Dr. Robert Mitchell – Abolitionist

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.

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Dr. Mitchell

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.

Jane Clark

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.

The Story of Hollingsworth, Brown, and Harris

[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.

Black History Month Program

On February 27, 2020, the Historical and Genealogical Society of Indiana County presented “Less Known Stories of African Americans in Indiana County.”  The program was a collaborative effort between the Indiana County NAACP and the Blairsville Underground Railroad History Center.  The program began with some brief remarks by Mr. Jonathan Bogert, the Executive Director of the Historical Society, followed by an Address from Dr. Carolyn Princes, the President of the Indiana County NAACP.

The program continued with some comments by Dr. Lori Woods from St. Francis University who presented “Student reflections of the Blairsville Underground Railroad History Center.”  On February 8, 2020 students from St. Francis University visited the Blairsville Underground History Center for an interactive tour.  Following their visit, the students wrote about their experience.  The students found the tour to be very moving, and also an important aspect of our history that more people should learn about and understand.  This understanding of history helps us to improve society today and move in a positive direction.

Denise Jennings-Doyle, President and co-founder of the Blairsville Underground Railroad History Center, introduced two historical figures who visited and told their story of their life in Indiana County.

Anthony Hollingsworth was a 12-year-old freedom seeker from Virginia, was seized by slave hunters on the Simpson Farm, near Homer City.  He was bound to a horse and taken to the Indiana House hotel at Philadelphia and Sixth Streets.  There was a large crowd that gathered to protest his capture and stormed the hotel to free him.  Dr. Robert Mitchell and newspaper editor James Moorhead, ardent abolitionists, intercepted the enraged citizens and persuaded them to allow the courts to decide the young man’s fate.  The following day, Judge Thomas White asked the slave catchers to produce written evidence that slavery existed in Virginia; when they did not, Judge White set Hollingsworth free.  Several young men hoisted Hollingsworth onto their shoulders and paraded him through the streets.

Hollingsworth settled in Stratford, Ontario, where he was employed, according to the 1863 County of Perth Gazetteer, as a “hairdresser and shampooner.”  Hollingsworth never forgot the kindness and support he was shown by the local residents.  He mailed a letter to Dr. Mitchell, who briefly gave Hollingsworth shelter on his property near Diamondville, thanking him and the “good folkes” of Indiana County for their assistance.

Jane Brunson Johnston, was the wife of Lewis Johnston.  Together they were conductors in Blairsville and Allegheny City (North Pittsburgh), PA.   It’s believed they transported freedom seekers between Blairsville and Hollidaysburg.  Freedom seeker Richard Newman was living with the Johnston family on West Campbell Street in Blairsville when his attempted kidnapping occurred on April 1, 1858.  The Johnstons raised six children.  Their son Lewis Johnston, Jr. became the first black Covenanter Presbyterian preacher in Pennsylvania.

The evening concluded with musical selections by Anthony Frazier – singing and providing a history behind “Wade in the Water” and “Swing Low Sweet Chariot.”  Patti Holmes also provided musical selections of “Lift Every Voice and Sing” and “The Greatest Love of All.”  Audience members were encouraged to join in singing with the performers and the Armory was filled with song.

Coming up in March the Society is hosting two programs.  The first will be an Irish Sing-a-long held on March 20, 2020 from 6-8PM in the Clark House.  If you love traditional Irish sing-a-long songs or find yourself singing classic tunes your grandparents sang for you, then you are going to enjoy the Irish Sing-a-long.  We will play and sing around the piano in the Historic Clark House.  Musical guests Allen Krynicky, Mike Busija, Scott Neuroh, Ken Black, Hazel Johnston, and Bruce Jenkins, will lead you in singing Irish tunes to celebrate St. Patrick’s Day, as well as classic favorites from the 30s and 40s.  This event is an OPEN FUNDRAISER with no entrance fee or ticket cost, but donations will be gratefully accepted, with all the proceeds from this event going directly toward repairs needed for the Chickering Square Grand piano that was recently donated to the Historical Society.  For more information, or to donate to the Piano Fund, call 724-463-9600.

Our second event will be held on Sunday March 29, 2020 – the 2nd Annual National Vietnam War Veterans Day Program.  Doors will open at 5:30 PM with the program beginning at 6:00 PM.  The event will feature guest speakers, music of the era, and a historical display relating to “The Wall That Heals.”  Commemorative pins will be awarded to Vietnam Veterans by Christina Lonigro.  Refreshments and hors d’oeuvres will follow the program.  For more information and reservations please call 724-463-9600.  This event is sponsored by: The American Legion Auxiliary Post 141, the VFW Post 1989, the American Legion Post 141, and the Indiana County Historical Society.

Finally join us on Saturday April 4, 2020 at 7:00 pm in the Armory for our 3rd Annual Spring Swing.  Dress to the nines and put on your dancing shoes, it’s time to Swing!  Don’t know how? No problem! Lessons begin at 7:00pm, the dance will follow at 7:30pm.  Maybe this year we’ll try a little West Coast swing to spice things up a bit.  Tickets are $10 in advance, $15 at the door, and are available at the HGSIC or through Crisp Entertainment. Call 724-463-9600 for more information.