The Christiana Riot was a violent encounter that erupted in September 1851 when a slave owner from Maryland attempted to arrest four fugitive slaves who had been living on a farm in Pennsylvania. In an exchange of gunfire, the slave owner, Edward Gorsuch, was shot dead.
The early 19th century consisted of Maryland being a slave state and Pennsylvania was a free state and home to a number of anti-slavery activists, including Quakers who had taken an active stand against slavery for decades. It was nothing for slave catchers to arrive on farming communities and kidnap blacks and take then to the south to be enslaved.
Two years after the four slaves escaped, Gorsuch found out from a reliable source where the men were hiding out. He obtained warrants in September of 1851 from a United States marshal in Pennsylvania to apprehend the men and take them back to Maryland. A raiding party arrived at the Parker’s house demanding that the men be turned over to them on September 11, 1851. A standoff developed at the home were the fugitive slaves had taken refuge. It only took a few minutes for neighbors, both black and white to appear on the scene. And as the confrontation escalated, shooting began. Men on both sides fired weapons, and Edward Gorsuch was killed. His son was seriously wounded and nearly died. The former slaves involved in the incident quickly scattered, disappearing into local networks of the Underground Railroad.
Because of the violence, blacks were rounded up in the area and as many as six were remanded to slavery, including Parker’s mother-in-law. Parker also left behind a large packet of letters from fugitives and resisters that would have incriminated many in the area had it come into the hands of the law, but a Quaker living in the area found it first and burned it. Twenty-seven blacks and three whites were arrested and charged with treason.
Several people living in the South believed the failure of the Pennsylvania courts to convict any of the dozens of men who had participated in the riot that resulted in Gorsuch’s murder an egregious, willful violation of federal law; a violation that threatened the property rights of Southerners and the stability of the Union. Northern abolitionists, however, viewed it as a victory of liberty against the vile institution of slavery and despicable slave hunters.