On this day—September 11, 1851—a deputy U.S. marshal led a raid in Christiana to recover four enslaved people in accordance with the Fugitive Slave Act of 1850. Free Blacks and freedom seekers in the surrounding area met this raid with a successful but deadly armed resistance. Some historians have called the Christiana Resistance (also known as the Christiana Riot) the first battle of the Civil War.
The Christiana Resistance
In addition to being a stop on the underground railroad, many historians consider the Christiana to be the first battle of the Civil War. In fact, General Robert E. Lee, when making his attack into southeast Pennsylvania in the next decade, is alleged to have asked where the town was so he could burn it. It was here that the Fugitive Slave Law of 1850 was tested for the first time. Southern slaveholders believed that federal law protected their right to apprehend fugitives. Northern abolitionists denounced the law and denied that the federal government had the right to enact a bill that ran contrary to human rights and the laws of God. A confrontation between the sides was inevitable; their opposing philosophies met at Christiana.
Edward Gorsuch, a wealthy landowner from Baltimore County, Maryland, discovered that grain and other items from his farm were missing, along with four of his slaves. With the law on his side, he set out to reclaim his property. Accompanied by a group of men, Gorsuch made his way to Christiana, where an informant had told him he would find his runaways.
The four escaped slaves had indeed made their way to William Parker’s home in Christiana. Parker was a fugitive who had established residence on the farm of Quaker Levi Pownall. Parker was a strong defender of fugitives and was known for his assistance to those traveling along the Underground Railroad.
On the morning of September 11, 1851, Gorsuch and his group made their way through cornfields to Parker’s tenant house on the Pownall farm. A marshal announced the group’s intention to apprehend Edward Gorsuch’s property.
The house’s inhabitants denied that any property belonging to Gorsuch was on the premises. Both sides fired shots. Eliza Parker, William Parker’s wife, sounded a horn for help, and between 75 and 100 people came to the assistance of those inside the little homestead.
By the end of the encounter, Edward Gorsuch lay dead, and his son lay seriously wounded.
Federal troops were called in to help with the ensuing investigation. Forty-five United States Marines descended on Christiana. With a posse of fifty civilians, they searched and terrorized the community’s white and black citizens. As a result of the investigation, 37 men were arrested and charged with treason for their defiance of a federal order. Heading the defense team was abolitionist Thaddeus Stevens.
After three months of testimony, the jury returned a verdict of “not guilty” in fifteen minutes. The verdict sent a signal to the South that the Fugitive Slave Law would not be enforced in the North and further fanned the flames of distrust and discord that were spreading throughout the country.
Never miss a new post or article by signing up for email updates below and following Uncharted Lancaster on Facebook or Instagram.
Purchase a beautiful reproduction map from 1875 of Sadsbury Township, home of Christiana, PA.
1875 map of Christiana and (East) Petersburg, Lancaster County, PA$27.99 – $29.99
1864 Map of Sadsbury Township, Lancaster County, PA$24.99 – $25.99
Could buried treasure be found in Christiana?
Could buried treasure be found in Christiana? Untold riches hidden by runaway slaves. Click the link to read more.