Sunday, February 28, 2016

The Underground Railroad's Secret Operations in Crawford County

As we reflect on this country's African American heritage, it’s worth noting Crawford County’s role as a branch of the Underground Railroad. In the years leading up to the Civil War, area residents, like much of the state, predominantly held to anti-slavery views, even though the Census of 1810 shows that 32 slaves were registered by owners in the northwestern counties including Crawford. Pennsylvania, however, was among the first states that attempted to legislate the abolition of slavery beginning with the 1780 Act which prohibited residents from importing new slaves into the Commonwealth. This was further reinforced in 1788 by an amendment closing loopholes in the original Act that slave owners had been using to their advantage. 

While Pennsylvania may have chartered an anti-slavery course, at the Federal level the stance was much different. Congress passed the Fugitive Slave Act of 1793 which, in effect, gave teeth to the Constitution’s provision under Article 4, Section 2, protecting the rights of slave owners to recover their property in the form of escaped slaves. When Pennsylvania attempted to extend freedoms to these escaped slaves in 1826, it sparked a legal debate concerning state versus federal authority on the matter.  With Prigg v. Pennsylvania, the issue reached the U.S. Supreme Court, and the Court deemed the escaped slave law unconstitutional as well the previous Acts of 1780 and 1788. The harsher penalties imposed by the Fugitive Slave Act of 1850 only aggravated Northern states which by then, were already teaming with slave owners, agents, and spies relentlessly hunting down escaped slaves without recourse. 

An emotional scene depicted by anti-slave advocates
Crawford County was by no means immune to slave hunters scouring its countryside. One account from 1836 tells of Ben, an escaped slave from Maryland whose work ethic and amiable demeanor had earned him the respect of Meadville residents. When his owner turned up, Ben’s many friends rallied to his aid after his capture. As the now terrified Ben stood watching his legal return being arranged between his former master and the Justice of the Peace, townspeople crowded into the small, two-room office on Water Street filling it to capacity. Ben soon recognized someone signaling to him silently. Ben nodded and at an opportune moment, he lowered his hulking frame to blend in with the standing congregation who quickly ushered him out a side door. When the owner and his henchmen tried to pursue, the crowd intentionally slowed their exit. Ben, meanwhile, fled west down Cherry Alley to the banks of French Creek where he plunged in and swam to a wooded hiding spot. Eventually, the posse stumbled out onto the street only to be met by others in on the plot who convinced the men that their fugitive had gone east in the opposite direction.

A hunt for Ben continued for several days, but not even the offer of a reward could persuade local residents to give up Ben’s whereabouts, which by then was the woodshed of Reverend John V. Reynolds. Rife with frustration, Ben’s owner finally relented, agreeing to an offer from Ben's employer, Henry Bosler, and Reverend Reynolds, to buy Ben's freedom. The agreement, however, allowed for an unusual request by the former owner, asking that he be able to return to his Maryland estate with Ben in a fabricated show meant to convince his other slaves that they never truly escape his reach. The ruse complete, Ben returned to Meadville with John McGuire who had served as an escort to ensure the master held to the terms. Ben eventually moved on to safer borders inside Canada, but not before fully repaying the amount paid by Bosler and Reynolds to gain his freedom.

Harm Jan Huidekoper
Whether or not Ben’s arrival in Meadville was through the Underground Railroad is unclear, but even so, his story underscores the prevailing sentiment and commitment in supporting an active network throughout the county, the earliest mention of which cites the Unitarian Seminary located on Chestnut Street in Meadville. The Seminary served as an Underground station and source of support operated by several men known only by their last names--Benn, Jonathon, Churchill, and M. M. Brown. But the Seminary was also heavily funded by the area’s most prominent businessman, Harm Jan Huidekoper, whose religious beliefs lead to his growing opposition to the institution of slavery. Initially, Huidekoper, although sympathetic to the slave, remained steadfast in his belief that a policy of gradual emancipation would solve the issue in time and ultimately benefit slaves, allowing them to adapt to freedom over the course of generations rather than all at once. He felt too, that abolitionists were only hurting their cause by willfully disobeying the fugitive slave laws. But as he argued this position to his son-in-law during a buggy ride, the two happened upon a band of escaped slaves. Until then, Harm Jan had never actually witnessed the cruelty of Southern slavery, and after speaking for some time with the runaways, he handed over all the money he had with him.  
Such generosity would become a regular occurrence. In fact Harm Jan’s grandson, Henry Shippen Huidekoper, who would lose a limb as a Union officer at Gettysburg and win the Medal of Honor, recalled the poignant boyhood memory of his grandfather freely giving money to slaves as they passed through the streets of Meadville on their way north. The moment and his grandfather’s stance against slavery, Henry said later, greatly influenced his participation in the Civil War. Before then, however, the Huidekopers would be among a number of families that included the Randolphs, Bartons, Bishops, Powells, and more who aided escaping slaves.

John Brown's Tannery in the 1930s
Local Underground agents and conductors used such extreme caution, scholars for years failed to realize the full extent of the county’s participation in Railroad activities. History may have relegated the area to a footnote were it not for the fact that the abolition movement’s firebrand, John Brown, hued out a farm and established a tannery near New Richmond, some 12 miles northeast of Meadville. From 1825 to 1835 Brown’s strong anti-slavery beliefs permeated his stay in Crawford County, fueling his efforts to solidify the Underground Railroad’s activities locally.

Brown's hatred for slavery was cultivated from boyhood in Ohio by his minister father, Owen. Upon his arrival in Randolph Township, Brown quickly immersed himself into the community, teaching school, organizing a church, and even becoming Richmond's first postmaster all the while speaking out against slavery and recruiting Railroad agents. Not surprisingly, an escape network manned by Brown’s brothers in Eastern Ohio formed, running from Ashtabula over the state border into Linesville, through Meadville, and then Brown's Richmond tannery before continuing to Lake Erie and Canada. Brown’s abolitionist exploits in the area are an established fact, but given his infamous yet legendary status in American history, some stories over the years have crossed into the realm of folklore with tales, for example, claiming the ghostly figure of a younger Brown can still be seen today roaming along the tannery’s remaining stone foundation. 

Location of Richard Henderson's home on Arch Street
While most slaves continued on to refuge in Canada, many others felt safe enough to remain in the county. Among these was Richard Henderson, a born slave who at age 15, escaped from Maryland along with his two brothers, his sister, and a cousin. Aided by the Railroad and possibly even John Brown's father Owen, the party eventually arrived in Meadville around 1827. Here, it seems, they split with one brother continuing to Canada and his sister to Illinois, but Richard and his other brother stayed, joining the city's growing community of black citizens.

Richard found work chopping wood but later established himself as a barber, then considered a prestigious career. Richard was a natural participant in the Railroad’s operations, and he and his family dedicated themselves to helping the cause. He regularly worked with John Brown, hiding slaves in his residence at 371 Arch Street before sending them to the tannery. The Henderson home would become a prominent  Railroad safe house, harboring as many as 20 escapees at a time. Here, as at many similar hiding spots, refugees would sleep during the day before being concealed under hay or produce in wagons and carted off at night to the next station. By the time the Railroad's operations ceased, it’s believed Richard Henderson alone assisted over 500 runaways on their flight to freedom. In 1980 a state historical marker was erected at the corner of Liberty and Arch Streets to commemorate his tireless efforts.

Safe travel along the Railroad’s networks through the area was by no means assured, and thus the need for extreme secrecy was a constant. Slave agents and spies were well aware of the Underground Railroad's various networks, and Meadville, because of its central location and established roadways, frequently witnessed slave hunters riding through the streets and searching suspected hideouts based on tips from spies. Another source of danger, oddly enough, came from Allegheny College. Because of the high number of students and various faculty members from pro-slavery southern states, Railroad agents avoided any association with the institution or its campus.

Railroad agents countered such threats by relying on their own network of scouts and informants who would warn of slave catchers searching the area in advance of their arrival. Misdirection was also often employed by local Railroad agents and supporters who would pass along false information, sending hunters on wild goose chases leading away from actual routes. In all such situations, direct confrontations with slave hunters were averted in order to prevent unwanted attention; however, given the serious circumstances, tense moments were inevitable.

Main Underground Railroad Routes running through Pennsylvania
As darkness fell one evening in 1854, several runaway slaves were hustled into the Henderson home on Arch Street with greater urgency than usual. Not far behind rode their owner with his men in tow. Somehow the posse managed to elude detection by Railroad scouts to the south of town, and now they were on the verge of cornering their escaped property. Within minutes a lookout stationed in an upper floor window alerted those below. “The patrols are here!” he shouted, and it was evident where the posse was headed. Richard quickly sent the slaves to the livery stable next to his barbershop. The livery was owned by Robert and James Hannah, anti-slave supporters who immediately hid the fugitives under the barn. An instant later the slave owner, lept from his horse and scrambled into the livery flanked by his men. They were met by the Hannah brothers who were firmly planted between the pursuers and their prey. The owner demanded his slaves be turned over to him at once, but the brothers had no intention of doing any such thing. Both Robert and James made a show of their revolvers before one of them issued a clear ultimatum, “Get out, or we’ll shoot!” The stymied slave owner issued a series of curses, but believing his life to be greater than that of his property, stormed out of the livery, leaving the county empty-handed.

Underground Railroad Stations in Crawford County
Since the formation of the route through Linesville, new ones emerge all across Crawford County. These were fed by major branches out of Maryland that ran primarily either from Pittsburgh, up to Beaver Falls, New Castle, and Mercer before arriving in Meadville, or from Clearfield to the southeast, through Shippenville, and then Franklin. Once in Crawford County runaway slaves might find themselves on several tributary branches leading through Cooperstown, and Townville on the way to Brown’s Richmond tannery. Others came through Meadville after stops in Jamestown or Conneautville. From Meadville, slaves continued north to either Richmond or Cambridge Springs and in some cases, Waterford, where John Brown's cousin manned a station. In the majority of these flights, the main destination was Erie where slaves would either cross the lake or follow the Railroad network through western New York before passing into Canada.

In addition to Brown’s tannery, a number of other safe-houses were regular Railroad stops in the county. Among these was the Gibson House (now Mark Twain Manor) in Jamestown where secret passages revealed spaces for concealing over 20 escaped slaves at a time. Others include the residence of Moses Bishop on East Erie Street in Linesville and the home of Taylor Hugh Fitz Randolph situated on the Turnpike to Franklin. Meadville itself was a hive of stations. Along with the Henderson home was the estate of Harm Jan Huidekoper known as Pomona Hall, the Barton and Gable hotels on Water Street, the Bagley home and Unitarian Seminary both on Chestnut Street, a barn on the Richmond property along the Diamond, and south of there, an unknown residence on Main Street.

From its beginnings in the early 1830s, the Crawford County branches of the Underground Railroad remained active for nearly 24 years during which time historians estimate that over 2,500 fugitives slaves were aided by the area's Railroad agents. The perils of these efforts should not be discounted. Unlike the slave hunters, Railroad agents did not have the backing of any laws, which put them at risk for arrest, criminal prosecution, and civil action for damages. The plight of recaptured slaves, though, was far worse. Cruel and unspeakable methods were employed by masters to punish runaways for their disobedience, and they were made a lesson to others. While it is not known for certain if or how many Railroad agents and escaped slaves in the area may have fallen prey to these possibilities, the lack of evidence, however, suggests such consequences were largely avoided. Assuming this to be true, it further attests to the degree of success the local Railroad achieved in aiding runaways while thwarting slave hunters. Ultimately, this success rested on the county’s tight network of operatives and the community’s support of their anti-slave activities.  


Blemaster, Arthur W.  "The Community of Meadville on the Underground Railroad," Master's Thesis, Allegheny College, 1926

Blockson, Charles L., The Underground Railroad in Pennsylvania, Flame Intl. 1981

Burns, Edward M., “Slavery in Western Pennsylvania,” Western Pennsylvania Historical Magazine, Volume 8, Number 4, 1925

Siebert, Wilbur H., The Underground Railroad from Slavery to Freedom, New York, The MacMillan Company, 1898

Tiffany, Nina Moore; Tiffany, Francis, Harm Jan Huidekoper, Cambridge, Riverside Press, 1904 

Williams, Kenneth P., "Crawford County on the Underground Railroad," unpublished paper. Crawford County Historical Society, 1959

About the Author

Ron Mattocks was born and raised in Guys Mills, Pennsylvania. Following high school, he joined the Army to see the world (which he did) before a career as a construction executive in Texas. Eventually, Ron switched to Internet marketing, working with companies such as GMC, ConAgra, Mattel, and others. During this time he also began writing regularly for the Huffington Post, Disney's Babble, and the TODAY Show. On a summer visit to Conneaut Lake Park, Ron became suddenly fascinated with the park's origins, a fascination that led to a passion for the county's extensive history. Today, Ron is the co-owner of Historia Inspired, LLC, and President of Client Strategy at Bull Moose Marketing in Meadville, PA. He graduated from St. Edwards University in Austin, Texas with a degree in English Literature, and is board VP of the Crawford County and board member of Northwestern PA Railroad and Tooling Museum.

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