William Whitson 1818 to 1909
In the year 1905, William Whitson came to live with his son, Wilzue. William’s second wife had recently died and he thought it would be best to spend his last few years on his son’s farm. The land for this farm had once belonged to William. Twenty-five years before, William had traded a 40-acre farm in Pennsylvania for 160 acres of unbroken prairie sod in western Iowa. His son Wilzue had purchased the land from him and turned the prairie into a fine and productive farm. Wilzue then married Lizzie and together they raise nine children.
Wilzue’s and Lizzie’s home, filled as it was with seven sons, reminded William of his Pennsylvania home when he and his three brothers were young men. Whitson men love to debate and to just generally talk. William was transported back to the days of his youth. He felt sorry for his daughter-in-law Lizzie and his two granddaughters who could hardly get a word in with so many men discussing politics, religion, farming, and more.
It was at this time that Wilzue’s middle son, twenty-year-old Jay, became ill with Rheumatic fever. As it turned out, Jay was confined to bed for ten months. William helped pass the time talking with Jay, sharing stories of the family’s rich history. The following are stories much like the ones William share with Jay. They were recreated through research and from those parts of William’s stories Jay passed on to his daughters and grandchildren:
Mary and Micah
My parents, Mary and Micah, were born just as the new nation was taking form, and their lives were shaped by the problems with slavery that were left unsettled in the new constitution. By the time they married in 1817 the abolitionist cause was being defined and they knew that they needed to be involved. Some of the earliest memories from my childhood are of my mother and father preparing meals for hungry travelers. We generally didn’t know the names of our guests nor did we ask. We feed, clothed, and transported strangers and asked for nothing in return. That was what it was like to be a station on the Underground Railroad.
There always was an air of secrecy surrounding these activities. Spies could be watching the house. We were concerned my younger brothers and sisters might accidentally say something to a neighbor or friend. Indeed, even our guests might be spies. The less said the better. The Fugitive Slave Act placed a $1000 fine on our activities.
As children, we were drawn to the secret room our father had built under the ramp going up to the thrashing floor of our barn. We were forbidden to play there, but of course we did. The room was invaluable as a place to temporarily conceal those fugitives closely pursued by slave catchers. The secret entrance was at the back of the stallion’s stall in the walkout basement of the barn. We always kept a large and spirited horse in the stall to assure that slave catchers would not search there.
As I grew older, I was given increasing opportunities to do farm work and to help with my parents’ abolitionist activities. This work added excitement to our lives and a great deal of satisfaction. My happiest memories during those years, however, were of Sunday afternoons. Sundays started with Meeting at the Bart Meetinghouse where my father was a well-known and powerful Quaker preacher. My mother was a gracious hostess and we often had dinner guests following meeting. For entertainment, my brothers and I often raced horses with other young men from the Bart Meeting. We also engaged in a variety of youthful contests. One of the favorites was scything and cradling. In the days before mowing machines and grain binders, hay and grain were cut by hand with a scythe. The cradle was a frame attached to the scythe to catch the grain so that enough to make one bundle was set down in one place. My brothers and I were taller and broader shouldered than most and were proud of the speed with which we could cut hay and grain. We often challenged visiting Quakers to Sunday afternoon contests. One much smaller man who could beat us, though, was Elias Hicks.
These Sunday afternoon activities were especially bothersome to our Presbyterian neighbors who believed in strictly “keeping the Sabbath.” They did not approve of our racing horses up and down Valley Road, nor did they greatly approve of our justification for breeding fast horses (we claimed to need fast horses to outrun pursuing slave catchers). My father once responded to a Presbyterian minister’s criticism by noting that Whitsons kept the Sabbath at least as well as any minister who earned his main livelihood by Sunday preaching.
A split was occurring between Friends during my childhood. Sadly, many Friends were caught up in arguments and faultfinding. Our differences were especially sad and painful as they occurred between friends in the same meeting. A formal and complete split occurred in the Sadsbury Meeting resulting in two new meetings, generally known as the Orthodox and the Hicksite Friends. The Whitsons were among the Hicksite Friends who broke off from the Sadsbury Meeting and built the Bart Meetinghouse not too far from our farm.
The reasons for the split were many. I’ve no doubt that each Friend in our Meeting would give different reasons why they aligned with one group or the other. In general, however, the Friends calling themselves Orthodox emphasized the importance of establishing a personal relationship with the biblical Christ. Hicksite Friends wished to bring the faith back to the original intent of George Fox and the founders of the Society of Friends. Hicksite Friends sympathized with the religious teachings of Elias Hicks, believing that attention to the inward Christ was more important than understanding the biblical Christ. We, the Hicksite Friends of the Bart Meeting, felt that Orthodox Friends would be more accurate if they labeled themselves Methodists.
The Orthodox Friends were indeed influenced of John and Charles Wesley, founders of the Methodist movement. Orthodox Friends placed great emphasis on evangelistic activities, upon a developing pastoral system, and upon both home and foreign mission work. We Hicksite Friends have no paid ministry. We focus on helping those in need. Many in our meeting are deeply involved in the abolitionist cause and women’s rights. Hicksite Friends wish to be remembered simply as those who went about doing good.
My uncle, Thomas Whitson, had a very active Underground Railroad station. His home was on a main route, Daniel Gibbons usually sent the fugitives who traveled at night in the care of a Negro who worked for him. Those who came in the daytime carried a note from Daniel Gibbons, “Friend Thomas, some of my friends will be with thee tonight.” My Uncle Thomas usually passed these secret guests on to the next station, his good friend Lindley Coates. Uncle Thomas’s Station differed greatly from our own. Though we lived about 15 miles from the Pennsylvania and Maryland boarder, we were not located on a line with other active stations. Our guests seemed to come to us more by chance, often making their first contact with the Underground Railroad system.
Uncle Thomas lived near Christiana, the sight of an 1851 violent resistance to the Fugitive Slave Act. William Parker was the leader of a group of former slaves who mutually pledged to stand together and resist any slave catcher or kidnapper in their community. Parker became famous for boldly and courageously confronting armed slave catchers and running them off. William Parker had once been shot in the leg and still got back on his feet and forced his attacker to flee empty handed. On at least two other occasions men held a pistol on him, yet, without fear, Parker struck these men so suddenly and with such force as to break their arms.
It was generally thought that kidnappings and arrests were reduced in the Christiana area due to Parker’s reputation. Negroes throughout southern Pennsylvania could well have used more men like William Parker. The Fugitive Slave Act and the high price paid by slave brokers in Maryland put all people of color at risk. Negro men would go to work in the fields and never return, girls would be snatched from the homes of their employers, and indeed whole families would be carried off in the night never to be heard from again. The Negro community waited in fear wondering whose turn would come next?
For all of William Parker’s fierceness, he was a well-liked and trusted leader in the Negro community and beyond. Friend Lindley Coates knew William Parker well and said of him, “he was bold as a lion, the kindest of men, and the warmest and most steadfast of friends.”
In September of 1851 a slave owner name Edward Gorsuch arrived in Christiana. This slave master from Maryland had with him a marshal and a group of supporters. At William Parker’s door Gorsuch attempted to retake “his property” and return the men to slavery. Parker told Gorsuch repeatedly that there would be blood shed before those men under his protection would be taken. Gorsuch ignored the warnings and was reported to have said he would rather die than give up “his property.” The situation escalated and Gorsuch was killed. Some viewed this armed resistance as self-defense while others called it a “riot”. Indeed, Parker and the “riot” became famous throughout the South. Years later Robert E. Lee, as he pushed his army into Pennsylvania toward Gettysburg, was said to have expressed a wish that his army could take a detour and destroy Christiana.
Immediately following the resistance in Christiana, slave-catchers were everywhere looking for people to arrest. Uncle Thomas received word that a man who worked for him had been arrested. My uncle quickly gave chase and soon caught up with the men arresting his friend.
Thomas stood before these rough men and said, “Thee have no just reason to take this man.”
“Who is this man who tries to tell us what to do?” called one of them. Another, a local who was acting as guide said, “That is Thomas Whitson, a Quaker and an abolitionist.”
One man pulled out a gun and climbed out of the wagon pointing the revolver at Thomas while the leader of the group asked, “Are you an abolitionist?”
“I am,” said Thomas, “and I am not afraid of thy shooting me. So thee may as well put thy pistol down.”
The one with the pistol cursed and said, “Shall I shoot him?”
“No,” was the leader’s quick reply, “let the old Quaker go.”
Thomas then found a neighbor who had seen the colored man at the hour of the riot several miles distance from the tragedy. Together the two men went to where the officers held the man under guard. Thus proving that he had no connection with the riot, Thomas obtained the man’s release.
Mary Ann Fulton, sister to my wife Elizabeth, helped to shelter the wife of William Parker on the day following the Christiana resistance. The wives of William Parker and Alexander Pinkney had become separated from their husbands that first evening following the resistance. The two women felt unsafe in their homes and in the Christiana area. As darkness fell, they decided to flee to find a place of safety. They became lost in the dark and wandered all night before finding the Fulton home in the morning not five miles from where they started the evening before.
The Fultons were strongly abolitionist and very active in the Underground Railroad. However, their son Joseph could not be trusted. He worried that his inheritance might be seized as a result of the family’s defying the Fugitive Slave Law. This meant that any escaping slaves that came their way had to be passed on very quickly. Daughters Mary Ann and Elizabeth often paired up for his duty. As pre-teens and teenagers these two were often out at night in snowstorms or in rain, sometimes having to improvise and change destinations or go further than originally intended.
Elizabeth and I were married by the time Mrs. Parker and her friend came to the Fulton’s seeking shelter. Mary Ann’s parents were gone from home and her brother, Joseph, refused Mary Ann the use of the family’s best horses. His hope was to discourage his sister, but she was determined and ended up taking the old blind mare. The women traveled a great distance and were turned away at several homes due to the heightened fears raised by the recent Christiana “riot” and especially due to these women’s association with the resistance. Evening fell, made all the darker by clouds and pouring rain. Mary Ann became lost in the dark with a horse that did not know the way. The women were, of course, afraid to ask where they were or even to ask for directions. Eventually they met a free Negro woman walking in the rain with a tub over her head. She gave them directions to her own home where the two fleeing women found shelter. They were eventually able to make their way north and rejoin the husbands in Canada.
The Fugitive Slave Law
As time passed following the enactment of the Fugitive Slave Law, the slave catchers become more bold and numerous. No person of color was safe. Opportunists created false ownership papers or simply kidnapped an unlucky person and spirited then away tied and hidden in a wagon. Kidnappers took people into the slave state of Maryland and sold their hapless victims to slave buyers heading to the Deep South. I remember a sad incident when a Negro family in Bart Township found their light skinned teenage daughter missing one morning as the girl was getting water from the well. She was never heard from again, certainly a victim of those mercenary Negro stealers who infested our neighborhoods.
My brothers and I were building a corncrib one day when a man running through our field approached us. We could see, in the distance, slave catchers in pursuit. The man was thin, so we placed him in the wall and continued nailing wallboards over him. The catchers soon arrived and said they had seen their man approach our building. We, of course, said nothing other than to invite them to look around. As the catchers searched and searched, we continued our work nailing boards. When the searchers finally gave up and left, we had to undo a large part of our morning’s work.
Whitsons as Public Activists
The Whitson’s were, by their nature, the type of people who would publicly state their opinion. All who worked with the Underground Railroad took great risks, but most preferred to work quietly. The two Whitson brothers, however, gave speeches and took a very public stand against slavery and the Fugitive Slave Law. Of the two, Thomas was the more famous, but my father Micah took many courageous stands.
A colored man, who had long been the town blacksmith, became the target of a southern marshal. The blacksmith resisted arrest and Micah and I stepped forward in the hopes of giving some sort of aide to our neighbor. The marshal turned to us, deputized us, and demanded that we assist in the arrest. We refused and were charged with violating a provision of the Fugitive Slave Act.
A lawyer with the famous name of John Jay, he was grandson of the governor John Jay, volunteered to defend us in court. This gave a very public platform for abolitionists to draw attention to the evils of slavery and the corrupt institutions supporting it. .
Our family’s abolitionist activities and the fines we were forced to pay mortgaged our lands and cause my father, my brothers, and I to gradually leave farming. I pursued my talent for carpentry and my love of mechanical design. For a number of years I worked for the Conestoga wagon Company in Lancaster County. I then moved my family to Juniata County, PA for a time and operated a mill. After a few years we returned to Lancaster County, but soon moved to Indiana, where my brother Joseph was plant superintendent for the Studebaker wagon company. The company was at that time expanding into new things beyond wagons and stagecoaches. I became the manager of the new farm machinery division and helped develop a new steam engine threshing machine. Your father, Wilzue, was the “engineer” who took the thresher out for farm demonstrations.
Years later when I settled my father’s estate, there was, at the time of Micah’s death, only a 40 acre parcel of land left of the Whitson family farm. An Amish family traded a 160-acre piece of Iowa prairie (which became your family farm) for the 40 acres in Pennsylvania. I was pleased that the Whitsons could return to farming.
Long Island with Lucretia Mott and Sojourner Truth
While my family was in Indiana, my parents moved to Long Island where my mother Mary eventually died and was buried. My youngest brother was born and died there also. At this point in their lives, my parents were devoting themselves entirely to abolition and women’s rights work. My father, I believe, was the superintendent of a school there for escaped slaves and freedmen. It was in this connection that their friendship with Lucretia and James Mott deepened. Many abolitionists came through their home. Sojourner Truth sometimes lived with them when she was between speaking tours. Sojourner Truth and my mother Mary were both very interested in the idea of the approaching end of the world. Mary was convinced that it was necessary to be buried wrapped in a white blanket in order to rise from the grave on Judgment Day. She worked at weaving white blankets to shroud every member of her family.
Our Whitson family greatly admired Lucretia Mott and was proud to have her as a frequent visitor in our home. Lucretia was considered a minister by her Meeting and spent her life traveling the country ministering to Friends. Lucretia spoke and dressed in the simple manner of Friends, yet spoke in support of the most progressive issues of the day. She was able to bridge gaps that might have divided people of faith. I believe she did more than anyone, for as long as was possible, to keep united the Friends, the women’s rights movement, and the abolitionist movement.
William Lloyd Garrison
My Uncle Thomas Whitson was a friend of William Lloyd Garrison and had earned Garrison’s praise when the two spoke at an anti-slavery convention. Both men were founders of the American Anti-Slavery Society. My parents, brothers and sisters, and I meet Garrison through Uncle Thomas.
The Women’s Rights Movement
Women, especially Friends, were an early and strong force in the abolitionist movement. The Society of Friends has always risen above the restrictions society has placed on women. It is not surprising that Quaker women such as Lucretia Mott and Lucy Stone became early abolitionist leaders. My mother Mary was one of many. Some time later, as I remember it, I first became aware of the Fulton sisters, Elizabeth and Mary Ann, because of their boldness as abolitionists. Then it was Elizabeth’s passion and devotion to abolitionism that, at least in part, won my heart.
My mother, and Friends like Lucretia Mott, had taught me that the best love was one based on mutual respect between equal and strong partners. I especial like a quotation of Lucretia’s: “…”
Elizabeth and I had nine children: four girls, your father Wilzue, and then four more girls. We were successful, I think, in raising all our children to be bold and passionate in their beliefs. Elizabeth did an especially good job shaping Wilzue’s personality. Despite having nine women in his home, Wilzue learned to cook, wash, iron and sew. I taught him farming, carpentry, and mechanical design. No one taught him debate and talking skills, they just came to him naturally. He was, after all, a Whitson.
Wilzue’s training stood him well when, in 187-, he started farming on this property as a young bachelor. I believe his homemaking skills allowed him to take his time finding a good mate. Lizzie has further benefited from your father’s ability and willingness to sew and Wilzue’s willingness to help with laundry and feeding the then houseful of babies, toddlers, and young children. His mother and I were also very proud when Wilzue spent time in Des Moines lobbying for women’s rights when the state’s laws were first being drafted. He was successful in getting women the right to inherited property and other rights that protected women. He wasn’t successful in getting the vote for women, but, for the time, he really was fairly successful.