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The Christiana Riot

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Violent Resistance to Fugitive Slave Act in Pennsylvania
Shooting of the slave catchers during the Christiana Riot in September 1851.

Depiction of the violence at Christiana, Pennsylvania, September 11, 1851.

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The Christiana Riot was a violent encounter that erupted in September 1851 when a slave owner from Maryland attempted to arrest four fugitive slaves who had been living on a farm in Pennsylvania. In an exchange of gunfire, the slave owner, Edward Gorsuch, was shot dead.

The incident was widely reported in newspapers and escalated tensions over enforcement of the Fugitive Slave Act.

A manhunt was launched to find and arrest the fugitive slaves, who had fled northward. With the help of the Underground Railroad, and ultimately the personal intercession of Frederick Douglass, they made their way to freedom in Canada.

However, others present that morning at the farm near the village of Christiana, Pennsylvania, were hunted down and arrested. One white man, a local Quaker named Castner Hanway, was charged with treason.

At a celebrated federal trial, a legal defense team masterminded by the abolitionist Congressman Thaddeus Stevens mocked the position of the federal government. A jury acquitted Hanway, and charges against others were not pursued.

While the Christiana Riot is not widely remembered today, it was a flashpoint in the struggle against slavery. And it set the stage for further controversies that would mark the 1850s.

Pennsylvania Was a Haven for Fugitive Slaves

In the early decades of the 19th century, Maryland was a slave state. Across the Mason-Dixon Line, Pennsylvania was not only a free state, but was home to a number of anti-slavery activists, including Quakers who had been taking an active stand against slavery for decades.

In some small farming communities in southern Pennsylvania fugitive slaves would be welcomed. And by the time of the passage of the Fugitive Slave Act of 1850, some former slaves were prospering and helping other slaves who arrived from Maryland or other points to the south.

At times slave catchers would come into the farming communities and kidnap African Americans and take them into slavery in the South. A network of lookouts watched for strangers in the area, and a group of former slaves banded together into something of a resistance movement.

Edward Gorsuch Sought His Former Slaves

In November 1847 four slaves escaped from the Maryland farm of Edward Gorsuch. The men reached Lancaster County, Pennsylvania, just over the Maryland line, and found support among the local Quakers. They all found work as farmhands, and settled into the community.

Nearly two years later, Gorsuch received a credible report that his slaves were definitely living in the area around Christiana, Pennsylvania. An informant, who infiltrated the area while working as a traveling clock repairman, had obtained information about them.

In September 1851 Gorsuch obtained warrants from a United States marshal in Pennsylvania to apprehend the fugitives and return them to Maryland. Traveling to Pennsylvania with his son, Dickinson Gorsuch, he met up with a local constable and a posse was formed to capture the four former slaves.

The Standoff at Christiana

The Gorsuch party, along with Henry Kline, a federal marshal, were spotted traveling in the countryside. The fugitive slaves had taken shelter in the home of William Parker, a former slave and a leader of the local abolitionist resistance.

On the morning of September 11, 1851, a raiding party arrived at Parker’s house, demanding that the four men who legally belonged to Gorsuch surrender. A standoff developed, and someone on the top floor of Parker’s house began blowing a trumpet as a signal of trouble.

Within minutes, neighbors, both black and white, began to appear. And as the confrontation escalated, shooting began. Men on both sides fired weapons, and Edward Gorsuch was killed. His son was seriously wounded and nearly died.

As the federal marshal fled in panic, a local Quaker, Castner Hanway, tried to calm the scene.

Aftermath of the Shooting at Christiana

The incident, of course, was shocking to the public. As news got out and stories began appearing in newspapers, people in the South were outraged. In the North, abolitionists lauded the actions of those who had resisted slave catchers.

And the former slaves involved in the incident quickly scattered, disappearing into local networks of the Underground Railroad. In the days following the incident at Christiana, 45 Marines from the Navy Yard in Philadelphia were brought into the area to assist lawmen in searching for the perpetrators. Dozens of local residents, black and white, were arrested and taken to the jail in Lancaster, Pennsylvania.

The federal government, feeling pressure to take action, indicted one man, the local Quaker Castner Hanway, on a charge of treason, for having obstructed the enforcement of the Fugitive Slave Act.

The Christiana Treason Trial

The federal government put Hanway on trial in Philadelphia in November 1851. His defense was masterminded by Thaddeus Stevens, a brilliant attorney who also represented Lancaster County in Congress. Stevens, an ardent abolitionist, had years of experience arguing fugitive slave cases in Pennsylvania courts.

The federal prosecutors made their case for treason. And the defense team mocked the concept that a local Quaker farmer had been planning to overthrow the federal government. A co-counsel of Thaddeus Stevens noted that the United States reached from ocean to ocean, and was 3,000 miles wide. And it was “ridiculously absurd” to think that an incident that occurred between a cornfield and an orchard was a treasonous attempt to “overturn” the federal government.

A crowd had gathered at the courthouse hoping to hear Thaddeus Stevens sum up for the defense. But perhaps sensing that he might become a lightning rod for criticism, Stevens chose not to speak.

His legal strategy worked, and Castner Hanway was acquitted of treason after brief deliberations by the jury. And the federal government eventually released all other prisoners, and never brought any other cases related to the incident at Christiana.

In his annual message to Congress (the precursor of the State of the Union Address), President Millard Fillmore referred indirectly to the incident at Christiana, and promised more federal action. But the matter was allowed to fade away.

The Escape of the Fugitives of Christiana

William Parker, accompanied by two other men, fled to Canada immediately after the shooting of Gorsuch. Underground Railroad connections helped them to reach Rochester, New York, where Frederick Douglass personally escorted them to a boat bound for Canada.

Other fugitive slaves who had been living in the countryside around Christiana also fled and made their way to Canada. Some reportedly returned to the United States and at least one served in the Civil War as a member of the U.S. Colored Troops.

And the attorney who led the defense of Castner Hanway, Thaddeus Stevens, later became one of the most powerful men on Capitol Hill as the leader of the Radical Republicans in the 1860s.

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