Timeline of Anti-slavery, Abolitionism and Underground Railroad in the U.S.

1775: The Pennsylvania Abolitionist Society is established to protect fugitives and free Blacks unlawfully held in bondage.

1780: March 1:  Pennsylvania passes the gradual Abolition Act [children born after March 1st, 1780, to be indentured until the age of twenty-eight].

1790: The census reflects 545 free Blacks and 348 enslaved Blacks in Lancaster County.

1804: One of the earliest, well-documented spontaneous community uprising against the institution of slavery occurs in Columbia, Lancaster County, PA, according to documentation published by the National Park Service and the Commonwealth of Pennsylvania:

Major Thomas Boude (1752-1822) purchased Stephen Smith, then five or six years old, as an indentured servant, from a family named Cochran near Harrisburg. Boude brought Smith to his home and place of business – a lumber yard and mill — along the Susquehanna Riverfront in the Borough of Columbia.  Shortly thereafter, Smith’s mother ran away from the Cochrans and came to Boude’s residence on Columbia’s Front Street to be with her young son.  Mrs. Smith’s mistress soon followed and attempted to drag the mother “to the street and tie her to the back of the horse” (Ellis and Evans, History of Lancaster County, page 74). “Mrs. Smith and the ladies of Boude’s household made such a vigorous resistance and outcry that Boude… heard them and came to the woman’s rescue.”  The slave mistress was forced to leave. Fearing further incident, Boude purchased Mrs. Smith out of bondage.

This story is significant as one of the earliest documented community uprisings against slavery by a prominent Lancaster County citizen of national stature:

Thomas Boude was a major in the Revolutionary War who served under Gen. George Washington; he and his family members were leaders in one of the county’s most influential religious institutions – Saint James Episcopal Church in the City of Lancaster; a former member, PA House of Representatives; former member, U.S. House of Representatives; an early proponent of free public education, banking, canal and other economic development and infrastructure investments. And notably, Boude was a mentor and gave key support to Stephen Smith when he came of age, purchased his freedom and chose to enter into business as an industrial scale lumber merchant.  With this support and his own strong drive and deep faith, Smith (1796-1873) became an important conductor on the Underground Railroad and later in life a minister in the African Methodist Episcopal Church, and a community benefactor in Philadelphia.

1817: About 50 persons of color, many from Saint James Episcopal Church, City of Lancaster, meet on June 10th in Lancaster at the house of James Clendenin to discuss the establishment of a separate black congregation.  This congregation eventually becomes Bethel African Methodist Episcopal Church.

1820: Select and common councils of Lancaster pass ordinance on May 13th requiring “every free person of color” to register with the mayor’s office. This ordinance creates “The Negro Entry Book.” Similar registers are created in Harrisburg about this time.

1820s: Early railroad plans envisioned from Philadelphia to Columbia, Lancaster County, then just emerging from its status as the “western frontier” of the Commonwealth and the nation.

1828: Main Line of Public Works to development railroad and canals spanning Pennsylvania chartered by PA legislature.

1830: Main Line of Public Works railroad construction begins at Philadelphia and extends 20 miles west and at Columbia and extends 20 miles east.

1834: Main Line of Public Works (railroads, canals and inclined planes opens across Pennsylvania. Key component of the Main Line is the 80 mile-long Philadelphia and Columbia Railroad, which opens as second operating passenger and freight railroad in the nation. State of Pennsylvania owns right of way, while private rail operators move people and freight in their cars.

1838: First use at Columbia, PA of railroad box cars with secret compartments on Philadelphia & Columbia Railroad to transport freedom seekers to Philadelphia and points north (per credible newspaper account published in 1870). These lumber carrying box cars were owned and operated by Stephen Smith and his partner, William Whipper, another successful African American entrepreneur who documented his and Smith’s Underground Railroad activity in William Still’s seminal book on the subject, published in 1872.

Early 1840s – first in-print usage of the term “underground railroad” to describe secret support for flight of formerly enslaved African Americans.

1846 – Pennsylvania Railroad formed to take over Main Line.

1850-The federal Fugitive Slave Act is passed as part of the Compromise of 1850, which included the admission of California as a state, with the federal government taking no  position relative to the new state’s Constitution that prohibited slavery.

1850 – October 11. Anti-slavery resolutions opposing the Fugitive Slave Act approved at a community meeting of abolitionists and Underground Railroad operatives at Russell’s Hall, Village of Georgetown, Bart Township.  The participants resolved to defy the law, stating “the highest principles of justice and humanity, as well as the fundamental principles of Christianity, require…that we will harbor, clothe, feed, and aid in the escape of fugitive slaves in opposition to the law.”  The effect of this meeting, according to the editor of a Lancaster newspaper, Edward Darlington of the Examiner &Herald, set in motion the chain of events that can be traced to the The Resistance at Christiana exactly 11 months later.

1851- September 11 – The Resistance at Christiana.  Slave owner Edward Gorsuch of Maryland is killed and his son, Dickinson, is gravely wounded, but survives. Federal agents assisting the recapture of formerly enslaved men are driven off in this community uprising against slavery at the home of William and Eliza Parker in Sadsbury Township, just outside the Borough of Christiana.

1851-November/December – 38 defendants in the case of what was then called The Christiana Riot are acquitted or released following trial held at Independence Hall, Philadelphia; Hon. Thaddeus Stevens, co-counsel for the defense, is a sitting US Congressman.  The teenage son of the late Edward Gorsuch, Thomas, is tormented that no one will be held accountable for the death of his father and the serious wounding of his older brother.  His boarding school friend is John Wilkes Booth, who, one author describes, appears to be radicalized by this event that has so afflicted his friend.

1861 – April 12-13, Fort Sumter bombarded by forces aligned with recently seceded Confederate States of America; marks the beginning of the US Civil War.

1865 – April 12 – Surrender of Confederate forces at Appomattox, VA.

1865 – April 14 – President Abraham Lincoln assassinated at Ford’s Theatre, Washington, D.C. by John Wilkes Booth

1865 – September 6 – US Congressman Thaddeus Stevens announces at a rally in Lancaster that he and his fellow Radical Republicans would introduce the Acts of Reconstruction in the House of Representatives in the upcoming session to begin in December. Stevens’ legislative goal was to treat the Southern States as conquered territories as punishment for their secession from the Union over the issue of slavery.

1870 – Enactment of the 15th Amendment to the US Constitution, granting the right to vote to all men, regardless of race or previous status of servitude.  This enfranchisement is considered to be a threshold that, after the enactment of the 13th and 14th Amendments in the previous decade, gave many progressively-minded citizens the freedom of expression to declare the personal involvement and that of their families in vigorous anti-slavery activities, and especially the Underground Railroad.

1872-William Still publishes his groundbreaking book on the national scope and activities of the Underground Railroad.

1883-Robert Smedley’s book, The Underground Railroad in Chester and Neighboring Counties of Pennsylvania, is published posthumously in Lancaster by Mariana Gibbons and Robert Purvis.

1898 – Prof. Wilbur Seibert publishes his book of national scope The Underground Railroad-From Slavery to Freedom.