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The Underground Railroad in Bucks County, Pennsylvania

By Edward S. Magill

Published in the Friends Intelligencer 55 (1898): 124-5, 142-4, 159-61 and 276-7. This was based on a lecture delivered to the Bucks County Historical Society and later published in a more complete version as “When Men Were Sold, Reminiscences of the Underground Railroad in Bucks County and Its Managers,” in A Collection of Papers Read Before the Bucks County Historical Society 2(1909): 493-520. Edward Magill (9 Month 24, 1825- 12th Month 10, 1907) was the son of Joseph Paxson Magill and Mary Watson Magill. He taught at schools in Pennsylvania and Massachusetts before joining the faculty of Swarthmore College; Magill was President of Swarthmore from 1871 to 1890.

Note: The following are selections from the complete article.

As the principal line of escape through Pennsylvania was by way of York, Adams, Lancaster and Chester counties, the underground line through Bucks county was less used, and consequently less perfectly organized. Still many slaves came through the country, reaching it through the northeastern Chester county-line, by way of Norristown, or coming through Philadelphia. Farmers on their way home from market frequently found homes and occupations with Bucks county farmers, some of them remaining for several years. At the home of my father, Jonathan P. Magill, [1] of Solebury, many were thus received, beginning as far back as my memory extends. Many stories of their experiences as slaves, and their efforts to escape, were told my brother Watson and myself, by our hired colored men, which stores are more or less distinct in my memory. The general impression left on my mind by these in my early boyhood was the sad and helpless condition of the life of a slave; the inexpressible terrors which these affectionate creatures experienced from their fear of separation from their families; their bravery in setting out unaided and alone to seek a land of liberty, by hundreds of miles of night travel, guided only by the North Star, and incurring the constant risk of recapture and being sold to a far off Southern market; and the great cruelty and inhumanity of a system which could thus deprive human beings of their inalienable right to life and liberty. [124]

From the first appearance of Garrison’s Liberator it was ever a welcome weekly visitor at my father’s house. Although then but six years of age I well remember the thrill with which we heard our father read in our little sitting-room that memorable first editorial of the great anti-slavery leader, closing with the words, “These are the principles by which I shall be guided; I will not retract a single inch, and I will be heard.” I may add here that besides the Liberator the others principal anti-slavery papers, the Pennsylvania Freeman and the National Anti-Slavery Standard were regularly received at my father’s house.

Of the comparatively small band who entered thus early on the anti-slavery work in Bucks county, there were none who were not actively involved from the beginning in the operation of the Underground Railroad. Indeed for membership in that organization, of which our own Robert Purvis was president for many years, and whose only dividend received by the stockholders was unpopularity among their fellowmen, there were no hard and fast rules of enrollment, who were able and willing to lend a hand. I should say here that they were some of the most efficient workers among them, led by kindly motives of humanity, and sympathy for the oppressed and down-trodden race, who did not consider themselves Garrisonian Abolitionists, being too cautious and conservative to rally under the revolutionary banner of “No union with slave-holders.” Some of these were afterward active in the Liberty, and the Free Soil party.

So far as I have been able to ascertain, the routes of Northern travel for the slaves were less clearly marked through Bucks, than they were through Chester and Lancaster counties. The ten mile limit, for the distance between the stations, was also far less frequently observed. The escaping fugitives usually entered the country from the south, by way of Philadelphia, but many came by the northeast Chester county route already referred to, by way of Norristown. In naming the families who were especially interested in this humane but unlawful work of aiding slaves through Bucks county. I shall doubtless omit some who were equally interested with those named, and who performed with them an equally important part of the work, and incurred with them an equal risk in carrying on their principles, in direct violation of what they justly regarded as iniquitous laws. Of course I must name those with whose work I have myself been most familiar.

In the lower part of the county, among those who were every ready to receive with sympathy these unhappy fugitives, to care for them, and give or obtain for them employment so long as they dared to stop on their northern flight, and then with the proper credentials to their friends further north, to help them on their way either by taking them in their own conveyances, sometimes covered over or disguised to avoid detection in case of pursuit and search, or by sending them on by trusted friends traveling in that direction, or sometimes, when it seemed safe to do so, paying their fares and sending them by stage (Bucks county then being without railroads); I may mention the names of Robert Purvis, Barclay Ivins, the Pierces, the Swains, the Beanses, the Lintons, the Schofields, the Buckmans, the Janneys, the Twinings, Jonathan Palmer, William Lloyd, William Burgess, Jolly Longshore.

After a journey northward of from ten to twenty miles the fugitives were received and kindly cared for until ready to go further north, by the Atkinsons, the Browns, the Tregos, the Blackfans, the Smiths, the Simpsons, the Paxons, John E. Kenderline, Jonathan P. Magill, Jacob Heston, William H. Johnson, Joseph Fell and Edward Williams.

Having but slight acquaintance with the friends of the slave in the northern end of the county, I can only say that the friends of the middle section generally forwarded the fugitives to Richard Moore, of Quakertown, or sometimes, more directly further on by stage or private conveyance to the Vails or to Jacob Singmaster, of Stroudsburg. On reaching these northern points, having put so many miles of weary travel between them and their masters in the South, their feeling of security generally increased, and still more was this case on reaching Montrose, or Friendsville, in Susquehanna County, where, under the kind care of Israel Post, in Montrose, or Caleb Carmalt, in Friendsville, and other friends to aid them, that had reached ground on which, in those days of difficult travel, the slaveholder but rarely ventured in search of his slaves. A comparatively short journey from these places brought them to the State of New York.

The home of our friend Richard Moore, in Quakertown, was the last important station of the Underground Railroad in our county, and the point where the northern Chester county line and most of the Bucks county lines converged. From his grandson, Alfred Moore, of Philadelphia, I learn that Richard Moore, while not ready to unite with the early abolitionists in their revolutionary motto: “No Union with Slaveholders,” still felt prompted by sympathy many years ago to aid on their way the escaping fugitives. His home soon became known to friends further South as a place where all fugitives forwarded would receive care and needed assistance in their continued flight. Thence they soon began to come directed to his home in very considerable numbers. Although slaveholders rarely proceeded so far in pursuit of their slaves, they occasionally did so, and more than once the master has presented himself at the front door of Richard Moore a few moments after the object of his search, being forewarned of his approach, had escaped by a back door to a place of concealment in the rear. Many of the fugitives, on reaching Quakertown, feeling comparatively safe, were willing to hire out there, and Richard Moore was ever willing to give them work himself, of find them employment among his friends and neighbors. Still there were many slaves whose fear was so great that they were anxious to be passed on as soon as possible to a real land of freedom in Canada. These were, of course, sent on at once, and generally with letters to friends in Montrose or Friendsville. Much of the route between Quakertown and these further stations, up the valley of the Lehigh and the Susquehanna, was through a then unsettled country were the probabilities of discovery and arrest were but slight. But there, as elsewhere, most of their traveling was done at night, they lying safely concealed in some dark ravine or impenetrable morass or brushwood by the day. [142-3]

I will now briefly state a case with which our family have been quite familiar. Rachel Moore was a slave near Elkton [Maryland], more than fifty years ago. She was manumitted by her master, and received free-papers from the court at Elkton. I had hoped to present these papers, as they were long carefully cherished in her possession, but they have been mislaid since her death. She had six children who were still slaves, and succeeded in bringing all of them North, aided by the Underground Railroad. As usual they traveled only by night, resting in concealment during the day. Think of a mother starting unaided, with her six children, to a distant and unknown country, seeking for her children the blessings of freedom which she herself had already acquired! Does the fact speak volumes for the cruelty of a system of oppression from which she was making her escape? They sometimes met with friends who took them in and cared for them at night. Sometimes they were less fortunate, and spent the day of anxious concealment all alone. The first names that I have of those with whom they stopped are a family of Lewises with whom they spent two days at Phoenixville, and who then sent them on, in a wagon at night, to a friend named Paxon near Norristown, who in turn took them into Norristown to the home of that well-known friend of the slave, Jacob L. Paxon, where they remained two weeks. From there they were forwarded to the home of W.H. Johnson, where homes were found for the four eldest children in the families of Thomas Paxon, Joseph Fell, Edward Williams and John Blackfan. Rachel, with her two younger children, came to the home of my father, Jonathan P. Magill, where they remained for several years. I am indebted to Fanny, one of these children, for details of this account. [160]

The case of the fugitive, Rachel Moore, who escaped with her six young children, has always been a subject to me of deep interest, she and some of her children for a number of years having been connected with my father’s family. It, is therefore, with great pleasure that I received recently important supplementary information as to their escape and sufferings, and the kind friends who aided them on their way, in the following letter from my friend, Grace Anna Lewis, now of Media, Pa.[2] She writes:

“I will give thee some additional facts which relate, I think, to the fugitive, Rachel Moore, mentioned in they very interesting notes of the “Underground Railroad.”

“I do not remember her by name, possibly she had not assumed it, but I have no doubt that the woman and her six children are the same who came to our house, not to Phoenixville, but four and a half miles from that place, on a farm, midway between Kimberton and Chester Springs, near the road leading to Lionville and West Chester. There was no anti-slavery family by the name of Lewis living in Phoenixville, and none except ours, in the region at that time, so I cannot doubt that the person referred to is the same as the one I remember. I suppose that she and her children were forwarded to Elijah F. Pennypacker, near Phoenixville, and by him transferred to Jacob Paxson, at Norristown, since that was the usual route for fugitives sent in that direction. It would be very easy for a child (the daughter, Fanny Moore, now surviving, mentioned in my paper) in this lapse of time, to forget—even quite marvelous if she should not.

“The woman to whom I refer reached us in a most pitiful condition. Soon after she and her children left the home of the master, a rain came on, and the flapping of their wet garments against their unprotected limbs wore off the skin, until it bled with every step, yet their sense of danger of capture was so great that they pressed forward with all the speed possible to them. I think the mother carried the youngest child to hasten them forward. When they reached our home they were too sore to do anything but rest and recuperate. In addition to their need of rest was that of northern clothing. My memory is that the mother wore but a single garment, a coarse, heavy dress made of tow, woven in broken stripes of red, and inch or more in width, and totally unlike anything of northern manufacture, the children being dressed in the same material. Of course this clothing exposed them to detection by the first pro-slavery person they should met; and it had to be burned immediately as soon as the other could be provided. A store for such cases was kept constantly on hand at our house, much of it being prepared by a number of anti-slavery families, who sent it to us in quantity. Our home was usually the first on the line where southern clothing could be exchanged for northern. Frequently the haste was too great to admit of delay at an earlier time. In the case of John Vickers of Lionville, the next station south of ours—his wife had long been dead—and there was no one to attend to such matters. His pottery stood immediately on the public road, and there was little opportunity for concealment, except when due, in exceptional cases, to his own quick wit, or that of his assistants, white and colored. He was a most kindly man, and was faithful in the highest degree to his anti-slavery principles, as was also our dear and venerated friend, Elijah F. Pennypacker, the next station in an opposite direction, as well as Lewis Peat, to whom we frequently sent our colored guests. As was usual in most cases, we never heard anything further of this woman and her children until I listened to thy account in the INTELLIGENCER. This gathering up of ashes “for history’s golden urn” is not alone for succeeding generations, but for the old workers too. It was very pleasant for me to know that after all her trials, this woman had found a safe home with thy mother and father.” [276-7]



[1] Jonathan P. Magill, died 5 Mo. 25, 1868, aged 75, Friends Intelligencer 25 (6 Month 3, 1868): 233.

[2] Graceanna Lewis (1821-1912), see Deborah Jean Warner, Graceanna Lewis: Scientist and Humanitarian (Washington, DC: 1979).