Through the years, I have worked a good deal on Pennsylvania history, having taught for many centuries at Penn State University. I also spent this past Summer in that state. This post is about an unexpected aspect of that history, and one with wider implications, particularly in matters of race and slavery. Briefly, even this rural northern territory had far more of a slavery history than most specialists would imagine, but that story has been all but forgotten. In that, the region offers a microcosm of larger American realities, especially above the Mason-Dixon line. It really affects how we tell the story of colonial and early national America, and especially its churches.
General Potter’s Empire
By way of background, Penn State University is based in State College, in Centre County. Penn State dates from humble origins in 1855, but white settlement in the county began a century before that, in the 1750s. Reputedly, Irish-born land speculator and politician James Potter (1729-89) climbed Nittany Mountain to look over Penn’s Valley. “Seeing the prairies and noble forest beneath him, cried out to his attendant, ‘By heavens, Thompson, I have discovered an empire!’ ” Like Potter, the earliest settlers were Irish Protestants, and the distribution of early Presbyterian churches maps those early colonies. Ulster-derived place-names litter the countryside of Central and Western Pennsylvania – Armagh, Tyrone, Derry, Antrim, Fermanagh, McAlevy’s Fort, and so on. The settlers suffered disasters during the Revolution, and the decade following 1778 is known as the Great Runaway. But settlement recommenced again from the 1780s, by the Scotch-Irish, and later by Germans.
James Potter himself ended up as a Revolutionary War brigadier-general, and in 1781-82 he was the vice president of Pennsylvania. He came to own much of what became Centre County, making him one of Pennsylvania’s largest landowners. He is marked in the local landscape by Potter County, Potter Township, Potter’s Fort, and Potter’s Mills. At Old Fort, near the beautiful town of Centre Hall, a plaque commemorates him:
Potter’s Fort: Built 1777 by Gen. James Potter. A stockaded fort refuge for the settlers of the valley region. The site is on the nearby rise.
This Penn’s Valley area flourished and prospered. In the 1780s, Philadelphia speculator Aaron Levy laid out the nearby town of Aaronsburg on a grand scale in the hope that it would become the state capital.
At the end of the century, Central Pennsylvania became a vital center for the charcoal iron-making industry:
In the spring of 1792, Centre Furnace … went into blast and became the first major operation in what was then Northumberland and Mifflin Counties. When Centre County was formed in 1800, it was named for Centre Furnace. Other businesses quickly followed and by 1850, the “Juniata Iron Region” boasted 48 furnaces and 42 forges.
Throughout the nineteenth century and beyond, the thriving urban center of the region was Bellefonte, while the later State College was still farmland. In the 1850s, one of those iron-masters, James Irvin of Centre Furnace, was the principal sponsor of Penn State University, originally known as the Farmers’ High School.
So much is familiar to local historians, or to anyone studying the prehistory of Penn State. But there is another angle that is not well known, namely that all or nearly all those key early settlers and iron-masters owned slaves.
Back in Pennsylvania’s founding days of the 1680s, even Quaker William Penn used slaves to work his estate. The colony as a whole had five thousand slaves in the 1720s, rising to ten thousand in the mid-1750s, and then peaked dramatically during the French and Indian War period, around 1759-65, when slavery became a familiar part of Philadelphia life. Most of those slaves came not directly from Africa, but via the Caribbean colonies. And these were the very years that white colonists were first venturing into Central Pennsylvania.
The Centre region first comes into focus in 1775 when Virginia Presbyterian minister Philip Fithian traveled through the border country, especially the Scotch-Irish communities. In the whole of Penn’s Valley, he found just 28 families, nearly all Scotch-Irish Presbyterians. Naturally, he was hosted by James Potter, near Centre Hall. When he woke on an August Sunday, he “rose early, before any in the family, except a negro girl.” She was probably called Daphne, and she was a slave.
When Potter’s will was proved in 1789, he left a lot of property, mainly in fertile land, but with several slaves:
He owned twelve hundred acres of land in a body surrounding the Old Fort Hotel, which he willed to his son James, … and one hundred acres of the John McConnell warrantee, to include the mill-seat and mills erected thereon, etc., his sword, riding furniture, his negro man Hero, and mulatto man Bob…..
Gen. Potter owned contiguous tracts of land in a continuous stretch from Earlytown down to within a mile of Spring Mills, varying in width from a mile to a mile and one-half wide, a distance of about seven miles. The middle portion of this he willed inter alia to his daughter Martha, wife of Hon. Andrew Gregg, and the easterly portion, next to Spring Mills tract, to Mary Reynolds, wife of James Riddles. To Mrs. Gregg he gave his negro slave Daphne, and Daphne’s daughter Sal and son Bob.
Slaves were property just as much as the riding equipment.
Andrew Gregg, by the way, served as US Senator from Pennsylvania from 1807 to 1813.
Slaves are frequently mentioned in passing in settlement narratives, and early tax records, but blink and you will miss them. One unusually frank local history is exactly accurate when it talks of General Potter “selling tracts to Scots-Irish settlers coming with their slaves from the south through the Seven Mountains.” When the extended McNitt family entered Armagh and Potter Townships in the 1770s (note all those Ulster names), they brought a black slave.
The first white settlers of remote Curtin Township in the 1790s were two brothers from Maryland:
Both young and ambitious, and becoming tired of the routine duties of home-life, they shouldered their rifles, and accompanied by a single negro slave wended their way northward through the wilds of Pennsylvania until reaching Centre County.
Black faces would have been common enough along that early frontier. If this is not exactly “how the West was won,” it is how the Centre was won.
When Pennsylvania Slavery Did Not End
In 1780, Pennsylvania famously took a pioneering lead among the emerging states in formally abolishing slavery, but this was a gradual measure, and a grandfather clause allowed the continued enslavement of registered slaves. I quote Cassie Owens in the Philadelphia Inquirer:
Enslaved people born even the day before passage could still be kept in bondage for life. The last enslaved Pennsylvanians wouldn’t be freed until 1847. And the children of enslaved people could be bound through indenture — wage-free labor for a set time as defined by contract — until they reached age 28. Historians estimate that 2,000 or so people, most of them African Americans, were indentured in the city by 1800.
In 1790, Pennsylvania had 3,737 slaves out of a population of 434,000, under one percent: the comparable figure for Maryland was 32 percent, Delaware 15 percent. Virginia approached 40 percent.
John and Flora
But to return to the State College area. In 1799, a local iron-master advertised a reward for runaways:
Ran away on the 2d inst. Negro man John about 22, also Negro girl named Flora about 18, Slender made, speaks bad English and a little French. Has a Scar on her upper lip and letters branded on her breast. Whoever secures the runaways in any place where their master can get them shall have the above reward and reasonable charges paid by
Centre Furnace, Mifflin County [sic] July 20, 1799.
John Patton was another Protestant Irish immigrant and a mainstay of the local Presbyterian network. In 1792, he joined with Colonel Samuel Miles to create that Centre Furnace. Other members of the Miles family had owned slaves in the region since the 1770s.
I am assuming John and Flora were domestics in Patton’s house, as virtually all of the local slaves would be maids, cooks, or coachmen. This is not an industrial work force. But there are many, many stories here, which almost call for a historical novel. Dare I speculate that Flora had been brought to the US from Haiti, which would account for her French? We know that refugees from the Haitian revolution lived in Philadelphia, where they were partly blamed for the yellow fever epidemic. How and where had she been branded on her breast? It sounds like a penalty inflicted for an earlier escape attempt.
Also, how many slaves were working in Centre County at any given point in the 1790s? Thirty or forty, perhaps? The number can’t have been much larger, or else they would have left a larger demographic footprint after slavery was abolished. But the ones who happen to show up in the legal record are assuredly not the only ones who were there. And that was out of a small but growing total population.
Towards Freedom, Slowly
Far from ending in 1780, slavery in the region survived and actually expanded at the end of the century. In Gregg Township,
James Cooke, Esq., came to Penn’s Valley in 1790, and in 1792 erected a saw-mill, and in 1793 built a grist-mill at Spring Mills … He came from Lancaster County, and was a man of large means, owning slaves.
Slaves continued to be registered in Centre County after 1800. A convenient list records about fifteen slaves, or indentured virtual slaves, who belonged to most of the famous local families (mainly the iron-masters) between 1803 and 1820. We find for instance:
Joseph Miles & Co. register Charles 7/25/1806, born 3/16/1806.
Philip Benner registers Kiz 9/27/1803, born April 13, 1803.
James Harris registers Lenora 7/25/1806, born 2/3/1809 mulatto.
Joseph Miles registers Jerry 6/3/1809, born 2/1/1809.
If you know the area at all, all those slave-owners’ names are very familiar. Besides all those Potter names I mentioned earlier, modern day Centre County has townships named for Patton, Gregg, Harris, Benner, and Miles, as well as the borough of Milesburg. You can’t avoid driving on the Benner Pike.
Here is a typical entry from 1803:
James Rankin of Potter Township, farmer, being duly sworn according to law deposith and saith that on the twenty second day of March one thousand eight hundred and three his negroe wench named Sall was delivered of a male mulatto child he calls by the name of Peter.
An obituary of another of the Rankin family is apparently describing James when it describes a couple as “of highly respectable social standing, and exemplary and useful members of the Presbyterian Church.”
In 1802, the first capital case tried in the new Centre County involved the Bellefonte slave Daniel Byers, “the property of Mr. J. Smith.” Byers was executed for murdering a free mulatto, in a dispute over a white woman. The social picture that emerges from the account of the trial and execution sounds uncannily Southern. The story had a grotesque outcome. The first execution attempt failed when the rope broke, as the watching crowd demanded the prisoner’s release. “Meanwhile, William Petriken stepped up to Dan, and patted him on the shoulder, saying, ‘Dan, you have always been a good boy, go up now and be hung like a man,’ which he did.”
By 1830, Centre County had 18,763 White inhabitants, and 263 Blacks. Still, even at this very late point, Potter Township had four female slaves, and one male.
The existence of slavery elsewhere in the nation also threatened Black residents of the region. In 1826, some Virginian slave-catchers arrived at Bellefonte to seize two runaway slaves:
They were paraded through the streets, bound hand and foot with ropes, and taken to jail. There was many an eye to pity but none to save.
A local judge examined the credentials of the owners, and granted their right to seize their human property. I assume something similar occurred in 1833, although the account is not quite clear:
On the 16th of May a colored woman, who had lived in Bellefonte for over six years, married, and, having several children, was remanded into slavery by the court in Bellefonte.
Over the next few decades, Centre County developed a militant anti-slavery tradition, with a lively underground railroad. Bellefonte had a substantial African-American community, and supported an AME church.
The area’s Scotch-Irish Presbyterians became mainstays of the Republican cause and passionately supported Lincoln in the Civil War. Pennsylvania’s wartime governor was Andrew Gregg Curtin, a descendant of both General Potter and Andrew Gregg. So strong for the Union cause was Curtin’s Bellefonte that German and Democrat sections actually tried to secede from Centre County. But that is another story.
Remembering and Forgetting
So much for the bare facts, but how do we interpret them?
Historians are not at all surprised to find slaves in the eighteenth century northern colonies, or the early nineteenth century states, although non-specialists might be amazed to find such a situation in an area like Central Pennsylvania, far outside the great cities. Without detracting from the moral debate, we should stress that the numerical scale of slavery was totally different in an area like this from the South or Middle Colonies. You can legitimately argue that the prosperity of a state like South Carolina, or a city like Charleston, was built on the backs of African slave labor. A great Virginian landowners might own hundreds of slaves.
That was absolutely not the case in central Pennsylvania, which was a society with slaves, rather than a slave society. Economically, local society in no sense depended on that slave labor, and domestic slaves like Daphne and Flora were incidental to the larger settlement. When slavery vanished after 1800, it made no difference to the area’s economic boom.
In understanding the phenomenon, it’s important to recall that prior to the 1760s, very few people indeed in Europe or North America (or Africa, or Asia) argued that slavery as such was wrong or improper, and it is not at all surprising to find pious Presbyterians (or Quakers) holding slaves. When Pennsylvania acted against the practice in 1780, in however limited a fashion, the state was at the far radical end of contemporary opinion. Such slave-owning became more debatable, and questionable, from the 1790s onward.
I am absolutely not arguing that the Centre Region should overthrow all the memories of its own local founding fathers, of people like General Potter. The same applies to other northern areas. With all its flaws and evils, the history is the history, and can’t simply be discarded or silenced as if it never existed. Nor can it be judged by ahistorical hindsight.
But there is a special obligation in this part of the world. The South absolutely remembers its slavery inheritance, and struggles how to confront and expiate it. The North, in contrast, has virtually forgotten its own story, and thanks God that it is not a grave sinner like those terrible people in the South, all those publicans and slave-owners. If you do a Google search for “slavery” in the context of the areas I have been describing, you will find a huge amount about the Underground Railroad, and Bellefonte abolitionism. Centre County and its churches, it seems, just existed to help Southern slaves escape from bondage. About the actual local slaves, and slave-owners, you’ll find next to nothing.
Areas like Central Pennsylvania need to take more account of their historic Black presence. We really should have some memorials to the Daphnes and the Floras, and their like.
My main source throughout is John Blair Linn, History of Centre and Clinton Counties, Pennsylvania (Philadelphia: Louis H. Everts, 1883). This is not critical history in any modern sense, but Linn had access to a stunning range of early documents, many of which are now lost.
More generally, see Marc Howard Ross, Slavery in the North: Forgetting History and Recovering Memory (University of Pennsylvania Press, 2018).