[In Indiana County] it was a matter of public knowledge…that fanatics, ‘friends of humanity,’ were banded together under professions of conscience and philanthropy, and vows of propagandism to disregard the constitution and laws of the country…a regularly organized association existed there to entice negroes from their owners, and to aid them in escaping…
Van Meter v. Mitchell Trial Record
Many people are familiar with the Underground Railroad from their days in high school history class, or earlier. As a child sitting in a history class, upon hearing railroad one things of a series of underground tracks which took people from point A to point B. But the Underground Railroad was not an actual railroad, but a loosely organized network of men, women and children who were willing to assist fugitive slaves. This was not an easy task though, because at the time slavery and the rights of slaveholders were protected by the Constitution, and because of this local authorities were expected to uphold the law, thereby defining the actions of the Underground Railroad as acts of civil disobedience.
The motivation for those assisting with the Underground Railroad came from simple decency and/or religious conviction. The New Testament commands to love one’s neighbor, feed the hungry, and aid the oppressed. In Indiana County, some of the earliest congregations were the Associate Presbyterians, who had serious reservations about slavery. In Indiana, Reverend Dr. David Blair, was an ardent abolitionist, and all five of the Associate Prebyterian churches in the area provided and nourished the core of Indiana County’s anti-slavery leaders.
In the 1840s, Methodists and Baptists were split over the issue of slavery and the Lutherans and Wesleyan Methodists opposed it. In the late 1850s, the Plumville Baptist Church, with its pastor Rev. William Bingham, an abolitionist, organized a group of Indiana County citizens to got to Kansas to make it a free state.
Not everyone who helped with the activities of the Underground Railroad were committed abolitionists, but the leadership was grounded in abolitionist principles.
James Moorhead was the founder and editor of two abolitionist newspapers in the 1840s and 50s: the Clarion of Freedom and The Independent. Other prominent abolitionist leaders were Dr. Robert Mitchell of Indiana and John Graff of Blairsville; they were also Underground Railroad managers. In Indiana County, there were at least 40 others who conducted for the Railroad and organized anti-slavery activities in the county. The men often served as conductors, the women in the “Subsistence Department,” and the children as watchguards, guides, and messengers.
Likely the most “famous” story in Indiana County is with Anthony Hollingsworth (12 years old), and his two companions: Charles Brown (19) and Garrett (Jared) Harris (late 20s). They came to the outskirts of Indiana late in April 1845. The three were exhausted and famished, and they hid out in the overgrown brush and brambles of the old neglected Lutheran cemetery, what is now Memorial Park.
Charles Brown was a favored house servant of Garrett Van Meter Family from Hardy County, Virginia and was Mrs. Van Meter’s carriage driver. The Van Meter daughters had begun to teach Charlie to read and write, until they were warned by a family friend that it was illegal. The Van Meters were kind to Charlie, but Van Meter was always willing to sell, even his best servants, if the crops did not grow well.
One day in 1844, while Charlie and Mrs. Van Meter were returning from the market, they were meet by a slave dealer and two young servants cuffed in the wagon. The two young servants cried out to Mrs. Van Meter to save them, but there was nothing she could do. The slave driver struck the two with his whip, which disturbed Mrs. Van Meter, and when Charlie tried to console her, she stated that she feared he may be next.
It was at that point, Charlie began to plan his escape. He gathered information and practiced his reading. One night, he heard guests tell the Van Meter family that a group of five slaves had escaped from the neighboring county and when asked how they knew where to go, the visitor said they followed the North Star. One of the Van Meter daughters observed that the north star was like the Star of Bethlehem to the wise men.”
Charlie, Anthony Hollingsworth, and Jared Harris escaped together. At some point between Virginia and Pennsylvania they connected with the Underground Railroad network of Blairsville’s John Graff, which led them to Indiana.
Alexander Moorhead, Jr., age 12 and grandson of James Moorhead, was working as an apprentice at the Clarion of Freedom office when Charlie knocked on the door. Moorhead wrote:
[Charlie] was about 5 feet 10 inches in height, straight as an arrow, full-breasted, a clear, bright eye, dark-skinned; his hair had the regular African crinkle, and there was something that was very pleasing and winning. He had a merry, cunning twinkle in his eye, and when he smiled, showed a row of ivories that would have been envied by any of our beautiful ladies…Charlie magnetized me at our first meeting.
Moorhead took the three home and seated them at his dinner table. The three were then taken to a cabin on Mitchell’s farm near Diamondville. Hollingsworth later moved to the farm of James Simpson near Homer City.
It was June 1845, when Anthony Hollingsworth was working in the Simpson field when he saw two familiar Hardy County men approaching him. They forced the small, think, 12-year-old boy onto a horse and tied his feet together under the horse’s belly and took him into Indiana.
As they arrived in Indiana, the men took Hollingworth into the quarters at the Indiana House Hotel (the corner of Sixth and Philadelphia), owned by pro-slavery Sheriff David Ralston, who had begun his long career of aiding slavecatchers. However, they did not arrive unseen or uncontested, as it was Court Week in Indiana. By the time they had reached the hotel, where Garrett Van Meter may have waited, an angry mob filled Philadelphia Street.
News of the capture spread quickly through town, and the mob began crying “Down with the manhunters!” “Tear the house down over his head and set the man free!”
Ralston sent for Moorhead and Mitchell, who agreed to talk to the crowd. Moorhead convinced the crowd to bring the case before the law: “He that is for us is stronger than they who are against us. Be persuaded. It may be on the morrow we will have to battle for the right. Make your guard line strong and wait for the morning.”
The courthouse was packed the next morning with the crowd overflowing onto the streets. Mitchell applied for a writ of habeas corpus and William Banks, a local attorney, agreed to defend Hollingsworth. The case was heard before Judge Thomas White, who was known to be anti-slavery.
White demanded that Van Meter produce written evidence that slavery existed in Virginia; when they could not, Judge White turned to Ralston and said, “Sheriff, release that man from custody.”
Hollingsworth, Harris and Brown continued to live on Mitchell’s farm in Green Township. The cabins, located on Two Lick Creek were no secret to Indiana Countians, and they even became a favorite place for young people to visit and hear the exciting story of their escape.
In August, Brown began to get restless, and wanted to return to Virginia to bring back a young woman whom he loved. Alex Moorhead and Mitchell tried to convince him to stay, but it was to no avail, Charlie was determined to go south. A few miles south of Cumberland, Maryland, he was apprehended by a B&O railroad employee and imprisoned; Van Meter was sent for. Van Meter summed, but by that time Charlie had already escaped.
Charlie made his way back to his mother’s home and hid out there, and then headed back to Indiana.
In September 1845, Sheriff Ralston, three deputies and eight slavecatchers raided Mitchell’s cabins on Two Lick Creek in the middle of the night. A struggle ensued. A sheriff’s deputy recounted later:
Garret Harris was a powerful man and fought with the strength of a lion. We had the advantage on him in the suddenness of the attack. We pounced upon him while he was still lying on the floor, attempting to tie him before he could get on his feet. One large man sat down on his breast and tried to keep him down while two others would tie him, but by superhuman exertion, he threw the man off and fought and crawled to the door, then springing up, he got free and escaped into the woods.
Sheriff Ralston made a hair-breadth escape. Charlie Brown ran in on him, tripped him up, wrestled his club from him, and drew it up to strike. I thought it was all up with the sheriff when one of the southerns gave an under stroke with his club arresting a fatal blow. Another slave catcher struck him a fearful blow on the head, knocking him insensible. Before he regained consciousness, they had him securely bound.
Brown and two others were carried off on horseback. Rumors of Charlie’s fate came in several different reports. One said that Charlie had sent correspondence north that he was going to remain in slavery, be obedient and just do the best he could. Another rumor said he was whipped to death in front of his mother. There was a Charles Brown, an African-American male of approximately the right age who was born in the United States, who appears in the 1871 Ontario Census.
Reports of Jared Harris say that he went to Pittsburgh, while others say he went to Canada.
After the raids on the cabins, Hollingsworth went to Canada. In 1862, he was living in Stratford, Ontario and in 1863 he was listed as a hairdresser and shampooner. Anthony Hollingsworth last appears in the Ontario Census of 1871 at the age of 38.