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York’s Underground Railroad Heroes: Joseph Wickersham

Famed publisher and abolitionist William Lloyd Garrison (above) was a friend of York County activist and school teacher Joseph Wickersham (National Archives)

In the early 1800s, York County, Pennsylvania, played an important role in the growing movement to abolish slavery. Many people in southern York County were ambivalent to slavery or tolerated it; others actively supported the trade by hiring slaves from their Maryland masters for temporary work. Along the Susquehanna River, people were more tolerant of former slaves, often taking in runaways into the growing black population of the southeastern townships such as Fawn and Lower Chanceford.

To the north, where a belt of thriving Quaker meetings stretched at intervals across the county and into Adams County, abolitionists and civil rights activists fought to assist runaway slaves and improve the lot of free blacks in Pennsylvania. Over time, York County attract the attention of some nationally known abolitionists and freedom workers, including Lucretia Mott, George Woodward, Harriet Tubman, and others, including Boston-based publisher William Lloyd Garrison.

He was friends with a number of leading Quakers in the Newberry-Lewisberry area, including Joseph Wickersham.

Redlands meeting house at the intersection of Old Quaker and Lewisberry roads (PA 382) York Daily Record photo

Joseph Wickersham came from a family deeply interested in free public education that had moved west from Chester County. His “kind-hearted and gentle” ancestor Thomas Wickersham, Jr. was an early school teacher in Newberry Township who had personally known William Penn. Joseph’s grandfather Jesse was also a school teacher and farmer. Joseph became known in the 1820s as a very effective teacher and public speaker. The one-room school was about a quarter of a mile west of the Redlands Quaker Meeting House.

Joseph was born on April 1, 1809, in the Redland Valley of Newberry Township, the son of John W. and Rebecca Wickersham. His mother was of the Garretson family, another prominent group of Quaker activists. He married Hannah Cadwallader Squibb and raised twelve children (several of which lived into the 20th century). Wickersham lived on a farm on what is today Potts Hill Road and taught school for a decade.

Here’s an incident with his friend William Lloyd Garrison that as taken from my book, The Ground Swallowed Them Up: Slavery and the Underground Railroad in York County, Pa.

“Some former slaves living in York County proved to be better mischief-makers and thieves than hired hands. Lewisberry-area school teacher and noted public speaker Joseph Wickersham sheltered one such man, who stole his watch and other valuables before sneaking away. However, in general, the weary Maryland and Virginia fugitives were grateful for their care and food and left with only what was offered to them. At times, they and their Quaker benefactors had to be quick on their feet to avoid the roving slave catchers who frequented the region. Wickersham became involved in one incident about 1830 that had the potential for violence.

“A slave owner and an accomplice had caught a young female runaway near Lewisberry and were transporting her in a wagon. An armed mob of angry townspeople soon accosted them in an attempt to regain the frightened girl’s freedom. The two Southerners quickly drew pistols and managed to keep the citizens at bay. As word spread of the tense standoff, Wickersham and his house guest, young Boston-based abolitionist publisher William Lloyd Garrison, traveled the short distance to Lewisberry to witness the proceedings. Garrison generally believed in passive non-resistance, but nevertheless he locked arms with Wickersham and walked forward, undaunted, into the midst of the slave catchers and calmly approached the slave girl. As the crowd watched in amazement, Garrison without uttering a word reached out, grasped her arm, and quietly led her away to safety. The slaveholders yielded ‘as though hypnotized.'”

Always interested in educational affairs, helater became the superintendent of all of Newberry Township’s 15 public schools. He was also a leader in the anti-alcohol temperance movement. Wickersham’s son John was a Civil War soldier, serving as a corporal in the 28th Pennsylvania Infantry.

Joseph Wickersham, friend of the abolitionist William Lloyd Garrison, died of lung issues on February 28, 1892, and is buried in Salem United Methodist Cemetery near Newberrytown.

Wickersham’s headstone (photo by Sheila Strickler, Find-a-Grave)

His obituary in the Friends’ Intelligence and Journal of March 26, 1892 reads:

“WICKERSHAM.—At his home, Newberry, York county, Pa., of lingering illness (lung trouble), on the 28th of Second month, 1892, Joseph Wickersham, son of John and Rebecca Wickersham, who had been members of Friends’ Meeting at Garettson, Newberry, aged nearly 83 years; leaving an invalid widow and a number of grown children. A distant relative of the late J. P. Wickersham, of Lancaster, Pa.

Many traveling Friends may recall the hospitality of his home so frankly extended, and the intelligent interest he manifested in all the affairs of life. Especially in matters of education his services were invaluable; having been a teacher in earlier life, he appreciated its importance, and ever labored to advance the intellectual as well as the material interests of the community. Possessed of a strong, vigorous mind he was often chosen to do business involving great responsibility, and he conscientiously filled these positions of trust to the satisfaction of all concerned. Always an advocate of temperance principles, his voice was invariably against the use of all intoxicating liquors.”