A place where freedom and forgiveness began

CHRISTIANA, PA. — CHRISTIANA, Pa. - On a map, this small, nondescript town of 400 families, surrounded on all sides by Amish farm country, is hard to find.

Yet banners on Christiana telephone poles wave proudly "Freedom Began Here!" And famous abolitionist and orator Frederick Douglass once wrote, "The battle for liberty began in Christiana."


It was here 150 years ago today that one of the most violent confrontations over slavery in antebellum America took place: the Christiana Riot, where a Baltimore County slaveowner in pursuit of his runaway slaves was killed, his body pelted with bullets and hacked with corn knives.

And it was here in Christiana last weekend that descendants of the key players in this historical conflict - the slaves, the slaveowners and the Quaker townspeople - met each other for the first time, in an atmosphere of remembrance, regret and reconciliation.


"All is forgiven by now," said Doreen Johnston Shadd, a great-great-granddaughter of Abraham Johnson, a fugitive who fled with the Maryland slaves. "Each in his own right was doing what he thought was right then."

"It was only an accident of blood that I'm here," said Karen Riddlebaugh Hunter, whose great-great-great-uncle was the brother of Edward Gorsuch, the slaveowner. "But I'm certainly glad I made the trip. It makes me feel like a very small cog in a very big thing that's bigger than my family."

The events surrounding the riot certainly are bigger than just the Gorsuch family folklore.

Historians have described the Christiana Riot as the unofficial beginning of the Civil War. And although it is little-known, each year commemorative ceremonies get bigger and bigger, drawing in more people interested in the historical roots of the conflict.

While last weekend's remembrance activities in the Lancaster County town remained personal for the families whose forebears were participants, the sense of reconciliation was broader.

"It is so beautiful to see these people come together, moving past the pain," said Nancy Hess, the weekend's event coordinator. "Our past is ugly for all of us. But today we go to a higher level. Today, we make Christiana a place not only where freedom began, but also where forgiveness began."

Changing landscape

The Gunpowder Falls River winds through the land that once belonged to Gorsuch and his brother, Thomas Talbot Gorsuch. It sits still in wide, flat patches and slips skinny in shallow ravines, along and around the cornfields, the hills and the modern houses that are slowly being built closer and closer together.


The landscape is changing, to be sure, from the days when the Gorsuch brothers lived off the wheat grown tall with slave labor, but the rippling river still carries the tale of the riot.

Edward Gorsuch, by many accounts, was a "good" slaveowner. But despite his relative generosity, four of his slaves escaped with a free black man named Abraham Johnson - up along the Gunpowder, through the hills into free Pennsylvania, where they managed to avoid slave catchers for about two years.

With passage in 1850 of the Fugitive Slave Act, mandating the return of runaway slaves, Gorsuch was determined to retrieve his slaves. He and a party of relatives traveled to Pennsylvania and obtained warrants and a marshal's blessing to capture them and return to Baltimore County.

On Sept. 11, 1851, he was met by the fury of townsmen and former Maryland slave William Parker, who was boarding Johnson and three of Gorsuch's slaves in a rented wooden house.

A gunfight ended with Gorsuch dead, his son Dickinson critically wounded, Maryland whites running for their lives, and Parker, Johnson and other escaped slaves fleeing to Canada.

In the treason trials that followed the rebellion, not one of the 38 men tried was found guilty, delivering a crushing blow to the newborn Fugitive Slave Act.


Ten years later, the country was at war with itself.

Whites throughout the country took notice that a white man had died in a bloody confrontation and that no one was punished. Many were enraged by what they considered an injustice, especially considering Gorsuch's relatively prominent social position.

"People in the 1850s would have known who the Gorsuches were," said Joseph L. Arnold, a history professor at University of Maryland, Baltimore County. "This was not just some ordinary farmer going up trying to retrieve his slaves. This was an important man."

Still, the events in Christiana never achieved the status that John Brown's Raid in Harpers Ferry holds today.

Some say the country wasn't ready until recently to promote an event sparked by black insurrection against whites and ending in a white landowner's unavenged death. And others note that the blacks involved held tightly to the story so as not to tip off kidnapping slave catchers to their whereabouts in Canada and other locations.

Frank Parker, the 39-year-old great-grandson of William Parker, said his father, Frank Sr., never mentioned the story, even though he lived to age 98.


"It's just until the last two or three years that we found out about Christiana and what it meant," said Judith Johnston Mulder, a great-great-granddaughter of Abraham Johnson.(Johnson's descendants added a "T" to their name generations ago.)

The Parker and the Johnston families traveled to Christiana from Canada, and over two days, they brought history to life and filled with pathos the spaces between funnel cake and camera flashes.

Frank Parker - with his ice-colored eyes, flaring nostrils and wiry, graying beard - bears an arresting resemblance to photographs of his great-grandfather, William. But the fire in William has melted into smoldering emotion in Frank, who said he was too overwhelmed to talk about the event.

His wife of 17 years - who is white - tried to help, but the weekend left her choked up as well.

"I'm a little jealous of the other families," Darlene Parker said at the dinner Sunday. "You guys know more than we do, and that's kind of hard to swallow."

Huge accomplishment


The weekend remembrance was a huge accomplishment for the townspeople of Christiana who worked for two years to locate the descendants and bring them together.

But the real achievement was the arrival Saturday of two white-haired white women, who tried to slip inconspicuously into the "Living History Village" of re-enactors and musicians.

"Where are you ladies from?" a woman in a bonnet and pinafore asked as they approached an information table.

"Northern Baltimore County," the older woman answered.

"Well, do you know the Gorsuches?" she asked.

The women smiled at each other.


"We are the Gorsuches," the older woman responded.

Once discovered, Helen Mayo and Karen Riddlebaugh Hunter became instant celebrities, hugged and hustled about, always handled with care.

Mayo and Hunter are the great-great-great-grandnieces of Thomas Talbot Gorsuch - Hunter by blood, Mayo by marriage.

As Edward Gorsuch has no living direct descendants, the cousins are the closest connection to the slave-owning chapter of the story that defines Christiana. Mayo, in fact, still lives on Retirement, the portion of the farm originally owned by Thomas Talbot Gorsuch. Edward Gorsuch lived a quarter mile away on Retreat, owned now by a member of the Carroll family.

Although the 700-acre family farm has been parceled off to other families and developers, there still are about 160 acres left in the family name. There are three streets in Baltimore County named Gorsuch, and the family inn - Gorsuch Tavern - still sits on York Road in Glencoe, though it is no longer owned by Gorsuches.

The family discussed the story regularly over the years - often on trips to the family cemetery at Retirement - but neither of the Gorsuch descendants knew how important the incident was to other people, particularly those in Christiana.


Impressed by the town's enthusiasm and evenhanded treatment of the confrontation, the cousins had accepted the invitation to visit the site of the riot for the festivities, including the "Reconciliation Dinner" for all the families involved.

"We always knew it was a big deal in our family, but, wow, now other people thought it was a big

deal," said Hunter, 58, who lives in Ohio. "Now it's like, how am I supposed to act? Am I supposed to be glad or sad? I just don't know."

Hunter and Mayo both feel the loss of an ancestor who died violently. And they both feel the pride of the Gorsuch family name.

But Hunter also wrestles with a double-consciousness.

"This is a relative that was murdered, but he was still a slave-owner and so there are bad feelings about that," Hunter said. "It's difficult, you go there [to Christiana] and you're curious, but you also feel ... you know ... ."


Mayo, 70, is decidedly more steely about the burden of history some might expect her to bear. She confessed to not liking the name of the Sunday dinner, unsure just what she was supposed to be forgiven for, or what exactly the families would be reconciling.

"It's history, that's all," she said at her home in Glencoe ahead of the weekend's events. "I don't feel guilty. I had no hand in this. God's not going to ask me what my ancestors did 150 years ago."

Still, at Sunday's dinner, Mayo and her two middle-aged sons were warm and cheerful with the other descendants.

Mayo and her sons shook hands and cracked jokes. Johnston family members demanded several group hugs throughout the night, and others reiterated that "the past was the past."

When dinner guests were asked to address the group, Darlene Parker stood and spoke, as did Doreen Johnston Shadd. The Gorsuch descendants remained quiet.

But Hunter said later that she wished her own children could've made it to the remembrance ceremonies.


Ironically, it was Frank Parker who said he'd probably not bring the tale home to his three children, ages 15, 13, and 8.

"From what I've seen, I'll probably be like my dad and say nothing," he said, not elaborating.

Again, Darlene Parker, who said she would share the story with their children, stepped in.

"You've got to remember all that happened before this," she offered. "All they talk about was the riot, which was a glory. But what about all that happened before that? What about what their lives were like before that?"

And so the families left the weekend for their homes, some feeling emotional, or peaceful, or blessed or forgiven. They vowed to keep in touch and keep the story alive.

But none will know the whole tragic and tremendous tale that kept Frank Parker so stern and silent on his way back to Ontario yesterday morning.


It flows in the ripples of the Gunpowder Falls, which inches up and along the sides of history-less houses that are being built closer and closer and closer together.