William Parker (1822—1891?), slave narrative author and resistance leader, was born enslaved, the son of Louisa Simms in Anne Arundel County, Maryland, at Rowdown, a plantation with approximately seventy slaves, mostly field hands. What we know about William Parker is drawn from his own account published in 1866. His mother died early in his life, and Parker was raised by his grandmother, who was a cook in the plantation's main house.
Upon the death of Rowdown's owner, Major William Brogdon, the plantation was divided between his sons, William and David. Parker, along with many other slaves, including his brother and his uncle, was sent to live with David, who had built a house called Nearo on the southwestern portion of the farm. According to Parker's narrative, neither of the young masters abused his slaves, and he and the other slaves “were as contented as it is possible for slaves to be” (154). Slave sales, however, were another matter altogether. “No punishment was so much dreaded by the refractory slave as selling,” Parker wrote (155). After Parker's friend Levi was deceived and sent by his owner to deliver a letter to a family acquaintance, a man to whom he had secretly been sold, Parker began to consider escape seriously. He estimates that he was sixteen or seventeen at the time.
After a confrontation with his owner, Parker and his brother, Charles, escaped via Baltimore, Maryland, and York, Pennsylvania, to a farm area about five miles east of Lancaster, Pennsylvania. After working there for three months, Parker visited his brother, who had settled in Bart Township, near Smyrna, fifteen miles to the east. Parker remained with him for thirteen months before getting work with a physician named Dr. Dengy.
Through Quaker influence, the region, located in the southeastern portion of Pennsylvania, had long been a focal point of antislavery activity and an important stop on the Underground Railroad. The tensions between slave catchers and abolitionists were intensified by the 1850 Fugitive Slave Law, which required free states to return escaped slaves to their southern owners or face federal penalties. Lancaster County was particularly dangerous for black Americans because of the Gap Gang, a roving group that patrolled the region looking for escaped slaves, who could be returned for bounty, and for free blacks, who could be captured and sold into slavery. The violence of these patrols increased after a series of altercations, including one clash that left three slave catchers dead following their attempt to return an escaped slave girl to Maryland.
While living with Dr. Dengy, Parker attended an antislavery meeting at which Frederick Douglass—with whom he had been acquainted when they were both slaves in Maryland—and William Lloyd Garrison spoke. Parker joined with Douglass and other African Americans in opposing the Fugitive Slave Law by forming a self-protection society to defend African Americans against slave catchers and northern white vigilantes. By then Parker had married a woman named Eliza Ann Elizabeth Howard, who was also an escaped slave from Maryland. Howard's mother, brother, and sisters had also escaped and were living in the Lancaster area. Howard, who married Parker when she was about sixteen years old, was twenty-one and the mother of their three children when Parker began his abolitionist work.
Parker reports in his narrative that on 9 September 1851 Edward Gorsuch, accompanied by a small group of men, arrived in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania, from rural Baltimore County, Maryland, with the intention of traveling to Christiana, Pennsylvania, to capture four former slaves who in November 1849 had stolen five bushels of Gorsuch's wheat. The four escaped slaves had been directed to Parker, who had developed a reputation in his community for assisting fugitive slaves. Gorsuch had learned that the men he sought resided with Parker, and he intended to reclaim them. Gorsuch and his six men, however, encountered more than Parker and the fugitives. Seventy-five to one hundred armed neighbors—both black and white—had responded to a horn blown by Parker's wife, Eliza. The armed confrontation quickly escalated, leaving Gorsuch dead and his son, his nephew, and others wounded. The incident came to be known as the Christiana Resistance.
Newspapers widely circulated accounts of the resistance, and Parker quickly became a marked man. To avoid arrest, Parker, sending his wife separately, journeyed to Canada via the Underground Railroad. He traveled north through Rochester, New York, where he briefly stopped at Frederick Douglass's home before departing for Toronto, Ontario, arriving in Canada in September 1851. There, Parker learned that Pennsylvania's governor, William Johnston, was seeking his return to the state under the terms of the Extradition Treaty. Eliza, parker arrived two months after her husband's arrival in Toronto, having narrowly escaped capture on several occasions. With the help of supporters, Parker was eventually able to purchase land and build a house. For a time he served as a correspondent for Douglass's North Star newspaper.
Parker's narrative, “The Freedman's Story. In Two Parts,” first published in 1866 in the Atlantic Monthly, illuminates a number of aspects of slavery, including, to some extent, the workings of the Underground Railroad. The account chronicles the experiences of African Americans in antebellum Lancaster County, Pennsylvania, and makes clear that African American resistance was organized around an intricate network of warnings, plans, and armed defense. The narrative is significant as well for its first-person account of the Christiana Resistance. The veracity of Parker's narrative, however, remains in doubt. Because Parker was most likely illiterate, his narrative was edited by someone identified only as “E.K.,” who writes in the introduction, “The manuscript of the following pages has been handed to me with the request that I would revise it for publication, or weave its facts into a story which should show the fitness of the Southern black for the exercise of the right of suffrage.” The narrative, published fifteen years after the Christiana Resistance, clearly has an agenda that reaches beyond the particulars of Parker's life. According to Parker's account, for example, he was a primary participant during the resistance. Contemporaneous accounts, however, indicate that he was only one of many resistance leaders.
Although potentially compromised, Parker's narrative provides the only account of the incident from a combatant who was inside the house. And even though the centrality and extent of Parker's involvement may be questioned, the strength of his beliefs should not. Parker's involvement in the Christiana Resistance represents the larger dissatisfaction that many felt with the Compromise of 1850 and the Fugitive Slave Law.
Parker remained in Buxton, Ontario, Canada, with his family, after the war and was active in community affairs. Some sources suggest that he later returned to the United States where he died in 1891.
William Parker, “The Freedman's Story. In Two Parts,” Atlantic Monthly: A Magazine of Literature, Science, Art and Politics 17 (Feb. and Mar. 1866). https://docsouth.unc.edu/neh/parker1/parker.html
George Gilbert, "William Parker: Runaway Slave and Abolitionist," Dickinson College website 4 Nov. 2017. https://blogs.dickinson.edu/hist-311pinsker/2017/11/04/william-parker-runaway-slave-and-abolitionist/
Parker, William. “The Freedman's Story. In Two Parts,” Atlantic Monthly: A Magazine of Literature, Science, Art and Politics 17 (Feb. and Mar. 1866).
Sterling Lecater Bland
Jennifer Mojica Santana
Hutchins Center for African & African American Research, Harvard University, Cambridge, MA.
Oxford University Press (USA) African American Studies Center