Slaughter, Thomas P. Bloody Dawn: The Christiana Riot and Racial Violence in the Antebellum North. New York: Oxford University Press, 1991.
“My property I will have or I’ll breakfast in hell.”
The seething tensions running through mid-nineteenth century America that threatened to rip the young nation in two, especially after the passage of the Fugitive Slave Act in 1850, came to a bloody head outside of a stone house in rural Lancaster County, Pennsylvania in the early morning of September 11, 1851. Baltimore County slave owner Edward Gorsuch and several others enlisted to aid in his task approached the house armed with federal warrants authorizing the group to capture Noah Buley, Nelson Ford, George Hammond, and Joshua Hammond who until two years previously had been enslaved at Gorsuch’s Retreat Farm. The occupants of the house, including at least two of the fugitives and the family of William Parker, tipped off about the approaching posse, were prepared to stand and fight. The ensuing armed conflict which became known as the Christiana Riot left Edward Gorsuch dead and, Slaughter argues, “fertilized” the “political soil” in which the Civil War grew (182).
The forgotten story of the Christiana Riot contains several elements about slavery in the Mid-Atlantic region that our project will be designed to emphasize. Gorsuch, who considered himself a good master, was shocked that members of his slave family ran away and believed that if he could simply talk with them, he could convince them to return to slavery voluntarily. He had promised them their freedom when they reached 28 years old, reflecting not kindness so much as the waning economic viability of the institution in the Upper South. His decision to pursue them was born out of a desire to restore his honor; it made little practical sense. The enslaved workers left Gorsuch’s farm in November 1849 because their long-running enterprise of skimming some of the master’s wheat crop for sale on the side had been exposed, demonstrating the ingenuity of those caught in the slave system to circumvent their oppressive situation. They were betrayed by miller Elias Matthews, a member of the Baltimore Society of Friends, although Quakers were committed abolitionists. It is not easy to determine good and bad actors when telling the full story of slavery.
Most significantly, the Christiana Riot illustrates the heightening tensions in borderlands like the Maryland-Pennsylvania area. Both the slavecatchers and the resisters were aided by Pennsylvanians whose sympathies lay on different sides of the slavery question. In general, Lancaster County residents were hostile towards the interlopers who invaded their state searching for fugitive slaves and often kidnapping the wrong people in the process. However, in the aftermath of Gorsuch’s death, black residents throughout the area were subjected to mass violence and arrest by their white neighbors. Despite pervasive anti-slavery sympathies among the population, white Lancaster citizens “shared [a] sense that African Americans were aliens who worked in the region but were not truly members of the communities in which they lived” (42). None of the actual resisters stood trial because they escaped to Canada with the help of Frederick Douglass. Castner Hanway, a white neighbor of Parker’s who arrived at the scene but did not participate, was tried for treason for failing to assist the slavecatching posse. The Pennsylvania jury acquitted Hanway; all other arrestees were released.
Bloody Dawn is an excellent source to explore the nuances and complexities of America, North and South, in the antebellum period. Slaughter surrounds the narrative of the riot and trial with a deeper investigation of evolving sectional, racial, and legal sentiments during the era. He demonstrates that the history of slavery and abolition is not a simple tale of good and evil. It is instead peopled with individuals, black and white, caught up in moral and practical dilemmas trying to do what they thought was right.