One of the best ways to learn about African American heritage in Pennsylvania Dutch Country is to immerse yourself in the stories and places where ordinary people with extraordinary determination changed our nation's history. Learn about the enslaved African Americans who fought in the American Revolution and Civil War, the freedom-seekers of the Underground Railroad and the abolitionists who risked everything...all committed to the courageous Quest for Freedom.
Civil War History of the Susquehanna River Towns
It was June of 1863. The Confederate Army had taken York, and was preparing to cross the Susquehanna River by capturing the bridge that linked Wrightsville and Columbia, overtake Lancaster and advance to Harrisburg. Several hundred Union troops in retreat from York, a number already wounded, joined the Pennsylvania Militia and set up defenses to protect the bridge on the western side of the Susquehanna. Their force was strengthened by a valiant Black militia company. Still, they were outnumbered by more than a thousand men and had to abandon their defenses and retreat across the bridge.
A desperate plan was put into action. The Wrightsville-Columbia Bridge, key to local commerce and communications, would be sacrificed. Union forces wired a span of the structure to blow up, but the explosion was not strong enough to do the task. The order to burn the bridge was then given by Colonel Jacob Frick, and proved effective. The efforts of the Pennsylvania Militia at the Susquehanna River Towns spared Lancaster and slowed the advance of the Confederates toward Harrisburg.
Check out the Civil War Roadtrip of the Susquehanna River Towns.
Download the Quest for Freedom Trail Guide (pdf 2.5 MB) for a map of the region, plus lots more on the related stories and destinations of the area.
The road to freedom was paved - with acts of heroism and courage. Three of these hand-made paths made their way through Lancaster County. The county's location along the Mason-Dixon line, its residents' devotion to freedom, and its proximity to other free Northern states made it ideal as a pathway to freedom. Some fugitives made their way to Columbia, others crossed the Susquehanna River into Southern Lancaster County at Peach Bottom, and still others followed a path that lead them along the Octoraro Creek in the eastern portion of the county. Regardless the path, their destination was often Christiana and eventually, Philadelphia or Canada.
As many as 50,000 to 100,000 men and women escaped to freedom using the Underground Railroad network, but the exact number will never be known - many of the ledgers documenting their flight were destroyed. Oral histories and some records did survive, however, and these are enough to give us an idea of how slaves made their way north. Songs like Swing Low, Sweet Chariot, Brother Moses Gone to de Promised Land, Wade In The Water and Follow the Drinkin' Gourd served as directions for fugitives to follow. Using ingenious disguises and creative ploys (like one slave who mailed himself to freedom or others who hid in the false bottoms of wagons), slaves made their way out of bondage. Yet no story of the Underground Railroad would be complete without mention of the men and women who acted as "conductors" and "Stationmasters" along the pathway to freedom.
For thousands of men and women fleeing the opression of slavery, the Underground Railroad became their lifeline, their passage to freedom. Known alternatively as the Freedom Line, the Lightning Train, the Freedom Train, Mysterious Tracks, or the Trackless Train, the Underground Railroad wasn't a system of rails or trains but a loose organization of freed slaves and abolitionists -people- who harbored fugitives often at great peril to themselves. The federal Fugitive Slave Law of 1850 made assisting of fugitives a crime, and anti-abolitionist sentiment made life unsafe for freed blacks and white sympathizers alike. The entire movement was shrouded in mystery, but the place of its birth has been alternately placed in Ohio and Pennsylvania. Even the origin of the term "Underground Railroad" is much disputed. Some sources indicate that as slave catchers came north, their quarry seemed to disappear underground and the term "Underground Railroad" was born.