The outbuilding where Cyrus Griest hid self-emancipators, Quaker Valley, PA
New Jersey has a long history and many old buildings. One thing you can be sure of when you enter a building that existed in the 1700-mid-1800s is that someone most likely will tell you 1) George Washington slept there; 2) the building is haunted; or 3) it was a station on the Underground Railroad.
Obviously, much of what we’re told is wishful thinking. I don’t know whether George Washington slept there or if a ghost is haunting the place – or even Washington’s ghost haunting it, but I can give you clues to find to learn if the building might have been an Underground Railroad stop.
The answer is obvious. You need to figure out who was living in the town around 1790-1860. Was a community of free black people there? Did they worship at an African Methodist Episcopal Zion or African Methodist Episcopal Church? Was there a white Methodist church in the area? What about a Quaker meeting? Did an abolition society have a chapter nearby?
Also look at opportunities for transportation. Were roads, stagecoach lines, railroads, or waterways with boat traffic accessible? What could someone who was finding their way to freedom use to keep moving north?
And, finally, is the building near a known Underground Railroad line?
If the answer to two or more of those things is yes, then the building just might have been an Underground Railroad stop.
Let’s look at the area around Gettysburg, PA, for instance. Free black people lived in the town and had established St. Paul’s African Methodist Episcopal Church. Then the church started an anti-slavery society called the Slave Refugee Society. Huge clue!
But wait. There’s more.
Up the road from Gettysburg was a place in Butler Township called Pine Hill. On the hill Edward and Annie Mathews founded a small community made up of people of color. So, it should come as no surprise that Edward and Annie were active in the Underground Railroad. Furthermore, some of the people living in the little community on the hill were suspected of being self-emancipators. Eventually, Pine Hill became known as “Yellow Hill,” most likely a reference to the skin tone of some of its residents.
Oh, and there’s something else.
Working with the Mathews were Quakers who lived in the aptly-named Quaker Valley area to the north. Cyrus Griest, a member of the Menallen Friends Quaker Meeting, was active in the UGRR. His house and the outbuilding in which he hid self-emancipators still stand. I had the pleasure of seeing both (from the outside) some years ago.
And that’s how the Underground Railroad worked. Diverse people from diverse backgrounds cooperated to move formerly enslaved people to safety.
Now, let’s look at my books.
In WALK BY FAITH, the boarding house and the Gazette were burned down by an anti-abolitionist mob in 1863. The family then moved to Gettysburg, where Eli’s family home was an Underground Railroad station co-managed by the Eli’s Quaker sisters and the members of Gettysburg’s St. Paul AME Church. Before the war began, the process went like this: people running from enslavement were welcomed in Gettysburg at the old Smith House by the people of Anna and Pete’s church. Next, they were escorted north to the Millhouse farm (Eli’s sister and brother-in-law), which was near Middletown. Or the travelers were taken to the Mathews’ house on Pine Hill. The following night they would be guided further north to the Griest home near Wrightsville, and later would be taken to the Adams County line. It is very much like history, just tweaked a bit.
My book is set in 1863, which is in the middle of the war. Escaped slaves and fugitives, however, were still arriving in the town and needed to be moved to safety. This now becomes the job of Maggie’s family since they are living in the old Smith house. In addition, Maggie uses the UGRR line to evacuate her friends of color, the children, and Grandpa O’Reilly from Gettysburg prior to the battle.
In A TIME TO HEAL, the old Smith House in Gettysburg is being used as a hospital where the wounded of both sides are cared for by Maggie’s family. Only one fugitive slave, Moses Galloway, finds his way to the house. However, his passage north, as well as that of Matilda and Chloe Strong, is handled by the Quaker communities. Moses and the Strongs are given white conductors to escort them on their rail trip to Canada. Why? Because people of color traveling alone on a train were viewed with suspicion. It was safer for them to be in the company of a white person and be viewed as a servant.
So that’s how I tied the UGRR into two books. If you’d like to learn more about the Underground Railroad, please check out the sources listed below.
Bordewich, Fergus M. Bound for Canaan: The Underground Railroad and the War for the Soul of America. New York: Amistad-Harper Collins, 2005.
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.
Swintala, David. Underground Railroad in New York and New Jersey. Stackpole Books: 2006.