Stories about Black History: Vol. 3 - Christiana, William Parker and the Horn
One of the most famous challenges to slavery took place at the home of an African-American man named, William Parker. On September 11, 1851, Edward Gorsuch showed up at Parker’s home. Gorsuch was seeking several escaped men whom he believed were being sheltered at Parker’s house. William Parker was, himself, a person who escaped from slavery and settled in the Lancaster area of Pennsylvania (near Christiana). Parker was an active member of the community and he went so far as to develop a group, composed of mainly African-Americans, that would actively work to prevent anyone from being taken back into slavery under the Fugitive Slave Act of 1850.
So, on September 11, 1851 when Edward Gorsuch showed up at William Parker’s door there was bound to be a clash between politics and freedom. Edward Gorsuch was from Maryland and he had with him U.S. Marshal, Henry H. Kline, and a party of other men (including some of Gorsuch’s family members).
Gorsuch believed that he would find the escaped men in William Parker’s home and he was there to claim them.
Kline, Gorsuch and the others showed up early in the morning, to hopefully surprise the men and women at William Parker’s house—to catch them off guard. After demanding that Parker open the door, Kline, Gorsuch and others simply came into Parker’s home. They explained that they had a warrant for the arrest of four men, under the authority of the Fugitive Slave Act. They insisted that some of the men were there and demanded that they come down to be taken into custody.
Parker was upstairs, he had gotten word that the men were coming a short time before they arrived. He did indeed have some of the men, who were owned by Gorsuch, in his house, but he had promised not to allow anyone to be taken back into slavery. Parker got his weapon and told the other men who were with him to get their weapons too—a stand off was about to take place.
Parker yelled to the men downstairs (Kline, Gorsuch, and the others) that there was nothing in his house that belonged to Gorsuch and that they should leave his home. As both sides yelled at one another, Kline decided to come up the stairs. William Parker’s men opened fire and Kline was unable to advance upstairs.
Parker told his wife to go up to the attic area and sound the horn. She ran up to the upper room, stuck a horn out of the window and began to blow. Kline and Gorsuch wondered what was going on. Kline ordered two of his men to go outside to see where the noise was coming from. They went out and decided to climb a tree to get a better view, when they noticed William Parker’s wife in the window blowing the horn again. They fired several shots at her...she ducked and was able hide underneath the seal, but she continued to blow.
The horn was an alarm for the group of men who had sworn to protect anyone who might be taken back into slavery. The group was made up of largely African-American men who had committed themselves to protecting the freedom of their fellow citizens. In minutes, men began to run from their homes toward William Parker’s house. They grabbed whatever weapons they could find and rushed to the scene.
By now, because shots were fired inside of the house, Gorsuch, Kline, and the others moved into the front yard. Parker and several of his men also ran into the front yard and the additional African-American men began to show up. A fight ensued and Henry H. Kline ran into the woods, refusing to be seriously injured.
Edward Gorsuch, however, did not run. He said he had come to retrieve his property and that he would not leave until he had recovered it. One of the men who belonged to Gorsuch confronted him in the yard, and beat him, until several of the other men joined him. Apparently there were women who also joined the fight and Edward Gorsuch died right there in Parker’s front yard. Gorsuch’s son was also injured. In fact, most of the men with Gorsuch fled and the men whom he intended to take back into slavery were not captured.
William Parker and many of the men who were directly involved fled to Canada, as they all had to leave the country. Two white men had come by Parker’s house during the stand off and were ordered to help capture the men, but they refused. Authorities subsequently came into the area and arrested dozens of African Americans and the two (or three) white men (Castner Hanaway, Elijah Lewis and Joseph Scarlet) who refused to help (or who were known supporters of anti-slavery causes).
Remarkably those who were arrested were not charged with simply violating the law, but they were charged with treason—for intending to “levy war” against the United States by forcibly preventing the laws of the government, and the Constitution, from being executed.
About forty men and women were arrested—thirty-seven of whom were African American. The prosecution had difficulty making the charge of treason believable during the trial and each of the people who were charged were not found guilty. This infuriated supporters of slavery, throughout the country.
The issue of escaped men and women not being returned to slavery was a major sticking point in the years leading up to the Civil War and there were many African Americans, whose names and faces we will never know, who risked their lives in fights to ensure that men and women would not go back into slavery.
Copyright, Red and Black Ink, LLC, 2016.
National Archives. Fugitives from Labor, “The Christiana Riot.” Accessed May 2016.
Standard, A.S. “The Christiana Prisoners.” The Anti-Slavery Bugle, Nov.ember 22, 1851, Vol. 7.
Still, William. The Underground Railroad: A Record of Facts, Authentic Narratives, Letters, etc. (Philadelphia: Porter & Coates, 1872), pp. 360 - 382.
“The Freedman’s Story. In Two Parts.” The Atlantic Monthly. A Magazine of Literature, Science, Art and Politics. Boston: Ticknor and Fields, 1866. The University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill.
“The ‘Valley Wreath’.” The Mountain Sentinel, October 2, 1851.
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