Dr. Robert Mitchell was the second physician to settle in Indiana County, PA and an ardent antislavery supporter. He was born in 1787 in Cumberland County, PA near Chambersburg. In his early years, Dr. Mitchell lived with a relative, Dr. Magehan, with whom he studied medicine. Mitchell was exceptionally well-trained for his day, graduating from Jefferson Medical College in Philadelphia, under Dr. Benjamin Rush. When Dr. Mitchell came to Indiana, PA, Dr. French, the pioneer physician of Indiana County, invited him to stay and assist him in his work. At this time Dr. French was in declining health. At times, Dr. Mitchell found himself being called to points beyond the county’s borders. After Dr. French died, shortly after Mitchell’s arrival, Dr. Mitchell received Dr. French’s practice as well as his library and office fixtures, and started a drug store in connection with his practice.
Dr. Mitchell was a successful physician, but was also a man of strong conscience and an advanced thinker, taking an active role in the progressive movements in his time. As a member of the Whig party, he served five years representing the district in the State Legislature, and was also appointed associate judge, but he preferred his practice and private life to making laws.
On April 6, 1823, Dr. Mitchell married Jane Clark. Their witness was Rev. David Blair, the pastor of the Associate Presbyterian Church of Indiana, PA, and their life-long friend. Mrs. Mitchell shared in her husband’s antislavery views, believing in the Golden Rule of Christ, and taking pride in her husband’s brave stand for the right.
In 1823, Mitchell purchased 1,550 acres of pine timber land in Cherryhill Township, on top of Chestnut Ridge, where he laid out a village which he named Diamondville (as it was on the most desirable location of the tract), and started a saw and flour mill. He is probably best known in Indiana County history as an ardent abolitionist, and one who suffered for adherence to his convictions.
From all accounts, this opposition began at an early age, as a boy he spent time in Virginia, where slavery was then flourishing. He witnessed many horrors in his youth which made him vow that he would do everything in his power to accomplish the downfall of the institution. This included the sight of two men working in the field with ox yokes around their necks. This and other cruelties and unrighteous features of the system led him to sympathize deeply with its victims and eventually to take an active part on behalf of those who attempted to flee their bondage.
It is important to note here the Fugitive Slave Act which passed Congress in 1793. This Act decreed that owners of enslaved people and their “agents” had the right to search for escapees within the borders of free states. In the event the suspected runaway was captured, the slave hunters had to bring the suspected runaway before a judge and provide evidence proving the person was their property. If the judge was satisfied with the proof – often in the form of a signed affidavit – the owner would be permitted to take custody of the enslaved person and return home. The act also imposed a $500 penalty on any person who assisted in harboring and concealing the runaway.
Most northern states refused or neglected to enforce the Act and many passed what were known as “Personal Liberty Laws.” These laws gave the accused runaways the right to a jury trial and also protected free African Americans, many of whom were abducted by bounty hunters and sold back into slavery.
The constitutionality of Personal Liberty Laws was challenged in 1842 in the United States Supreme Court case Prigg v. Pennsylvania. The facts of the case involved Edward Prigg, a Maryland man who was convicted of kidnaping, after he captured a suspected slave in Pennsylvania. The Court ruled in favor of Prigg, thereby setting the precedent that federal law trumped any state law that tried to interfere with the Fugitive Slave Act. Despite the decision the Fugitive Slave Act of 1793 remained unenforced. An example of this can be seen right here in Indiana County with the case of Dr. Mitchell and Van Meter with Judge Thomas White presiding.
The case had its beginnings with the “harboring” of runaways, Hollingsworth, Brown, and Harris. When brought before the court, Judge White demanded from Van Meter to produce written evidence that slavery exisited in Virginia. When he could not, Judge White ordered the three released from custody. Van Meter then brought a civil suit against Dr. Mitchell who was summoned on October 19, 1845, to appear before the Federal District court in Pittsburgh. On November 17, the case began being designated as “No. 8 November Term 1845. Van Metre vs. Mitchell,” and it dragged on for almost eight and a half years until May 1854.
This incident contributed to the more restrictive Fugitive Slave Act of 1850 being passed. This Act was also met with resistance and criticism. Because of the widespread opposition and being virtually enforceable in certain states, Congress repealed both Acts on June 28, 1864.
There were a total of three trials – two of which Mitchell won and a third which he lost. During the first trial, the jury disagreed. So the case was called upon a second time. During the second trial, the defense claimed that Dr. Mitchell had not concealed the men, rather they came to Indiana in a most deplorable condition, and when they inquired about housing they were directed to the office of the Clarion of Freedom, and were given lodging for the night. The men then breakfasted at Dr. Mitchell’s home the following morning, and he bought them the necessary supplies and for the next few weeks they resided in a cabin on Dr. Mitchell’s land, which was often times used by travelers. The defense claimed they were living there openly and finding employment in the community. The claim was that no one knew them to be fugitive slaves and there was no evidence that Dr. Mitchell had such knowledge.
The prosecution responded that it was known to the court that Indiana County was a place of Whig majority, and therefore a region fit for treason, stratagem and spoils. To prove that Dr. Mitchell knew the men were living in his cabin, they produced a note from the pocket of one of the captured men, directing them to a man who lived on Dr. Mitchell’s farm adjoining the cabin, and read: “Kill a sheep and give Garriet half. [Signed] Robert Mitchell.”
It was admitted that this did not prove that Robert Mitchell knew Garrett Harris was a slave, but being an abolitionist and living in a county with Whig majority, it was safe to assume he knew these men to be runaways. The judge sustained this assumption and likewise charged the jury. The jury found against Mitchell and fined him $5,000 and costs. Dr. Mitchell had to sell his pine timber to satisfy the judgement.
Dr. Mitchell continued supporting the cause and always stood in high esteem to his fellow citizens, not only in Indiana County but across the State. Unfortunately, Dr. Mitchell died April 14, 1862, shortly before President Abraham Lincoln wrote and signed the Emancipation Proclamation.