Region's Abolitionists Gave Refuge To Slaves Who Escaped The South Underground Railroad Supporters Defied Federal Law, Citing A "Higher Law, The Law Of God."

Posted: February 11, 2001

Runaway slaves from Maryland and Virginia followed a trail that led them across the Pennsylvania border. Slave owners pursuing the runaways were baffled, for there the trail suddenly seemed to end. The situation prompted a saying among the slave masters that there must be an underground railroad in the neighborhood.

That Underground Railroad had stations, conductors and passengers through Southeastern Pennsylvania. For more than 50 years, it was a major escape route.

According to several local historians, including Theodore Bean of Montgomery County, the Underground Railroad began in this region about 1810. That coincided with the end of slavery in Pennsylvania and other Northern states and created, in addition to antislavery whites, a free black population that reached westward from Maryland to Missouri and offered aid, protection and direction to those fleeing bondage to the South.

In the first half of the 19th century, as slavery fell more and more into disfavor in the North, the federal Fugitive Slave Law of 1793 was not vigorously enforced. As a result, slave hunters from the South had a difficult time recovering slaves who had escaped here.

(That situation would change dramatically with the Fugitive Slave Law of 1850, which created U.S. commissioners who could issue warrants for the arrest of fugitives and enforce the law's penalties - $2,000 fines and six months' imprisonment for anyone convicted of harboring or aiding escaped slaves.)

Large-scale local involvement of white people, notably Quakers, with the Underground Railroad began with the establishment in the 1830s of groups such as the Anti-Slavery Society of Montgomery County.

Many Quakers embraced the belief expressed by then-Swarthmore College president Edward Magill. He wrote that despite the law prohibiting aid to runaway slaves, there was "a calling of a higher law, the law of God," to help such slaves to freedom.

Yet in this and other regions of the North, abolitionists were not accepted by the general population.

"Abolitionists were insulted, scoffed at and threatened by mobs," wrote Hiram Corson in an 1896 article for the Historical Society of Montgomery County.

Still, by the 1840s, the route of the Underground Railroad was well-established in the area. Runaways from Maryland and Virginia entered Southeastern Pennsylvania either at York or farther northeast at Columbia, in Lancaster County. From there, they moved to Phoenixville in Chester County, on through to Norristown in Montgomery County. According to Corson, their journey continued to various stations in Bucks County, such as Newtown, Buckingham and Quakertown.

The runaways traveled at night, mostly on foot, with the North Star as their only guide between stations. During the day, they were hidden, fed, and given shoes and clothes.

The ultimate area of safety was Canada, out of reach of the federal law. But many ex-slaves chose to settle in free African American communities here, hiding in plain sight.

Among the noted conductors on the railroad in Montgomery County were the Corson family in Plymouth; the Rev. Samuel Aaron, a minister in Norristown; and George Lukens, a prosperous North Penn farmer who joined the Underground Railroad in 1817.

In Quakertown, Bucks County, on the last stop of the route in this region, Richard Moore was the conductor. Moore, a Quaker farmer and the owner of a pottery mill, is credited with aiding 600 escapees. Many of the people traveled on to communities in the Lehigh and Susquehanna Valleys, according to material found in the Spruance Library of the Bucks County Historical Society.

There is no accurate record of the number of slaves that passed through this area to safety from the beginning of the 19th century to 1850. Because assisting runaways was illegal, people tended not to keep written records. Most historians of the Underground Railroad estimate the number to be in the thousands.

Joseph Kennedy's e-mail address is kennedj@phillynews.com.

comments powered by Disqus
|
|
|
|
|