The liberation of Margaret Morgan


ONE OF the Supreme Court's most famous decisions came in 1857, when it ruled in the Dred Scott case that a slave who had established residency in free territory remained a slave. Little known, however, is the high court's ruling 15 years earlier in a case involving a Harford County slave who escaped to Pennsylvania.

Margaret Morgan, with her young child, ran away from her owner, Margaret Ashmore. She may have taken the old Indian trail that led through Havre de Grace and Peach Bottom. Perhaps she plodded her way along the banks of the mighty Susquehanna River, through the forests and across the creeks until she reached Pennsylvania.

Whatever her route, she reached York County and lived free there for over four years. She gave birth to another child shortly after moving to the commonwealth.

But someone apparently discovered where Morgan had gone, and Ashmore hired Edward Prigg to find her and bring her back. When Prigg arrived in York in February 1837, he went to the justice of the peace and obtained a warrant for Morgan. The warrant demanded that Morgan be brought before a magistrate as a fugitive from labor.

When the magistrate refused to cooperate, Prigg returned to Harford County and organized a posse. On April 1, 1837, according to the York County indictment of Prigg, "with force and violence, they made an assault, and with force and violence, feloniously did take and carry [Morgan] away from the county of York."

The abduction of Margaret Morgan and her children must have outraged York. It also broke a Pennsylvania law, passed in 1826, which made it a felony to take a person from Pennsylvania into slavery. (In 1780, Pennsylvania also had passed an act providing for the gradual abolition of slavery. It was the first state to do so.)

Under these laws, York County indicted Prigg. He pleaded innocent, claiming that the state law was contrary to the Constitution of the United States, which allowed slave owners to go into free states and claim their slaves.

In the Supreme Court, Maryland, representing Prigg, and Pennsylvania, representing York County, slugged it out. The high court ruled for Prigg in 1842, thus sending Morgan back to bondage.

Knowing that this was not the end of the story, I searched Harford County records for the human beings behind this tragedy. I did not find the Ashmore family in Harford County records after 1830. There are references to Edward Prigg, who was a constable near Darlington and who was nominated for sheriff in 1840.

Of Margaret Morgan I found no further record. But I recalled a line from a John Greenleaf Whittier poem: "God's ways seem dark, but soon or late they touch the shining hills of day."

The light shone over the hills of day when I found an advertisement that had been placed by two Harford County slaveholders in The Sun June 8, 1857. The ad read in part, "TWO THOUSAND DOLLARS REWARD" for four blacks who had escaped. "It is supposed they have made their way to Pennsylvania. $500 will be paid for the apprehension of either, so that we get them again. The oldest is named EDWARD MORGAN . . . about 21 years of age."

Do you suppose this young man seeking freedom was born to Margaret Morgan in York County, Pa.?

I do. And when he seized his American birthright, given him by his mother, he gave light to three men besides.

Margaret Pagan writes from Baltimore.

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