Just before dawn on Sept. 11, 1851, six armed men walked along a dirt lane connecting Lower Valley and Noble roads, southwest of Christiana.
Leading them was Edward Gorsuch, 56, a Maryland slave owner. Two years earlier, four of Gorsuch’s slaves had run away. Gorsuch always believed “my boys” would return voluntarily. When they didn’t, he blamed Northern abolitionists.
Now he was out to retrieve his human property, using the authority of the federal Fugitive Slave Act.Accompanying Gorsuch was deputy U.S. Marshal Henry H. Kline; Gorsuch’s son, Dickinson; a nephew, Dr. Thomas Pearce; a cousin, Joshua M. Gorsuch; and two neighbors, Nathan Nelson and Nicholas Hutchings.
There was also William Padgett, a local handyman and possible member of the Gap Gang, who spied on his neighbors while watching for fugitive slaves.
Padgett had located three of Gorsuch’s runaways, now holed up in a stone cottage just ahead in the pre-dawn gloom.
The two-story house was the home of William Parker, a farm worker. A runaway himself, Parker was vehemently anti-slavery, vowing that no escapee within his reach would be returned to bondage, even if it meant violence. He boasted of having killed two slave catchers, but there’s no evidence to support the claim.
As the posse approached the house that morning, they were spotted, and the inhabitants raced to the second floor. Gorsuch and Kline burst inside and began mounting the stairs until stopped by Parker.
After verbal sparring, objects being hurled down the stairway and threats of violence, the two men retreated outside.
From the front yard, Kline demanded surrender of the runaways.
Parker, at an upstairs window, denied their presence, and a long, heated war of words broke out that included Biblical verses for and against slavery.
The posse, jittery to begin with, was further spooked when Parker’s wife, Eliza, blew a small, tin signal horn from the attic window. This evoked a brief exchange of nervous but poorly aimed gunfire, followed by more angry words.
News of the confrontation spread through the valley, and dozens of black field hands converged on the house, some toting guns, knives and scythes.
White neighbors also arrived, including Castner Hanway, Elijah Lewis and Joseph P. Scarlet.
Kline appealed to Hanway, the first to arrive, to call off his neighbors, but Hanway, knowing Parker’s resolve and temper, advised the posse to leave.
Gorsuch refused and swore, “I’ll have my property, or I’ll breakfast in hell.”
History will never know who fired the first shot, but the resulting violence included gunfire, fists and clubs. When the dust settled, Gorsuch lay dead and his son critically wounded.
Advised to flee the inevitable wrath of an outraged white society, Parker and his brother-in-law, Alexander Pinckney, made their way to Canada with the help of Parker’s boyhood friend, abolitionist Frederick Douglass.
His neighbors were less fortunate. Lancaster police, federal marshals, U.S. Marines and vigilantes, including the Gap Gang, descended on the valley.
A reign of terror ensued.
The Lancaster Anti-Slavery Standard on Sept. 15 wrote that “gangs of armed ruffians from Maryland, assisted by the lowest ruffians this region can furnish, are prowling the country” and are “arresting indiscriminately all colored persons whom they meet.”
David R. Forbes, editor of the Quarryville Sun, wrote “there never went unhung a gang of more depraved wretches and desperate scoundrels than some of the men employed as ‘officers of the law’ to ravage this country and ransack private houses.”
Meanwhile, the anti-abolitionist Lancaster Intelligencer denounced the “Christiana Outrage” as “the fruits of the doctrines advocated by (Gov. William F.) Johnston and (U.S. Rep. Thaddeus) Stevens.”
Of the 141 people arrested, 39 were charged with treason, the most ever accused of that crime in U.S. history. Those accused of treason included Hanway, Lewis, Scarlet and a fourth white man and 35 black men.
Because it was believed blacks could not organize on their own, Hanway, as the first white man to arrive on the scene, was assumed to be the leader. Thus, he was the first to be tried.
The trial, held in Philadelphia on the second floor of Independence Hall, drew national attention. It prompted a poem by John Greenleaf Whittier that praised the accused. It was attended by abolitionist Lucretia Mott. Press reports were read by a friend of the Gorsuch family, actor John Wilkes Booth.
The government’s case soon fell apart, and the trial ended with Hanway’s acquittal.
Eventually, charges against all of the defendants were dropped; an outrage Booth likely may have recalled more than thirteen years later as he aimed his pistol at the head of President Abraham Lincoln.
The North proclaimed victory, while the ruling left the South embittered.
War drew closer.