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Digital Bookshelf: Recollections

Rutherford Family (1845)

Original Citation
S.S. Rutherford, “The Under Ground Railroad,” Publications of the Historical Society of Dauphin County (1928): 4-7.


Members of the Rutherford family were some of the leading abolitionists and white Underground Railroad operatives in the Harrisburg, Pennsylvania region. Notable figures included William and Samuel Rutherford. This episode receives frequent mention in local histories of the Underground Railroad.


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Some time in the month of October, about the year 1845 - ten runaways were brought to Mr. Rutherford by some agent, now unknown. They arrived on Thursday night and were to be kept secreted until the following Saturday night, by which time arrangements for their future progress would be perfected and conductors sent to pilot them onward. The party consisted of an elderly man and his six sons - all mulattos, the youngest of whom was a youth of eighteen. Two brothers of a darker hue, remarkable for their stalwart proportions-and a short thick-set black man, so black that, as one of the wits of the day remarked, ‘charcoal would make a white mark on his face.’ Mr. Rutherford quartered them in his barn and supplied them with eatables which were carried to the barn from time to time in a large basket.

For some reason, now forgotten, the conductors failed to appear at the appointed time. Mr. Rutherford could have easily forwarded the party to some other station, but, not wishing to interfere with plans already perfected, and no intelligence of pursuit, having reached him, he deemed it safe to allow them to remain over Sunday. Nothing extraordinary occurred during the day until about five o’clock in the evening, when someone called attention to a cavalcade, consisting of two carriages preceded by four horsemen, moving slowly down the turnpike road, like a funeral. It excited no alarm, however, until it reached the old locust tree, when it suddenly wheeled in the lane at full gallop. Mr. S. B. Rutherford, then a boy, was at the barn, and ran to the house to tell his grandfather, who immediately sent him back to warn the Negroes of danger. When he reached the barn, however, not a Negro was visible.

By this time two of the horsemen had reached the barn, and, dismounting stationed themselves as outside guards, the other two took up similar positions at the house. The leading carriage, driven by John W. Fitch, a liveryman of Harrisburg, and containing four men, stopped at the house, Mr. Rutherford came out and was introduced by Fitch to Mr. Buchanan, of Maryland . . . Meanwhile the second carriage, containing four men-one of whom was Mr. Potts, of Maryland, owner of several of the fugitives, had driven to the barn and the men stationed themselves in front of the stable doors.

Mr. Buchanan, having finished his interview, also went to the barn and with one or two others entered the floor, where nothing was visible . . . Buchanan and Potts both called their servants by name repeatedly, but got no answer, and whilst it was by no means certain that the Negroes were in the barn at all, not a man of the pursuing party dared venture up to see . . . While this was going on above, Mr. Rutherford’s boys were doing up the chores, closely watched by the detachment of slave hunters stationed about the stable doors...

An hour passed, and no sound coming from the lofts, it was determined by the party on the floor to ascend and see what was up there. Upon hearing this the Negroes became alarmed, and one of them appeared at the top of the opening and threatened to brain the first man who came within his reach. This satisfied the hunters that the birds had not flown . . . A consultation was now held which resulted in sending a messenger to Harrisburg for reinforcements. Soon after the departure of the messenger . . . Rutherford and Potts were sitting in the house discussing the slavery question, four strange Negroes arrived, two of whom went directly to the barn and the other two entered the house and sat down behind the stove. These were the conductors sent to pilot the fugitives to Pottsville, and until their arrival at Mr. Rutherford’s had no knowledge of the betrayal of the arrested by the guards. The two who went to the barn were arrested by the guards. The two at the house were not molested, but remained quietly behind the stove until an opportunity offered of communicating with Mr. Rutherford . . . They soon afterwards disappeared.

About 10:30 p.m. the pro-slavery messenger arrived with two carriages and several men, prominent among whom was a character well-known in Harrisburg at the time as “Moll Rockey,” who afterwards became a very respectable citizen and often spoke of that night’s escapade as one of the things of which he had repented. “Moll Rockey” was a host in himself and proved a valuable acquisition to the slave catchers, for in a short time the Negroes surrendered and came down-when lo, instead of ten their were only six. A search with lanterns and pitchforks was made in every part of the barn, but in vain, no more Negroes could be found. Among the missing was the “nigger” owned by the blustering big whiskered man before mentioned.

By midnight the search had ended and the slave holders hurriedly took their departure. Instead of returning to Harrisburg they crossed the country to Middletown and thence to York.

About an hour after their departure a company of probably forty men, mostly colored, armed with all sorts of weapons, arrived upon the scene. They had come from Harrisburg and vicinity in two division over different roads, and their temper was such that had they encountered the slave-holders a bloody battle would doubtless have been fought. Of the four slaves who escaped two fled from the barn, unobserved, on the approach of the pursuers and secreted themselves in a neighboring corn field until night fall, when they made their way to Mr. A Rutherford’s barn, where they remained until the following night, then they were sent north in company with a third who had hid himself so deeply in the hay mow that he was overlooked. The fourth, who was the father of the six sons, was in the mow at the time of the surrender-but slipped down the hay hole into the stables and escaped through a cellar window which the besiegers had not observed, and was consequently unguarded. He was never heard of afterwards. So quietly was this affair conducted, that the nearest neighbors knew nothing of it until the next day.


Citation for this page

"Rutherford Family (1845)," Underground Railroad Digital Classroom, Dickinson College, 2008,


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