Christiana Revolt of 1851

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Christiana Revolt of 1851

One of the major episodes of African-American resistance to enforcement of the Fugitive Slave Act of 1850, and the first in which blood was shed, occurred on September 11, 1851, near the tiny Quaker village of Christiana, Pennsylvania. That morning, Maryland slave owner Edward Gorsuch, several of his relatives, and three U.S. marshals bearing federal warrants surrounded the house of William Parker, a local black leader. The posse demanded the surrender of two of Gorsuch's slaves, who had run away from the Gorsuch farm two years before and were hiding inside Parker's home. Parker and his guests sounded an alarm to which local citizens responded. Although two Quakers advised the posse to retreat, Gorsuch refused, declaring, "My property I will have, or I'll breakfast in hell (Slaughter, 1991, p. 63)." Shots rang out, and when the smoke cleared, Gorsuch lay dead and three members of his party were wounded.

Within hours, the incident assumed national significance. A Lancaster, Pennsylvania, paper proclaimed: "Civil WarThe First Blow Struck." One representative of the southern press, warning of secession, announced that "unless the Christiana rioters are hung the bonds will be dissolved (Slaughter, 1991, pp. 220-221)." Sensing the event's political importance, President Millard Fill-more dispatched a company of U.S. Marines and some forty Philadelphia policemen to the village to apprehend those involved. After combing the countryside, they arrested more than thirty blacks and half a dozen whites. Even so, the five blacks most responsible for Gorsuch's death escaped; threeParker, and Gorsuch's two runaway slavesfled to Ontario. Although federal officials sought their extradition, Canadian authorities refused.

Hoping to make examples of the rioters, federal prosecutors charged them not only with resisting the Fugitive Slave Act but with treason. A federal grand jury indicted thirty-six blacks and two whites, some with tenuous links to the incident, and imprisoned them pending trial before the U.S. circuit court in Philadelphia. Federal attorneys used the trial of Castner Hanway, a white Quaker alleged to have directed the rioters in their attack on the posse, as a test case upon which to decide the fate of the other thirty-seven. The trialwhich, ironically, convened on the second floor of Independence Halltook on comic overtones. One defense attorney chided the government for arguing "that three harmless non-resisting Quakers and eight-and-thirty wretched, miserable, penniless negroes armed with corn cutters, clubs, and a few muskets [had] levied war against the United States (Slaughter, 1991, p. 127)." The available evidence proved insufficient to substantiate the charges and, after acquitting Hanway in early December, the government dropped all remaining indictments and released the rioters.

The Christiana incident raised serious questions about the ability of the federal government to enforce the Fugitive Slave Act. But it did even more. Southerners were outraged by the results of the trial, and federal efforts to punish the rioters had increased sympathy for the abolitionists throughout the North. By galvanizing public opinion in both the North and the South on the question of enforcement of the law, the Christiana riot moved the nation closer to civil war.

See also Demerara Revolt; Malê Rebellion; Nat Turner's Rebellion; Stono Rebellion; Runaway Slaves in the United States


Forbes, Ella. But We Have No Country: The 1851 Christiana, Pennsylvania Resistance. Cherry Hill, N.J.: Africana Homestead Legacy, 1998.

Slaughter, Thomas P. Bloody Dawn: The Christiana Riot and Racial Violence in the Antebellum North. New York: Oxford University Press, 1991.

roy e. finkenbine (1996)
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Christiana Revolt of 1851