York’s Underground Railroad Heroes: William Yocum
Old West gunslingers, marshals, sheriffs, and cowboys have always fascinated me. As a lad, I read as many books as I could on the topic. Names such as Bat Masterson, Wild “Bill” Hickok, Calamity Jane, Billy the Kid, and Jesse James became familiar to me through the power of the printed word. But, perhaps none of them fascinated me more than Wyatt Earp.
He was at times both a gunslinger and lawman — a deputy sheriff and later a deputy town marshal. His occasionally disregarded the law or twisted it to suit his needs, playing both sides of the coin. The dichotomy of being sworn to uphold the laws of the United States of America while at the same time breaking them seemed to be a paradox to me.
And, yet, there has been plenty of precedence for Earp’s controversial actions, including here in York County, Pennsylvania, where a local constable was much more blatant in his defiance of the laws he had paid to uphold.
His name was William Yocum.
He, illegally, was a conductor in the Underground Railroad movement while performing his duties as constable of York.
He’s one of York County’s Underground Heroes.
I briefly discuss Yocum’s activities, many of which remain unknown to the modern researcher because of their clandestine nature, in my recently released book, The Ground Swallowed Them Up: Slavery and the Underground Railroad in York County, Pa. (available from the gift shop of the York County History Center).
Here is how I commented on Yocum in the book (drawn upon accounts from Philadelphia William Still’s 19th-century book on the Underground Railroad and on local historian George R. Prowell’s History of York County:
“The leaders of the covert activity in York County included William Yocum. He was an enigma — a law enforcement officer who frequently sided with the runaways in direct violation of his oath to uphold the law. Before the Prigg v. Pennsylvania ruling, in his role as constable he had frequently assisted slave owners or their designated agents in locating missing slaves thought to be hiding in York County. With his strong knowledge of the region, the crafty constable often deliberately took the Southerners in the wrong direction, giving the refugees enough time to escape. He even dug a large pit in his cellar where he would hide the fugitives until he had the opportunity to forward them to safety. He usually delivered his “freight” or “passengers” to a well-known free man, “Black Isaac,” who in turn escorted them to safety across the Susquehanna River by way of the Middletown Ferry.[i]
One November 1842 incident documented by Philadelphia anti-slavery activist William Still suggests the connectivity among the conductors in York County and their degree of cooperation to get the escaped slaves safely across the Susquehanna. A group of 16 runaway Maryland slaves — including men, women, and small children — managed to slip out of Baltimore County, cross the Mason-Dixon Line, and make their way into York County. Slave hunters were on their trail, so a series of Underground Railroad conductors provided assistance to them. These helping hands included Yocum and Joel Fisher. The latter, assisted by a free black man whose identity is not known, took the slaves one by one out into Samuel “Kindly Friend” Willis’s cornfield in Manchester Township and hid them under the shocks.[ii]
The following night, Dr. Robert N. Lewis met the fugitives and piloted the group northward to a hiding place along the banks of Conewago Creek south of his residence in Lewisberry. He kept them concealed for several days, visiting them periodically and bringing provisions he had hidden in his saddlebags. They were safe, because the slave hunters who were chasing them erroneously believed the party of escaped slaves had traveled to the vicinity of York Sulphur Springs, where William and Phebe Wright were active conductors, in northeastern Adams County. After the slave catchers gave up searching the Wrights’ neighborhood, William slipped down to Lewisberry where he joined with Lewis. Figuring that the area around his rural home was now safe, he planned to bring all of the slaves to a nearby wooded hiding place. It was a journey of more than 15 miles, as the crow flies, a trip made much longer by the twisting network of country roads he would need to traverse northwestern York County to reach York Sulphur Springs. There was, unfortunately, no direct route. First, however, Wright and Lewis needed to get the people safely across the swift-running Conewago Creek, which had flooded from recent late autumn rains.[iii]
On a particularly gloomy, cold November evening, under the cover of darkness Wright and Lewis prepared to take their charges across the rain-swollen creek. On each trip, an adult ex-slave rode mounted behind Wright and Lewis, often with small children in their arms. Rapidly floating clouds periodically hid the moonlight, alternately lighting and shading the stream and making each slow passage somewhat perilous. One misstep by their horses could spell disaster. After the final trip when all of the fugitives were safely across the creek, Lewis, a self-professed atheist, exclaimed, “Great God! Is this a Christian land, and are Christians thus forced to flee for their liberty?” Wright guided the party on back country roads to his “Plainfield” farmhouse about three miles northeast of York Sulphur Springs near Latimore Creek. He hid them in a nearby forest until it was safe to proceed on their way to Canada. Wright was particularly prolific in his activities with the Underground Railroad, ferrying scores of slaves through Adams and York counties to safe houses and other hiding locations
[i] Siebert, The Underground Railroad from Slavery to Freedom, 57; Prowell, History of York County, 1:956.
[ii] Prowell, History of York County, 1:776. The Willis house, built in 1767 by William Willis, is southwest of Prospect Hill Cemetery. They are off of today’s Willis Road which diagonally connects Pennsylvania Avenue to Parkway Boulevard just west of N. George St. The house is one of two locations in York County officially listed on the National Park Service’s National Underground Railroad Network to Freedom, the other being the Goodridge House.
[iii] Still, The Underground Railroad, 693. Still places this incident in November 1842, so the conductor was Dr. Robert Lewis (his father Webster Lewis had died in 1832).
Come out to Wyndridge Farms in Dallastown on December 7th for the 2nd annual Unraveling York County’s History forum featuring four of the York Daily Record’s award-winning history bloggers. The event, which proved very popular last year, will feature brief talks on “York County’s Heroes and Villains” and an open question-and-answer period. I will discuss some more Underground Railroad Heroes, as well as a team of local slave catchers who operated out of central York County. The event begins at 7 p.m. For more information, visit the YDR’s website at http://www.ydr.com/story/news/2016/10/25/2nd-unraveling-york-county-history-event-dec-7/92732870/