Features appear in each issue of Pennsylvania Heritage showcasing a variety of subjects from various periods and geographic locations in Pennsylvania.

Anyone who has ever read about the Battle of Gettysburg or visited the historic American Civil War battlefield undoubtedly learned about the generals, the courageous soldiers who fought in the grisly three-day encounter, and the thousands that lost their lives on that hallowed ground in Adams County. The stories of the famous engagements that took place at Little Round Top, Devil’s Den, and the George Rose Farm Wheatfield, as well as the climatic Pickett’s Charge, are retold again and again. Not much has been written, however, about the ways in which the battle dramatically affected African Americans residing in and around Gettysburg at the time. In this border county just north of the Mason-Dixon Line, a hotbed of Underground Railroad activity existed, albeit covertly.

During those three tumultuous days of bloody conflict in July 1863, many civilians assumed responsibility for taking care of the injured in makeshift hospitals and helping to bury the dead. Some carried food and supplies to the soldiers in the field, while others chronicled the aftermath of the catastrophic event through writings and photographs. For African Americans who lived near the battle, there was great danger in being seen. Many were fugitive slaves from Maryland and Virginia who fled to nearby communities or to the outskirts of Gettysburg for fear of being captured by Confederate soldiers and returned to slavery.

Through their oral histories, descendants of African American families that once lived in Gettysburg suggest that their ancestors fled to Yellow Hill, a black settlement in nearby Menallen Township, situated a short distance from the main road that connects Gettysburg to the small communities of Biglerville and Bendersville. Historians believe Yellow Hill not only provided a safe haven during the battle, but also had played an integral part in the Underground Railroad before the outbreak of the war. In his 1992 book, A History of Adams County, Pennsylvania, 1700–1990, Robert L. Bloom, professor emeritus of history at Gettysburg College, wrote, “One such tradition is that fugitive slaves brought by the Underground Railroad founded the Yellow Hill settlement northwest of Biglerville. As a matter of fact, this black community dated back to the eighteenth century, although some of its original settlers may have been fugitive slaves.”

Once known as Pine Hill, spanning an area overlapping what is today the boundary of Menallen and Butler Townships, the settlement continued to grow as black families moved into the area. Some researchers believe that Pine Hill was renamed Yellow Hill because of the many light-skinned blacks and mulattos who lived there, such as the Mathews family, one of the first families to own property in the settlement. Born in Maryland, Edward Mathews (1807–1874) and his wife, Annie (1820–1893), made their way to Pennsylvania along with Francis Gant, an older African American, sometime in the 1830s. On March 26, 1842, Mathews and Gant purchased sixteen acres in Menallen Township for $350 from John and Mary Knaus, where they lived in a two-story log house. The house still stands today.

Douglas A. Miller, site administrator at Pennsbury Manor, Morrisville, Bucks County, administered by the Pennsylvania Historical and Museum Commission (PHMC), has taken great interest in the Mathews house. His family often uses it as a weekend retreat. Miller believes the house served as a stop on the Underground Railroad. “The surrounding area would have been a suitable place for slaves to take refuge given its proximity to Gettysburg and its secluded location,” Miller explains. Yellow Hill is located adjacent to Adams County’s Quaker Valley where local members of the Religious Society of Friends, established in 1780, erected the Menallen Meeting-house in 1838. The historic building still serves as an active meetinghouse.

Throughout the nineteenth century, the African American community around Yellow Hill grew to such a large extent that residents decided to organize their own church congregation. In the 1850 census, ninety-five African Americans resided in Menallen and Butler Townships. They worshipped together with their Quaker neighbors at “camp” or “woods” meetings often held in late August each year. William Wilson, a Menallen Quaker, noted in his journal at least four “Negro camp” meetings “on Yellow Hill” on August 26–27, 1843, and on August 17–18 of the following year, documenting a relationship between the African Americans of Yellow Hill and the Friends of nearby Quaker Valley.

Edward Mathews donated a small tract of his sixteen-acre farm so the community could erect a hilltop church and burial ground. On August 15, 1869, the Yellow Hill church was consecrated as part of the African Methodist Episcopal (AME) Zion Conference. On August 6, The Star and Sentinel of Gettysburg had reported that “Reverend Mr. Stevens” would be the first to officiate at the church. The Yellow Hill AME Zion became closely connected to Gettysburg’s existing AME Zion Church, with the two congregations often sharing preachers and engaging in “woods” or “bush” meetings, even before the church at Yellow Hill was built.

As it became evident that Yellow Hill would remain a safe haven, even more African American families moved to the vicinity. Nestled in the hills several miles from the Mason-Dixon Line, most spent their lives quietly and peacefully. According to census records, some of the men served as farmhands, day laborers, or nursery-men. Others worked with Quakers on the area’s burgeoning orchards. Some boarded with Quaker families, including two sons of Edward and Annie Mathews. Samuel Mathews, born about 1840, and Nelson Mathews (circa 1842–1910) are listed in the 1860 census as living separately in Menallen Township with the Cyrus Griest and Hiram Griest families. Many African Americans found work in the region’s iron industry as forge workers, woodchoppers, and couriers for the nearby Maria, Caledonia, and Pine Grove Furnaces.

The Mars (or Mears) and Butler families were unquestionably associated with this industry, according to their occupations recorded in census records. An 1879 Gettysburg newspaper account described how Aaron Mears, referred to as “colored,” expired after falling at the Laurel Forge near Pine Grove Furnace. The Mears family intermarried with the Mathews family and, more than likely, lived, worked, and worshipped as residents of Yellow Hill.

Documentation of events involving the Underground Railroad is exceptionally difficult to find — and for good reason. The Fugitive Slave Law of 1850 prohibited individuals from abetting slaves, making this a dangerous undertaking for those who participated in the secret network and, therefore, not advisable to document. Nonetheless, many individuals, both black and white, risked their lives to ensure the freedom of escaping slaves. In his 2001 book, Underground Railroad in Pennsylvania, William J. Switala described the number and extent of involvement by the AME Zion churches and the Quakers in the fight for freedom.

An AME Zion church known as Fairmount was located in the Yellow Hill area, along with the Menallen Friends Meetinghouse where the Religious Society of Friends gathered. William Wright (1788–1865), a Quaker from York Springs’ Huntington Meeting, Adams County, had been hiding slaves in his Latimore Township home for forty years, from 1819 through 1859, according to Menallen Friends historian, Anna Black. Bloom further explained that, “Adams County had its coterie of ‘conductors’ and ‘station masters’ on this ‘freedom line.’ Among them were Isaac Wierman, James McAllister, and William Wright.” Wright and his wife, Phebe Wierman Wright (1790–1873), possibly the most active and prominent of Underground Railroad agents in Adams County, assisted slaves in their passage through this part of Adams County to reach York Springs. Wright or his brother-in-law Joel Wierman guided fugitives from York Springs to Wrightsville. In his 1872 book, The Underground Railroad, William Still claimed Wright and his family helped hundreds of fugitives who were directed to their home.

Quaker Cyrus Griest (1803–1869) also played an active role in the Underground Railroad near Yellow Hill. He and his wife, Mary Ann (circa 1806–1884), had nine children and boarded Samuel Mathews in their home. Samuel’s younger brother, Nelson, boarded with Cyrus’ son, Hiram (circa 1826–1919). Both youths worked as farm laborers according to the 1860 census records. Their father, Edward Mathews, was a principal figure in the Underground Railroad network. A Griest relative, Amos Griest, born about 1799, was an integral member of the network in York County, leading fugitives from the City of York, across the broad Susquehanna River, to Columbia, Lancaster County.

Cyrus Griest helped Kitty Paine and her children after five men broke into Paine’s Bendersville home in 1845 and kidnapped them at gun point from their slumber. The Paines were Virginia slaves who had been granted manumission by Mary Maddox, a widow. After Maddox died, her nephew, Samuel Maddox, inherited the Virginia estate and claimed the Paines as his property. He hired Charles Finnegan, an armed professional slave catcher, to recapture two other African American men who had been freed by Mary Maddox and fled with the Paine family. Outraged Gettysburg residents foiled Finnegan, who was arrested by a local sheriff. After Griest wrote to fellow Quakers in Virginia, they jointly hired an attorney to represent Paine in Virginia courts. Although she lost her freedom in the Virginia case, Paine eventually remarried and returned to Adams County with her children where she lived in freedom until her death in 1850. Finnegan and his four compatriots were tried in Adams County and convicted with the help of testimony from black prosecution witnesses living in Menallen Township. Finnegan was sentenced to five years of solitary confinement.

The obituary of Basil Biggs (1819– 1906), published in June 1906 in the Gettysburg Compiler, a weekly periodical, noted that he had been an active agent in the Underground Railroad. The son of a slave, Biggs was born on August 10, 1819, in Carroll County, Maryland. After the death of his mother, he was forced to perform hard labor. He later married Mary Jackson who bore him several children. Researchers believe that Biggs and Edward Mathews were brothers-in-law and knew each other before moving from Maryland to Pennsylvania. By the early 1850s, Biggs had moved his family north where he lived as a tenant farmer on the property of Lydia Leister (1809–1893) along Taneytown Road in Cumberland Township, several miles south of Gettysburg. According to his obituary, Biggs shuffled fugitive slaves to Mathews who lived in Quaker Valley, a geographical name often used synonymously with Yellow Hill, where fugitives would be secreted and later guided north to Canada.

One of Pennsylvania’s best known allies of fugitive slaves was Thaddeus Stevens (1792–1868), an attorney and an ardent abolitionist. Before moving to Lancaster County, Stevens practiced law in Gettysburg from 1816 to 1842 and operated Caledonia Furnace, located between Gettysburg and Chambersburg, Franklin County. Known for his exceptional oratorical skills, Stevens served as a state legislator and went on to become one of the most powerful and respected members of the U.S. House of Representatives. He guided many slaves along the “freedom trail” and helped them with legal representation in the local courts. Historians believe that some of the slaves Stevens assisted at Caledonia moved from a nearby settlement known as Little Africa to Pine Grove Furnace, eleven miles north of Caledonia and just above Yellow Hill.

Switala’s Underground Railroad in Pennsylvnia briefly describes the route from Bendersville to Harrisburg, explaining how some fugitives may have traveled directly from Maryland, along the eastern slopes of South Mountain, near Caledonia, into the Commonwealth, descending from the mountain at a spot opposite Bendersville. However, since Gettysburg was one of the most active Underground Railroad stations near the Mason-Dixon Line and because of its proximity to Bendersville, eleven miles to the north, it is more likely many fugitives first traveled to the Adams County seat and then were guided north to Bendersville by the many resident conductors living in Gettysburg.

Most historians are not certain what may have happened to the Yellow Hill settlement. No descendents of the families of Yellow Hill remain at the site, although several are known to live in the Gettysburg area. Some believe that the Yellow Hill AME Zion Church was deliberately burned by hostile neighbors in the 1890s, after which many residents moved to Gettysburg. No evidence is known to exist that proves or disproves this long-held belief. Only a few of the earliest dwellings stand today, and the cemetery contains only trace evidence of what once existed. Many years ago, a few bodies were disinterred at Yellow Hill and moved to Lincoln Cemetery, a black cemetery in Gettysburg. Included in the move were the remains of Civil War veterans. William H. Mathews, one of three sons of Edward and Annie Mathews, who died in 1891, served with Company I, 127th U.S. Colored Troops. Charles Parker (1847–1877) was wounded while serving with the 3rd Regiment, U.S. Colored Infantry. Parker contracted typhoid pneumonia after being wounded, resulting in his death at the age of twenty-nine. Although Parker’s remains were moved to Gettysburg’s Soldiers National Cemetery in 1936, little care was taken to ensure proper handling; they were placed in a barrel when sent to the National Park Service, which administers the historic burial ground.

There is no marker for William Mathews in Lincoln Cemetery, although a marker for his wife, Mary Jane (1851–1890), exists, possibly relocated from Yellow Hill. At the time their bodies were reinterred, there was no veterans’ memorial service for either Parker or Mathews. It is often customary to ceremoniously honor war veterans when there is a reburial. However, since 2005, Parker has been honored each November 19, the anniversary of President Lincoln’s 1865 Gettysburg Address, with a special tribute. According to a state historical marker erected by PHMC to recognize Lincoln Cemetery’s place in history, “Some thirty Civil War veterans of the U.S. Colored Troops are buried here, having been denied burial in the National Cemetery because of segregation policies.”

Although evidence suggests that some bodies were removed from the little cemetery at Yellow Hill, ground-penetrating radar has confirmed that several remain. The gravestone of Charlotte Naylor, who died at the age of six months in 1888, is one of the few remaining pieces of evidence that confirms the existence of a burial ground at Yellow Hill. Time, vandals, and disrespectful visitors have destroyed all other gravestones. In 1986, the Adams County Historical Society, headquartered in Gettysburg, removed Naylor’s headstone from the cemetery for safekeeping. It was the last tombstone standing in the cemetery at the time.

In an interview conducted in 1986 by former Adams County Commissioner Harry Stokes, the late Becky Sachs, who formerly lived at Yellow Hill, spoke about the church that had once been described to her as “the little church with the white picket fence.” Although she never saw the church or cemetery in their entirety, she envisioned a long-term plan for maintenance of the historic site and lobbied various individuals for assistance. Her dream began to be realized in autumn 2000 with the organization of a preservation committee. Since its formation, the Yellow Hill Preservation Committee has learned more about the land and cleared overgrown vegetation from the site. Butler Township’s board of supervisors recruited a group of volunteers from nearby Biglerville, including members of the Biglerville American Legion and the local 4-H Club, which assisted in removing overgrowth and the planting of ground cover. In the process, volunteers uncovered the bases of two headstones and one footstone with possibly more yet to be unearthed.

Since Yellow Hill cannot be accessed without crossing private property, it was necessary to negotiate with the landowner to allow visitors to reach the site by foot. Working under the auspices of Historic Gettysburg Adams County (HGAC), a right-of-way agreement was crafted that allows limited access to the cemetery for pre-arranged tours. The tours are conducted exclusively by Debra McCauslin in conjunction with a tour of Adams County’s Underground Railroad sites. Two stops on the tour, Yellow Hill’s cemetery and the Menallen Friends Meetinghouse, have been listed on the National Park Service’s National Network to Freedom, which recognizes historic sites proven to have played a role in the Underground Railroad.

Although no longer extant, Yellow Hill deserves a place in the annals of state and national history. Even though the cemetery no longer holds the bodies of African American Civil War veterans, Dewey Bowers, a member of the Biglerville American Legion, has placed flags amidst the bramble for more than thirty-five years to commemorate the members of the U.S. Colored Troops once buried there. Bowers hopes this vestige of American history will not be forgotten and will continue to remind both present and future generations of the importance of remembrance and historic preservation.

 

Travel Tips

Individuals wanting to visit the Yellow Hill Cemetery need to know that access is limited because the site is surrounded by private property. Escorted tours of the cemetery, the Menallen Friends Meetinghouse, and the Quaker Valley must be arranged through For the Cause Gettysburg Histories.

The cemetery and the historic Quaker meetinghouse are part of Pennsylvania Quest for Freedom, a program that retraces the paths and highlights the places where African Americans sought refuge from slavery. The Yellow Hill sites are included in the National Park Service’s National Network to Freedom, which recognizes sites proven to have been part of the Underground Railroad. A colorful sixteen-page trail guide describes a trail that begins at the Liberty Bell in Philadelphia and sweeps westward to Valley Forge, Lancaster, Columbia, York, Gettysburg, and Chambersburg.

Among the twenty-two attractions in Philadelphia, one might opt for the Quest for Freedom Walking Tour, led by National Park Service guides, or visit the African American Museum, the National Constitution Center ̧ or the Civil War and Underground Railroad Museum. Researchers might also consider exploring the National Archives – Mid Atlantic Region, the Historical Society of Pennsylvania, or the Charles L. Blockson Afro-American Collection at Temple University.

Valley Forge National Historical Park’s Patriots of African Descent Monument honors the more than 5,000 African American soldiers who fought in the Continental Army. The National Park Service computerized the Continental Army’s muster rolls, which are available to visitors. The Christiana Underground Railroad Center interprets the Underground Railroad in Lancaster County and the bloody Christiana Resistance of 1851. Lancaster’s Bethel African Methodist Episcopal Church presents Living the Experience, a production interpreting the Underground Railroad, on Saturdays from February through December.

In Columbia, the First National Bank Museum, with its nineteenth-century teller’s cage and vault, holds historic account books of Underground Railroad activists. Visit the William C. Goodridge Freedom House and Underground Railroad Museum in York where Goodridge, a freed slave and town barber, shopkeeper, and rail line owner, hid slaves in a secret room in the basement, as well as in railroad box cars. A trip to Harrisburg affords a visit to the National Civil War Museum and The State Museum of Pennsylvania. Researchers and genealogists will want to examine the expansive collections of the Pennsylvania State Archives and the State Library of Pennsylvania.

In Adams County, the famous Civil War battlefield at Gettysburg National Military Park and its newly opened visitor center await you. The nearby Quaker Valley includes the Huntington Friends Meetinghouse and Cemetery, burial place of William and Phebe Wright, two of the county’s most prominent abolitionists. Many African American veterans of the Civil War are buried in Lincoln Cemetery in Gettysburg. In neighboring Franklin County, the Chambersburg Heritage Center chronicles the lives of notable Chambersburg natives, such as Martin Delany, frequent visitor Frederick Douglass, and John Brown who planned the raid on Harper’s Ferry, West Virginia, while in the community.

 

For Further Reading

Bloom, Robert L. A History of Adams County, Pennsylvania 1700–1990. Gettysburg, Pa.: Adams County Historical Society, 1992.

Huntington, Tom. Pennsylvania Civil War Trails: The Guide to Battle Sites, Monuments, Museums and Towns. Mechanicsburg, Pa.: Stackpole Books, 2007.

McCauslin, Debra Sandoe. Reconstructing the Past: Puzzles of a Lost Community. Gettysburg, Pa.: For the Cause Productions, 2005.

Myers, Betty Dorsey. Segregation in Death: Gettysburg’s Lincoln Cemetery. Gettysburg, Pa.: Lincoln Cemetery Project, 2001.

Switala, William J. Underground Railroad in Pennsylvania. Mechanicsburg, Pa.: Stackpole Books, 2001.

 

Alisha Sanders, of Cashtown, Adams County, has portrayed a runaway slave during cemetery tours for members of Historic Gettysburg Adams County, the Gettysburg-area preservation organization that has been working to preserve the Yellow Hill Cemetery. Sanders is the fourth great-granddaughter of Edward Mathews, who donated the land for the A.M.E. Zion Church and cemetery on Yellow Hill in the nineteenth century.

Debra McCauslin is a lifelong Adams County resident and is related to George Washington Sandoe (1842–1863), the first Union soldier killed, on June 26, 1863, by Confederate soldiers converging on Gettysburg. The incident occurred near McAllister’s Mill, believed to have been a station on the Underground Railroad. McCauslin is a member of Toastmasters International® and teaches at Harrisburg Area Community College. She has spoken to groups and organizations throughout Pennsylvania and bordering states. The author of Reconstructing the Past: Puzzle of a Lost Community, McCauslin continues to research Yellow Hill and donates book sale, tour, and speaking proceeds to several local preservation organizations.