The Christiana Resistance
September 11, 1851
Notable: Armed Resistance
Location: Christiana, Pennsylvania, USA
As the southernmost of the Northern states that were early adopters of abolition, Pennsylvania became a key destination for runaway slaves. Pennsylvania’s southern region, in particular, was a battleground in the fight over slavery. Fugitive slaves would make their way into the state where they could find help and assistance from conductors of the Underground Railroad. Slave owners and traders would enter the state to recover escaped slaves and sometimes also kidnapped free Black people with the intent of carrying them South where they would be sold into slavery.
Edward Gorsuch was a Maryland slave owner whose uncle had left him property in his will which included at least six enslaved men. Two of the men escaped in 1844 before his uncle’s death. The remaining four Joshua Hammond (20), Nelson Ford (23), Noah Baley (24), and George Hammond (24) escaped on November 6, 1849. When the Second Fugitive Slave Act was passed in 1850, it expanded the rights and resources available to slave owners hoping to recover escaped slaves.
In 1851, Gorsuch received word that the four escapees were hiding out just north of the Mason-Dixon Line in Lancaster County, Pennsylvania. William Padgett was the leader of a local gang of horse thieves and also earned money as an informant who would turn in escaped slaves for bounties. Padgett wrote to Gorsuch advising him of where he could locate the men. Gorsuch and his son Dickinson traveled to Pennsylvania where under the 1850 Fugitive Slave Act, they were able to obtain a federal warrant and assistance from U.S. Deputy Marshal Henry Kline. The men recruited others and formed a posse with the intent of recapturing the four escapees.
Pennsylvania had passed laws in opposition to Southern and federal efforts to enforce the recovery rights of slave owners. Located about 20 miles north of the Mason-Dixon Line, Lancaster County was a hotbed of activity related to slavery. In addition to free Black people, Quakers and some Germans who lived in the region were also anti-slavery and helped runaway slaves on their journey to freedom. The area boasted several stops on the Underground Railroad.
Residents in sympathetic communities would shelter escaped slaves and were also on guard for any slave traders or recovery agents who might be roaming the area. Some such as William Parker, a Black man who himself had once been enslaved, took offensive measures by joining a local resistance group to repel any attempts to kidnap Black people whether free or formerly enslaved. In the years since their escape, the four men had settled in the town of Christiana where they found work and adopted the names John Beard, Thomas Wilson, Alexander Scott, and Edward Thompson.
When Gorsuch and his posse arrived in the county, they stood out as strangers and the four formerly enslaved men were sheltered at Parker’s home. On September 11, 1851, the posse made its way to Parker’s home where they stated their legal claim to take possession of the four men. A standoff ensued when Parker refused to hand them over and Gorsuch refused to leave the property. Eventually, Parker’s wife, Elizabeth, blew a trumpet to alert residents to the standoff. Black and White neighbors, male and female, who were allies in the resistance arrived at the Parker home and the standoff escalated into a shootout.
Gorsuch was killed, his son seriously wounded, Kline abandoned them to hide in a cornfield, and the other members of their party fled. There had been other injuries on both sides but no further deaths and the posse dispersed. Word of the shootout and the death of Gorsuch spread via newspapers and as expected, there were vastly different reactions in the South and North. A few days later, reinforcements from the US Marines were brought to the area from Philadelphia to get the situation under control and to detain the responsible parties for prosecution.
In the days that lapsed, the four fugitive slaves who were at the center of the incident were spirited away from the area to places unknown via the Underground Railroad. With assistance from Frederick Douglass and other abolitionists, the Parkers, along with a few other Black participants, immediately set off for the safety of Canada. About 40 men, which included four White Quakers, were arrested and transported to the Lancaster jail.
Castner Hanway, one of the White Quakers, was the first defendant to be put on trial in Philadelphia. He was charged with treason by federal prosecutors who alleged that he was the group’s leader and had intended to overthrow the government. Hanway’s defense team was led by Thaddeus Stevens, a fervent abolitionist who would go on to become a leader of the Radical Republicans. Kline was the prosecution’s star witness but his credibility was damaged by 29 witnesses (which included a judge) who testified that he was a liar and his admission that he couldn’t see what happened while hiding in the cornfield.
The jury deliberated for 15 minutes after which they found Hanway not guilty. Charges were dropped against the other men and there was no further investigation or prosecution. The proceedings had attracted a lot of attention as the results of the trial had a lot of implications with regards to slavery and enforcement of the Fugitive Slave Acts. Abolitionists regarded the acquittal as a victory in the fight against slavery while Southerners saw the jury’s decision as a blatant disregard for the law. This would be one in a series of events during the 1850s that would instigate the conflict over slavery between the North and South.
In some coverage, especially shortly after the incident occurred, it was referred to as the Christiana Riot, Christiana Massacre, or Christiana Tragedy. More recently, it’s frequently referred to as the Christiana Resistance. I use the term Christiana Resistance because I view it as being most accurate.
The incident was not a massacre or tragedy as Gorsuch was the only person who died, he was not killed while unarmed, and I view him as the aggressor in the conflict rather than a victim. Riot would also seem to imply the Christiana group created a disturbance as an act of disobedience. But they simply acted in defense of the four escaped slaves. Given those factors, the incident was an act of self-defense and defense of others, thus a resistance.
- Anderson, John. 2013. “Christiana Riot of 1851.” Blackpast.org. November 19, 2013. https://www.blackpast.org/african-american-history/christiana-riot-1851/.
- Beadenkopf, Brenda Walker. 2003. “The Christiana Resistance.” Friends Journal. June 1, 2003. https://www.friendsjournal.org/2003070/.
- “Edward Gorsuch (b. 1798 – d. 1851).” 2010. Maryland State Archives. November 4, 2010. https://msa.maryland.gov/megafile/msa/speccol/sc5400/sc5496/007000/007018/html/007018bio.html.
- History.com Editors, ed. 2020. “The Christiana Riot.” History.com. A&E Television Networks. September 9, 2020. https://www.history.com/this-day-in-history/the-christiana-riot.
- Kopaczewski, James. n.d. “Christiana Riot Trial.” Encyclopedia of Greater Philadelphia. Accessed October 30, 2021. https://philadelphiaencyclopedia.org/archive/christiana-riot-trial/.
- McNamara, Robert. 2020. “The Christiana Riot.” ThoughtCo. Dotdash. November 7, 2020. https://www.thoughtco.com/the-christiana-riot-1773557.
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