Background of UGRR in Northeastern PA
Pennsylvania: The Quaker Province, 1681-1776
English Quakers were the dominant group to settle in the southeastern counties, which soon became the center for a bustling commercial and thriving agricultural society. The second most important ethnic group, the Germans, migrated to the new colony by the thousands, comprising one third of the population by 1776, and settling in the interior counties. A third group of immigrants to make an indelible impression on the colony was the Scotch Irish, many of whom came to escape hardships in Ireland. This group comprised one quarter of the population by 1776 and tended to settle in the central and western counties.
African Americans comprised the fourth largest group in the population of the colony. About 4,000 Negroes to be used as slaves had arrived in Pennsylvania by 1730. In 1790, the census reported that the number of African Americans populating the colony was 10,000, of whom 6,300 were free. The large number of free blacks at this time was due largely to the passage of Pennsylvania’s Gradual Abolition Act of 1780, the first of its kind in the United States.
Other groups that contributed in smaller numbers to the development of Pennsylvania were Irish and Welsh Quakers who settled in areas immediately outside of Philadelphia; and a mixture of French Huguenots, Jews, Dutchmen and Swedes whose presence became scattered throughout the colony.
Historians dismissed Northeastern Pennsylvania as a passageway for fugitives traveling between central and southeastern Pennsylvania to freedom in Canada. This was first suggested in 1898 by Wilbur H. Siebert’s Underground Railroad from Slavery to Freedom and continues to the present day with such recent works as Matthew Pinsker’s Vigilance in Pennsylvania: Underground Railroad Activities in the Keystone State 183 7-1861 (2000) and William J. Switala’s Underground Railroad in Pennsylvania (2001). In fact, research shows that Northeastern Pennsylvania became a home to many runaways who built a new life in freedom there.
Towanda, Bradford County, was home to fugitives Henry Butler, Douglas Wilson, John Carter, Sam Berry, Soloman Cooper, Abner McCloe. Wilkes-Barre, Luzerne County, had hotels, farms and a budding anthracite industry that provided employment to such runaways as James Phillips, William Thomas and Lewis Tucker. They could also worship at the Bethel A.M.E. and Zion African Methodist Churches located in the town. In Waverly, Lackawanna County, runaways George Keyes and Lot Norris settled in the community of free blacks living along Carbondale Road. When Norris’ master followed him there, intent on taking him back to the South, pitchfork-wielding neighbors convinced the slaveholder to return home without him. Norris later helped construct a church for the local community (1844).
Free black communities in Susquehanna County also embraced runaways. Brooklyn Township, for example, was home in 1792 to Printz Perkins, a former Connecticut slave. By 1811, a small free black community had been established. Perkins’ descendents, as well as those of the Dennis family, another founding family from Connecticut, welcomed other fugitives to this region. Montrose, a main station on the Underground Railroad, became home to a number of runaways such as William Smith, Edward Williams, and Lewis Williams because of its well-known resistance to slavery and its close proximity to a colony of black farmers at Silver Lake Township, founded by Dr. Robert H. Rose in 1836. Further research using primary source materials should yield more information about other runaways who settled in the region.