Christiana Riot

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The Christiana Riot, also known as Christiana Resistance, Christiana Tragedy, or Christiana incident, was the armed resistance by free Blacks and escaped slaves to a raid led by a federal marshal. The raid took place in the early morning hours of September 11, 1851, at the house in Christiana, Pennsylvania, of William Parker, himself an escaped slave. This took place after the federal Fugitive Slave Act of 1850 increased penalties for assisting escaped slaves and required law enforcement, even in free states, to assist in the recapture of slaves. Pennsylvania was a free state.

The defenders confronted the US Marshal's party to prevent the recapture of four escaped slaves who were owned by Edward Gorsuch of Maryland, who was with the party. The confrontation resulted in an exchange of gunfire and the death of Gorsuch. A total of 41 persons were indicted by the federal government for treason in the case, including both blacks and whites. Castner Hanway, a white man from Christiana, was the first to be tried, beginning in November 1851. After only 15 minutes of deliberation by the jury he was acquitted.[1]


In the years before the abolition of slavery in the United States, slave-owners of the South pushed for increased federal and state government support for the recovery of escaped slaves. But in the free states of the North, many residents and governments had resisted especially given that in the free states many individuals or even state laws protected fleeing slaves.

Congress passed the Fugitive Slave Act of 1850, which permitted slave owners or their agents to pursue fugitive slaves in free states and required state officials to aid in the recapture of the alleged slaves. Those aiding an escaping slave could face six months' imprisonment and a $1,000 fine.[2]

In 1849 Edward Gorsuch, who farmed in Monkton, Maryland, owned twelve slaves.[1]:4 He considered himself a good slaveholder, freeing his slaves at the age of 28 and offering them paid seasonal work after that. With changes in crops and other conditions, slavery was no longer as necessary in Maryland, and there were a relatively high proportion of free blacks. Gorsuch did not sell his excess slaves to the Deep South as many other Maryland slave owners of the time did.[1]:6 Five bushels of wheat went missing, and Gorsuch was told that some of his slaves had stolen it.[1]:10–11 Four of his older male slaves, Noah Buley, Nelson Ford, George Hammond, and Joshua Hammond, fled north to Pennsylvania, a free state. Gorsuch believed that they had been enticed away and would willingly return if he only talked to them.[1]:13

Christiana, in Lancaster County, Pennsylvania, is 20 miles (32 km) north of the border with Maryland and had become a refuge for fugitive slaves. It was also an area of settlement by numerous free Blacks. This area was frequently raided by slave catchers trying to capture refugee slaves. For two decades, local Blacks had organized for self-protection, at times preventing such capture or even rescuing slaves who had been captured.[1]:46–47 Others chose to flee to Canada.[1]:46 The leader of the resistance in 1851 was William Parker, an escaped slave about 29 years old.[3]:161–166[1]:47–49

In Philadelphia, where warrants for the arrest of fugitive slaves in Pennsylvania were usually acquired at the federal court after the 1850 act was passed, another group, the Special Secret Committee, had organized to gather information and warn those being hunted.[1]:53


Line drawing of William Parker's house, circa 1851.
1851 map of the area. Note Penningtonville station to the east in Chester County, Christiana itself, and the Pownall tract to the southwest of Christiana, where the Parker house was located (in the western portion).

Edward Gorsuch heard that his four escaped slaves had taken refuge in Lancaster County. On September 9, 1851, in Philadelphia, he obtained a federal warrant under the Fugitive Slave Act for the arrest of George Hammond, Joshua Hammond, Nelson Ford, and Noah Buley. Henry Kline, a deputy Federal Marshall, was authorized to make the arrests.[1]:52 Gorsuch hired John Agan and Thompson Tully, Philadelphia police officers, to assist in the arrest.[1]:53[3]:277 These three were to meet with Gorsuch and some additional men at Penningtonville (now Atglen,[4]) a station on the Philadelphia and Columbia Railroad.[5]

From Philadelphia the group had been watched by Samuel Williams, a member of the Special Secret Committee; he followed Kline and warned the Black community around Christiana that they were coming.[1]:53 Kline, Agan, and Tully were aware that Williams was following them and knew that secrecy was gone; Agan and Tully returned to Philadelphia because of the risk of violence. Kline had been delayed from the Penningtonville meeting and eventually tracked down the Gorsuch party on the morning of September 10 in Sadsbury. The party entering Christiana were Henry Kline, Edward Gorsuch, his son Dickinson Gorsuch, his nephew Joshua M. Gorsuch, his nephew Dr. Thomas Pierce, Nicholas T. Hutchings, and Nathan Nelson.

Shortly after midnight on September 11, the Gorsuch party set out on the raid with a hired, disguised white guide. The first house he took them to supposedly had one of the slaves, but they decided to go to another place where two were staying, before returning for the first. Gorsuch believed that if he had captured two of the slaves, the third, whose wife he still held enslaved, could be persuaded to return. Just before dawn, the group reached William Parker's house, where the guide had said two slaves were staying. The guide left. It is unknown whether the guide had deliberately led them to the center of resistance in Lancaster County.[1]:54–55

William Parker knew the group was hunting slaves. Also in his house were his wife, Eliza; her sister, Hannah; Hannah's husband, Alexander Pinckney; and Abraham Johnson. Two visitors were also there: Joshua Kite, also known as John Beard, who was one of Gorsuch's escaped slaves, probably Nelson Ford; and Samuel Thompson, another of the escaped slaves who had taken a new name. Sarah Pownall, a white neighbor and wife of Parker's landlord, stopped by the evening of September 10 to warn that if the raiders came, all of the blacks should flee to Canada.[1]:57–58

As the raiders traveled up to Parker's house, which was on a hill, they ran into Joshua Kite, possibly returning home or possibly acting as a lookout, and Gorsuch recognized him as one of the escaped slaves. Kite recognized his former owner and rushed back to the house, yelling a warning. Accounts of events over the next two hours are contradictory.[1]:58–59 Parker and his household moved to the second floor with their guns and were in a good position to defend themselves.

The Kline and Gorsuch party surrounded the house, and the US Marshal announced their legal authority to seize Nelson Ford. Parker and his household refused to give up Ford, with some debate. Eliza Parker blew the horn to signal to local Blacks that help was needed. Shots were fired, either first by the posse at Eliza Parker, or first by the household at Gorsuch when he attempted to enter the house; no one was seriously injured at this time.[1]:62 Dickinson, Gorsuch, and Kline recommended retreat to recruit a larger force; Edward Gorsuch refused. The household asked for time. They discussed whether the two refugee slaves should surrender.[1]:58–62

Parker may have been delaying so reinforcements could arrive. Numerous armed men arrived, including Noah Buley, another of Gorsuch's escaped slaves. Also arriving were several neighboring whites, including Elijah Lewis, a local shopkeeper on foot, and Castner Hanway, a local miller on horseback. Gorsuch assumed that the white men, though unarmed, were leaders of the estimated 75 to 150 Blacks, many with guns, who arrived over the next 30 minutes. Kline believed that the white men would join his party in carrying out the law. He identified himself as a US Marshall and talked with them; Hanway refused to help him to arrest anyone. Hanway apparently told Kline and his group to leave before blood was shed. According to Lewis, Hanway begged the Blacks not to shoot.

Kline apparently warned Hanway and Lewis they were committing a federal crime by not assisting him. When Edward Gorsuch confronted his slave Samuel Thompson, the man clubbed him. Gorsuch fell and was fatally shot multiple times. His son Dickinson went to his aid, and was also shot multiple times. He was able to move away and was aided by a white man: either Joseph Scarlett (according to Dickinson), or Levi Pownall (according to Parker). Dickinson was taken to the nearby Pownall house where, though initially expected to die, he survived. Lewis left as soon as the violence started, as did Kline, who joined up with Nicholas Hutchins and followed Lewis.

Joshua Gorsuch and Thomas Pearce fled when they realized that Edward Gorsuch was being attacked. They sheltered by Hanway on his horse, but he was also trying to flee. He left at a gallop. Joshua Gorsuch and Thomas Pearce continued to flee; they were shot but escaped (or were let go).[1]:62–73

Immediate aftermath[edit]

Parker, Gorsuch's former slaves, and some other blacks fled north to the eventual safety of Canada.[1]:76 In Rochester, New York, where he was to take a boat to Canada, Parker took refuge in the house of Frederick Douglass. He had known him when both were slaves in Maryland. Douglass arranged for the group to catch the ferry to Canada.[1]:78


On October 6, 1851, indictments for the first 38 people listed below were remitted from the District Court to the Circuit Court.[6]
On November 14, 1851, the Grand Jury of the United States District Court, Philadelphia returned true bills of indictment against 41 people.[7]:2

Parker and some others were charged in absentia.[6] Castner Hanway, one of the five white men charged and alleged to be a ringleader, was the first to be tried. His trial at the US Courthouse in Philadelphia lasted from November 24 until December 11, 1851. Supreme Court Justice Robert C. Grier and U.S. District Court Judge John K. Kane presided. The prosecution was headed by John W. Ashmead of the US Attorney's office, who was joined by lawyers from Maryland. Thaddeus Stevens presented the defense. Hanway was acquitted by the jury after 15 minutes of deliberation.[8]

On December 1, 1851, the Philadelphia Court Clerk, under Judges Grier and Kane, announced the following bills of indictment against 41 people from the November 14 proceedings of the grand jury:

  • No. 1, against Caster Hanaway, Elijah Lewis, and Joseph Scarlet. Treason.
  • No. 2, against Jacob Townsend. Treason.
  • No. 3, against Caster Hanaway, Joseph Scarlet, Elijah Lewis, James Jackson, George Williams, Jacob Moore, George Reed, Benjamin Johnson, Daniel Caulsberry, Alson Pernsley, William Brown, Henry Green, Elijah Clark, John Holiday, William Williams, Benjamin Pendergrast, John Morgan, Ezekiel Thompson, Thomas Butler, Collister Wilson, John Jackson, William Brown, Isaiah Clarkson, Henry Sims, Charles Hunter, Lewis Gates, Peter Woods, Lewis Clarkson, Nelson Carter, William Parker, John Berry, William Berry, Samuel Williams, Joshua Hammond, Henry Curtis, Washington Williams, William Thomas, Nelson Ford, George Hammond, Noah Buley, and Jacob Townsend. Treason. [8] :89–90

The 41 men charged, except where noted, were Black:

  • Castner Hanway, White, miller, number 1 in the indictment
  • Joseph Scarlet, White, farmer, number 2 in the indictment
  • Elijah Lewis, White, storekeeper in Cooperville, number 3 in the indictment
  • James Jackson, White, farmer, number 4
  • George Williams, number 5
  • Jacob Moore, number 6
  • George Reed, number 7
  • Benjamin Johnson, number 8
  • Daniel Caulsberry, number 9
  • Alson Pernsley, number 10
  • William Brown, 2nd, number 11
  • Henry Green, number 12
  • Elijah Clark, number 13
  • John Holliday, number 14
  • William Williams, number 15
  • Benjamin Pindergast, number 16
  • John Morgan, number 17
  • Ezekiel Thompson, number 18
  • Thomas Butler, number 19
  • Collister Wilson, number 20
  • John Jackson, number 21
  • William Brown, number 22
  • Isaiah Clarkson, number 23
  • Henry Simms, number 24
  • Charles Hunter, number 25
  • Lewis Gates, number 26
  • Peter Woods, number 27
  • Lewis Clarkson, number 28
  • Nelson Carter, number 29
  • William Parker, had already fled to Canada, number 30
  • John Berry, number 31
  • William Berry, number 32
  • Samuel Williams, number 33, was tried in the Federal District Court for "interfering with the execution of warrants for the arrest of Noah Buley and Joshua Hammond, runaway slaves"; he was found "not guilty" on February, 4, 1852[6]:98–99
  • Josh Hammond, one of Gorsuch's escaped slaves, number 34
  • Henry Curtis, number 35
  • Washington Williams, number 36
  • William Thomas, number 37
  • Nelson Ford, one of Gorsuch's escaped slaves, number 38
  • George Hammond, one of Gorsuch's escaped slaves, number 39
  • Noah Buley, one of Gorsuch's escaped slaves, number 40
  • Jacob R Townsend, white, merchant, number 41, was charged with giving a loaded weapon to fugitive slave John Roberts, who was headed to the William Parker home.[8]:84,96,199,210 [6]:76 [7]:2 [9]:153

Fate of those involved[edit]

William Parker was joined in Canada by Eliza, his wife, in November 1851, and eventually their children. They settled in Buxton, Ontario. He died sometime before 1881 and Eliza in May 1899.[10] Some of their descendants still live in Canada.[11]

Castner Hanway moved in 1878 to Wilber, Nebraska, and died there in 1893.[12][13]

Edward Gorsuch's youngest son, Thomas Gorsuch, and his schoolmate John Wilkes Booth swore revenge for his death.[14]:74

Historical markers[edit]

In 1998, a historical marker for the Christiana Riot was placed in Lancaster.[15] It is one of several historical markers in Lancaster County that to mark significant events related to the Underground Railroad.[16] Another historical marker is at Gorsuch Tavern in Glencoe, Maryland, on the York road, where Edward Gorsuch and some of his relatives and friends met to plan the raid.[17][18]


  1. ^ a b c d e f g h i j k l m n o p q r s t Slaughter, Thomas P. (1991). Bloody Dawn: The Christiana Riot and Racial Violence in the Antebellum North. New York: Oxford University Press. ISBN 978-0195046342.
  2. ^ Williams, Irene E. (1921). "The Operation of the Fugitive Slave Law in Western Pennsylvania from 1850 to 1860". Western Pennsylvania Historical Magazine. 4: 150–60. Retrieved May 21, 2013.
  3. ^ a b "William Parker, fl. 1851 The Freedman's Story: In Two Parts". The Atlantic Monthly. 17: 152–166, 276–295.
  4. ^ "History". Retrieved 29 January 2019.
  5. ^ Urban Engineers (2012). "Atglen Station Concept Plan". Chester County Planning Commission. p. 7. Retrieved 4 February 2019.
  6. ^ a b c d Hensel, W.U. (1911). The Christiana Riot and Treason Trials of 1851. Lancaster, PA: The New Era Printing Company. Retrieved 18 August 2017.
  7. ^ a b "Alexandria Gazette". Virginia. November 19, 1851.
  8. ^ a b c Robbins, James J. (1852). Report of the trial of Castner Hanway for treason, in the resistance of the execution of the Fugitive slave law of September 1850. Before Judges Grier and Kane, in the Circuit Court of the United States for the eastern district of Pennsylvania. Held at Philadelphia in November and December, 1851. To which is added an Appendix, containing the laws of the United States on the subject of fugitives from labor, the charges of Judge Kane to the grand juries in relation thereto, and a statement of the points of law decided by the court during the trial. Philadelphia: King & Baird. Retrieved 29 January 2019.
  9. ^ Campbell, Stanley W.. (1970). The Slave Catchers: Enforcement of the Fugitive Slave Law, 1850-1860. University of North Carolina Press.
  10. ^ Hepburn, Sharon A. Roger (2007). Crossing the Border: A Free Black Community in Canada. University of Illinois Press. p. 95. ISBN 978-0-252-03183-0.
  11. ^ White, Tanika (11 September 2001). "A place where freedom and forgiveness began". Baltimore Sun. Retrieved 31 January 2019.
  12. ^ "Death of Castner Hanway". New York Times. 28 May 1893. p. 14.
  13. ^ Lamborn, Samuel (1894). "Castner Hanway". The Genealogy of the Lamborn Family: With Extracts from History, Biographies, Anecdotes, Etc. self-published. pp. 181–182. Note this is inaccurate in several details.
  14. ^ Katz, Jonathan (1974). Resistance at Christiana: The Fugitive Slave Rebellion, Christiana, Pennsylvania, September 11, 1851. Crowell.
  15. ^ "The Christiana Riot Historical Marker". Retrieved 31 January 2019.
  16. ^ Wright, Mary Ellen (19 February 2018). "Lancaster County's Underground Railroad heritage celebrated with programs, new markers". LancasterOnline. Retrieved 31 January 2019.
  17. ^ "Maryland's Historical Markers: Gorsuch Tavern". Maryland Historical Trust. Retrieved 31 January 2019.
  18. ^ "Gorsuch Tavern Historical Marker". Retrieved 31 January 2019.