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Chester County (Pennsylvania) Documents

Abolitionism, the Underground Railroad, Kidnapping and Quakers

Sources compiled by: Christopher Densmore, Curator, Friends Historical Library

Our Main Object: Abolitionists and the Underground Railroad, 1851

On October 15-16, 1851, the Pennsylvania Anti-Slavery Society met at West Chester in the Horticultural Hall. Among the resolutions passed at the meeting, and subsequently published in the Pennsylvania Freeman of October 24, 1851, were several pledging the assembled abolitionists not to obey the fugitive slave law. There was also a resolution printed in the Freeman under the heading “Our Main Object” as follows:

“Resolved, That while we rejoice in the escape of every fugitive from Slavery, and in the opportunity to give assistance, shelter, and protection to all such fugitives, our chief and all important work is,-- not to aid the escape of individual slaves, nor to prevent the extension of Slavery [this in reference to the aims of the “Free Soil Party”] but the immediate and total abolition of Slavery wherever it may exist.”

Free Produce in  London Grove, Chester County, ca. 1831

The following account by Joseph Preston concerning the growing of “free cotton” by his father, Amos Preston and Ezra Mitchner, ca. 1831, in London Grove township, was written by Joseph for a Lancaster County newspaper in 1881, and later incorporated into a sketch about Joseph published in The Journal: A Paper Devoted to the Interests of the Society of Friends, 4 Mo. 18, 1883, following Joseph’s death. Joseph’s sister was Anna Preston, a pioneer woman physician and Dean of the Women’s Medical College of Philadelphia.  The Free Produce Movement was an almost exclusively Quaker concern.

“More than fifty years since [ca. 1831], when a boy of some twelve or thirteen years, I wore a shirt made from cotton raised in Londongrove township, Chester county, and a very good and substantial garment it was, though the muslin was not smoothly finished. It was spun and woven by Jacob Pusey, at Hockessin, Delaware.

“Dr. Ezra Mitchner then owned a small farm adjoining my father’s. They were abolitionists and wished to clothe their children without slave-labor, and procured some cotton seed from North Carolina. My father planted a small plot in his garden; the cotton came up, grew luxuriously, and made a beautiful appearance. In due season, the balls opened, displaying the natural white cotton, new balls appeared each morning, until, as I remember, a frost after the middle of September wilted down the plants. Dr. Mitchner had a large plot. He was a man of ingenuity and enterprise, and made a small gin to clean the seed out of the cotton. Both crops made a small bale, which was sent to the factory, and my father’s share was about five and a half yards. After bleaching this on the sod, my mother made one for my father and one for me, and I doubt whether either of us ever wore shirts that would stand as much wear as these.”

The Question of Obedience to Law: William Jackson, London Grove, 1846

The willingness to aid fugitive slaves raised the question of the balance between the moral and religious obligations of individuals and the responsibilities of citizens to obey the laws. The following passages are from An Essay on the Rights of Government, by William Jackson, of Chester County, Pennsylvania (Wilmington, Delaware: Evans and Vernon, 1846):

“Human government being a necessary appendage of all social organizations, there must be in every body politic, a rightful source of authority; and this source of authority is no other than the majority of the people…  Hence if it be admitted, that the government of the United States exists with the consent of a majority of the people; it cannot consistently be denied that it has a rightful existence, and that it possesses a just and competent authority to do everything which a government might rightfully do. And in all cases over which its authority may rightfully extend, its mandates are morally binding upon every citizen, whatever may be his opinion of their justice or expediency…”

“But while the government has its rights, which all are bound to respect; the citizens, by virtue of their characters as human beings; have theirs also, which the government may not invade without committing a wrong. And if at any time the government should require of the citizen that which it has no natural right to demand, he is under no moral obligation to comply with such requisition. Of these rights which belong to every individual alike, one of them most important is, that of obeying God rather than man, in all cases. We have a clear right, and it is our duty to obey our Creator in all things; and consequently where that Creator has established certain principles of right and justice… we are in duty bound to obey those rules… No one is under any more obligation to lend himself as a tool to others for the commission of a crime, even when commanded by his government to do the wrong; we cannot well deny that he also possesses a discretionary power in the case, a right to judge of what is criminal and what innocent for him to do. As a conscience is the faculty which God has given us to judge of right and wrong, it is manifest that we possess a natural right to make on conscience the supreme guide and authority to direct our actions through life…”

“It is no light matter for an individual to set himself up in opposition to the deliberate judgment of the collected wisdom of his country, solemnly expressed in the form of law; and it is proper that every one in such case, should feel the full weight of the responsibility which rests upon him. But important and solemn it is; it may often by a person’s duty to thus bear a faithful testimony against the popular sins of his day and generation…”

Quakers Divided on Cooperating with the World, 1840s-1850s

The following description of the controversy among Friends of Chester County over the issue of joining the “world’s people” in abolitionist societies is included in “A Few Reminiscences of Lucretia Mott” by “N” as published first in the West Chester Local News and subsequently reprinted in the Quaker weekly, The Journal, 3 Mo. 23, 1881.

“Many years ago… [Lucretia Mott] addressed a number of Friends’ meetings in the townships of Marlborough, Kennett, Londongrove and others. The chief purpose of her discourses appeared to be a desire to arouse the members of that body to a livelier appreciation of duty in connection with their religious profession respecting the anti-slavery cause—urging the open, active affiliation with abolitionists and their societies, was an important part of their obligations as professing Christians.

“At that time a considerable number of prominent Friends earnestly opposed active co-operation and union with the anti-slavery associations, believing that a consistent adherence to their testimonies as a religions body was all that was required of them in relation to the practice of slaveholding…

“George F. White, a resident of New York, and a prominent speaker in the society, was earnestly opposed to Lucretia Mott’s views in regard to the matter referred to. He followed her through the townships spoken of, and sought to infuse among Friends a disinclination to join the anti-slavery crusade, largely on the grounds that by such action they would, in his opinion, find themselves associated with infidels, freethinkers and those who regarded active opposition to slavery as a religion in itself…

In the abolitionist press, George Fox White was described as “pro-slavery” because of his objections to Friends joining with the world’s people. However, White considered himself as anti-slavery. The writer of the above account of Lucretia Mott recalled, apparently from memory, White’s attacks on slavery at the London Grove Friends Meeting House delivered thirty or more years before:

“While objecting to the mode of operation of the Abolitionists, he [White] professed a great abhorrence of slavery, and refused to partake of the product of slave labor. Speaking of the traffic in human flesh, he used substantially the following language at Londongrove[:]

[“]The rapacious and heartless dealer in the bodies of human beings repairs to the coats of Africa; there he seizes his helpless victims… he binds and carries off the strong, forces them between narrow decks of his vessel… Arrived at the shores of our own native land, the hapless victims, manacled together, are driven under the lash to the block of the auctioneer, whose voice is heard “going! Going! Gone!” Forced to the plantation of the cruel task-master, the soil on which they stand is fattened by their blood and watered by their tears… [”]

In Chester County, the dispute among Hicksite Quakers over the appropriate role of Friends ultimately related in a division in Kennett Monthly Meeting and Western Quarterly Meeting in 1851, resulting in the more radical Friends setting up new and separate meetings of  “Progressive Friends” in 1851. These Friends with other reformers established the Pennsylvania Yearly Meeting of Progressive Friends in 1853. Some of those who left the Hicksite meetings at this time were disowned for “holding meetings out of the order and in subversion of the Discipline of our religions society under the name and character of Kennett Monthly Meeting…” About 1873, the Progressive Friends ended their weekly meeting and many rejoined the Hicksite meeting the following year. The Yearly Meeting of Progressive Friends (often called the “Longwood Yearly Meeting”) continued to meet until 1940.

Let the Oppressed Go Free:  Kennett Monthly Meeting Petitions Congress, 1847

The text of this memorial was printed The National Era, an abolitionist weekly published in Washington, DC, on  March 2, 1848.  The minutes of Kennett Monthly Meeting for the 11th and 12th Months 1847 confirm the writing and approval of this memorial, drafted by Richard M. Barnard, Samuel Martin, John Woodward, Simon Barnard and William Barnard, but do not record the wording of the document.  This is an example of many similar memorials and letters by Friends meetings to Congress. The appeal is limited to the abolition of slavery in the District of Columbia and to the interstate slave trade as it was the opinion of most people of this period that the Federal Government had no authority to legislate on slavery within the states. Kennett Monthly Meeting sent an additional memorial to Congress on 1st Month 9, 1849.  The text given below was transcribed from the National Era, correcting only the spelling of “Kennett” which is misspelled as “Hennett” in the Era.

To the Senate and House of Representatives of the United States:

The memorial of Kennett Monthly Meeting of the Religious Society of Friends, in Chester county, Pennsylvania, respectfully represents:

That the institution of  Slavery, as it exists in our country, opposed as it is alike to the theory of our Government and the precepts of our religion, demands, and we trust, will receive, your candid consideration.

No question at all likely to come before you is, in the opinion of your memorialists, of so much importance to our individual and national prosperity. The interests of Slavery and Freedom are always and necessarily antagonistical. Aside from the cruel injustice inflicted upon its victims, nothing so much as the system of Slavery tends to corrupt the morals and impair the energies of the people; nothing presents so formidable an obstacle to the struggle for popular reform—to the kindred cause of education, and the diffusion of knowledge—to internal improvements, and the consequent development of the resources of the country, or perhaps to the advance of civilization, and the progress of free principles throughout the world. In whatever light it is viewed—whether of principle of or policy—whether with reference to its own intrinsic sinfulness, and the Scriptural injunction to “Do to others as we would they should do to us;” “To undo the heavy burdens, and let the oppressed go free;” “to break every yoke;” to “Execute judgment in the morning and deliver him that is spoiled out of the land of the oppressor” – or with regard to the stability of the union itself, and the multiplied interests, real or imaginary, which cluster about it—still Slavery, in each and all its aspects, appears to be an evil of such portentous magnitude as to require, on the part of a prudent and Christian people, its entire and immediate abandonment. We therefore earnestly ask that you will use all rightful and constitutional means to abolish Slavery in the District of Columbia; and prevent the traffic in slaves between the States, which is scarcely surpassed in the enormity by that on the African coast, which your laws have long pronounced piracy; and, as you value your own and your country’s liberty, that you reject, with virtuous resolution and promptitude, and offered accession of territory, without the entire exclusion of Slavery from its soil. And the blessings of the perishing and the answer of a good conscience shall be yours. Signed by direction and on behalf of the aforesaid meeting, the 8th of 12th month, 1847.


The Kidnapping of George Mitchell, Unionville, August 1849

The following account from the Pennsylvania Freeman (Philadelphia, PA), Thursday, September 6, 1849, reports on the kidnapping/capture of Thomas Mitchell from Unionville in East Marlborough Township, Chester County. Mitchell’s Quaker employer, George Martin, and others pursued the abductors to Baltimore, were Martin himself was briefly jailed. Mitchell’s status is unclear, though it seems likely he was a fugitive slave who had been living openly in Chester and Lancaster Counties for the previous twelve years. His case was one of several similar incidents in the 1840s and 1850s involving African-Americans residents of Chester who may or may not have been fugitives. Earlier in August 1849, two men from Downington, were convicted and sentenced to prison for their role in the kidnapping of a teenager from Downington who was then sold into slavery in Baltimore. If Mitchell was in fact a fugitive slave, the fact that his captors resorted to a midnight abduction rather than applying to the courts for the return of Mitchell to slavery under the 1793 fugitive slave law is an indication that both the laws of Pennsylvania and popular sentiment made the recovery of fugitives in Pennsylvania difficult by 1849:

The Chester County Abduction Case. We gave last week a brief and imperfect account of an aggravated case of kidnapping, which occurred in Chester County on the night of the 21st ult. – the best we could then give, as no one of our friends were familiar with the facts, had given us any sketch of them. We have since visited the neighborhood where the outrage occurred, and have learned its history from the lips of those most intimately acquainted with it. This we will give somewhat in detail, as it cannot be uninteresting to abolitionists.

Thomas Mitchell, the victim of the late abduction, is a colored man and a native Maryland, where he once resided as a slave, claimed by a Mr. Hays of Cecil County. About the year 1837—twelve years ago—he came to Pennsylvania, and has since resided in Lancaster and Chester Counties, where he has been considered a free man, even according to the laws of Maryland. He always spoke of himself as such, and he still asserts that he was a slave only for a term of years, and is legally free. During his residence here he has married and became a father, and obtained for himself and family a snug and comfortable home, near Unionville, where by industry and honesty he had won the esteem of his employers and acquaintance. Happy in the performance of his daily duty and in the joys of his humble home, he lived on, no omen of future evil casting a shadow on his present peace. With no hint or fore-warning of danger, his terrible reverse fell upon him.

After midnight on the 21st of August, cries of “murder” and shrieks of distress, were heard by his neighbors, one family of whom lived but a few rods distant. Instantly they repaired to the spot and found Mitchell’s door battered in, his wife half sensible with fright lying within, but he was gone. Near the fallen wife lay a pistol loaded with three balls, the percussion cap of which was exploded. It was found that the door had been broken in by a large log wielded by several men; that Mitchell had been seized in his bed and in spite of his resistance, torn from the arms of his wife by three or four stout ruffians, and hurried into the carriage almost without clothing. To silence her cries and compel her to relax her grasp, a pistol was presented to the breast of his wife, and her life was threatened. Little more than this could be learned from the terrified woman.

Instant alarm was given throughout the neighborhood, and long before the dawn two parties were formed for pursuit: one going to Wilmington, and the other to Elkton, and thence to Baltimore by rail road.

The latter party consisted of George Martin and Samuel Pennock. Friend Martin, though in no way identified with the abolitionists, whose agitation he had stoutly opposed, and hitherto immovable in his Quaker quiet, could not resist this appeal to his heart, nor wait for any other prompting than the call of humanity. He had long known and employed Mitchell, and to remain inactive when he saw the honest poor man kidnapped from his home, his wife and his child, and dragged into slavery, without a form of trial, would have required a harder heart that that of Friend Martin’s. It was a glorious enthusiasm that thrilled his soul then, and we only hope that once kindled it may never die, but prompt him to many another deed, as generous and hearty, for the deliverance of the enslaved.

Before reaching Baltimore, Friend Martin and Pennock discovered that the kidnappers (with their victim hand-cuffed in their midst,) were on board the same train with themselves. On their arrival they found Dr. Snodgrass, who had been informed of the outrage by a telegraphic dispatch from Thomas Garrett at Wilmington, at the depot with an officer to arrest the kidnappers. But the slave prison was near, and the men-thieves had everything in readiness, and before they were intercepted had lodged poor Mitchell in the slave trader’s den, where they were followed by Friend Martin, while his companion proceeded to procure advice and assistance from friends in Baltimore.

The slave-dealers learning incidentally that Mr. Martin had formerly employed the man they claimed as their slave, arrested him on a assumpsit for the hire of a slave, and he was thrown into prison, though good and sufficient bail was offered for him. The Sheriff’s deputy fearing the wrath of the slaveholders, refused the bail on the paltry pretense that it was not offered by “freeholders.” The slave catchers had probably hoped, by these means, to frighten Mr. Martin into the payment of their demand, and from any further efforts to bring them to justice, but failed, as he found ready friends who were able and willing to support him in resisting their claim. Able counsel were employed, and the case was brought before Judge Legrand by a petition for the discharge of Mr. M., under the provisions of a law of 1846, for the relief of non-resident debtors. It was readily proved that Martin resided in Pennsylvania, and was, of course, not liable to Maryland laws. It was proved by McCreary, the head kidnapper, and the only witness introduced by the prosecutors, that while the suit was brought in the name of John Hays and wife, of Cecil county, as claimants of Mitchell, (under the name of Albert,) McCreary himself had brought “Albert” running, and seized him as his owner. A lawyer named Stump was the counsel for the slave catchers, and feeling that he had no foundation in law or reason for the suit, he attempted to carry his point by an appeal to the anti-abolition prejudices of the judge; his speech being little else that a tirade against the abolitionists—on whom he poured a volley of all the foul epithets he would call to his aid…

Lawyer Stump mistook his man in the contemptible effort to prejudice Judge Legrand: and Mr. Martin was discharged from custody, greatly to the chagrin of the slave-catching gentry, whose greedy fingers were itching for fresh plunder, from a Northern pocket. We learn from the Baltimore correspondent of the Standard and the Era that Stump’s speech excited only disgust, except among the immediate supporters of his clients and the hangers-on of the slave pen. A Baltimore Abolitionist offered five dollars for a faithful report of it for publication in the South as an anti-slavery document. Stump is a Fit lawyer for his cause and clients.

Though Mr. Martin is personally discharged, the suit is continued, and will be tried at the October session of the Court, should the plaintiffs press it, which is not probable.

In the meantime, Thomas Mitchell has been sold to a slave trader, and is confirmed in Wilson’s den, (pen is not the word) and probably will be sent South—as the trader threatens, when trying to speculate upon the sympathy of the Pennsylvanians—but that his shoulder was dislocated, and we was otherwise disabled in the scuffle when he was taken.

The names of three of the wretches engaged in this bold outrage are known, and measures will undoubtedly be taken to procure their delivery to the authorities of Pennsylvania, to be tried for the crimes of burglary, the threat of assassination against a peaceable woman, and the kidnapping of a Pennsylvania citizen.—Chester county is roused by the atrocious deed, and no effort will be spared to wipe away the shame of the crime from the County and State, and to prevent like atrocities in future.

The subject is fruitful of thought, but our space forbids comment.

Indignation Meeting. – Grand Rally!!

The citizens of Chester County, without distinction of party, are required to assemble in a grand mass meeting at the house from which William Mitchell was recently kidnapped, near Taggart’s Cross Roads, in East Marlborough township, on Saturday, September 22d, at 10 o’clock A.M., to express their sentiments concerning that highhanded outrage, and take measures to prevent future incursions of Maryland land pirates upon them. The Meeting will be held in the woods near the house, if the day be fair; if not, in the barn near by. It will continue through the afternoon. Let every person who would protect the rights of the poor, the peace of the county, the honor of the State, and his own liberties, from the midnight invasion of burglars, assassins and kidnappers, come up to this gathering of the people. Speakers from abroad are expected.

Philadelphia Yearly Meeting Forbids Compliance with the Fugitive Slave Law, 1851

From the Representative Committee [Meeting for Sufferings], Philadelphia Yearly Meeting (Hicksite), 1 Mo. 31, 1851.

“It is evident that the Yearly Meeting does not recognize the institution of Slavery as one that can be upheld where christian feelings predominate; and that under this conviction its members cannot assist in carrying out such laws as may be enacted to perpetuate its existence, without violating our testimonies…

“Whilst we do not feel at liberty to oppose the laws of the land by any demonstration of violence whatever, or to speak evil of those who enacted them, we have the right of calmly and firmly maintaining our ground against wrong and injustice, and of giving living evidence of our faith, by suffering, if necessary for a cause which we believe to be founded in Truth…

“We would recommend our members firmly to adhere to the principle of acting conscientiously and uprightly according to the light received, and to decline on such grounds to be made the instruments of a law which requires them to assist in returning a human being into a bondage which we believe is not sanctioned by divine authority; but which, on the contrary, appears to us to have been established in violation of those christian principles which we profess.

“Some of you may be called into suffering on this account…