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Our Undying Past

''Selling Slaves in Pennsylvania''

If you saw the film Twelve Years a Slave or read the memoir it’s based on, you know that prior to the Civil War, free-born black people in the Northern states were at risk of being kidnapped and illegally sold into Southern bondage. Mercenaries were carrying out the horrific practice throughout the early decades of the 1800s, and they really upped their game once the Fugitive Slave Act was passed in 1850. The new law let slave-catchers come North to capture suspected runaways, with the Northern authorities and public required to cooperate. A quick hearing would be held at which the suspect couldn’t testify. If no one else would pay his bounty, he’d be ordered South with his captors.

This period is included in a Pennsylvania history book I’m currently writing. During my research in the Harrisburg archives, I came upon a powerful article from the Conneautville (Pa.) Courier headlined “Selling Slaves in Pennsylvania.” It drives home just how systematic and conniving the abductions were. Unfortunately, because I have so much other information to use and my primary focus is across the state in Northeastern Pennsylvania, I doubt the article will make it into the book. Still, I’d like to share it because it’s memorable.  Read More 
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The Slave As 'Crushed Vegetable'

In researching the Underground Railroad past of my hometown, Waverly, Pa., I came across a fascinating explication of the abolition mission, at least as it was understood by white participants in the 1830s. I’m at the point in my book manuscript when the quote fits in---when white Waverly was helping to set up its own settlement of fugitive slaves—and I recently shared the lengthy quote with a key supporter of my work. I want to share it with you, too.

They are the words of John Mann, president of the Anti-Slavery and Free Discussion Society. On July 4, 1836, Mann gave a keynote holiday address at the Montrose Presbyterian Church. Montrose, thirty miles north of Waverly, was a haven of abolitionism, and its newspaper, The Spectator and Freeman’s Journal, proudly printed the text of Mann’s speech. Here’s his message for you to savor:

Emancipation, Mann said, “is not what many of its enemies would have you believe. It does not mean the uncaging of a menagerie and letting out a force of wild beasts, to ravage the country and commit depradations on society. ... It means to restore the oppressed children of Africa to that niche in the architecture of society Read More 
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A Mass Slave Sale, So Cut-and-Dried

An engraving of a Southern slave auction.

As fresh evidence of the bloodless manner enslaved black people were auctioned in antebellum America, the library system at the University of Pennsylvania has digitized a 1855 sales brochure that a brokerage firm issued to buyers at a New Orleans auction. It’s entitled “178 Sugar and Cotton Plantation Slaves!” Entries describe the individual slaves and family groups, and payment options are spelled out. Very helpful and enticing--as long as the customers remained dead to human compassion.

The brochure hit home because one of the main figures in my research about the fugitive slave settlement in my hometown of Waverly, Pa., was a Maryland runaway who’d seen his master sell off his chattel wife and two youngsters to a slaver in the Carolinas in the early 1840s. The runaway, George Keys, fled north, resettled in Waverly, and later became a Union soldier during the Civil War. I’m writing a book about Waverly’s Underground Railroad era and its dozen unsung black men including Keys who enlisted and fought in the war. Read More 

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A hard historical truth

A hickory pole, symbol of the race-baiting Jacksonian Democrats.

“MORE THAN SIX THOUSAND PRESENT! THE GREATEST ENTHUSIASMS PREVAILED.”

I just came upon that breathless headline while doing research for my next book, which will delve into 19th century black life in the section of northeastern Pennsylvania where I was raised. My hometown, the lovely hamlet of Waverly, north of Scranton, takes pride that it once harbored a settlement of fugitive slaves. I’ve been drilling down into that history, with a focus on the dozen remarkable black men from the settlement who served in the Union Army during the Civil War.

My goal in this latest round of road research was to find verification for a report I recently ran across online (thank you, newspapers.com!) about a rally in Waverly in October 1861, in the early stages of the war. According to the Adams Sentinel of Gettysburg, the rally was held in support of Lincoln’s policies, and it featured speeches by two gutsy officials of the opposition Democrats, representing the faction of “pro-war Democrats.” The article said ten thousand people attended and cheered loudly. Who else spoke, I wondered. Waverly’s black residents must have attended. Did one of their leaders perhaps get a spot on the platform as well? And where could such a massive event even be held in little Waverly?

I hoped the answer might pop up in one of the old Scranton newspapers, which would presumably have covered such a major event in its area. Unfortunately, the archived newspapers at the Scranton public library only go back to 1863, so that part of my search is thwarted for now.

Meanwhile, I dove into newly added microfilm for another Scranton newspaper, The Lackawanna Register, beginning in early 1863. The Register was a hard-core, Lincoln-hating Democratic house organ—and wow, the invective and racism! Its pages were filled with accounts of large antiwar demonstrations throughout the region in the summer of 1863. There was one in Greenfield, and in Scott, in Lenox, in Harford, in Dundaff, in Fleetville.

Wait a second. This picture runs directly counter to the impression I’d gotten before-- that the area was in Lincoln’s camp and that its Southern-sympathizing, abolition-loathing “Copperheads” were fringe crackpots who were few in number.

Even if you figure The Register was inflating the size of the turnouts Read More 

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Indian-settler shuttle diplomacy

"Penn's Treaty With the Indians," by Edward Hicks.

The Encyclopedia of Greater Philadelphia has been adding some fine entries lately, particularly regarding the region’s Native American history. The latest installment takes a fascinating look at one of the most ragtag yet important sets of characters roaming the early borderlands – the intermediaries. These were ad-hoc diplomats and interpreters pressed into duty to facilitate talks between the Indian tribes and the Colonial authorities.

As the article’s author, Calvin College history professor Stephen T. Staggs, writes, “They ranged from a French-Shawnee fur trader to a German pioneer, from an acculturated Delaware to a Polish-Prussian missionary, and from an Oneida living in a Shawnee village to a Delaware captive.”

I was pleased to see the online encyclopedia focus on these go-betweens because they’re a factor in my historical novel about the Eastern woodlands, Visions of Teaoga. An interpreter is a constant presence at the 1790 Seneca-U.S. peace council Read More 

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Legend of The Bloody Rock

The Bloody Rock lies beneath a protective grate on the west bank of the Susquehanna River.

You’ve heard of the Bloody Rock? Sometimes called Queen Esther’s Rock? No?

I’m accustomed to getting blank looks when I ask. It’s such a shame, and one more example of how we’ve forgotten so much of our amazing local history. As the anniversary of that gory event nears, allow me to explain what’s still there—on the roadside in northern Pennsylvania--for you to see.

The incident occurred 237 years ago, immediately after a Revolutionary War fight on the banks of the Susquehanna River near present-day Wilkes-Barre, Pa. Because that area is known as the Wyoming Valley, the fight is officially called the Battle of Wyoming. The Patriot side, however, termed it the Wyoming Valley Massacre because of how their militia was overrun and slaughtered by a joint British-Indian force that afternoon of July 3, 1778.

I recounted the gruesome event during an author talk last week at the Rydal Park senior residence outside Philadelphia. Accounts of the battlefield mayhem had already sobered my 45 listeners, and they really began cringing when I started describing the Bloody Rock. On the evening of the battle, I told them, Read More 

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'Cataclysmic Change'

An elegant summary of Pennsylvania’s fraught history with its original people has just been posted on the online Encyclopedia of Greater Philadelphia. A good friend who runs a Philadelphia tour-guide business alerted me to the new essay, and now I commend it to your reading as well.

The author, Gettysburg College history professor Timothy J. Shannon, highlights many of the points that come through in Visions of Teaoga, my historical novel about Indian-settler conflicts in the 1700s. His opening passage captures the problem: “Relations between Pennsylvania’s Native American and European peoples underwent cataclysmic change  Read More 
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A powwow with a purpose


Ron Williams at the Lenni-Lenape burial ground (Reading Eagle photo by Susan Keen).

History glows underfoot wherever we walk. Some people feel it, others not so much.

Ron Williams is the sort who does. He’s part Apache, an educator from the Southwestern U.S. who now lives in Pottstown, Pa., near Philadelphia. It seems a certain spot along the Schuylkill River in Pottstown has called out to him. It’s a small lot behind a factory—but sacred because of the Lenni-Lenape remains and artifacts found there in 1859.

Mr. Williams began visiting the burial ground, marked with a memorial boulder, to meditate, and “I made a promise to the souls laid to rest here that their place would be useful and remembered,” he Read More 
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Reclaiming the Wyalusing cliffs

The stunning, strategic, sacred site.

One of the most gorgeous spots in Pennsylvania is the Wyalusing Rocks overlook. Looming high above the upper Susquehanna River, it offers a breathtaking vista of the winding river and its broad alluvial plain. As a boy from that Northeastern Pennsylvania region, I remember going there with my parents and beholding the view in awe. Wouldn’t you know, in my historical novel Visions of Teaoga, my modern young protagonist and her dad pull over at Wyalusing to absorb the historical setting before them.

Go to Wyalusing today and, mixed among the roadside tourists, you may find Native Americans, there to pray and pay their respects. They know that this was far more than a lovely overlook. It was a strategically important sentry post, a site of tribal councils, and sacred ground. Fifteen years ago, the Eastern Delaware Nations coalition managed to buy 14 acres of the cliffs, and one of the group’s chiefs, John Taffe, tells me seekers of all ages go there to conduct traditional vision quests.

Wyalusing has been on my mind because I’ll be traveling Read More 

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Preserving Queen Esther's Town


The riverfront site, on the far shore, is going to be protected by the Archaeological Conservancy.

News flash: The important American Indian village site where the protagonist of my historical novel Visions of Teaoga once ruled is gaining the protection of the national Archaeological Conservancy.

The nonprofit conservancy identifies, acquires, and preserves significant archaeological sites around the country. It has preserved 465 sites thus far – and now is happily adding Queen Esther’s Town in Northeastern Pennsylvania.

After more than a decade of effort, the group said, it recently signed an option to purchase 92 acres of the riverfront site. That will make it the conservancy’s largest preserve in the Eastern U.S.

The archaeologists were exultant. According to the conservancy, the site “contains the heart of Queen Esther’s Town, a very significant sprawling series of contact period villages.” It said the floodplain where the Susquehanna and Chemung Rivers meet “has staggering research potential for future scholars” not only because of Esther’s 1700s native village but also the centuries of prior habitation there.

White settler accounts say Queen Esther’s Town – also known as Queen Esther’s Village or Esthertown – contained about seventy “rude houses.” Read More 
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