Dignified defiance against slavery


CHRISTIANA, Pa. -- The first green shoots of spring have broken through the brown earth of a hillside field, where an escaped slave from Anne Arundel County and a slaveholder from Baltimore County met in mortal conflict a decade before the Civil War.

Edward Gorsuch, a son of one of Maryland's oldest families, came north in search of four runaway slaves with a posse that included his son, a nephew and a U.S. marshal. William Parker, who was born and grew up on the Rowdown Plantation near Davidsonville, led a self-defense team gathered to resist the owners and kidnappers of fugitive slaves.

Both were prideful, strong-willed men. Gorsuch, then 56, exulted, too, in pride of family. Gorsuch land grants included both Fells and Locust Points. Gorsuch Avenue, Merryman Lane and Homestead Street still mark long-ago Gorsuch holdings. Edward Gorsuch farmed land near Glencoe, in Baltimore County, and he's buried there.

Parker took pride in the personal strength, determination and intelligence with which he grasped his freedom. He was a natural leader. "My rights as a free man were, under God, secured by my own right arm," he said.

When Gorsuch arrived at the house where Parker was sheltering the fugitives, about two miles from Christiana, he declared: "My property I will have or I'll breakfast in hell."

Parker, who never knew the exact date of his birth, was about 29 and had long before vowed "to let no slaveholder take back a fugitive." In the first days after his escape to freedom a dozen years earlier, he said, "I formed a resolution that I would assist in liberating every one within my reach at the risk of my life."

He'd already fought slave hunters to keep his vow.

Their confrontation left Gorsuch dead, Parker and his family fleeing toward Canada and the nation a long step closer to civil war. Their clash became known as the Christiana Riot, or more recently, the Christiana Resistance. The Sun at the time called it "The Murderous Outrage in Pennsylvania."

Commemorating a clash

Christiana, a red-brick, southern Lancaster county town of about a thousand, begins a commemoration of the 150th anniversary of that confrontation today with a parade of about 35 mounted African-American Buffalo soldiers, floats, marching bands and period re-enactors. There will be exhibits on the Underground Railroad, gospel music performances and book signings. There will also be a reunion, of sorts.

A half-dozen descendants of Ezekiel Thompson, one of Parker's strongest allies, will be on hand, including Darlene Colon, head of the Christiana Historical Society. At least one Gorsuch family member also will attend.

The stone farmhouse where Edward Gorsuch challenged William Parker in the early morning hours of Sept. 11, 1851, is long gone from the rolling field on what is now called Lower Valley Road.

An Amish farmer tore it down a century ago when he decided too many visitors were trampling through his crops. A Quaker family owned the land when Parker lived here and their house is still visible beyond the tree line; an Amish family lives there now. Amish farmers till most of the land hereabouts, giving an unchanging aspect to the countryside.

Parker's personal account of the Christiana Riot-Resistance was published in the Atlantic Monthly in February and March 1866 as "The Freedman's Story." The only eyewitness narrative, Parker's story was apparently written before the start of the Civil War. It's available in several online versions, notably from the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill libraries.

The tale has been told in many books and in a thorough, readable and reasonably unbiased online version by graduate students at Lancaster County's Millersville University.

Climate intensifies

When Gorsuch arrived at Parker's house just before daylight, he pretty much had the law on his side. He had four warrants for his runaway slaves and U.S. Marshal Henry H. Kline to serve them. This was the first test of the Fugitive Slave Law of 1850, which mandated stiff penalties for marshals who did not enforce the laws for seizure of fugitive slaves and for citizens who aided runaways. Parker described Kline as "a professional kidnapper of the basest stamp."

Gorsuch demanded his "property"; Parker refused him. In fact, it's unclear whether even one of the Gorsuch runaways was then at the Parker house. The two men parlayed and argued, discussed and quarreled, even quoting scripture to one another, until daybreak. The marshal threatened to burn the house down.

"None but a coward would say the like," Parker recalled saying. "You can burn us but you can't take us; before I give up, you will see my ashes scattered on the earth."

His wife, Eliza Ann Elizabeth Howard Parker, sounded the horn that alerted the mutual protection society. Gunfire broke out. Gorsuch was grazed by a bullet.

After a brief truce, during which perhaps as many as 50 African-Americans and several white men joined the fray, total chaos ensued. Edward Gorsuch was clubbed with a gun, then shot and perhaps finished off by women wielding sickles. His son, Dickinson, was severely wounded; his nephew, Joshua Gorsuch was also wounded.

The aftermath

"The riot, so-called, was now entirely ended," Parker said. Only two of his defenders had been slightly wounded. He had, in fact, led one of the most successful resistance actions against slavery before the Civil War.

Parker and his wife left almost immediately for Canada, by separate, difficult Underground Railroad routes. They would find a home in the Elgin Settlement at Buxton, Ontario, a community founded in 1849 for fugitives from American slavery. Their descendants still live there.

News of the Christiana affair reverberated across the nation. Seen in retrospect, much of the reaction had a prophetic quality: "This is the first horrible tragedy under the Fugitive Slave Law," said the Cleveland True Democrat, according to the Millersville University researchers. "We fear it is the beginning of a series of riots which will end as it has begun, in blood."

The Jacksonville Floridian and Journal asked, "Is such guilt to be tolerated? Are such assassinations to be repeated? If so the sword of Civil War is already unleashed."

The Baltimore Clipper called for "prompt retributive justice upon the heads of the wretches who have instigated and committed the bloody deed."

Thirty-eight people were arrested and charged with treason under the provisions of the Fugitive Slave Law. Only Castner Hanway, a white man, was tried. The attorney general of Maryland joined the prosecution at the federal trial in Philadelphia. But after a 13-day trial, the jury acquitted Hanway in about 15 minutes.

Ezekiel Thompson, Darlene Colon's ancestor, was among those arrested. William Parker had often praised the fierce dedication of "old Ezekiel" to protecting fugitives from slavery.

Even in jail, Parker said, Thompson had stepped forth with a "stout oak stool" in his hand when a slave catcher lawyer came after his cellmate: "I don't care who you are, but if you or any other [slave] catcher steps inside my cell-door, I will beat his brains out."

He was discharged after Hanway was acquitted and returned home to Lancaster County. A decade later, three of his sons served with the U.S. Colored Troops during the Civil War.

Two died of disease they contracted while serving in the war that had become a little more inevitable after the Christiana Resistance.

Copyright © 2019, The Baltimore Sun, a Baltimore Sun Media Group publication | Place an Ad