Image: The Spring House at the Cyrus Griest House, where self-emancipators were hidden on their journey to freedom
Gettysburg had several factors that made it open to the Underground Railroad: a small black community, an African Methodist Episcopal Church, a Methodist Episcopal Church, and abolitionist societies. Some town leaders like the Rev. Samuel Simon Schmucker, founder of the Gettysburg Seminary, were also a staunch abolitionists. Today we know a fair amount about the pre-war role of the Underground Railroad in Gettysburg and its environs.
Although I was unable to find much in the way of information about whether self-emancipators and black refugees came over the Pennsylvania boarder in 1863, instinct tells me that it was likely some people still did that. And if they did, then the people of Gettysburg would have taken them in and moved them along to get them to safety.
Eli Smith's family lived in Gettysburg and, being Quakers were part of the Underground Railroad. In Walk by Faith, I propose that the activity continued into 1863, when members of the African Methodist Episcopal Church welcomed self-emancipators and refugees. Once the boarding house family arrived to sojourn in the house, Maggie, her daughters, and the others take over the job of moving people north.
To give the story a sense of reality, I used some locations known to be part of the Underground Railroad. One of these was a black community living in Butler County (to the north of Gettysburg) on what is now called Yellow Hill. In the 1800s, though, the area was known as Pine Hill. Why the name change? The term “yellow” often referred to African-Americans of lighter skin tones. Historians believe the name change may have referenced the color the self-emancipators’ skin, The little community on the hill had been founded by Edward and Annie Mathews, were real-life people who worked with the Underground Railroad and cooperated in this effort with the Quakers. It is likely that most of the population living there had escaped from enslaved life in the South.
Living in the Quaker Valley area to the north of Pine Hill, were various meetings of the Religious Society of Friends, another group that was active in the Underground Railroad. In my novel, Eli’s sisters Sally and Becky are responsible for guiding people from Gettysburg to Pine Hill. They make mention of Cyrus Griest, a historical figure and a member of the Menallen Friends Quaker Meeting, whose home served as a station. His house still stands in Menallen township and I was able to visit it and take a picture of the spring house that served as a sanctuary for traveling self-emancipators.
It is likely that people seeking freedom were moved from Gettysburg to Pine Hill, and then to the Quakers in Menallen Township. The Quakers would send the escapees to the next stop further north. Before the Civil War, some self-emancipators (like my characters Matilda and Chloe Strong) went as far as Canada. Once they had crossed the border, they no longer were subject to the Fugitive Slave Act.
Some of the graves that have been identified in the old church cemetery on Pine Hill. The church is gone but part of its footprint still remains.
In the fall of 2012, I took an Underground Railroad tour of Gettysburg and surrounding area with local historian Debra Sandoe McCauslin. She led our group to Underground Railroad locations including the abandoned African Methodist Church graveyard on Yellow Hill and the road leading to the old Mathews house. Both sites are on private property and not accessible to the casual tourist, so it was exciting to be able to visit them. Ms. McCauslin - personable, passionate, and willing to answer any question - offered the kind of hands-on history that helped me create the world Maggie and her family encounter in and around Gettysburg. Ms. McCauslin is still working and, if you ever are in the Gettysburg area, you might want to sign up for a tour with her.
McCauslin, Debra Sandoe. Restructuring the Past: the Puzzle of the Lost Community of Yellow Hill. Gettysburg, PA: For the Cause Productions, 2007.
Smith, David G. On the Edge of Freedom: The Fugitive Slave Issue in South Central Pennsylvania, 1820-1870. New York: Fordham State Press, 2013.
Janet Stafford, Squeaking Pips Founder