The forgotten story of the Christiana Riot

In Bloody Dawn, Thomas Slaughter examines the seething tensions running through mid-nineteenth century America, especially after the passage of the Fugitive Slave Act in 1850. These hostilities came to a bloody head outside of a stone house owned by a free black man and abolitionist named William Parker in rural Lancaster County, Pennsylvania in the early morning of September 11, 1851.  Baltimore County slave owner Edward Gorsuch and several others he had enlisted approached the house with federal warrants authorizing them to capture Noah Buley, Nelson Ford, George Hammond, and Joshua Hammond. Until 1849, all four men had been enslaved at Gorsuch’s Retreat Farm. The occupants of the house, including at least two of the fugitives and members of the Parker family, had been tipped off about the approaching posse, and they were prepared to stand and fight. The ensuing conflict which became known as the Christiana Riot left Edward Gorsuch dead and, Slaughter argues, “fertilized” the “political soil” in which the Civil War grew (182).

The forgotten story of the Christiana Riot helps highlight the complex relationships and sensibilities that shaped the experience of slavery and freedom in the Mid-Atlantic region. In particular, the story of the Christiana Riot reminds us that it is not easy to distinguish good and bad actors when telling the full story of slavery. Gorsuch, who considered himself a good master, was shocked that enslaved members of his household had run away. He had promised to free them when they reached 28 years old, a decision that reflected less his personal kindness than the reality that the economic viability of slavery was waning in the Upper South. Nonetheless, based on his relationship with these men, Gorsuch believed that if he could simply talk with them, he could convince them to return to slavery voluntarily. His decision to pursue them was born out of a desire to restore his honor; it made little practical sense. For their part, the enslaved workers had left Gorsuch’s farm in November 1849 because their long-running enterprise of skimming some of the master’s wheat crop for sale on the side had been exposed. From our perspective, their activity is evidence that people caught in the slave system actively worked to resist and even undermine their oppressive situation. They were betrayed by miller Elias Matthews, a member of the Baltimore Society of Friends. Although Quakers were committed abolitionists, Matthews was not comfortable hiding his knowledge of a crime.

Most significantly, the Christiana Riot illustrates the heightening tensions in borderlands like the Maryland-Pennsylvania area. Both the slave-catchers and those resisting them were aided by Pennsylvanians whose sympathies lay on different sides of the slavery question. In general, Lancaster County residents were hostile towards the interlopers who invaded their state searching for fugitive slaves and often kidnapping the wrong people in the process. However, in the aftermath of Gorsuch’s death, black residents throughout the area were subjected to mass violence and arrest by their white neighbors. Despite pervasive anti-slavery sympathies among the population, white Lancaster citizens “shared [a] sense that African Americans were aliens who worked in the region but were not truly members of the communities in which they lived” (42). None of the actual resisters stood trial because they escaped to Canada with the help of Frederick Douglass. However, Castner Hanway, a white neighbor of Parker’s who arrived at the scene but did not participate, was tried for treason for failing to assist the slavecatching posse. The Pennsylvania jury acquitted Hanway; all other arrestees were released.

Bloody Dawn is an excellent source to explore the nuances and complexities of America, North and South, in the antebellum period. Slaughter surrounds the narrative of the riot and trial with a deeper investigation of evolving sectional, racial, and legal sentiments during the era. He demonstrates that the history of slavery and abolition is not a simple tale of good and evil. It is instead peopled with individuals, black and white, caught up in moral and practical dilemmas trying to do what they thought was right.

 

 

Adapted from The forgotten story of the Christiana Riot by Susan Philpott

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