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Fugitives from slavery, such as those pictured here escaping from Maryland’s Eastern Shore, crossed the Mason-Dixon Line into Pennsylvania where they were assisted along various routes by secret networks of individuals. From William Still, The Underground Rail Road (Porter & Coates, 1872)

Fugitives from slavery, such as those pictured here escaping from Maryland’s Eastern Shore, crossed the Mason-Dixon Line into Pennsylvania where they were assisted along various routes by secret networks of individuals. From William Still, The Underground Rail Road (Porter & Coates, 1872)

Shortly after sunset, a fugitive slave from Maryland tapped on a window of a modest farmhouse near Bird-in-Hand, Pennsylvania. Daniel and Hannah Gibbons walked swiftly to the door. The Quaker couple escorted the young man to the barn to sleep and in the morning summoned him back to the house. If the fugitive’s owner was in close pursuit, they would send him to another farm. If there seemed to be some breathing room, the runaway could stay and work on the Gibbons farm or elsewhere in the neighborhood.

During the first half of the 19th century, fugitives from south of the Mason-Dixon Line regularly arrived at the Gibbons family’s Underground Railroad station along mud-bottomed Mill Creek in Upper Leacock Township, Lancaster County. The Gibbonses asked the fugitives to provide their names and ages, the names of the men who had enslaved them, and what part of the South they had left behind. They recorded these facts in a blank book. Then they gave the fugitives new identities and sent them on their way toward freedom.

Daniel Gibbons estimated that he and his wife listed about 1,000 freedom seekers from 1824 until Congress passed the Fugitive Slave Act in 1850. Given the new strict law regarding the rights of slave owners to retrieve their property, he could not take a chance that someone might find the book, arrest him, and try to track the fugitives; so he destroyed those pages that contained compromising information. What would have been one of the most complete listings of fugitive slaves was lost forever.

Many enslaved blacks, especially young men, emancipated themselves before the Civil War by fleeing their owners and heading north. They were taking a great risk, and when they needed help they often reached out to free blacks living in established African American communities. There was also a network of white sympathizers — in southeastern Pennsylvania, these were mostly Quakers — who established a series of safe havens leading to Philadelphia and north. Three generations of Gibbons family members — James (1735–1810), Daniel (1775–1853) and Joseph (1818–1883) — participated in this dangerous enterprise by operating one of Lancaster County’s primary Underground Railroad stations.

The Gibbons family had moved to America from England in the 1680s, not long after Quaker founder George Fox published his first sermon urging improved treatment of enslaved people. The first three Gibbons generations resided in Chester County. A grant from William Penn’s sons and other nearby property that the family purchased in 1723 totaled more than 1,000 acres.

Gibbons Mill, along Route 340 between Bird-in-Hand and Smoketown in Lancaster County, was built in 1770 by James and Deborah Gibbons. It became an important stop on the Underground Railroad in the first half of the 19th century.

Gibbons Mill, along Route 340 between Bird-in-Hand and Smoketown in Lancaster County, was built in 1770 by James and Deborah Gibbons. It became an important stop on the Underground Railroad in the first half of the 19th century.
Photo by Jack Brubaker

James Gibbons of the fourth generation, which was the first generation of Underground Railroad operators, moved to Lancaster County on a large tract of land in Lampeter Township (later Upper Leacock) in 1756. At 21 he had married Deborah Hoopes (1736–1823) at Chester County’s Goshen Meeting House. Some of the young Quaker women at the wedding are said to have remarked that “not for the best man in the Province would they go into the wilderness to live.’’ Deborah paid no mind and moved with her husband to Lancaster County.

James and Deborah built a log cabin near Mill Creek. Later they constructed a more substantial house. In 1770 they completed a mill along the Old Philadelphia Pike between Bird-in-Hand and Smoketown. James was a resourceful man, operating an inn on his property and working as a surveyor and a justice of the peace. He helped start Lancaster’s Julianna Library Company, a forerunner of the Lancaster County Library. He was appointed foreman of a Lancaster County Grand Jury.

Following the Revolution, the Gibbonses moved to Wilmington, Delaware, where James served as second burgess. He was sitting as a judge in Wilmington in 1789 when a group of kidnappers brought a free black man before him. The kidnappers apparently expected Gibbons to let them sell the man into slavery. Instead, Gibbons told them he would jail them if they did not behave. Then he set the black man free.

Well before James Gibbons died in 1810, he and Deborah returned to the home along Mill Creek. His great-granddaughter, Marianna Gibbons Brubaker (1848–1929), and early historians William Still and Robert Smedley said James became the first member of his family to run an active Underground Railroad operation there. There is no specific example of Gibbons helping a fugitive slave, but there was good reason not to record secretive Underground Railroad activities at any time before the Civil War. Marianna did say her great-grandfather remained interested, “during his whole life, in helping fugitives to escape.’’

But then there is this strange ad in the June 26, 1807, edition of the Lancaster Journal: “TO BE SOLD, THE remaining part of an indented Servant Man’s time, being three years. He is a black man, and can be seen in Lancaster jail at present. His name is George Washington Gardner. For terms inquire of the printer. JAMES GIBBONS, Mill Creek, Lancaster county, 6th mo. 17th, 1807.’’

It is clear from their diaries and other writings that the Gibbonses, a family with substantial wealth, had several servants who prepared meals, waited on table, and worked on the farm. Some were African Americans, both free blacks and fugitives waiting for an opportune time to move farther north. Presumably, most were paid for their work. But George Washington Gardner was of a different order. His fate may have been determined by Pennsylvania’s Act for the Gradual Abolition of Slavery, passed in 1780, that made children of enslaved Africans indentured servants (virtual slaves) until they reached the age of 28, after which they would be set free. For instance, if Gardner had been 25 years old in 1807, he would have been indentured for another three years. Whatever Gardner’s precise situation — no reason is given for his jail sentence — why was James Gibbons, a man who assisted freedom-seeking slaves, trying to sell him? History is not always neat. This case has not been explained.

Daniel Gibbons assisted fugitives throughout his entire life.

Daniel Gibbons assisted fugitives throughout his entire life.
Jack Brubaker Collection

The Gibbons record is otherwise unambiguous. Daniel, the elder of James’ two sons who survived infancy, inherited much of his father’s land, including the house along Mill Creek. Siblings inherited the mill and other parts of the thousand acres. Daniel spent all of his adult life dispatching fugitives to freedom. He was the most ardent of the Gibbons station operators. The generations immediately before and after him are like bookends for Daniel’s vast library of antislavery activism.

Daniel grew up assisting his father as an Underground Railroad agent. In 1815 he married Hannah Wierman (1787–1860), member of a well-known antislavery Quaker family near Gettysburg. That year the couple also built a new brick house not far from where James Gibbons had lived. The home, which would become known as the “Underground Railroad House,’’ was located near the creek and a large stand
of virgin beech, originally called Gibbons Woods. The entire property eventually became known as Beechdale.

When he was 30 years old, Daniel took a 1,300-mile pedestrian tour to Niagara Falls and returned home by way of Ohio and Pittsburgh. The overexertion of the trek, along with earlier work as a tanner, harmed his legs to the point that he could no longer perform farm chores; so he oversaw workers on the farm and coordinated the Underground Railroad operation.

Daniel apparently was expert at plotting the movement of fugitives over long distances. Many African Americans escaping from Maryland came up the Susquehanna River to Columbia in western Lancaster County and crossed through or near Lancaster city to the Gibbons farm. Gibbons sent fugitives from Bird-in-Hand in several directions, sometimes to Reading or northern Chester County. More often he directed them to Underground Railroad operators in southern Lancaster County, including Dr. J. K. Eshleman, Thomas Whitson, Lindley Coates and Joshua Brinton; from there fugitives traveled to Christiana on the Lancaster–Chester County border and, ultimately, to Philadelphia or Canada.

No slave escaping to freedom who followed Daniel’s directions was ever recaptured. Only one (and possibly a second) fugitive was ever seized from the Gibbons property. Daniel also drove fugitives in his carriage to stations farther east. On one occasion, he encountered an imperiled fugitive in Adams County and sent her back to his farm with his own horse and wagon.

Hannah Wierman Gibbons, joined her husband as a full partner in their Underground Railroad operation.

Hannah Wierman Gibbons, joined her husband as a full partner in their Underground Railroad operation.
Jack Brubaker Collection

Hannah Gibbons worked as a full partner with her husband, helping to shelter slaves and move them on their way. One fugitive arrived with an active case of smallpox. Without regard for her own health, Hannah nursed him for six weeks until he was well. “Although loved by everyone,’’ Marianna Gibbons Brubaker said, “the poor fugitives regarded her with idolatry.’’

Writing about the Underground Railroad operation, Marianna said that if fugitives anticipated their former owners following fast on their heels, “they were hidden in the field or barn, or, if it was autumn, in the corn shocks for a few hours.’’ The Gibbonses endured a number of close calls. Marianna told the story of a slave owner following a young female fugitive. While Daniel engaged the owner in conversation in the house, Hannah hurried the girl out the back and hid her under an overturned rainwater hogshead. By the time Daniel finally allowed the slave owner to search his grounds, the girl was well secreted.

At another time, Daniel heard shooting in his woods and went to see who the hunter might be. He discovered a Lancaster city constable  named Hughes. “Good morning, Daniel,’’ said Constable Hughes. “I awoke this morning feeling very hungry for squirrel. Knowing that I would be perfectly welcome here, I thought I would come down to your woods and try to get some.’’ Daniel responded, “Oh, yes, Friend Hughes, Thee is quite welcome. Thee can no doubt get a number of red ones, and thee may get a few greys; but I can assure thee that just at the present time thee will not find one black one.’’

In the summer of 1835, fugitive hunters found three escaped women hiding on a farm in southern Lancaster County. They took them to the Lancaster Jail, at the site of the current Fulton Opera House, planning eventually to return them to their owners. But the next morning the fugitives appeared at the Gibbons farm. After questioning them, Daniel helped them on their way to the next station. As the story goes, “Dare-Devil Dave’’ Miller, the county sheriff, had looked kindly on the women and had opened the jail door, allowing them to escape to freedom.

Robert Smedley’s 1883 book, History of the Underground Railroad in Chester and the Neighboring Counties of Pennsylvania, documented a significant moment in the use of the Beechdale property to safely move fugitives. Smedley said a group of 26 escapees from Maryland plantations were directed to the law office of soon-to-be U.S. Representative Thaddeus Stevens (1792–1868) around 1842, the year he moved from Gettysburg to Lancaster. Smedley said Stevens fed the large group and then gave them directions to Daniel Gibbons’ farm. Stevens somehow alerted Daniel that the fugitives were coming because Daniel was, according to Smedley, “sitting on his piazza when they came up. He accosted them with, ‘come in boys; I know who you are; I have been looking for you.’ After giving them food he separated the party, and sent them in different directions.’’

A $200 reward poster for two fugitive slaves who took shelter at the Underground Railroad station at Beechdale. Daniel Gibbons wrote at the bottom, “The boys brought this themselves 6th mo. 22nd 1844.”

A $200 reward poster for two fugitive slaves who took shelter at the Underground Railroad station at Beechdale. Daniel Gibbons wrote at the bottom, “The boys brought this themselves 6th mo. 22nd 1844.”
Jack Brubaker Collection

In March 1848 Nelson Hilliard, who had escaped his Virginia slave master the previous autumn, came to the Gibbonses. Daniel gave Hilliard a new name, Levi Johnson, to help protect him from capture. Johnson remained working on the farm and in the neighborhood until the Civil War. When the government began enlisting African Americans, Johnson joined the 43rd Regiment, U.S. Colored Troops. He was serving as a corporal when he was wounded in the back during the slaughter in the Crater at Petersburg, Virginia, in the summer of 1864. Eventually, he returned to Bird-in-Hand to work at Beechdale.

Not all residents of the area approved of the Gibbonses’ efforts on behalf of escaping slaves, especially if they kept them in the neighborhood indefinitely. With the exception of free blacks, some Quakers, and other abolitionists, most Lancaster County residents were indifferent to the Underground Railroad operation but some people were actively hostile. Daniel and his son Joseph accompanied a man lecturing on slavery to a meeting place near Strasburg. When they came outside following the lecture, they discovered that the linchpins had been removed from the wheels of their carriage. On another occasion, unsympathetic Lancastrians pelted father and son with rotten eggs.

Daniel and Hannah preserved at least two letters from fellow Underground Railroad operators. In March 1840 Stephen Smith, a free black lumber and real estate entrepreneur in Columbia and Philadelphia, wrote to Daniel to ask him whether he had sheltered three slaves who were rumored to have been recaptured. In May 1841 Mary B. Thomas, a Downingtown Quaker, asked Daniel if he could send along a boy who was a member of a family formerly sent to Thomas so that the entire family could travel north and be “sheltered by the wing of British freedom’’ in Canada.

Daniel and Hannah, like all of the Gibbonses who resided at Beechdale, were members of Lampeter Friends Meeting in Bird-in-Hand. They were elders in the Society of Friends for the last 25 years of their lives. They wore plain clothes and were plain speaking. They dined with their African American help, and any white man who objected was seated at a separate table.

Daniel was 75 years old when the Fugitive Slave Act took effect. Except for burning the names of fugitives, he did not alter his operations after 1850, even though the federal law had given fugitive hunters, such as the local “Gap Gang,’’ free rein to locate runaways and return them to their owners. Daniel’s granddaughter reported what he said following passage of the Fugitive Slave Act: “I have made up my mind to go to jail.’’

Daniel and Hannah Gibbons built the original brick portion, right, of the “Underground Railroad House” at Beechdale in 1815. The entire structure was demolished in 1986.

Daniel and Hannah Gibbons built the original brick portion, right, of the “Underground Railroad House” at Beechdale in 1815. The entire structure was demolished in 1986.
Jack Brubaker Collection

Daniel died three years later in 1853, and his son Joseph took over as station manager. Joseph was 35 years old and had been assisting his parents for many years. While conducting a party of fugitives on a midnight run to escape a slave master when he was 16 years old, Joseph developed a permanent tenderness in his feet; so he represented the second generation of station operators with poor locomotion.

The first professional in his family, Joseph graduated from Jefferson Medical College and practiced medicine for five years. He then became interested in other pursuits, including farming. He was a temperance advocate, as were many Quakers. He supported the common school system in Pennsylvania and accompanied the first county superintendent around Lancaster on his initial unpopular tours. He was active with the Liberty Party and Pennsylvania’s Anti-Slavery Society. He was a founder of the Republican Party in Pennsylvania. He was a friend of fellow Republican Thaddeus Stevens.

Early in 1873 Joseph founded and edited, through a Philadelphia office, the Friends’ Journal, a weekly newspaper devoted to the interests of Quakers nationwide. His daughter, Marianna, began assisting him long before his death in 1883.

Robert Smedley commented in detail on Joseph’s strict personal habits. “He has never drunk a glass of ardent spirits,’’ Smedley reported, “never used tobacco in any form, never been within the walls of a theatre (even when a medical student and in four years of public office in Philadelphia), never played a game of cards and never read a novel.’’

Except for the incident during which Joseph wrecked his feet, Marianna pointedly said that there is no specific record of her father’s active work on the Underground Railroad; Joseph’s disability limited his participation to planning fugitives’ escape routes only. Marianna wrote at length about her grandfather’s service as an Underground Railroad operator but said little about her father’s and great-grandfather’s efforts.

Dr. Joseph Gibbons was the third generation of his family to participate in the Underground Railroad.

Dr. Joseph Gibbons was the third generation of his family to participate in the Underground Railroad.
From R.C. Smedley’s History of the Underground Railroad in Chester and the Neighboring Counties of Pennsylvania (Office of The Journal, 1883)

In 1845 Joseph married Phebe Earle (1821–93), the oldest daughter of Thomas and Mary Earle of Philadelphia. Her father, a distinguished antislavery lawyer, had been the Liberty Party’s vice presidential candidate in 1840. She was a writer all of her life and is best known for her book Pennsylvania Dutch and Other Essays, an 1872 compilation of articles on the Amish and other sects of central Pennsylvania that originally appeared in the Atlantic Monthly. Although Phebe married into the Gibbons family and corresponded with abolitionists, there is no record of her taking an active part in the Underground Railroad.

Joseph and Phebe had four children, including first-born Marianna. Active in community affairs until her death in 1929, Marianna was the Gibbons family’s bridge between antebellum Underground Railroad operators and early 20th-century civil rights advocates.

Marianna graduated from Millersville State Normal School (now Millersville University) and taught school at Haverford and Germantown Friends schools. She later wrote for the Philadelphia Press and other newspapers. In addition to helping her father edit the Journal for the Society of Friends, she coedited Smedley’s book on the Underground Railroad and wrote her own history of the operation for the Lancaster County Historical Society, of which she was one of the first female members.

In 1902 Marianna married Oram David Brubaker at Beechdale after Brubaker’s first wife, Myra Froelich, died. Marianna inherited nine stepchildren. She had known O. D. Brubaker’s late wife through her involvement in the Bird-in-Hand Women’s Christian Temperance Union. Brubaker was, among other things, chairman of the Lancaster County Prohibition Committee. He led the temperance fight in Lancaster County for a quarter of a century. The couple had more than teetotaling in common, however. In 1903 they traveled to California and brought home 35 white Pekin ducks to begin the Brubaker Duck Farm on the old Gibbons property. In 1909, at the end of a long lane lined with maple trees, they built a limestone mansion, which remains the centerpiece of Beechdale Farm. The business became one of the largest duck farms in the country.

Marianna was an activist as well as a journalist, historian, pacifist, farm wife and stepmother. In an effort to clarify aspects of the antislavery movement, she corresponded throughout her life with prominent African Americans, including Frederick Douglass. She was an advocate of Booker T. Washington’s Tuskegee Institute and helped facilitate the hiring of students from that school to work on her husband’s farm in the summer. In the spring of 1923 she traveled to Lancaster and suggested to a number of African American leaders that they organize a chapter of the NAACP. The chapter opened that June. Marianna was a member of the executive committee.

Marianna Gibbons Brubaker, here with husband Oram David Brubaker, carried on her ancestors’ legacy as an activist for African American rights.

Marianna Gibbons Brubaker, here with husband Oram David Brubaker, carried on her ancestors’ legacy as an activist for African American rights.
Jack Brubaker Collection

The formation of the NAACP in Lancaster was partially in response to a renewed surge of interest in the Ku Klux Klan there and nationwide. Marianna, in a move that might be considered as courageous in the 1920s as her father’s decision in the 1850s to go to jail, if necessary, for defying the Fugitive Slave Act, wrote to the Lancaster New Era denouncing the Klan and its racist supporters. Following a huge gathering of Klan members in October 1923 at the Lancaster Fair Grounds, she criticized Marvin Bushong and Jacob Seldomridge for renting the property to the Klan. In reference to the Klan’s earlier activities during Reconstruction, she wrote, “The whole history of this organization is written in blood.’’ She added, “Again these people are engaged in stirring up hatred. . . . To permit the Ku Klux Klan to meet and hold ceremonies here was simply an insult.’’

Meanwhile, the poultry farm was raising more than 100,000 ducks per year from hatchery to slaughterhouse. Its business boomed with military contracts during World War II. But then sales soured as arms on Long Island, New York, combined to dominate the trade. O. D. Brubaker’s sons, J. Harold and Clarence, who called the business Brubaker Brothers, sold the farm in 1961.

In the early 1980s one of several subsequent property owners, a Californian who rarely visited the place, restored the brick Gibbons house. One summer morning in 1986 the wife of the owner woke up in her bedroom on the second floor of the stone mansion and decided the Underground Railroad building obstructed her view of Mill Creek. She told her husband to get rid of it. According to Amish families who surround that property, the owner had the building razed by heavy construction equipment before dark that day. Thus, part of Lancaster County’s heritage as a haven for fugitives from slavery was lost.

Beechdale Farm is located a mile north of Bird-in-Hand on Beechdale Road, not far from Gibbons School, a one-room Amish schoolhouse on Gibbons Road. The farm today includes large storage buildings that a recent owner had filled with ornate British and American carriages. The author of this article, a great-grandson of O. D. Brubaker, grew up in the stone house on that property and often visited the Underground Railroad House, then being used by tenant farmers. He was surrounded by the Brubaker Brothers’ ducks and imbued with the culture of the Gibbons family’s work on behalf of fugitive slaves. It was a perfect place to absorb local history.

 

Further Reading

Marianna Gibbons Brubaker’s “The Underground Railroad” in Journal of the Lancaster County Historical Society, 15, no. 4 (1911), 95–119, provides the most detailed description of the Gibbons family’s antislavery operations. Marianna edited another vital source, R. C. Smedley’s History of the Underground Railroad in Chester and the Neighboring Counties of Pennsylvania (Office of The Journal, 1883; reprint, Stackpole Books, 2005); the Stackpole reprint includes a perceptive introduction by Christopher Densmore, curator of the Friends Historical Library at Swarthmore College. William Still’s The Underground Rail Road: A Record of Facts, Authentic Narratives &c. (Porter & Coates, 1872; reprint, Plexus, 2005) includes a brief biography of Daniel Gibbons. Marion Wallace Reninger’s Famous Women of Lancaster County (1964) includes a profile of Hannah Gibbons.

Other sources include Charles D. Spotts’ “The Pilgrims’ Pathway: The Underground Railroad in Lancaster County,” Community Historians 5, no. 6 (December 1966), 21–25; Mark C. Ebersole’s “Abolition Divides the Meeting House,’’ Journal of the Lancaster County Historical Society, 102, no. 1 (2000), 2–27; and Jack Brubaker’s “Station on the Underground Railroad Destroyed,’’ Lancaster New Era, July 25, 1986.

LancasterHistory, Lancaster County’s historical society, holds “Beechdale: The Home of the Gibbons Family,” a 62-page document assembled by Marian Brubaker in 1998 that includes excerpts from diaries, news articles, obituaries and other documents as part of a decades-long effort to transcribe and annotate Gibbons materials.

For general histories of the Underground Railroad in the Keystone State, see Charles L. Blockson’s The Underground Railroad in Pennsylvania (Flame International, 1981) and William J. Switala’s Underground Railroad in Pennsylvania, 2nd edition (Stackpole Books, 2008).

 

Jack Brubaker writes The Scribbler, a weekly column for Lancaster Newspapers (LNP) that explores Lancaster County history and culture, and he was formerly an investigative reporter for LNP. He is the author of Massacre of the Conestogas and Down the Susquehanna to the Chesapeake. His previous article for Pennsylvania Heritage, “Harriet Lane Johnston: The Legacy of a White House Hostess,” appeared in the Spring 2018 issue.