Gettysburg Connection is pleased to publish today the third in a series of articles called The Black Influence. The series focuses on the African American experience in and around Gettysburg, traveling back to the 1780s and expanding to the present time, each article providing descriptions of local African American people and events that shaped Gettysburg and Adams County.
This week’s article is by Gettysburg Connection contributor Jenine Weaver.
At the end of the article, there is a list of references that more deeply explore each individual and event.
As always, we welcome comments, questions, additions, and corrections. You may leave your thoughts in the comments section of this post or contact the author directly by emailing firstname.lastname@example.org.
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Black History in Adams County cannot be complete without paying respect to the escaped slaves that followed the Underground Railroad (UGRR) through Adams County.
The National Park Service describes the UGRR by saying:
“Beginning in the 17th century and continuing through the mid-19th century in the United States, enslaved African Americans resisted bondage to gain their freedom through acts of self-emancipation. The individuals who sought this freedom from enslavement, known as freedom seekers, and those who assisted along the way, united together to become what is known as the Underground Railroad.” Underground Railroad (U.S. National Park Service) (nps.gov)
Freedom seekers in the south often headed north aiming for Philadelphia or even Canada. It is speculated that thousands of freedom seekers found themselves traveling through Adams County on their treacherous journey to freedom. Due to the Fugitive Slave Law enacted in the 1790s it was illegal to hide escaped slaves. The punishment increased in the 1850’s, becoming punishable by jail time and a $1,000 fine (that’s comparable to over $34,200 today). Regardless, there were over 680 Underground Railroad stops that have been historically confirmed, four of which are in Adams County.
The first location is the McAllister’s Mill in Cumberland Township. The Mill is on the western border of Mt. Joy Township. It sits on private property (available by tour on Saturdays through August UGRR Site at McAllister’s Mill (hgaconline.org) and located behind the old Mulligan MacDuffers Adventure Golf.
The McAllister Mill has a full circle relation to Black History. On July 4, 1836, the first abolitionist meeting was held at the McAllister Mill. The group formed the Adams County Anti-Slavery Society. Then the Mill became a hiding place for freedom seekers. “How ironic that less than two decades later the First Blood of the Battle of Gettysburg and the war over slavery, would be on his [the McAllister] farm”, says historian Debra Sandoe McCauslin, an ancestor of private George Sandoe, who was the first Union soldier to die at Gettysburg.
At the McAllister’s Mill, the escaped slaves hid in the cog pit, a dirt rut under the basement of the mill. Conditions were not inviting. The area could be wet, hot and humid, or cold at night. Other areas to hide were in tiny caves along the creek. Regardless of cramped quarters or atmosphere, the freedom seekers hid.
The Adams County Anti-Slavery Society appeared not to have Black members; however, the St. Paul’s African Methodist Episcopal (A.M.E.) Church of Gettysburg started the Slave’s Refuge Society. Although the church is not historically confirmed as a stop on the UGRR, it was noted that they tasked themselves to assist fellow African Americans seeking freedom.
Leaving the McAllister Mill, freedom seekers would head north to the next UGRR stop, which might have been to meet Edward and Annie Mathews on Yellow Hill. Yellow Hill was located nine miles north of Gettysburg. The Mathews were African American and Yellow Hill was home to hundreds of African Americans from the 1700s to the 1920s. It is possible other Black families assisted in the UGRR but their involvement is not known due to lack of written evidence.
The Mathews would have taken the freedom seekers to the home of Cyrus and Mary Ann Griest, the third Adams County UGRR site. In the 1930s, Alexander W. Griest, predecessor to Cryrus Griest, shared a memory during an interview, “In the middle of the night, Mathews took them [the escaped slaves] to the home of Cyrus Griest and hid them in the springhouse. Mathews then tapped on the Griest’s bedroom window to let him know that he had guests … The women would feed the freedom seekers in the morning.” He remembered this happening about twice a month in the summer but never in the winter.
Other freedom seekers would go to the home of William and Phebe Wright, Quakers from York Springs, which is the fourth historically proven UGRR in Adams County. This was the fourth stop on the UGRR in Adams County. The Wrights aided hundreds of escaped slaves to safety. The most well known is James W. C. Pennington. He went on to become a minister, writer, and abolitionist.
Pennington stayed in Adams County with the Wrights from Autumn of 1828 to April 1829. He learned to read, write, and cipher, a method to transform writing to hide a message in code. Pennington helped on the Wrights farm for six month then returned on his journey to freedom after the winter ended. Pennington’s documented story helps carve history to understand the route that many freedom seekers used. Like Pennington, the Black people escaping slavery would head out of Adams County and closer to their destination to freedom.
This article was peer reviewed for accuracy by Andrew Dalton, historian, of the Adams County Historical Society and Debra Sandoe McCauslin, local researcher and historian.
Dorsey Myers, Betty. (2018). Progression of Education for Black Citizens of Gettysburg.
Historic Gettysburg-Adams County, Inc. (2021). UGRR Site at McAllister’s Mill (hgaconline.org)
American History & Genealogy Project. (Feb. 2016). Maryland American History and Genealogy Project (genealogyvillage.com)
McAlister, Lynn. (July 2015). McAllister’s Mill | Today in Macalister History
Sandoe, Debra. (2007). Reconstructing the Past: Puzzle of the Lost Community at Yellow Hill.
Slavery and the Underground Railroad in South Central Pennsylvania. (Jan. 2017). https://archive.org/details/CSPAN2_20170122_160300_Slavery_and_the_Underground_Railroad_in_South_Central_Pennsylvania#:~:text=story%20and%20a%20staircase%20outside%20for%20easy%20estates,the%20meantime%2C%20slaves%20arrived%20and%%20caught20them%20
Wingret, Cooper H. (2018). Abolitionists of South Central Pennsylvania.