joshua ran upstairs and I met the Marshal and his men at the door and asked who they were, Kline replied, 'I am the U. S. Marshal! I told him to take another step and I would break his neck.

"Mr. Gorsuch then spoke and said, 'Come, Mr. Kline, let's go upstairs and take them.'

"I said: 'See here, old man, you can come up, but you can't go down again. Once up here, you are mine.'

"Kline then said: 'Stop, Mr. Gorsuch. I will read the warrant, and then I think they will give up.' He read the warrant, and said: 'Now, see, we are commanded to take you, dead or alive, so you may as well give up at once.'

"Kline started up, but was too cowardly, and went down again.

"Gorsuch said: 'You have my property.' I replied: 'Go in the room down there and see if there is anything belonging to you. Then go out to the barn; there you will find a cow and some hogs. See if any of them are yours.'

Page 89

"He said: 'They are not mine. I want my men. They are here, and I am bound to have them.'

"Then the Marshal threatened to burn the house. I defied him.

"Then day began to dawn, and my wife asked if she should blow the horn. I assented and she blew it from the garret window. It was the custom with us when the horn was blown at an unusual hour to proceed to the spot at once.

"While I was leaning out of the window, Kline fired a pistol at me, but the shot went too high and broke the glass just above my head. I seized a gun and aimed at Gorsuch, who had instigated Kline to fire. Pinckney seized my arm and said: 'Don't shoot.' The gun went off, and just grazed Gorsuch's chest.

"Then Kline said: 'If you do not shoot any more, I will stop my men from firing.'

"Gorsuch said: 'Give up and let me have my property.'

"I said: 'Am I your man?'


"I then called Pinckney. 'Is that your man?'


"I then called Johnson, but Gorsuch said he was not his man.

"The only plan left was to call both Pinckney and Johnson again; for had I called the others he would have recognized them, for they were his slaves.

"Gorsuch then started up the stairs, but his son, who was standing on the oven and could see that we were armed, called him back. I then went down.

"The Marshal went back to Hanway and Lewis. Gorsuch made a signal to his men and they fell into line. We did likewise, but it was difficult, as we were not more than ten paces apart. At this time we numbered but ten men, and they had thirty.

"While I was talking to Gorsuch his son said: 'Father, will you take this from a nigger?' I told him that if he repeated it I would knock his teeth down his throat. At this he fired upon me. I ran up and knocked the pistol out of his hand, and he ran into the field. My brother-in-law fired his double-barrel gun. Young Gorsuch fell, but rose and ran on. Pinckney fired at him a second time, and again Gorsuch fell but was soon up again, and, running into the cornfield, lay down in the fence corner.

"I returned to my men, and found Samuel Thompson talking to old Mr. Gorsuch, his master. They were both angry. Thompson took Pinckney's gun, struck Gorsuch, and brought him to his knees. Gorsuch rose and signaled to his men. Thompson knocked him down again, and again he rose. The white men opened fire, and we rushed upon them. They threw down their guns and ran. We clubbed them with our empty guns.

Page 90

"Old Mr. Gorsuch was the bravest of his party, and held on to his pistols to the last. Sometimes he was on his knees, then on his back. Samuel Thompson bent his gun on old Mr. Gorsuch so badly that it was of no use to us.

"When the white men ran they scattered. I ran after Nathan Nelson, but could not catch him. Returning I saw Joshua Gorsuch coming. I struck him a blow on the side of the head, which stopped him. Pinckney came up behind and gave him a blow which brought him to the ground; as the others passed they gave him a kick or jumped on him.

"One of our men ran after Dr. Pearce, who caught up to Casner Hanway who rode between the fugitive and the Doctor. Hanway was ordered to get out of the way. Our man fired at Pearce but missed - he was too far away.

"Having driven off the slavocrats in every direction, our party now turned toward their several homes. Some of us went back to my house where we found several of the neighbors. Old Mr. Gorsuch was lying in the yard in a pool of blood.

"Levi Pownall said: 'The weather is so hot and the flies are so bad, will you give me a sheet to put over the corpse?' I gave him permission to get anything he needed from the house. Pownall then said: 'Dickinson Gorsuch is lying in the fence corner, and I believe he is dying. Give me something for him to drink.'

"The riot so called was entirely ended. The elder Gorsuch was dead; his son and nephew were both wounded, and I have reason to believe others were - how many, it would be difficult to say. Of our party, only two were wounded, but neither of them were sick or crippled by the wounds. When young Gorsuch fired at me both balls passed through my hat.

"A story was circulated that Mr. Gorsuch shot his own slave, and in retaliation his slave shot him; but it is without foundation. His slave struck him the first and second blows; then three or four sprang upon him, and, when he became helpless, left him to pursue others. The women put an end to him. His slaves are still living."

Then follows Parker's story of his escape into Canada along the very avenues he had often instructed others to follow, While he did not mention the Pownall sister, he told of people in the neighborhood assisting his escape from the Pownall farm.

* * * * * * *

Thus ends the story of the Christiana Riot - insignificant from a national standpoint, but always fascinating to me, especially as a child when I would sit on the old south porch of our homestead, look across the meadows to the old Riot House, and listen to my Aunt's story - another story of the age-old struggle for freedom.


Page last updated: 2012-03-30 at 14:24 EST
Copyright © 2006-2012 Tredyffrin Easttown Historical Society. All rights reserved.
Permission is given to make copies for personal use only.
All other uses require written permission of the Tredyffrin Easttown Historical Society.