Christiana Riot: 1851
The September 11, 1851 Christiana “Riot,” was the first major skirmish to challenge slavery following the “Compromise of 1850.”

A Maryland slave owner was killed in Lancaster Pennsylvania attempting to retrieve his enslaved men who had escaped to freedom. His son was severely wounded along with another relative.

The armed resistance at the farm of a free African American named William Parker emboldened abolitionists and outraged slave owners.

The roots of the confrontation lay in the 1850 compromise between free states and slave states in the U.S. Congress.

Political confrontation between free states and slave states was growing in the years preceding the Civil War primarily over whether slavery would be permitted in territories seized during the war with Mexico.

The 1850 compromise was enacted by a series of bills on close votes in the House and Senate and outraged both abolitionists and staunch slave owners.

Its terms included:

1. For the abolitionists, California was admitted to the U.S. as a free state, the compromise permitted the Utah and New Mexico territories to decide for themselves the issue of slavery (neither territory was suitable for a plantation economy and extremely unlikely to approve slavery) and outlawed slave trade (but not slavery) within the District of Columbia.

2. The admission of California tilted the number of free states to a 16-15 majority. However, as part of the compromise, California agreed to send one pro-slavery senator and one anti-slavery senator to keep the balance in the U.S. Senate.

3. In addition, the slave state of Texas agreed to recede some of their northern border to New Mexico and the federal government assumed Texas’ debt.

4. Slave owners were granted a provision that strengthened the existing Fugitive Slave Act. There would no longer be any trial nor any evidence presented by African Americans against their forcible return to a slave state.

A slave owner could swear out an arrest warrant that would be delivered by a U.S Marshal(s). Under the law, any white man was obligated to assist in the capture of slaves escaping to freedom.

A burgeoning business was birthed where unscrupulous slave catchers formed bands for hire and were quickly deputized. With no recourse to courts, free African Americans were kidnapped in non-slave states and enslaved in addition to the capture of those fleeing slavery.

The Christiana confrontation began when four enslaved men fled the plantation of Edward Gorsuch in Baltimore County in Maryland November 6, 1849. The men were Noah Baley, Nelson Ford, George Hammond, and Joshua Hammond.

Gorsuch sought their return May 28, 1851 when he filed paperwork with the United States District Court for Maryland, along with two other men who escaped slavery earlier in 1844.

Gorsuch then headed for Pennsylvania with his son, Dickinson; a nephew, Dr Pearce; a cousin, Joshua M. Gorsuch; and two neighbors, Nathan Nelson and Nicholas Hutchings. They were joined in Pennsyvlania by deputy U.S. Marshal Henry H. Kline and William Padgett, a local Lancaster man who had alerted Gorsuch to the location of three of the men who had escaped Gorsuch’s enslavement.

The slave catchers approached Parker’s home where Parker greeted them and refused to surrender the escapees.

A verbal confrontation arose with Gorsuch swearing to take the men and Parker adamantly refusing. Both sides brandished arms.

As the confrontation grew more heated, Parker’s wife Eliza opened up a second floor window and blew a horn, a local message to other nearby farms that immediate assistance was needed.

Someone in Gorsuch’s party opened fire on Eliza Parker, but did not hit her—due to the stone construction of the house and the deep windows. Parker said later a dozen shots were fired at her. Locals, both black and white responded to the horn and converged on Parker’s farmhouse.

The Gorsuch party and Parker’s group fired upon each other apparently without effect, but ceased fire while dialogue continued.

Kline enlisted any arriving whites that would agree into the slave catchers’ posse while African Americans armed with firearms and tools took up with Parker. A number of white Quakers arrived, including Castner Hanway who refused to aid Kline and advised him to withdraw.

It was now after 7:00 a.m. and William Parker relates in an account 15 years after the confrontation what happened next:


Then Lewis and Hanway both said to the Marshal, "If Parker says they will not give up, you had better let them alone, for he will kill some of you. We are not going to risk our lives"; and they turned to go away.
While they were talking, I came down and stood in the doorway, my men following behind.

Old Mr. Gorsuch said, when I appeared, "They'll come out, and get away!" and he came back to the gate.

I then said to him, "You said you could and would take us. Now you have the chance."

They were a cowardly-looking set of men.

Mr. Gorsuch said, "You can't come out here."

"Why?" said I. "This is my place. I pay rent for it. I'll let you see if I can't come out."

"I don't care if you do pay rent for it," said he. "If you come out, I will give you the contents of these,” presenting, at the same time, two revolvers, one in each hand.

I said, "Old man, if you don't go away, I will break your neck."

I then walked up to where he stood, his arms resting on the gate, trembling as if afflicted with palsy, and laid my hand on his shoulder, saying, "I have seen pistols before to-day."

Kline now came running up, and entreated Gorsuch to come away.
"No," said the latter, "I will have my property, or go to hell."

"What do you intend to do?" said Kline to me.

"I intend to fight," said I. "I intend to try your strength."

"If you will withdraw your men," he replied, "I will withdraw mine."

I told him it was too late. "You would not withdraw when you had the chance, --you shall not now."

Kline then went back to Hanway and Lewis. Gorsuch made a signal to his men, and they all fell into line. I followed his example as well as I could; but as we were not more than ten paces apart, it was difficult to do so. At this time we numbered but ten, while there were between thirty and forty of the white men.

While I was talking to Gorsuch, his son said, "Father, will you take all this from a nigger?"

I answered him by saying that I respected old age; but that, if he would repeat that, I should knock his teeth down his throat. At this he fired upon me, and I ran up to him and knocked the pistol out of his hand, when he let the other one fall and ran in the field.

My brother-in-law, who was standing near, then said, "I can stop him,” and with his double-barrel gun he fired.

Young Gorsuch fell, but rose and ran on again. Pinckney fired a second time, and again Gorsuch fell, but was soon up again, and, running into the cornfield, lay down in the fence corner.

I returned to my men, and found Samuel Thompson talking to old Mr. Gorsuch, his master. They were both angry.

"Old man, you had better go home to Maryland," said Samuel.

"You had better give up, and come home with me," said the old man.

Thompson took Pinckney's gun from struck Gorsuch, and brought him to his knees. Gorsuch rose and signaled to his men. Thompson then knocked him down again, and he again rose. At this time all the white men opened fire, and we rushed upon them; when they turned, threw down their guns, and ran away. We, being closely engaged clubbed our rifles. We were too closely pressed to fire, but we found a good deal could be done with empty guns.

Old Mr. Gorsuch was the bravest of his party; he held on to his pistols until the last, while all the others threw away their weapons. I saw as many as three at a time fighting with him. Sometimes he was on his knees, then on his back, and again his feet would be where his head should be. He was a fine soldier and a brave man. Whenever he saw the least opportunity, he would take aim. While in close quarters with the whites, we could load and fire but two or three times. Our guns got bent and out of order. So damaged did they become, that we could shoot with but two or three of them. Samuel Thompson bent his gun on old Mr. Gorsuch so badly, that it was of no use to us.

When the white men ran, they scattered. I ran after Nathan Nelson, but could not catch him. I never saw a man run faster. Returning, I saw Joshua Gorsuch coming, and Pinckney behind him. I reminded him that he would like "to take hold of a nigger," told him that now was his "chance," and struck him a blow on the side of the head, which stopped him. Pinckney came up behind, and gave him a blow which brought him to the ground; as the others passed, they gave him a kick or jumped upon him, until the blood oozed out at his ears.

Nicholas Hutchings, and Nathan Nelson of Baltimore County, Maryland, could outrun any men I ever saw. They and Kline were not brave, like the Gorsuches. Could our men have got them, they would have been satisfied.

One of our men ran after Dr. Pierce, as he richly deserved attention; but Pierce caught up with Castner Hanway, who rode between the fugitive and the Doctor, to shield him and some others. Hanway was told to get out of the way, or he would forfeit his life; he went aside quickly, and the man fired at the Marylander, but missed him,--he was too far off. I do not know whether he was wounded or not; but I do know, that, if it had not been for Hanway, he would have been killed.

Having driven the slavocrats off in every direction, our party now turned towards their several homes. Some of us, however, went back to my house, where we found several of the neighbors.

The scene at the house beggars description. Old Mr. Gorsuch was lying in the yard in a pool of blood, and confusion reigned both inside and outside of the house.

Levi Pownell said to me, "The weather is so hot and the flies are so bad, will you give me a sheet to put over the corpse?"
In reply, I gave him permission to get anything he needed from the house.

"Dickinson Gorsuch is lying in the fence-corner, and I believe he is dying. Give me something for him to drink," said Pownell, who seemed to be acting the part of the Good Samaritan.

When he returned from ministering to Dickinson, he told me he could not live.

The riot, so called, was now entirely ended. The elder Gorsuch was dead; his son and nephew were both wounded, and I have reason to believe others were,--how many, it would be difficult to say. Of our party, only two were wounded. One received a ball in his hand, near the wrist; but it only entered the skin, and he pushed it out with his thumb. Another received a ball in the fleshy part of his thigh, which had to be extracted; but neither of them were sick or crippled by the wounds. When young Gorsuch fired at me in the early part of the battle, both balls passed through my hat, cutting off my hair close to the skin, but they drew no blood. The marks were not more than an inch apart.
Quickly realizing what would happen next, the escaped slaves and Parker and his wife successfully fled to Canada.

Slave owners throughout the country were outraged that African American men had taken up arms and killed, wounded and driven off the slavers.

Thirty-seven African Americans were indicated for treason against the United States along with four white men.

The prosecution brought the first case against the white Quaker, Castner Hanway, portraying him as the leader of white resistance to the slave catchers, despite the fact the Hanway took no open role to aid Parker and the others and helped some of Gorsuch’s men escape by shielding them with his horse. No doubt the prosecutor just could not conceive that Afrian Americans could organize and effective defense and defeat and armed gang of whites. They must have been led by a white man.

The jury acquitted Hanway within 15 minutes and the prosecution dropped the charges against the rest of those indicted.

However, most of the remaining defendants still faced state charges of murder and riot. They remained in custody for another month until Deputy Marshal Henry Kline was himself indicted for lying at the defendants' pretrial hearing.

Slavers were even more outraged that no one was punished for the killing of the elder Gorsuch and the wounding of two other members of the family. They felt that the jury had nullified the fugitive slave law by acquitting Hanway since regardless of what role Hanway played, he did not actively aid in capturing and returning the fugitive slaves.

Abolitionists were jubilant that the Fugitive Slave Law was effectively nullified.

The Christiana “riot,” the war over slavery in “Bloody Kansas” and John Brown’s raid on Harper’s Ferry were the three most significant incidents leading to the 1861 armed showdown over slavery that we call the Civil War today.
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