What is the Underground Railroad?

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What is the Underground Railroad?

The term Underground Railroad refers to the efforts of enslaved African Americans to gain their freedom. For as long as slavery existed in North America enslaved people sought freedom and risked their lives to achieve it. There was never a clear path to freedom for anyone fleeing slavery but beginning in the 1830s as the abolitionist movement grew in some places the Underground Railroad evolved into a loosely organized movement.

After the passage of the Fugitive Slave Act of 1850, which eliminated the right of escaped slaves to jury trial and prohibited individuals from testifying on their own behalf, Underground Railroad activity increased. The act also greatly increased the penalties and fines associated with aiding an escaping slave and so eroded legal protection that any African American in the north or south could be captured and enslaved at any time with no legal recourse.

The Underground Railroad and the Allegheny Portage Railroad

The Allegheny Portage Railroad and the entire Main Line system operated from the mid 1830s to the mid 1850s and overlaps with the period of most intense Underground Railroad activity. The idea that public transportation like the Main Line and Allegheny Portage Railroad would be used by escaping slaves may be counterintuitive. However, primary documents including court records, legislative records and newspaper articles tell us that on at least one occasion an African American man fleeing slavery, Jacob Green, did travel as a paying customer on the Allegheny Portage Railroad. Records indicate that others may have traveled on canal boats in secret compartments. And still other freedom seekers traveled the canal by boat at night with “agents” of the Underground Railroad guiding the way.

The Case of Jacob Green

Perhaps the most striking and well documented incident of Underground Railroad activity on the Allegheny Portage Railroad is the case of Jacob Green. Green was enslaved on a plantation in Romney, Hampshire County, Virginia (today part of West Virginia) and was owned by Colonel Isaac Parsons. At some time between August 15 and 19, 1855, Jacob Green escaped from the farm and presumably headed north. At some point later, Green returned, took a horse and escaped for a second time. In October of that year Green returned yet again and this time brought with him five slaves who escaped from the farm of Mr. Stump, a relative and close neighbor of Col. Parsons. The group traveled north from Virginia through Maryland and finally into Pennsylvania. Isaac Parsons, his nephew James Parsons, Jr. and Stump, soon followed to track Green and the five other people. Records are unclear, but somewhere between Virginia and Hollidaysburg, two of Stump’s slaves were captured and taken back to Hampshire County. Based on information gathered from those two individuals, the group knew that Green was likely to head west using the Allegheny Portage Railroad and Main Line Canal to Pittsburgh. They were strategically placed; Colonel Parsons was in Johnstown, Parsons Jr. in Hollidaysburg, and Stump in Altoona. 

Jacob Green had made his way to Hollidaysburg, Pennsylvania and most likely was aided by Snyder Carr, a free African American living in the borough of Gaysport who was a minister in the AME church and a barber. What happened when Green attempted the next leg of his trip is best described by Virginia Attorney General J.R. Tucker whose account of the events was published in House Document 68, a record of activities of the Virginia legislature from 1855-1856.

On the morning of the 20th of October, between 7 and 8 o’clock, Jake Green took his seat in the cars at Hollidaysburg, having (as I understood) obtained a ticket for Pittsburgh. A short distance (about one or two hundred yards) from the depot, James Parsons, Jr. took his seat in the same train with Jake Green; and in a few moments afterwards, the latter, though the train was in rapid motion, was seen to jump from the platform of a car, fall, recover himself, and with a black carpet bag in hand, run towards the town again, crying “murder” while Parsons, Jr. who had with more success jumped from the car, pursued the fugitive.

Some bystanders, who saw the pursuit, supposing as they said, that the negro had stolen the carpet bag, interposed to arrest him, when he turned into the cellar of a house in the town. He was there arrested and taken hold of by Mr. Parsons, Jr. who, without violence, and only by the use of so much force as was necessary, urged the negro in the direction of Kellerman’s tavern.

During the walk to Kellerman’s, Parsons charged upon the negro, calling him by name, that he had stolen a horse. (When the negro had last gone off from Hampshire, a horse had been taken away, as stated in Col. Parsons’ advertisement.) The negro replied, that he had run away, but had not stolen the horse, and when addressing him, called Mr. Parsons by his Christian name.

Upon reaching the tavern, a good many persons had collected, and Parsons requested of Kellerman to permit him to take the negro into his house. The request was granted. A free negro, Sydney Carr, told Jake Green to go into the house, that no one would hurt him, and that he (Carr) would attend to him, and added, “will see you righted.”

At this time, a considerable excitement had sprung up respecting the affair; and while Parsons with several persons went into Kellerman’s tavern, many remained outside; and it would seem, from what afterwards occurred, that the free negro Carr retired to prepare for what was to come.

In the house Parsons again charged the negro he had arrested, with stealing the horse, and with running away, calling him by his name, “Jake.” The negro denied the horse stealing, but admitted the running away; called Parsons by his Christian name again, and seemed to recognize his own, as called by Parsons, claiming no other, (and certainly not that of Francis S. Johnson, with which he was gifted by the indictments against Parsons;) asked where Parsons was going to take him; and on being told that he would take him “home,” replied that he was willing to go home, and wished to do so. In fact, it was proved by one witness that the negro called Parsons “master.”

The prosecutor in the case, a certain George Potts, detailed as circumstances occurring in the tavern, what no other witness mentions. As upon his shoulders rests the idiom of this outrageous persecution, it would seem not unnatural that he had heard statements between Parsons and the slave, less conclusive of Parsons’ innocence, than those which abound in the testimony of others less interested in his conviction. Yet, when viewed through any other medium than that of fanatical zeal or of officious intermeddling in the concerns of others, the facts, with the attending circumstances of the case, which he mentions, should have satisfied him of the entire innocence of the party against whom he lodged the most unfounded charge of kidnapping.

He testified that while Parsons was charging the negro with horse stealing and with being a fugitive slave, the negro, as he thinks, denied both- and when Parsons called him by name and said “you know me very well, Jake” the negro replied, “oh! no - Mr. George, I don’t know you or anyone in this room:” thus, though feigning entire ignorance, evincing a real recognition of Parsons, by assigning to him an unreal name. It is proper to add that this statement of Potts was confirmed by no other witness in the cause.

While in the tavern Parsons asked “Jake” if he had any weapons, which the negro at first denied; but when a revolver, with its six barrels loaded, was taken from his pocket, he was constrained to acquiesce in so conclusive a refutation, with the disclaimer of malicious intent against any one.

In the mean time Parsons ordered his horses, and prepared to start. The negro, with Parsons, and others who were there, went out of a side door into an alley leading from the stable yard of the tavern to the street of the town; and upon being told to mount one of the horses, did so, in the language of a witness; “as freely as any man would, who was starting upon a journey.”

Upon reaching the street, the negro attempted to turn his horse towards the main part of the town, while Parsons turned his own from the town, and towards the country. The crowd began to assemble; some cries were raised, directed to Parsons, “you d-d fool, you cannot take that man in that way;” and others to the negro, “d-n you, make your escape, you have the best horse of the two;”-”why don’t you jump off” &c. The negro, in reply to Parsons, telling him to come on, said he had left some money with a negro man in Hollidaysburg, which he wanted to get “before you take me away.” Parsons told him to come on, he would give it to him, &c.

In this hesitation, the cry was raised, “jump and make your escape, d-n you.” Potts says this cry came from all round, apparently. The negro, who was not bound in any way, jumped from the horse and ran. He was caught first by Kellerman, but broke away- was then caught by Lentz, and was thus again arrested, and in the hands of Parsons who had left his horses to secure the negro.

Potts says that he remarked to Lentz, when he was holding the negro, “you would be as profitably employed at your own business;” to which Lentz replied, that he “would help any time to take a d-d horse thief.”

Lentz fixes at this time, or a short time previously, this remark of Potts, the prosecutor, “He is nothing but a d-d nigger catcher or kidnapper.”

Hall, another witness, says, that about this time he took Potts by the arm and told him he had better come away; that Parsons was taking the negro as a fugitive, and he (Potts) had better let him alone. Potts replied that he “should” or “could” not take him, unless he showed his authority.

Potts then says, in which all the other witnesses concur, that Parsons and the negro were struggling in the street, the latter pressing towards Sydney Carr’s (free negro) barber shop, and Parsons attempting to get him towards Kellerman’s tavern. At the same time, the free negroes had gathered in considerable force, and some negro had hold of Parsons, and Potts says his attention was attracted by the words, “Now stand back; give the nigger a chance; break his d-d head.” Several of the negroes were in front of Parsons, and squared off” in the attitude of fighting him.”

During this state of things, Parsons, with remarkable coolness and determination, retained his hold upon his fugitive, with a crowd around him, threatening and unfriendly.

One of the witnesses farther states, that Potts, at the time Lentz had caught the negro said, “That is too bad” and was stepping forward, when he was dissuaded from interference, and was told to let them fight it out themselves. Potts replied, “I will not- the man is a free man, and shall be saved.”

By this time, the crowd around Parsons and his fugitive had gathered about the walk in front of Carr’s barber shop. Potts then advanced, and demanded of Parsons his authority for arresting the negro. He says, he told him, if the negro had stolen a horse, and he (Parsons) had a warrant, to show it, and he should be assisted in the execution of the law; that if he had no authority, he should go before a justice and make the proper oath, and as a law abiding people, the people would assist him.

Upon the occurrences, which follow, some difference naturally exists among the witnesses. Upon the demand of authority for the arrest, Parsons was, according to some witnesses, at first silent, but afterwards answered, “That is my business;” that Potts not others had a right to demand his authority, nor was he bound to give it. And according to one witness, said, that it was his negro, and the had a right to take him wherever he got him- or words to that effect. Potts and perhaps some other person replied, “Remember, sir, you are in Pennsylvania, and under Pennsylvania laws,” and still demanded his authority. Parsons, then somewhat excited, replied, that he did not care a d-m for Pennsylvania nor Pennsylvania laws- that he was acting under higher authority- he held the negro under the laws of his own state. This reply produced considerable excitement in the crowd, who rushed in around the parties.

Hall, a respectable witness, says he heard someone at this time (he thinks a certain Col. Piper) say, that he (Parsons) was a kidnapper, looked like a d-m kidnapper, and ought to be made to let the negro go. Potts then laid his hand on Parsons’ shoulder, and said, “Sir if you have no authority, you shall (or must) release him.”

It further appeared that when it was proposed to Parsons to go before a justice of the peace, he objected, on the ground that the negro might get away. Some one proposed to aid in securing him, (the negro,) but no one offered to do so; and the proposal to Parsons to go before a justice was not acceded to by him.

Among those who demanded of Parsons his authority for the arrest was Sydney Carr, the free negro barber, who did so, asking the release of the negro, took from him his carpet bag, and in the language of a witness, “drew his fist” upon Parsons.

How the negro was released- by what hand- by whose immediate instrumentality- the proofs in the case left in doubt. The exact point of time when the hold of Parsons upon the slave was relinquished was not determined by the evidence. Potts did not even mention, in his evidence in chief, the escape of the negro, so immaterial to him was that incident of the affair; and upon cross examination, he stated that he did not know personally where the negro then (at the date of the trial) was, nor at what time he got off, but admits it was about the time he asked Parsons for his authority.

Crawford says it was about the time Potts laid his hand upon Parsons, and demanded his authority, or the slave’s release, that Parsons and the slave were separated.

Potts and Hall say, that Parsons at last said he would show his authority, and put his hand into the side pocket, and then the outside pocket, behind, of his overcoat, when Crawford, with a cry that Parsons was about to shoot Potts, seized the hand of Parsons in the pocket, held it for a moment, and the negro was not seen afterwards.

McDonald, another witness, says, that when Parsons put one hand in his pocket, as just mentioned, he retained his hold of the negro with the other; that Potts had hold of Parsons, and Crawford took hold of the negro, and parted the, and the negro got away. Mr. Crawford says he does not remember having hold of the negro at all.

The negro escaped either through the barber shop, or the house adjoining- and the free man of color, in a free state, fled from the grasp of Parsons, and has not since that day been seen in the town of Hollidaysburg.

Green was never seen again in Hollidaysburg although accounts written many years after the incident suggest that Jacob Green continued his journey by traveling through the mountains north of Hollidaysburg on foot. After the passage of the Fugitive Slave Act, large numbers of African Americans living in the north left for Canada leaving people like Jacob Green with fewer safe havens. It is therefore likely that Green continued north to the safety of Canada.

Parsons’ actions were supported by federal law and eventually the case against him was dropped. But the arrest of James Parsons was a flagrant violation of the Fugitive Slave Act of 1850 and this deliberate act of defiance incensed the citizens and government of Virginia. Governor George A. Wise sent Attorney General J.R. Tucker to Hollidaysburg to represent the interests of Virginia at Parsons’ trial and the question of how to respond to this outrageous act was debated by the Virginia legislature.

The incident struck a nerve in a nation that was becoming violently polarized on the issue of slavery. Newspapers around the nation and the world covered the story when members of Virginia legislature suggested the only resolution was war. An article describing the situation published in the New York Herald on January 31, 1856 read, “Threatened Civil War between Virginia and Pennsylvania”. War was averted but the headline eerily foreshadows the start of the Civil War just five years later.

Samuel Williams

Samuel Williams was a remarkable man living in extraordinary times who described himself as a “violent abolitionist”. Born in York, Pennsylvania in 1813, this African American man apprenticed as a barber and spent his youth traveling throughout the state of Pennsylvania. While living in Pittsburgh he became a close friend of John Vashon, one of the most prominent African Americans in the city before the Civil War. The two men were members of the Pennsylvania Anti-Slavery Society as well as the American Anti-Slavery Society and both were agents of the Underground Railroad. After several years of traveling, Williams settled in Johnstown, Pennsylvania, the western terminus of the Allegheny Portage Railroad and the point at which the portage railroad joined the Mainline Canal. It is unclear whether Williams was actively assisting people fleeing slavery while living in Pittsburgh, though newspaper accounts make it clear that John Vashon was. But a letter written in 1900 by Cyrus Pershing, a prominent Johnstown businessman to historian James A. Swank makes it clear that Williams was an agent of the Underground Railroad while living in Johnstown.

contrary to your belief, Johnstown was a station on the underground railway. One item of the evidence for conclusion is this: You doubtless remember Samuel Williams, a superior man of his race. One night, about 2 o’clock, he came to the grocery and provision store our family kept, and routed us out. He was in a great hurry and a good deal agitated. He explained, confidentially, that he wanted some food for two runaway slaves who, of course, feared pursuit. He got what he wanted, and, I believe, himself piloted the negroes that night down along the slackwater (the Mainline canal) through Laurel Hill gap, on their way to Dr. Mitchell’s farm, near the town of Indiana. Williams made confidents of my brother Israel and myself. After he removed with his family to Liberia, I collected the money from the sale of his property at the corner of Market and Canal Streets, near the Cambria Iron Co. store. Williams was not alone as agent for the underground fugitive slave road.

In addition to actively assisting people fleeing enslavement, Williams was an “agent” or distributor of the newspaper, The Mystery in Johnstown. This abolitionist newspaper was published by Martin Delany from about 1843 to 1844. Delany was another prominent African American abolitionist and businessman who lived for several years in Pittsburgh and who later worked closely with Frederick Douglass on his newspaper The North Star. The few copies of The Mystery that survive list “agents” like Williams in towns like Hollidaysburg and Blairsville, which were situated along the Mainline Canal and Allegheny Portage Railroad. Research to uncover a definitive link between other agents of the newspaper and Underground Railroad activity along the Mainline is on-going, but what is clear is that the Mainline and the Allegheny Portage Railroad transported not just people and goods, but ideas.

Williams was deeply committed to abolition and he risked his life and personal freedom to assist others. But he was also profoundly affected by the erosion of his rights even though he was a “free” man living in Pennsylvania. In his memoir titled “Four Years in Liberia, A Sketch of the Life of Reverend Samuel Williams,” he describes his experience as a free African American man living in Pennsylvania before the Civil War.

I had up to the time of my settling in Johnstown, never thought of my condition as a man, and it was not until the year 1838, when the people of Pennsylvania voted for the amended constitution, that I really felt I had not my rights in common with other men. I had ever since I had arrived at the age of twenty-one years voted at the elections; but at the election of that year, for some cause which I never could understand, I was not allowed to put my vote in the ballot-box. This was very grievous to me; and it was more so, because this election was to determine whether I should vote in my native state again. I was dissatisfied, and was never afterwards reconciled to my lot, although my course was such here, and had always been everywhere, that I secured the respect of my neighbors and townsmen. I cannot say that I was ever mistreated in any place. My word became my bond in business, and wherever I went I met with a welcome. As far as my civil rights were concerned, I knew no difference; but my political rights were taken away, not by my townsmen, but by a large majority of the people of the State. I, however, bore up against this until the Fugitive Slave Bill passed. I then concluded that I would find a new home some place in the world where the black man could be free.

Notwithstanding all the respect that was shown me by the citizens, yet I felt myself oppressed. I could have free privilege in all churches; there was no negro pew for me in any church in the place, but I was treated with politeness and respect in them all. Yet there were times when I was oppressed, and one of these times was on election day; I felt that I was as good a man as there was in town, yet I dare not deposit a vote. I could talk, and I had my influence over a certain class of voters, (yes, I say it boldly that I made more than one vote on election day,) day I could not see when the thing was to be any better. Another source of oppression to me was, I would sometimes go from home. Now my popularity, if it may be so called, was not only in my own town, or in the neighboring towns, but whenever I would go beyond the circle of my acquaintances, I could see things were changed, and frequently I would be sent in the kitchen to eat my meals when traveling. I was once ordered out of the first-class car to take a seat in the Jim Crow car. These things galled me, and after many years reflection on the subject, I came to the conclusion, if there was a free spot in all God’s earth, I would seek that place. I made inquiries about Canada, and found that it was not free from this wicked prejudice. Where was I to go? I had read much of Liberia, although I was a violent abolitionist, and had been ever since converted to that faith by my friend Vashon. But I wanted a home where I could be free. I began to reflect seriously upon the subject of going to Africa, and I found that I could do so without infringing upon my Abolition principles; and I am just strong in the faith to-day as ever I was in all my life. I always believed there was many good Colonizationists, yet I thought I that I might live in Liberia and be happy. So, in the year 1852, after having resided in Johnstown for near sixteen years, I concluded to visit Liberia and see it for myself, and if I found that it was or could be a country, I thought of casting in my lots with its citizens, and help make it.

Williams’ frank and poignant words bring to light the complicated nature of freedom for all African Americans. His personal struggles with the nature of freedom foreshadow the many years of racial strife that followed the Civil War and continue to today.

James Heslop

Like Samuel Williams, James Heslop lived in Johnstown, Pennsylvania and was both an activist and agent of the Underground Railroad. But Heslop, a white man, did not face the personal struggle with freedom that motivated Williams. In his book, History of Cambria County, Henry Wilson Storey describes Heslop’s background and affiliation with the Underground Railroad and the Allegheny Portage Railroad.

From that time until 1842 he was employed by the transportation companies in the region, at first with the canal boat builders, and afterward with the car builders for the old Portage railroad, for a he was a skillful letterer and with his finely mixed colors did an excellent business in painting the names of the canal boats on the stern and the company’s name on the sides of the cars…

During the several years immediately preceding the Civil War he took an earnest part in the general agitation of the slavery question, and arrayed himself clearly and firmly on the side of those who most bitterly opposed it. Indeed, he was one of the rankest Abolitionists in all the region, and held in utter contempt any measure that tolerated traffic in human beings, white or black. In political life he originally was a Whig, and later a strong Republican. For the negro he had no particular regard, but he could not bear to see one of God’s creatures held in bondage. The comfortable Heslop home in Johnstown was a noted station on the famous “Underground Railroad” between the slave states of the south and the free soil of the north. Pennsylvania territory then offered no secure place of refuge for escaping slaves, for the state was continually overrun with fugitive slave hunters, and no house and no home was safe against their searching parties armed with processes of law and the equally obnoxious sanction of certain state authorities. But notwithstanding all this, the home of James Gale Heslop offered at least safe temporary refuge to fugitive slaves, and both he and his good wife were instrumental in aiding them, feeding them and sending them along in safety to more friendly regions farther north, where slave hunters dare not follow. In his ardent belief in and advocacy of the universal freedom of mankind, Mr. Heslop subscribed for fifty copies of the Philadelphia North American, one of the leading abolition organs of the country, and caused them to be distributed and read in places where the doctrines therein taught would be calculated to do the most good. And in his zeal in aiding escaping slaves he prepared several secret places about his home in which they were temporarily secure. One of these places was in an old abandoned mine on the hill near his house, another in the house itself, under the roof, and still another in a secret cellar underneath his stable, which was entered through a trap door on which his horses were bedded after the fugitive had been placed. His premises were frequently visited and searched by slave hunters, but not so much as one was ever taken while at his station.

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