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William Parker's Story (1851)

Original Citation
William Parker, "The Freedman's Story: In Two Parts," The Atlantic Monthly 17 (Feb. 1866), 153, 158-161; (March 1866), 281-287.


William Parker was an escaped slave from Maryland who had settled in southern Lancaster County and became a leader of the local black community. Parker spearheaded much of the resistance against slave-catchers and kidnappers whose activities constantly threatened black residents in the region. It was William Parker, more than anyone else, who was the leader of the resistance at Christiana in September 1851. The excerpts from this recollection, which was ghostwritten for Parker, describes some of his background and his version of the events on September 11, 1851 that led to the death of Edward Gorsuch. Parker escaped from Lancaster County after the riot and eventually resettled to Canada with his family.


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I WAS born opposite to Queen Anne, in Anne Arundel County, in the State of Maryland, on a plantation called Rowdown. My master was Major William Brogdon, one of the wealthy men of that region. He had two sons,--William, a doctor, and David, who held some office at Annapolis, and for some years was a member of the Legislature.

My old master died when I was very young; so I know little about him, except from statements received from my fellow-slaves, or casual remarks made in my hearing from time to time by white persons. From those I conclude that he was in no way peculiar, but should be classed with those slaveholders who are not remarkable either for the severity or the indulgence they extend to their people....

On the day I ceased working for master, after gaining the woods, we lurked about and discussed our plans until after dark. Then we stole back to the Quarter, made up our bundles, bade some of our friends farewell, and at about nine o’clock of the night set out for Baltimore. How shall I describe my first experience of free life? Nothing can be greater than the contrast it affords to a plantation experience, under the suspicious and vigilant eye of a mercenary overseer or a watchful master. Day and night are not more unlike. The mandates of Slavery are like leaden sounds, sinking with dead weight into the very soul, only to deaden and destroy. The impulse of freedom lends wings to the feet, buoys up the spirit within, and the fugitive catches glorious glimpses of light through rifts and seams in the accumulated ignorance of his years of oppression. How briskly we travelled on that eventful night and the next day!

We reached Baltimore on the following evening, between seven and eight o’clock. When we neared the city, the patrols were out, and the difficulty was to pass them unseen or unsuspected. I learned of a brick-yard at the entrance to the city; and thither we went at once, took brick-dust and threw it upon our clothes, hats, and boots, and then walked on. Whenever we met a passer-by, we would brush off some of the dust, and say aloud, “Boss gave us such big tasks, we would leave him. We ought to have been in a long time before.” By this ruse we reached quiet quarters without arrest or suspicion.

We remained in Baltimore a week, and then set out for Pennsylvania.

We started with the brightest visions of future independence; but soon they were suddenly dimmed by one of those unpleasant incidents which annoy the fugitive at every step of his onward journey.

The first place at which we stopped to rest was a village on the old York road, called New Market. There nothing occurred to cause us alarm; so, after taking some refreshments, we proceeded towards York; but when near Logansville, we were interrupted by three white men, one of whom, a very large man, cried,--


I answered,--

“Hallo to you!”

“Which way are you travelling?” he asked.

We replied,--

“To Little York.”

“Why are you travelling so late?”

“We are not later than you are,” I answered.

“Your business must be of consequence,” he said.

“It is. We want to go to York to attend to it; and if you have any business, please attend to it, and don’t be meddling with ours on the public highway. We have no business with you, and I am sure you have none with us.”

“See here!” said he; “you are the fellows that this advertisement calls for,” at the same time taking the paper out of his pocket, and reading it to us.

Sure enough, there we were, described exactly. He came closely to us, and said,--

“You must go back.”

I replied,--

“If I must, I must, and you must take me.”

“Oh, you need not make any big talk about it,’ he answered; “for I have taken back many a runaway, and I can take you. What’s that you have in your hand?’

“A stick.’

He put his hand into his pocket, as if to draw a pistol, and said,--

“Come! Give up your weapons.”

I said again,--

“’T is only a stick.’

He then reached for it, when I stepped back and struck him a heavy blow on the arm. It fell as if broken; I think it was. Then he turned and ran, and I after him. As he ran, he would look back over his shoulder, see me coming, and then run faster, and halloo with all his might. I could not catch him, and it seemed, that, the longer he ran, the faster he went. The other two took to their heels at the first alarm,--thus illustrating the valor of the chivalry!

At last I gave up the chase. The whole neighborhood by that time was aroused, and we thought best to retrace our steps to the place whence we started. Then we took a roundabout course until we reached the railroad, along which we travelled. For a long distance there was unusual stir and commotion. Every house was lighted up; and we heard people talking and horses galloping this way and that way, with other evidences of unusual excitement. This was between one and two o’clock in the morning. We walked on a long distance before we lost the sounds; but about four o’clock the same morning, entered York, where we remained during the day.

Once in York, we thought we should be safe, but were mistaken. A similar mistake is often made by fugitives. Not accustomed to travelling, and unacquainted with the facilities for communication, they think that a few hours’ walk is a long journey, and foolishly suppose, that, if they have few opportunities of knowledge, their masters can have none at all at such great distances. But our ideas of security were materially lessened when we met with a friend during the day, who advised us to proceed farther, as we were not out of imminent danger.

According to this advice we started that night for Columbia. Going along in the dark, we heard persons following. We went very near to the fence, that they might pass without observing us. There were two, apparently in earnest conversation. The one who spoke so as to be distinctly heard we discovered to be Master Mack’s brother-in-law. He remarked to his companion that they must hurry and get to the bridge before we crossed. He knew that we had not gone over yet. We were then near enough to have killed them, concealed as we were by the darkness; but we permitted them to pass unmolested, and went on to Wrightsville that night.

The next morning we arrived at Columbia before it was light, and fortunately without crossing the bridge, for we were taken over in a boat. At Wrightsville we met a woman with whom we were before acquainted, and our meeting was very gratifying, We there inclined to halt for a time.

I was not used to living in town, and preferred a home in the country; so to the country we decided to go. After resting for four days, we started towards Lancaster to try to procure work. I got a place about five miles from Lancaster, and then set to work in earnest.

While a slave, I was, as it were, groping in the dark, no ray of light penetrating the intense gloom surrounding me. My scanty garments felt too tight for me, my very respiration seemed to be restrained by some supernatural power. Now, free as I supposed, I felt like a bird on a pleasant May morning. Instead of the darkness of slavery, my eyes were almost blinded by the light of freedom.

Those were memorable days, and yet much of this was boyish fancy. After a few years of life in a Free State, the enthusiasm of the lad materially sobered down, and I found, by bitter experience, that to preserve my stolen liberty I must pay, unremittingly, an almost sleepless vigilance; yet to this day I have never looked back regretfully to Old Maryland, nor yearned for her flesh-pots.

I have said I engaged to work; I hired my services for three months for the round sum of three dollars per month. I thought this an immense sum. Fast work was no trouble to me; for when the work was done, the money was mine. That was a great consideration. I could go out on Saturdays and Sundays, and home when I pleased, without being whipped. I thought of my fellow-servants left behind, bound in the chains of slavery,--and I was free! I thought, that, if I had the power, they should soon be as free as I was; and I formed a resolution that I would assist in liberating every one within my reach at the risk of my life, and that I would devise some plan for their entire liberation.

My brother went about fifteen miles farther on, and also got employment. I “put in” three months with my employer, “lifted” my wages, and then went to visit my brother. He lived in Bart Township, near Smyrna; and after my visit was over, I engaged to work for a Dr. Dengy, living near by. I remained with him thirteen months. I never have been better treated than by the Doctor; I liked him and the family, and they seemed to think well of me.

While living with Dr. Dengy, I had, for the first time, the great privilege of seeing that true friend of the slave, William Lloyd Garrison, who came into the neighborhood, accompanied by Frederick Douglass. They were holding anti-slavery meetings. I shall never forget the impression that Garrison’s glowing words made upon me. I had formerly known Mr. Douglass as a slave in Maryland; I was therefore not prepared for the progress he then showed, neither for his free-spoken and manly language against slavery. I listened with the intense satisfaction that only a refugee could feel, when hearing, embodied in earnest, well-chosen, and strong speech, his own crude ideas of freedom, and his own hearty censure of the man-stealer. I believed, I knew, every word he said was true. It was the whole truth,--nothing kept back,--no trifling with human rights, no trading in the blood of the slave extenuated, nothing against the slaveholder said in malice. I have never listened to words from the lips of mortal man which were more acceptable to me; and although privileged since then to hear many able and good men speak on slavery, no doctrine has seemed to me so pure, so unworldly, as his. I may here say, and without offence, I trust, that, since that time, I have had a long experience of Garrisonian Abolitionists, and have always found them men and women with hearts in their bodies. They are, indeed and in truth, the poor slave’s friend. To shelter him, to feed and clothe him, to help him on to freedom, I have ever found them ready; and I should be wanting in gratitude, if I neglected this opportunity-the only one I may ever have-to say thus much of them, and to declare for myself and for the many colored men in this free country whom I know they have aided in their journey to freedom, our humble confidence in them. Yes, the good spirit with which he is imbued constrained William Lloyd Garrison to plead for the dumb; and for his earnest pleadings all these years, I say, God bless him! By agitation, by example, by suffering, men and women of like spirit have been led to adopt his views, as the great necessity, and to carry them out into actions. They, too, have my heartfelt gratitude. They, like Gideon’s band, though few, will yet rout the enemy Slavery, make him flee his own camp, and eventually fall upon his own sword.

One day, while living at Dr. Dengy’s, I was working in the barn-yard, when a man came to the fence, and, looking at me intently, went away. The Doctor’s son, observing him, said,--

“Parker, that man, from his movements, must be a slaveholder or kidnapper. This is the second time he has been looking at you. If not a kidnapper, why does he look so steadily at you and not tell his errand?”

I said,--

“The man must be a fool! If he should come back and not say anything to me, I shall say something to him.”

We then looked down the road and saw him coming again. He rode up to the same place and halted. I then went to the fence, and, looking him steadily in the eye, said,--

“Am I your slave?”

He made no reply, but turned his horse and rode off, at full speed, towards the valley. We did not see him again; but that same evening word was brought that kidnappers were in the valley, and if we were not careful, they would “hook” some of us. This caused a great excitement among the colored people of the neighborhood.

A short while prior to this, a number of us had formed an organization for mutual protection against slaveholders and kidnappers, and had resolved to prevent any of our brethren being taken back into slavery, at the risk of our own lives. We collected together that evening, and went down to the valley; but the kidnappers had gone. We watched for them several nights in succession, without result; for so much alarmed were the tavern-keepers by our demonstration, that they refused to let them stop over night with them. Kidnapping was so common, while I lived with the Doctor, that we were kept in constant fear. We would hear of slaveholders or kidnappers every two or three weeks; sometimes a party of white men would break into a house and take a man away, no one knew where; and, again, a whole family would be carried off. There was no power to protect them, nor prevent it. So completely roused were my feelings, that I vowed to let no slaveholder take back a fugitive, if I could but get my eye on him....


A short time after the events narrated in the preceding number, it was whispered about that the slaveholders intended to make an attack on my house; but, as I had often been threatened, I gave the report little attention. About the same time, however, two letters were found thrown carelessly about, as if to attract notice. These letters stated that kidnappers would be at my house on a certain night, and warned me to be on my guard. Still I did not let the matter trouble me. But it was no idle rumor. The bloodhounds were upon my track.

I was not at this time aware that in the city of Philadelphia there was a band of devoted, determined men,--few in number, but strong in purpose,--who were fully resolved to leave no means untried to thwart the barbarous and inhuman monsters who crawled in the gloom of midnight, like the ferocious tiger, and, stealthily springing on their unsuspecting victims, seized, bound, and hurled them into the ever open jaws of Slavery. Under the pretext of enforcing the Fugitive Slave Law, the slaveholders did not hesitate to violate all other laws made for the good government and protection of society, and converted the old State of Pennsylvania, so long the hope of the fleeing bondman, wearied and heartbroken, into a common hunting-ground for their human prey. But this little band of true patriots in Philadelphia united for the purpose of standing between the pursuer and the pursued, the kidnapper and his victim, and, regardless of all personal considerations, were ever on the alert, ready to sound the alarm to save their fellows from a fate far more to be dreaded than death. In this they had frequently succeeded, and many times had turned the hunter home bootless of his prey. They began their operations at the passage of the Fugitive Slave Law, and had thoroughly examined all matters connected with it, and were perfectly cognizant of the plans adopted to carry out its provisions in Pennsylvania, and, through a correspondence with reliable persons in various sections of the South, were enabled to know these hunters of men, their agents, spies, tools, and betrayers. They knew who performed this work in Richmond, Alexandria, Washington, Baltimore, Wilmington, Philadelphia, Lancaster, and Harrisburg, those principal depots of villany, where organized bands prowled about at all times, ready to entrap the unwary fugitive.

They also discovered that this nefarious business was conducted mainly through one channel; for, spite of man’s inclination to vice and crime, there are but few men, thank God, so low in the scale of humanity as to be willing to degrade themselves by doing the dirty work of four-legged bloodhounds. Yet such men, actuated by the love of gold and their own base and brutal natures, were found ready for the work. These fellows consorted with constables, police-officers, aldermen, and even with learned members of the legal profession, who disgraced their respectable calling by low, contemptible arts, and were willing to clasp hands with the lowest ruffian in order to pocket the reward that was the price of blood. Every facility was offered these bad men; and whether it was night or day, it was only necessary to whisper in a certain circle that a negro was to be caught, and horses and wagons, men and officers, spies and betrayers, were ready, at the shortest notice, armed and equipped, and eager for the chase.

Thus matters stood in Philadelphia on the 9th of September, 1851, when Mr. Gorsuch and his gang of Maryland kidnappers arrived there. Their presence was soon known to the little band of true men who were called “The Special Secret Committee.” They had agents faithful and true as steel; and through these agents the whereabouts and business of Gorsuch and his minions were soon discovered. They were noticed in close converse with a certain member of the Philadelphia bar, who had lost the little reputation he ever had by continual dabbling in negro-catching, as well as by association with and support of the notorious Henry H. Kline, a professional kidnapper of the basest stamp. Having determined as to the character and object of these Marylanders, there remained to ascertain the spot selected for their deadly spring; and this required no small degree of shrewdness, resolution, and tact.

Some one’s liberty was imperilled; the hunters were abroad; the time was short, and the risk imminent. The little band bent themselves to the task they were pledged to perform with zeal and devotion; and success attended their efforts. They knew that one false step would jeopardize their own liberty, and very likely their lives, and utterly destroy every prospect of carrying out their objects. They knew, too, that they were matched against the most desperate, daring, and brutal men in the kidnappers’ ranks,--men who, to obtain the proffered reward, would rush willingly into any enterprise, regardless alike of its character or its consequences. That this was the deepest, the most thoroughly organized and best-planned project for man-catching that had been concocted since the infamous Fugitive Slave Law had gone into operation, they also knew; and consequently this nest of hornets was approached with great care. But by walking directly into their camp, watching their plans as they were developed, and secretly testing every inch of ground on which they trod, they discovered enough to counterplot these plotters, and to spring upon them a mine which shook the whole country, and put an end to man-stealing in Pennsylvania forever.

The trusty agent of this Special Committee, Mr. Samuel Williams, of Philadelphia,--a man true and faithful to his race, and courageous in the highest degree,--came to Christiana, travelling most of the way in company with the very men whom Gorsuch had employed to drag into slavery four as good men as ever trod the earth. These Philadelphia roughs, with their Maryland associates, little dreamed that the man who sat by their side carried with him their inglorious defeat, and the death-warrant of at least one of their party. Williams listened to their conversation, and marked well their faces, and, being fully satisfied by their awkward movements that they were heavily armed, managed to slip out of the cars at the village of Downington unobserved, and proceeded to Penningtonville, where he encountered Kline, who had started several hours in advance of the others. Kline was terribly frightened, as he knew Williams, and felt that his presence was an omen of ill to his base designs. He spoke of horse thieves; but Williams replied,--“I know the kind of horse thieves you are after. They are all gone; and you had better not go after them.”

Kline immediately jumped into his wagon, and rode away, whilst Williams crossed the country, and arrived at Christiana in advance of him.

The manner in which information of Gorsuch’s designs was obtained will probably ever remain a secret; and I doubt if any one outside of the little band who so masterly managed the affair knows anything of it. This was wise; and I would to God other friends had acted thus. Mr. Williams’s trip to Christiana, and the many incidents connected therewith, will be found in the account of his trial; for he was subsequently arrested and thrown into the cold cells of a loathsome jail for this good act of simple Christian duty; but, resolute to the last, he publicly stated that he had been to Christiana, and, to use his own words, “I done it, and will do it again.” Brave man, receive my thanks!

Of the Special Committee I can only say that they proved themselves men; and through the darkest hours of the trials that followed, they were found faithful to their trust, never for one moment deserting those who were compelled to suffer. Many, many innocent men residing in the vicinity of Christiana, the ground where the first battle was fought for liberty in Pennsylvania, were seized, torn from their families, and, like Williams, thrown into prison for long, weary months, to be tried for their lives. By them this Committee stood, giving them every consolation and comfort, furnishing them with clothes, and attending to their wants, giving money to themselves and families, and procuring for them the best legal counsel. This I know, and much more of which it is not wise, even now, to speak: ‘t is enough to say they were friends when and where it cost something to be friends, and true brothers where brothers were needed.

After this lengthy digression, I will return, and speak of the riot and the events immediately preceding it.

The information brought by Mr. Williams spread through the vicinity like a fire in the prairies; and when I went home from my work in the evening, I found Pinckney (whom I should have said before was my brother-in-law), Abraham Johnson, Samuel Thompson, and Joshua Kite at my house, all of them excited about the rumor. I laughed at them, and said it was all talk. This was the 10th of September, 1851. They stopped for the night with us, and we went to bed as usual. Before daylight, Joshua Kite rose, and started for his home. Directly, he ran back to the house, burst open the door, crying, “O William! Kidnappers! Kidnappers!”

He said that, when he was just beyond the yard, two men crossed before him, as if to stop him, and others came up on either side. As he said this, they had reached the door. Joshua ran up stairs, (we slept up stairs,) and they followed him; but I met them at the landing, and asked, “Who are you?”

The leader, Kline, replied, “I am the United States Marshal.”

I then told him to take another step, and I would break his neck.

He again said, “I am the United States Marshal.”

I told him I did not care for him nor the United States. At that he turned and went down stairs.

Pinckney said, as he turned to go down,--“Where is the use in fighting? They will take us.”

Kline heard him, and said, “Yes, give up, for we can and will take you anyhow.”

I told them all not to be afraid, nor to give up to any slaveholder, but to fight until death.

“Yes,” said Kline, “I have heard many a negro talk as big as you, and then have taken him; and I’ll take you.”

“You have not taken me yet,” I replied; “and if you undertake it you will have your name recorded in history for this day’s work.”

Mr. Gorsuch then spoke, and said,-- “Come, Mr. Kline, let’s go up stairs and take them. We can take them. Come, follow me, I’ll go up and get my property. What’s in the way? The law is in my favor, and the people are in my favor.”

At that he began to ascend the stair; but I said to him,--“See here, old man, you can come up, but you can’t go down again. Once up here, you are mine.”

Kline then said,--“Stop, Mr. Gorsuch. I will read the warrant, and then, I think, they will give up.”

He then read the warrant, and said, “Now, you see, we are commanded to take you, dead or alive; so you may as well give up at once.”

“Go up, Mr. Kline,” then said Gorsuch, “you are the Marshal.”

Kline started, and when a little way up said, “I am coming.”

I said, “Well, come on.”

But he was too cowardly to show his face. He went down again and said,--“You had better give up without any more fuss, for we are bound to take you anyhow. I told you before that I was the United States Marshal, yet you will not give up. I’ll not trouble the slaves. I will take you and make you pay for all.”

“Well,” I answered, “take me and make me pay for all. I’ll pay for all.”

Mr. Gorsuch then said, “You have my property.”

To which I replied,--“Go in the room down there, and see if there is anything there belonging to you. There are beds and a bureau, chairs, and other things. Then go out to the barn; there you will find a cow and some hogs. See if any of them are yours.”

He said,--“They are not mine; I want my men. They are here, and I am bound to have them.”

Thus we parleyed for a time, all because of the pusillanimity of the Marshal, when he, at last, said,--“I am tired waiting on you; I see you are not going to give up. Go to the barn and fetch some straw,” said he to one of his men. “I will set the house on fire, and burn them up.”

“Burn us up and welcome,” said I. “None but a coward would say the like. You can burn us, but you can’t take us; before I give up, you will see my ashes scattered on the earth.”

By this time day had begun to dawn; and then my wife came to me and asked if she should blow the horn, to bring friends to our assistance. I assented, and she went to the garret for the purpose. When the horn sounded from the garret window, one of the ruffians asked the others what it meant; and Kline said to me, “What do you mean by blowing that horn?”

I did not answer. It was a custom with us, when a horn was blown at an unusual hour, to proceed to the spot promptly to see what was the matter. Kline ordered his men to shoot any one they saw blowing the horn. There was a peach-tree at that end of the house. Up it two of the men climbed; and when my wife went a second time to the window, they fired as soon as they heard the blast, but missed their aim. My wife then went down on her knees, and, drawing her head and body below the range of the window, the horn resting on the sill, blew blast after blast, while the shots poured thick and fast around her. They must have fired ten or twelve times. The house was of stone, and the windows were deep, which alone preserved her life.

They were evidently disconcerted by the blowing of the horn. Gorsuch said again, “I want my property, and I will have it.”

“Old man,” said I, “you look as if you belonged to some persuasion.”

“Never mind,” he answered, “what persuasion I belong to; I want my property.”

While I was leaning out of the window, Kline fired a pistol at me, but the shot went too high; the ball broke the glass just above my bead. I was talking to Gorsuch at the time. I seized a gun and aimed it at Gorsuch’s breast for he evidently had instigated Kline to fire; but Pinckney caught my arm and said, “Don’t shoot.” The gun went off, just grazing Gorsuch’s shoulder. Another conversation then ensued between Gorsuch, Kline, and myself, when another one of the party fired at me but missed. Dickinson Gorsuch, I then saw, was preparing to shoot; and I told him if he missed, I would show him where shooting first came from.

I asked them to consider what they would have done, had they been in our position. “I know you want to kill us,” I said, “for you have shot at us time and again. We have only fired twice, although we have guns and ammunition, and could kill you all if we would, but we do not want to shed blood.”

“If you do not shoot any more,” then said Kline, “I will stop my men from firing.”

They then ceased for a time. This was about sunrise.

Mr. Gorsuch now said,--“Give up and let me have my property. Hear what the Marshal says; the Marshal is your friend. He advises you to give up without more fuss, for my property I will have.”

I denied that I had his property, when he replied, “You have my men.”

“Am I your man?” I asked.


I then called Pinckney forward.

“Is that your man?”


Abraham Johnson I called next, but Gorsuch said he was not his man.

The only plan left was to call both Pinckney and Johnson again; for had I called the others, he would have recognized them, for they were his slaves.

Abraham Johnson said, “Does such a shrivelled up old slaveholder as you own such a nice, genteel young man as I am?”

At this Gorsuch took offence, and charged me with dictating his language. I then told him there were but five of us, which he denied, and still insisted that I had his property. One of the party then attacked the Abolitionists, affirming that, although they declared there could not be property in man, the Bible was conclusive authority in favor of property in human flesh.

“Yes,” said Gorsuch, “does not the Bible say, ‘Servants, obey your masters’?”

I said that it did, but the same Bible said, “Give unto your servants that which is just and equal.”

At this stage of the proceedings, we went into a mutual Scripture inquiry, and bandied views in the manner of garrulous old wives....


It was now about seven o’clock.

“You had better give up,” said old Mr. Gorsuch, after another while, “and come down, for I have come a long way this morning, and want my breakfast; for my property I will have, or I’ll breakfast in hell. I will go up and get it.”

He then started up stairs, and came far enough to see us all plainly. We were just about to fire upon him, when Dickinson Gorsuch, who was standing on the old oven, before the door, and could see into the up-stairs room through the window, jumped down and caught his father, saying,--“O father, do come down! Do come down! They have guns, swords, and all kinds of weapons! They’ll kill you! Do come down!”

The old man turned and left. When down with him, young Gorsuch could scarce draw breath, and the father looked more like a dead than a living man, so frightened were they at their supposed danger. The old man stood some time without saying anything; at last he said, as if soliloquizing, “I want my property, and I will have it.”

Kline broke forth, “If you don’t give up by fair means, you will have to by foul.”

I told him we would not surrender on any conditions.

Young Gorsuch then said,--“Don’t ask them to give up,--make them do it. We have money, and can call men to take them. What is it that money won’t buy?”

Then said Kline,--“I am getting tired waiting on you; I see you are not going to give up.”

He then wrote a note and handed it to Joshua Gorsuch, saying at the same time,--“Take it, and bring a hundred men from Lancaster.”

As he started, I said,--“See here! When you go to Lancaster, don’t bring a hundred men,--bring five hundred. It will take all the men in Lancaster to change our purpose or take us alive.”

He stopped to confer with Kline, when Pinckney said, “We had better give up.”

“You are getting afraid,” said I.

“Yes,” said Kline, “give up like men. The rest would give up if it were not for you.”

“I am not afraid,” said Pinckney; “but where is the sense in fighting against so many men, and only five of us?”

The whites, at this time, were coming from all quarters, and Kline was enrolling them as fast as they came. Their numbers alarmed Pinckney, and I told him to go and sit down; but he said, “No, I will go down stairs.”

I told him, if he attempted it, I should be compelled to blow out his brains. “Don’t believe, that any living man can take you,” I said. “Don’t give up to any slaveholder.”

To Abraham Johnson, who was near me, I then turned. He declared he was not afraid. “I will fight till I die,” he said.

At this time, Hannah, Pinckney’s wife, had become impatient of our persistent course; and my wife, who brought me her message urging us to surrender, seized a corn-cutter, and declared she would cut off the head of the first one who should attempt to give up.

Another one of Gorsuch’s slaves was coming along the highroad at this time, and I beckoned to him to go around. Pinckney saw him, and soon became more inspirited. Elijah Lewis, a Quaker, also came along about this time; I beckoned to him, likewise; but he came straight on, and was met by Kline, who ordered him to assist him. Lewis asked for his authority, and Kline handed him the warrant. While Lewis was reading, Castner Hanway came up, and Lewis handed the warrant to him. Lewis asked Kline what Parker said.

Kline replied, “He won’t give up.”

Then Lewis and Hanway both said to the Marshal,--“If Parker says they will not give up, you had better let them alone, for he will kill some of you. We are not going to risk our lives”; and they turned to go away.

While they were talking, I came down and stood in the doorway, my men following behind.

Old Mr. Gorsuch said, when I appeared, “They’ll come out, and get away!” and he came back to the gate.

I then said to him,--“You said you could and would take us. Now you have the chance.”

They were a cowardly-looking set of men.

Mr., Gorsuch said, “You can’t come out here.”

“Why?” said I. “This is my place. I pay rent for it. I’ll let you see if I can’t come out.”

“I don’t care if you do pay rent for it,” said he. “If you come out, I will give you the contents of these”;--presenting, at the same time, two revolvers, one in each hand.

I said, “Old man, if you don’t go away, I will break your neck.”

I then walked up to where he stood, his arms resting on the gate, trembling as if afflicted with palsy, and laid my hand on his shoulder, saying, “I have seen pistols before to-day.”

Kline now came running up, and entreated Gorsuch to come away.

“No,” said the latter, “I will have my property, or go to hell.”

“What do you intend to do?” said Kline to me.

“I intend to fight,” said I. “I intend to try your strength.”

“If you will withdraw your men,” he replied, “I will withdraw mine.”

I told him it was too late. “You would not withdraw when you had the chance, --you shall not now.”

Kline then went back to Hanway and Lewis. Gorsuch made a signal to his men, and they all fell into line. I followed his example as well as I could; but as we were not more than ten paces apart, it was difficult to do so. At this time we numbered but ten, while there were between thirty and forty of the white men.

While I was talking to Gorsuch, his son said, “Father, will you take all this from a nigger?”

I answered him by saying that I respected old age; but that, if he would repeat that, I should knock his teeth down his throat. At this he fired upon me, and I ran up to him and knocked the pistol out of his hand, when he let the other one fall and ran in the field.

My brother-in-law, who was standing near, then said, “I can stop him”;--and with his double-barrel gun he fired.

Young Gorsuch fell, but rose and ran on again. Pinckney fired a second time, and again Gorsuch fell, but was soon up again, and, running into the cornfield, lay down in the fence corner.

I returned to my men, and found Samuel Thompson talking to old Mr. Gorsuch, his master. They were both angry.

“Old man, you had better go home to Maryland,” said Samuel.

“You had better give up, and come home with me,” said the old man.

Thompson took Pinckney’s gun from struck Gorsuch, and brought him to his knees. Gorsuch rose and ispatch to his men. Thompson then knocked him down again, and he again rose. At this time all the white men opened fire, and we rushed upon them; when they turned, threw down their guns, and ran away. We, being closely engaged clubbed our rifles. We were too closely pressed to fire, but we found a good deal could be done with empty guns. Old Mr. Gorsuch was the bravest of his party; he held on to his pistols until the last, while all the others threw away their weapons. I saw as many as three at a time fighting with him. Sometimes he was on his knees, then on his back, and again his feet would be where his head should be. He was a fine soldier and a brave man. Whenever he saw the least opportunity, he would take aim. While in close quarters with the whites, we could load and fire but two or three times. Our guns got bent and out of order. So damaged did they become, that we could shoot with but two or three of them. Samuel Thompson bent his gun on old Mr. Gorsuch so badly, that it was of no use to us.


Citation for this page

"William Parker's Story (1851)," Underground Railroad Digital Classroom, Dickinson College, 2008,


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