Posted: 07/19/2021

The Underground Rail Road in Lancaster County, PA

Lancaster County abolitionists and their “safe houses” played a key role in the heritage of the Underground Railroad.

Pictured Above: The Thaddeus Stevens & Lydia Hamilton Smith Historic Site. Courtesy of LancasterHistory.

Special thank you to Randy Harris from The Origins of the Underground Rail Road Tour and Robin Sarratt from LancasterHistory for ensuring this blog's historical accuracy.

The Underground Railroad was a loose network of people who worked together to offer shelter and aid to freedom seekers from the American South. People of African descent took the first steps toward self-liberation from enslavement and they found some people in the state of Pennsylvania – both Black and white – willing to help at great personal peril.

By the 1830s, Lancaster County became an important area for those individuals on their journey to freedom. The county's location along the Mason-Dixon line, some of its residents' devotion to freedom (supported by religious convictions), and Lancaster’s transportation connections to other free northern states made it ideal as a pathway to freedom. Some made their way to Columbia, others crossed the Susquehanna River into Southern Lancaster County at Peach Bottom, and still others followed a path that led them along the Octoraro Creek in the southeastern portion of the county. Regardless the route, their destination was often Christiana and eventually, Philadelphia, New England, or Canada. However, many stayed in Lancaster and established families, some of which exist today.

The Susquehanna River town of Columbia was the site of an early, spontaneous, and well-documented community uprising against slavery. Thomas Boude (1752-1822), a Revolutionary War veteran officer and former US Congressman, provided refuge for freedom seeker, Nancy Smith, in 1804. Nancy’s son, Stephen, was an indentured servant, bound to the Boude Family. Stephen’s mother escaped her enslavers near Harrisburg to be with her young son and the Boude family allowed her to stay with them. When Nancy’s “owner,” Mrs. Cochran, arrived unannounced in Columbia with plans to drag her back to her home, Major Boude and his family resisted and drove off Mrs. Cochran, rather than allowing the forced return of the mother to enslavement. Boude later paid for Nancy’s freedom but this spontaneous act of resistance is described as an inspiration to others in Columbia that opposing the institution of slavery was a good and acceptable action.

Columbia is also notable as the western terminus of the Philadelphia & Columbia Railroad, established in 1834 as the second regularly-operating railroad in the country. On this line by 1838, privately-owned freight cars were modified with secret compartments to transport freedom seekers to Philadelphia and beyond. It is notable that one of the agents who used his privately-owned freight-hauling railroad cars for this purpose was Stephen Smith. He had purchased his freedom as a young man and began managing the lumber mill operations previously owned by Major Boude. Smith was in a partnership in this successful business with William Whipper, his gifted brother-in-law. One must consider that there could have been a direct connection between this use of an early railroad line for transporting freedom seekers and the emergence of the name Underground Railroad for this anti-slavery movement in the popular press by about 1840.

By the 1850s, particularly in the wake of the Fugitive Slave Act of 1850, episodes of kidnapping by slave catchers became a risk to Black communities along the southern border of Pennsylvania. Communities of free and formerly enslaved fugitives began to arm themselves as a precaution. In 1851, in Christiana, PA, a dramatic event known today as the Christiana Resistance occurred when members of the Gorsuch family from Maryland came to Lancaster County to recapture formerly enslaved men living on the farm of William Parker. Black members of the community came to the aid of the fugitives, and white Quakers refused to help the Gorsuch family. A shootout ensued, and Edward Gorsuch was killed and his son and nephew injured.

In the winter of 1851, the 38 defendants were accused of treason in federal court. Congressman Thaddeus Stevens served as co-counsel for the defense while also serving as a US Congressman, and secured the acquittal and release of all the defendants after a trial in Philadelphia.

Thaddeus Stevens (1792-1868) was a key political figure in the efforts to enact the Reconstruction Amendments of the US Constitution: the 13th Amendment which abolished slavery in 1865; the 14th Amendment of 1868, which provides for equal protection under law and recognizes citizenship rights; and he laid the groundwork for the 15th Amendment granting voting rights to all male citizens, which was enacted in 1870, shortly after his death.

He and his confidant and property manager, Lydia Hamilton Smith (1815-1884) also played a role on the Underground Railroad in Lancaster, providing shelter and protections for freedom seekers at their property in downtown Lancaster. A visitor to their home in 1848, a formerly enslaved man from Maryland named Oliver Cromwell Kelly, affirmed his visit to Stevens’ home in an autobiography written in the late 19th century.

Under a courtyard in the back of Stevens’ home and office in downtown Lancaster, archeologists uncovered evidence and have presented their theory that an underground water-holding cistern may possibly have been adapted and used as an emergency hiding place during the ownership and residency of Stevens and Smith. Today, you can visit Vine Street lobby area of the Lancaster County Convention Center – known as The Commons on Vine – where a viewing area shows the cistern, photos and other artifacts of this historic site. The Thaddeus Stevens & Lydia Hamilton Smith Historic Site & Museum is currently being developed as a Museum, with an opening planned for 2024.

Learn more about significant locations and hear stories of events from our past on the Origins of the Underground Railroad tour and LancasterHistory.

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