Resources and Context for Chapter 5.1

According to Meghan Linsley Bishop’s work on Catherine Payne and her family, a few months after being guaranteed her family’s freedom, Catherine brought her children north and, over time, settled back in the area from which they had been kidnapped. As noted in the chapter, she remarried, but her original children were not welcomed in the new home (according to Bishop, family lore says that Catherine’s new husband was not kind to them).

As noted in the discussion of the younger James Wade, in the case of poverty, young children were typically bonded out. The Almshouse might do the bonding out, or the family might work something out with a family directly. In the case of Catherine Payne, Arthur James stayed with her and her new husband while Mary became part of the Wright household and Eliza Jane started with the family of Reverend Charles Augustus Hay, a teacher at the Lutheran Theological Seminary, then later landed with the Alexander Campbell family. Eliza Jane lived with the Campbells for more than twenty years and cared for their invalid daughter Rebecca with whom she had a strong relationship. The following 1850 census record shows Eliza Jane with the Campbells.

Mary’s case with the Wrights was different from Eliza Jane’s. The Wrights were some of the most important figures in the Underground Railroad network. In his autobiographical work on the Underground Railroad, William Still credited the Wrights with having helped more than one thousand people to escape slavery. The Wrights were Quakers, and the areas north of Gettysburg were heavily settled by German immigrants and Quakers. The following maps help to see illustrate. The Wrights attended the Menallen Monthly Meeting of the Society of Friends, which was founded in 1748 and is still in operation today. The following map shows Menallen’s location in relation to Gettysburg.

The Wrights actually lived in Latimore, a neighboring township, which can be seen in the following map.

Eliza Jane spent most of the next twenty years with the Campbells who lived in Straban, which more closely bordered Gettysburg.

In the case of Mary, we don’t easily find Mary in the Wright home in either 1850 or 1860. Reasons for this are not clear, but given how censuses were done, these sorts of discrepancies are common and encountered by most genealogists. What is interesting in both the censuses of those decades are the black people found living with the Wrights. The 1850 and 1860 census records are as follows. Note the “B” in the color column of members of their household.

Notice that the names are not consistent. That’s because the Wrights had people cycling in and out of their household during their entire lives. For many people who had fled slavery, the Wright house became a permanent or semi-permanent residence until they were able to secure better clothes, identity papers, and enough money to find their own places.

Why were the Wrights so committed to the ongoing assistance of runaways? This was fundamental to the Quaker religion. As far back as the 1790s, George Washington himself complained that an escaped enslaved person he had owned was being sheltered by a Quaker family. Quaker congregations have been famously egalitarian since inception with a dedication equality among the sexes and races. Unlike other religions in the United States, Quakers were not torn apart by sectional politics. While schisms occurred in most Protestant religions between their northern and southern congregations, Quaker congregations remained united around their principles. A Quaker family in Washington, Virginia, helped fund Catherine Payne’s legal case against Samuel Maddox. They did so at the behest, perhaps, of the Wrights.

Mary ultimately became a Quaker herself.

Finally, I have taken creative license by having Hannah Biggs helping her father on the Underground Railroad. This probably didn’t happen in her case, but it is not unprecedented. In most cases where families assisted or provided housing on the Railroad, their children and teenagers were at least aware and complicit in keeping secrets and helping. There is at least one documented case of a teenager acting as a conductor on the Railroad: Isaac Cundall of Rhode Island. In the early 1900s, he described some of his experiences, excerpts of which you can find here and here. Again, it’s important to remember that what people did on the Underground Railroad is largely unknown. Records were rarely kept in order to protect people’s identities.

%d bloggers like this: