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Black History Month: A freedom seeker’s flight through Hanover, Pa.

Long-time Cannonball reader and contributor Bob Resig recently made me aware of the fascinating story of Caroline Hammond, an African-American freedom seeker from Baltimore, Maryland, who furtively passed through Hanover, Pennsylvania, on her way to safety via the Underground Railroad. A representative of the Federal government’s Works Projects Administration interviewed her in 1938 and preserved her story. At the time, she was 94 years old, and still of a sharp mind and good health.

Caroline’s story is the first in a series of posts throughout February for Black History Month that will focus on black civilians and soldiers from York County, Pennsylvania.

Caroline Hammond was born in 1844 in Anne Arundel County, Maryland, near the town of Davidsonville about three miles from the South River. She was the daughter of a free black man from Baltimore and an enslaved woman owned by a wealthy plantation owner named Thomas Davidson. She was one of 25 human beings being kept in slavery by Davidson on his 900-acre tobacco farm. Her mother was the household cook, so she enjoyed a few privileges that the other slaves did not receive.

Davidson lived a lavish lifestyle, routinely entertaining and throwing large parties for his friends from Baltimore and officers and midshipmen from the U.S. Naval Academy. To receive an invitation to one of Davidson’s gala events meant a chance to mingle with Maryland’s high society and to dine on the finest terrapin and chicken, as well as the best wine and champagne on the market. Caroline’s mother supervised the cooking, and a slave named “Uncle Billie” waited on the guests while dressed in a fancy uniform decked out with brass buttons and braids. He wore white gloves and rang a bell to call the guests to the dining table.

Mr. Davidson’s wife Jane Welch Davidson was a terror. Her brutality more than offset her husband’s moderate demeanor. Caroline’s father, George Berry, worked out a deal with Davidson to purchase her mother and any children for $750. He had reduced the debt to only $40 when Thomas Davidson was inadvertently killed by fellow duck hunters during a hunting expedition. That left a bitter Mrs. Davidson in full control of the farm and all 25 slaves. She reneged on the deal when Berry arrived to make the final payment and kept Caroline and her mother enslaved.

Berry bribed the sheriff of Anne Arundel County and received a pass for Caroline and her mother to travel to Baltimore. Once there, they were taken to a safe house along the Underground Railroad. When Mrs. Davidson discovered that the two slaves were missing, she offered a $50 reward for each of them, and the sheriff tacked on another $50 for Berry’s capture for violating the Fugitive Slave Law.

A businessman named Coleman owned a large wagon that he used to transport freight to villages between Baltimore and Hanover, PA, where his brother-in-law lived. He concealed Caroline and her parents in the wagon and headed northward toward the Mason-Dixon Line and the free state of Pennsylvania. Pulled by a team of six horses, the heavy wagon rumbled through several towns while Coleman conducted his normal business routine. The three Blacks remained hidden throughout the trip, and no one suspected they were the true cargo being hauled to Hanover.

The danger did not abate once Caroline and her parents reached Hanover because bounty hunters and reward seekers roamed the towns and highways looking for escaped slaves. Citizens at times informed the authorities of the location of hidden fugitives, hoping to get a cut of the bounty.

Hidden in the massive Conestoga-style wagon, the trio huddled in quiet fear while the wagon rolled into Hanover, the culmination of the normal business route. No one thought anything abnormal, because Coleman’s vehicle was a familiar sight in town. Caroline later wrote that it was “easy for us to get transportation farther north.”

York County had a number of secret hiding places, or way stations, on the Underground Railroad. In Hanover, prominent businessman and road constructor Jacob Wirt played a critical (and dangerous) role in assisting freedom seekers such as Caroline’s family. Wirt, a strong believer in human rights, was a “conductor,” helping the former slaves to reach York before being transported farther east to Wrightsville. Some scholars postulate that Wirt used the old Monocacy Indian Trail, an out-of-the-way footpath that led from Hanover to York. Maryland slave chasers likely did not know of its existence.

Caroline Hammond may have been among the freedom seekers that often were hidden in secret compartments in the bottom of railcars and taken across the Columbia-Wrightsville Bridge to Lancaster County where the Quakers and others would conduct them farther northward.
Caroline’s family made it to Scranton, PA, where George and her mother found employment, making a combined $27.50 a month. More importantly, they were free. Caroline received an education at Scranton’s Quaker Mission. After the war, she moved to Baltimore, became a cook, and married a man named James Berry.

She told the interviewer, “I can see well, have an excellent appetite, but my grandchildren will let me eat only certain things that they say the doctor ordered I should eat.”

Caroline added, “I am happy with all the comforts of a poor person not dependent on any one else for tomorrow.”

Sage advice for us all.

Caroline’s narrative and those of scores of freedom seekers and formerly enslaved people can be read on-line at the Library of Congress’s website.

Note that Thomas Davidson’s home still stands at the intersection of Davidsonville Road and Central Avenue near Davidsonville, Maryland.