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York’s Underground Railroad Heroes: Henry W. Grant

Detail from the 1860 Shearer & Lake Map of York County, Pa. showing Peach Bottom Township
Detail from the 1860 Shearer & Lake Map of York County, Pa. showing Peach Bottom Township (PHMC, copy in the collection of YCHC)

Henry W. Grant was born to enslaved parents in Cecil County, Maryland, and grew up on his owner’s plantation. When he turned 19, he received his freedom  when his owner died.  Grant soon moved to Pennsylvania, where he eventually married a free black woman named Charlotte. The newlyweds worked a small farm in Little Britain Township in southern Lancaster County where they raised 12 children.

In 1844, the 46-year-old Grant moved his growing family across the Susquehanna River to Peach Bottom Township in southeastern York County, where for the next seven years he farmed a plot five miles above the Maryland border and a mile west of the river.

He also was an integral part of a ring of local men who conducted escaped slaves across the river in direct violation of the Federal Fugitive Slave Law of 1850.

It was risky business, highly illegal and punishable by six months in prison and a $1,000 fine, but in Grant’s judgment, morally and ethically correct. He and his friends are unsung heroes of the Underground Railroad movement.

Henry Grant hosted a group of local conductors who frequently met inside his residence. Among them were Isaac Waters, Robert Fisher, Isaac Fields, Thomas Clarke, and Delaware-born free black Elijah “Lige” Starkey. According to Grant’s son Benjamin (known as B. F.), “The night was never too dark or the storm never too severe for these brave, noble-hearted, courageous men to do their work. They did not fear death. Although they were uneducated men ignorant of the letter, they were directed by a Higher Power. The hand of God led them, and so they succeeded in carrying off hundreds, nay I truthfully say, thousands from the counties of Cecil, Harford, and Baltimore.” B. F. noted with satisfaction, “All lived to be old men.”

Source: Grant, B. F., “Some Undistinguished Negroes: B. F. Grant,” The Journal of Negro History, Vol. 4, No. 1, 1919, 97-98.

For more local stories from the Underground Railroad, please pick up a copy of The Ground Swallowed Them Up: Slavery and the Underground Railroad in York County, Pa., available from the York County History Center or from author Scott Mingus.