The Christiana Riot of 1851 is sometimes described at the first skirmish of the Civil War

The "Christiana Riot" is one of the better-known stories from the days of the Underground Railroad and runaway slave resistance, in part because of the subsequent trial and in part because William Parker published his story in the "Atlantic Monthly" in 1866.

The tale is set on a farm outside the town of Christiana, Pennsylvania, near the Lancaster-Chester county boundary and not far from the Mason-Dixon Line. There was a lawlessness in the region that predated slavery disputes: it was a haven for horse thieves and chicken thieves. The landscape of steep wooded hills and scrubby ravines made ideal hideouts and perfect terrain for stealthy movement. The intersection of three states and five counties within a few miles made this a legal shadowland, ideal for outlaws. Taverns, like the Line House between Pennsylvania and Delaware, were deliberately built to straddle boundaries; if the sheriff from one county walked into the tavern, all the criminal element simply shuffled down to the far end of the bar -- out of his jurisdiction. The 1980s movie "At Close Range" was based on a modern story from this region, though the setting was shifted to Tennessee.

The path of Eastern Shore Maryland runaways naturally led up through this area, and the borderlands offered a haven to both runaways and kidnappers. Despite the intermittent danger from kidnappers, many free blacks settled in the area, lured in part by a population of sympathetic whites, including Quakers and plenty of farmers willing to hire runaways because they worked hard and worked cheap.

Parker had lived there since he ran off from slavery in Maryland in 1839. He claimed to have set up a protective league among local blacks in the early 1840s, and to have instigated riots to free fugitives from as early as 1841.

Later events can be corroborated. One incident, probably from 1850, involved slave-catchers taking a woman named Elizabeth. They stopped at a tavern, which gave Parker and his gang time to catch up to them and set a trap. One of Parker's men, mounted on a conspicuous white horse, rode behind the wagon with the captured slave. This signaled the others, in hiding on Gap Hill, which wagon to attack. They did, the woman escaped, and Parker claimed the slave-catchers were so badly beaten that up to three of them later died.

Parker also arranged the barn-burning of a tavernkeeper who had said he would welcome slave-catchers, and he and his confederates attacked blacks they believed to be informers. One was badly beaten, in "an appeal to the Lynch Code," and the other had his house burned down around him, although he escaped to a neighbor's, rather than being shot to death as he ran out, as Parker had planned.

Four slaves of Marylander Edward Gorsuch had escaped late in 1849, and they took refuge in the Christiana area. An informer told Gorsuch where they were in August 1851, and the Methodist deacon, known as a kind master, decided to retrieve his property. He went to Philadelphia for the proper papers, along with his son, cousin, nephew, and two neighbors. Joined by U.S. Marshal Henry Kline and two officers, they took the train to Christiana.

Also on the train was a black Philadelphian, Samuel Williams, who knew that this was a posse. His purpose was twofold: to inform the refugees that they were being sought, and to let the posse see him and know that their plans were exposed. The implicit threat of violence intimidated Kline's two men, who returned to Philadelphia, leaving Gorsuch and his party of five and a reluctant Kline.

Kline dragged his feet and the party lost a day, which gave Williams' warning time to circulate in the community. But it also seems that the slaves mistook the delay, and thought Gorsuch had given up. So when the posse arrived at Parker's house at dawn on Sept. 11, it took them by surprise.

Kline and Gorsuch went into the house and told the slaves they wouldn't be punished if they returned with him peacefully. But the blacks on the second floor responded by hurling things at the men in the yard, injuring some of them. Kline then announced his official position and threatened to come upstairs. Gorsuch started up the stairs, but the blacks threw an axe and a pronged fish spear at him, so he retreated out of range. Kline read the warrant and both men then left the house into the yard. A shot was fired, but each side claimed the other had fired it.

A couple of hours passed. Parker said he engaged in a scriptural debate with Gorsuch. There were seven whites against seven blacks, two of the latter women. The stone house was an excellent fort. Kline probably was simply seeing things in a practical way when he said there was no way to take the fugitives with the force on hand, and he advised leaving. But Gorsuch seemed to think time was on his side. If Parker's account is accurate, Gorsuch was right, as some of the band in the house, including Parker's brother and sister-in-law, wanted to give up.

But the delay proved deadly. Some white neighbors, aroused by one of Parker's confederates, arrived at the same time as a large number of local blacks, well armed. The mix of motives of the white neighbors -- Quakers Elijah Lewis and Joseph Scarlett and miller Castner Hanway -- is hard to determine. One theory, plausible to me in the light of Quaker ways, is that they were mainly there to intimidate by their presence, as Williams had attempted to do on the train.

But the effect on the blacks in the Parker house was to galvanize them into resistance. Kline requested aid from Hanway, who warned him he had better leave quickly or blood would be shed. Kline seemed to find this a good idea, but Gorsuch moved toward the house. The blacks attacked, and Gorsuch was killed, possibly "finished off by the women," as Parker later boasted. Gorsuch's son ran to his aid, but was badly wounded himself. The cousin and nephew, during the retreat, suffered buckshot wounds.

The blacks most obviously involved in the fight -- Parker, the men in his house, the other Gorsuch fugitives, and two who were wounded -- set off for Canada that night. Parker was hidden for a time in upstate New York by Frederick Douglass. Parker's wife and sister-in-law were left behind to be arrested, only to be released when the prosecution decided it would damage its case to try women.

Because of the violence, blacks were rounded up in the area and as many as six were remanded to slavery, including Parker's mother-in-law. Parker also left behind a large packet of letters from fugitives and resisters that would have incriminated many in the area had it come into the hands of the law, but a local Quaker found it first and burned it.

Twenty-seven blacks and three whites were arrested and charged with treason. Lewis pretended he had acted only until he found out it was not an illegal kidnapping. Hanway pretended to be just observing. The trial for treason, rather than some more appropriate charge, was an attempt to placate Southern anger, for a slaveholder had been murdered in the course of a legal action while the North, figuratively, looked on.

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