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York newspaper supported enforcing 1850 Fugitive Slave Law

An old slave poster from the 1850s advertises a reward for the return of the slave, or proof that he was dead. Bounty hunters allegedly would occasionally kill their captives to ensure they did not try to escape again.


In the 1830s and 40s, so many enslaved people escaped bondage and headed to the North that Southern plantation owners and politicians clamored for the U. S. government to intervene. By the late 1840s, the issue had become a political “football,” being tossed back and forth as the sectional divide between North and South widened. Alongside related topics such as the westward expansion of slavery, Federal power over state laws, and total abolitionism, the work of the Underground Railroad and others to assist freedom seekers proved divisive.

That split in political and social beliefs carried over to York County, Pennsylvania, situated just north of Baltimore County, Maryland.

Congress, as part of the package of legislation that included the Missouri Compromise of 1850, also enacted a new, stronger Fugitive Slave Law. This tougher measure supplanted an earlier law passed in 1793. Assisting a fugitive now was a Federal crime, punishable in Federal courts.

The South watched to see if the U S. government indeed would enforce the new Fugitive Slave Law.

The test case came in 1851 in a famous trial with several ties to York County — the Federal trial of the alleged conspirators in the September 11 Christiana Resistance.

Image of the Christiana Resistance (adapted from William Still, The Underground Railroad, Philadelphia: Porter & Coats, 1872)

William Parker, an escaped slave from Anne Arundel County, Maryland, slipped across the Mason-Dixon line and passed through Shrewsbury Township toward York. He was almost caught in Jacobus but managed to make it to downtown York, where it is believed he received assistance from black businessman William C. Goodridge. Parker settled across the river in Christiana in eastern Lancaster County.

A few years later, after the passage of the Fugitive Slave Law, his owner learned of his whereabouts and came looking for Parker and three other fugitives living in the Christiana region.  Edward Gorsuch traveled by train to Philadelphia, enlisted the help of the US marshal in accordance with the new law, and was sworn in as a deputy. Along with family members and friends, Deputy Gorsuch and the marshal headed for Christiana.

There, as the party of slave catchers tried to apprehend Parker, Mrs. Parker blew a horn of warning and many neighbors rushed to the Parker’s rented house (on the property of Quaker Levi Pownall). A riot ensued and Ed Gorsuch died. Some of his party were injured and brought to York to recuperate.  The U.S. government placed Lancaster County under martial law, rounded up the ringleaders, and tried them for treason. In a verdict that stunned the South, the first defendant was found not guilty and the charges were dropped against the other three dozen or so suspects.

Long before the verdict, the York Gazette, long a bastion of the Democratic Party (which largely supported the Fugitive Slave Law), had railed against the handling of the riot. The editor demanded that the governor of Pennsylvania, William F. Johnston, intervene.

Johnston, however, was a Whig.

In a lengthy editorial on September 23, 1851, just 12 days after Gorsuch’s death, the Gazette reprinted an article from the Pennsylvanian heavily criticizing Johnston for dawdling and only cursorily investigating the incident. The newsman claimed that Johnston gave the “awful transaction” the short shrift and he partied with his constituents in Reading instead of doing something constructive. They wanted him to issue a proclamation condemning the flagrant breaking of the laws of the United States. Johnston’s supporters should feel humiliated, the Pennsylvanian and the Gazette opined. The governor, the paper stated, was in league with the abolitionists and believed that “some new insult like this was required in the South to fan the fires of secession!”

The entire blame for the riot fell upon Johnston for fostering the abolitionist sentiment in Pennsylvania which led to the “Christiana massacre,” as the paper deemed what is now commonly known as the Christiana Resistance. The governor did not support the Fugitive Slave Law, which was passed earlier in his administration, and encouraged the state legislature to obstruct it.

“Your very career shows that you have courted the very result under which the people writhe,” the paper addressed directly to the governor, “and which is working out its expected consequences in the South.” Happily, the editor added, the time was coming when Pennsylvania could vote him out of office.

The Gazette was right.

Democrat William Bigler swept Johnston out of office just a few weeks later in the 1851 gubernatorial election.

On December 11, 1851, the court rendered its verdict in the Christiana trial and the government dropped all charges against the other 40 defendants.

The South howled, realizing the Federal government would not enforce the Fugitive Slave Law.

The American Civil War was one step closer.