Category Archives: author interviews

“Selling Slaves in Pennsylvania”

If you saw the film Twelve Years a Slave or read the memoir it’s based on, you know that prior to the Civil War, free-born black people in the Northern states were at risk of being kidnapped and illegally sold into Southern bondage. Mercenaries were carrying out the horrific practice throughout the early decades of the 1800s, and they really upped their game once the Fugitive Slave Act was passed in 1850. The new law let slave-catchers come North to capture suspected runaways, with the Northern authorities and public required to cooperate. A quick hearing would be held at which the suspect couldn’t testify. If no one else would pay his bounty, he’d be ordered South with his captors.

This period is included in a Pennsylvania history book I’m currently writing. During my research in the Harrisburg archives, I came upon a powerful article from the Conneautville (Pa.) Courier headlined “Selling Slaves in Pennsylvania.” It drives home just how systematic and conniving the abductions were. Unfortunately, because I have so much other information to use and my primary focus is across the state in Northeastern Pennsylvania, I doubt the article will make it into the book. Still, I’d like to share it because it’s memorable. Here, from April 2, 1851:

The operation of the Fugitive Slave Law seems to have opened a new market for the slavers of the South. This may sound strangely in the ears of some … A slaveholder wishing to realize a few hundred or a thousand dollars, instead of risking the uncertainties of a Southern market, has only to dispatch some special agent, equipped with a letter of Attorney, executed in due form of law, to the North, authorizing him to seize, apprehend and sell some poor negro, who may be unable to prove his freedom the moment he is arrested.

The summary manner in which cases of this kind are required to be disposed of, almost necessarily prevent investigation into the character of such agent himself as a competent witness, to prove the identity of the fugitive, no difference what his character for truth really may be, for that, from the very nature of the case, cannot be inquired into. Thus is is rendered extremely easy to establish a claim of this kind.

It is well known that there is strong sympathy here in the North in favor of freedom, and although our citizens are ‘law abiding,’ yet they would pay almost any price rather than see a man dragged from his home into perpetual bondage. In this way it is that those claimed as slaves are sold in Pennsylvania.” The article mentioned a Pittsburgh case in which people paid $800, and said, “Thousands of dollars have already been extorted from the North in this way, and yet this odious law has only been in operation a few months. … If this state of things is to prevail, but a few of our colored citizens are secure in their persons or property for a day, notwithstanding the vaunting boast that America is the asylum for the oppressed and downtrodden of all nations.”

What a racket: black suspects railroaded; slave owners win by getting a new field hand or by extracting a bounty payment instead; mercenaries cash in either way. It was a rotten system that helped turn much of the Northern public against Southern “Slave Power”–and that lurched the nation closer to war.


Seeing the Slave as a “Crushed Vegetable”

In researching the Underground Railroad past of my hometown, Waverly, Pa., I came across a fascinating explication of the abolition mission, at least as it was understood by white participants in the 1830s. I’m at the point in my book manuscript when the quote fits in—when white Waverly was helping to set up its own settlement of fugitive slaves—and I recently shared the lengthy quote with a key supporter of my work. I want to share it with you, too.

They are the words of John Mann, president of the Anti-Slavery and Free Discussion Society. On July 4, 1836, Mann gave a keynote holiday address at the Montrose Presbyterian Church. Montrose, thirty miles north of Waverly, was a haven of abolitionism, and its newspaper, The Spectator and Freeman’s Journal, proudly printed the text of Mann’s speech. Here’s his message for you to savor:

Emancipation, Mann said, “is not what many of its enemies would have you believe. It does not mean the uncaging of a menagerie and letting out a force of wild beasts, to ravage the country and commit depradations on society. … It means to restore the oppressed children of Africa to that niche in the architecture of society which the Great Founder designed, or in other words, which they are qualified to fill. It means, in short, to make men and women of slaves.

“But, says goggle-eyed prejudice, you cannot do it. They are so degraded they can never rise to your beau of moral excellence and self-respect. To this we reply, that to doubt of success is to distrust the moral government of God. The two and a half millions of slaves in the United States are descendants from the same original stock with ourselves. Climate and local causes have produced the difference of complexion, and circumstances have produced the difference in condition. They have been crushed by the lever of power. Remove the pressure, and they will rise as naturally as the crushed vegetable regains its upright position whenever the rubbish that keeps it down is removed. If, however, the plant may have remained in an unnatural position, so long, as to have acquired a deformity, the careful husbandman will stake it up, and assist it to regain its proper form. If the moral powers of the slaves have been so long and so cruelly crushed that they cannot, unaided, acquire they proper direction, it is our duty to lend the helping hand. We are morally bound, first to remove the burden, and then to assist the crippled sufferer in rising, and to support him in his feet, till he can sustain his own weight.”

So there you have it. Mann knew how to turn a phrase, didn’t he? “Goggle-eyed prejudice” is my favorite. And his imagery about the husbandman carefully staking up a deformed plant was fitting for the farmers of his day. But still, I told the friend with whom I shared Mann’s quote, while the empathy is laudable the ideology behind it is more than a little patronizing. Who wants to be compared to a deformed plant in need of trussing?

My friend wasn’t so bothered by that. He was struck by how Mann was promoting a pseudo-scientific belief that “climate and local causes” affected racial complexion, and doing it decades before Darwin came out with Origin of Species. Also, he was enthralled by Mann’s lofty language, which he said is so beyond the reach of most students today.

What do you think? Patronizing? Laudable? Lofty? Over the top?

A mass slave sale, so cut-and-dried

As fresh evidence of the bloodless manner enslaved black people were auctioned in antebellum America, the library system at the University of Pennsylvania has digitized a 1855 sales brochure that a brokerage firm issued to buyers at a New Orleans auction. It’s entitled “178 Sugar and Cotton Plantation Slaves!” Entries describe the individual slaves and family groups, and auction2payment options are spelled out. Very helpful and handy–as long as the customers remained dead to human compassion.

The brochure hit home because one of the main figures in my research about the fugitive slave settlement in my hometown of Waverly, Pa., was a Maryland runaway who’d seen his master sell off his chattel wife and two youngsters to a slaver in the Carolinas in the early 1840s. The runaway, George Keys, fled north, resettled in Waverly, and later became a Union soldier during the Civil War. I’m writing a book about Waverly’s Underground Railroad era and its dozen unsung black men including Keys who enlisted and fought in the war. His heart must have ached for his vanished wife and children, who were among the thousands “sold down the river” to new plantations being developed in places like Louisiana. Might his chattel family have been r e-sold at the New Orleans auction? It’s possible.

As part of my research I’ve been following the fine Slate Academy podcast series, “The History of Slavery in America.” My wife has been listening to the series as well, and she sent me the Slate article about the 1855 brochure. In the article, historian and podcast host Rebecca Onion writes that the brochure’s sales terms “show how the financial structure around purchasing enslaved people had evolved by the middle of the 1850s.” Customers of the Beard & May sales firm “had to provide a down payment of one-third of the price, and could pay the remainder on credit; the seller would earn 8% interest ‘in case of non-payment at maturity.’ For buyers who weren’t wealthy enough to buy people outright, an investment in enslaved property was a financial commitment.”

Louisiana, Onion notes, was one of the only slave states “that had laws against selling very young children separately from their mothers—as historian Heather Williams writes, ‘the vast majority of enslaved children [in the United States] belonged to people who had complete discretion to sell them or give them away at will.’ Even when an advertisement like this one stipulated that families were to be sold together, Williams writes, ‘the purchaser usually stood to make the final decision as to whether to take the whole group or only part.’ ”

It was a jolt to notice that many of the 178 slaves listed in the brochure were being sold off from someplace called The Waverly Plantation. What a horrible counterpart to the Waverly in Northeastern Pennsylvania, which not only assisted fugitives passing through but was so supportive that dozens of them decided to make their new homes there.

Check out the Slate article and see images of the brochure here.

How Choctaws aided starving Irish

A major antagonist in my book Visions of Teaoga isn’t a person but a stone monument. Its plaque commemorates a Revolutionary War assault into the Iroquois Indian heartland–a march it says “destroyed savagery” and opened the region to “civilization.” Dedicated in 1902 by the Daughters of the American Revolution, the monument perfectly captures our country’s then-imbedded mindset that native peoples were mere savages with no redeeming values.

So I loved learning the other day about one tribe’s beautiful and little-known good works on behalf of white people a half-century earlier. What a redeeming story it is.

The Choctaw Indians were one of the first tribes to be uprooted and forced west on the horrific Trails of Tears in the early 1830s. Untold numbers died from

This sculpture in County Cork, Ireland, honors the Choctaw's generosity.

This sculpture in County Cork, Ireland, honors the Choctaw’s generosity.

hunger and exposure on the long, cold march from their Mississippi homeland to faraway Oklahoma, where they faced new hardships. Sixteen years later, the Choctaws learned of the Irish potato famine and of how the British overlords would not provide any other food than the blighted potato to the thousands of starving Irish. “Only sixteen years had passed since the Choctaws themselves had faced hunger and death on the first Trail of Tears, and a great empathy was felt when they heard such a similar story coming from across the ocean,” states the Choctaw Nation website. “Individuals made donations totaling $170 in 1847 to send to assist the Irish people. These noble Choctaw people, who had such meager resources, gave all they could on behalf of others in greater need.”

This story of generosity may be unknown here, but the Irish never forgot. A friendship monument has been erected in County Cork. Irish and Choctaw delegations have made exchange visits. The Lord Mayor’s mansion in Dublin installed a plaque reading: “Their humanity calls us to remember the millions of human beings throughout our world today who die of hunger and hunger-related illness in a world of plenty.”

The Choctaw article was sent by a friend who’d been with me on a tour of Ireland in July. We visited lovely southwestern Ireland, which is still under-populated due to the famine deaths and the resulting mass emigration to the U.S. We visited a cemetery with a potter’s field bearing ten thousand famine victims. It was explained to us why, because food was available but just not provided under British policy, the Irish call the famine The Great Hunger. The Choctaws, having been persecuted by “civilized” rulers themselves, wouldn’t have needed any explanation.

You can learn about the tribe’s continuing good works here:

You can also join the “Choctaw Irish Famine” Facebook page.

Hard historical truths


I just came upon that breathless headline while doing research for my next book, which will delve into 19th century black life in the section of northeastern Pennsylvania where I was raised. My hometown, the lovely hamlet of Waverly, north of Scranton, takes pride in the fact that it once harbored a settlement of fugitive slaves. I’ve been drilling down into that history, with a focus on the dozen remarkable black men from the settlement who served in the Union Army during the Civil War.

My goal in this latest round of road research was to find verification for a report I recently ran across online (thank you,!) about a rally in Waverly in October 1861, in the early stages of the war. According to the Adams Sentinel of Gettysburg, the rally was held in support of Lincoln’s policies, and it featured speeches by two gutsy officials of the opposition Democrats, representing the faction of “pro-war Democrats.” The article said ten thousand people attended and cheered loudly. Who else spoke, I wondered. Waverly’s black residents must have attended. Did one of their leaders perhaps get a spot on the platform as well? And where could such a massive event even be held in little Waverly?

I hoped the answer might pop up in one of the old Scranton newspapers, which would presumably have covered such a major event in its area. Unfortunately, the archived newspapers at the Scranton public library only go back to 1863, so that part of my search is thwarted for now.

Meanwhile, I dove into newly added microfilm for another Scranton newspaper, The Lackawanna Register, beginning in early 1863. The Register was a hard-core, Lincoln-hating Democratic house organ—and wow, the invective and racism! Its pages were filled with accounts of large antiwar demonstrations throughout the region in the summer of 1863. There was one in Greenfield, and in Scott, in Lenox, in Harford, in Dundaff, in Fleetville.

Wait a second. This picture runs directly counter to the impression I’d gotten before– that the area was in Lincoln’s camp and that its Southern-sympathizing, abolition-loathing “Copperheads” were fringe crackpots who were few in number.

Even if you figure The Register was inflating the size of the turnouts and the level of enthusiasm, the events still must have been galvanizing. For instance, the June 6 “gathering of the yeomanry” in Greenfield drew many “in their four-horse teams, heavily freighted with the Democracy of their immediate neighborhoods. Others with two-horse teams; some in buggies, some on horseback, and hundreds came on foot…Flags and national music enlivened the occasion at intervals.” Resolutions were adopted that denounced both Lincoln’s war powers and abolitionist “fanaticism” (saying the abolitionists “may be hopelessly insane; still, they shall not be permitted to rule or ruin this great nation.”).

Similarly, several thousand in Harford cheered as the speaker blasted away. According to the Register, “the ‘Negro Equality’ doctrine, in connection with the Abolition policy of the Administration, received the largest share of his satire—the tremendous volleys of which frequently call out the most enthusiastic demonstration.”

Then came the one in Fleetville, just five miles north of Waverly, on July 4 (“More Than 6,000 Present!”). A hickory pole, symbol of Jacksonian Democracy, was erected, more fiery speeches were cheered, and “a committee of two hundred ladies presented the gentlemen who addressed them with a most beautiful bouquet.”

Also that day, the crowd affirmed an angry resolution written by Waverly lawyer Thomas Smith. This long manifesto denounced the federal government’s “negro fanaticism” and called for “a speedy deliverance from Abraham Lincoln’s bloody Abolition rule.” It declared the president guilty of treason—and said that “for his numerous wanton violations of the Constitution of the United States he ought to be impeached.”

Contrary to other accounts I’ve read, the so-called “Crackerbarrel Congress” manifesto was not merely the product of a handful of cranky men who met in the backroom of a Fleetville store. They were speaking for thousands of people in that region, dissidents who repudiated “King Abraham”–and also couldn’t stand black people and their white allies in places like Waverly.

Stay tuned for more updates.

Preserving Queen Esther’s Town

By Jim Remsen

(Author website

Some good news came over the transom recently– that the important American Indian village site where

the protagonist of my historical novel Visions of Teaoga once ruled is gaining the protection of the national Archaeological Conservancy.

The nonprofit conservancy identifies, acquires, and preserves significant archaeological sites around the country. It has preserved 465 sites thus far – and now is happily adding Queen Esther’s Town in Northeastern Pennsylvania.

After more than a decade of effort, the group said, it recently signed an option to purchase 92 acres of the riverfront site. That will make it the conservancy’s

Queen Esther's Town was located on the far shore during the 1770s.

Queen Esther’s Town was located on the far shore during the 1770s.

largest preserve in the Eastern U.S.

The archaeologists were exultant. According to the conservancy, the site “contains the heart of Queen Esther’s Town, a very significant sprawling series of contact period villages.” It said the floodplain where the Susquehanna and Chemung Rivers meet “has staggering research potential for future scholars” not only because of Esther’s 1700s native village but also the centuries of prior habitation there.

White settler accounts say Queen Esther’s Town – also known as Queen Esther’s Village or Esthertown – contained about seventy “rude houses.” Readers of Visions of Teaoga learn how the Shawnee matriarch Esther led the mixed village from her large home, which whites called Queen Esther’s Castle. One account says her home “was long and low, built of hewn logs and planks, neatly done, with a porch over the doorway, and surrounded by a number of other buildings.” Her people planted crops and herded cattle on the broad plain, until the village was burned by Continental soldiers in 1778 because of the natives’ alliance with the British.

The conservancy says the preserve contains five recorded archeological sites, and “probably many more. Ceramic shards provide evidence of extensive occupations of Owasco cultures between about A.D. 900-1300. And even earlier occupations are indicated by temporally diagnostic projectile points dating to the Transitional (1200-1800 B.C.) and Archaic (1800-8000 B.C.) periods.”

This news came to me by way of an Onondaga Indian gentleman, Mitchell Bush, who’d purchased a copy of my book at one of my author signings. Mr. Bush received a mailing from the conservancy about the Queen Esther’s Town purchase option, and kindly reached out to let me know. You can find more about it at the website and in the Spring 2105 issue of American Archaeology.

In confirming the news and doing some online research, I also came upon references to skeletons of “giants” unearthed at the site that were believed to be the remains of long-gone Susquehannocks (also known variously as Andastes, Conestogas or Minquas). In his 1943 History of Waverly (N.Y.), Capt Charles Albertson wrote, “The Broadhead expedition in the summer of 1916 secured the skeletons of several of this people on Queen Esther’s Flats near the public highway leading to Towanda about 1/2 mile west of the Chemung river Bridge at Athens; many or all of these remains indicated that they were about seven feet in height.”

As you may know, that region of upstate Pennsylvania has undergone rapid change and development as a result of the natural-gas drilling boom. Let’s hope the Queen Esther’s Town site and its precious artifacts receive the protection and respect they deserve.

‘The Little Brother of War’

By Jim Remsen

(Author website

Is lacrosse big in your area? It certainly is in mine. And summertime is the season for LAX camps, where kids suit up and work up a sweat developing their stick-handling skills.

The game they’re playing, as you probably know, is American Indian in origin – the original America’s Game (sorry, football). But aboriginal lacrosse was so much more than a sport. I didn’t really understand that until I read a book called lbowA Friend Among the Senecas. Its author, David Swatzler, tells how American Indian lacrosse “had a profound spiritual and religious dimension difficult for European Americans to appreciate.”

A Friend Among the Senecas is one of the first scholarly books I consulted in my research for Visions of Teaoga, my historical novel about Indians and settlers that Sunbury Press has published. Swatzler’s book is a fascinating chronicle of a Quaker effort to westernize some Seneca Indians – but what really stuck with me was his account of Iroquois lacrosse traditions.

At its highest level, the game was cosmic. The Iroquois believed lacrosse to be nothing less than a gift from the Creator, and so by playing it, Swatzler explains, they “pleased the Creator and disposed him toward curing or preventing illness, and sending clement weather.” To that end, when a famine or epidemic threatened, the Seneca shaman might order a game of ritual lacrosse to be played. The Hurons played to bring good weather to germinate their corn seeds. Similarly, the Cayuga warded off summer drought with a ritual game to honor the Seven Thunders that controlled the wind and rain. Seven elders played against seven young men. The goals were seven paces wide. Seven points brought victory.

“The Iroquois believed that the sound of thunder was produced by the sticks of the seven Thunder Spirits striking their lacrosse ball as they played the game inside the thunderheads,” Swatzler writes. “Streaks of lightning traced the path of their lacrosse ball through the sky as they batted it across the heavens.”

Each team’s shaman had a big role to play. Just as he’d do in war, the shaman might give his players certain amulets to wear, apply magic potions to the team’s ball, and beseech the surrounding animist spirits to help his team and village. To prepare themselves, the players performed ritual purification such as fasting and purging, and applied body paint and charms.

Most games pitted groups within villages, or were village-to-village affairs that were informal and spontaneous, with lots of sidelines wagering. But it was the big matches between nations that were the mind-blowing productions.

“Forty, sixty, sometimes a hundred or more ‘warriors’ took to the playing field, which was often four or five times longer that a modern football field, with the goals as far apart as a quarter of a mile,” Swatzler writes. “One game in 1797 at the Grand River Reservation in southeastern Ontario, between the Mohawk and Seneca nations, was played on a 100-acre field. Each side had a reserve of 600 players and fielded 60 of them at a time.”

Just about anything was allowed short of deliberating whacking someone with a stick. Each player went one-on-one against an assigned opponent–and they often dropped their sticks and went at it. When this happened, they “were ignored by the rest of the players, as the general melee rolled along the field, leaving in its wake scattered pairs of brawling players.”

On this competitive level, the Iroquois nations regarded lacrosse as “the little brother of war.” By allowing the rough-and-tumble, the game became a proving ground for strength and tenacity, an outlet for aggressiveness, and a way to work out grudges. In the end, it thus served “to preserve domestic tranquility within the village and the nation” and to keep group alliances durable.

In March 2014, the general manager of the Iroquois Nationals lacrosse team, Gewas Schindler, came to Philadelphia to help open the “Native American Voices” exhibition at the University of Pennsylvania Museum. Schinder spoke about lacrosse legends, including the Haudenosaunee belief that lacrosse exists to draw the talents hidden within all people.

I attended that day, and viewed the museum’s display of handcrafted Iroquois lacrosse sticks. If you’re nearby, you might plan a visit as well – the exhibition is open until 2019. The sticks on display perhaps are survivors of some rugged “little wars.” They may have been prayed over, imbued with potions, even bled upon.

To me, they were mute reminders that the modern game is a tame version of the original. And while today’s play may be spirited, it’s also spiritually earthbound.