William Whitson 1818 to 1909
In the year 1904, 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. Thirty 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 raised nine children.
When William moved in with Wilzue and Lizzie, he found, once again, what he had known for years, that Whitson men love to debate. Wilzue, and his seven sons, now young men, reminded William of his Pennsylvania home when he and his three brothers were young men. His daughter-in-law Lizzie and his two granddaughters, Mary and Alice, could hardly get a word in with their grandfather, father, and seven brothers discussing politics, religion, farming, and more.
It was at this time that Lizzie and 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 similar to those William share with Jay. They were recreated through research and from those stories Jay passed on to his daughters and grandchildren:
1. William tells of his Parents
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, indeed these were refugees who had nothing. 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.
As children, we were drawn to the secret room our father had built under the earthen ramp going
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up to the large barn door and the thrashing floor. We were forbidden to play there, but of course, as curious youngsters, we did. Our parents used the room to temporarily conceal those fugitives closely pursued by slave catchers. The room’s 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.
In 1833 the first Anti-Slavery Society was started at the abolitionist movement was born. I was 15 years old at the time and very proud that my Uncle Thomas Whitson was a founding member. The next thirty years, from that first society to the Emancipation Proclamation, was a time of growing public awareness. My father and my uncle became well known as public speakers helping to build support for the cause..
At this time I was very proud that my parents gave me increasing opportunities to do farm work and to help with my parents’ abolitionist activities. This work was exciting and satisfying. I developed my wood and metal working skills that would serve me all my life as I built barns and furniture, rebuilt the workings of a mill, worked at the Conestoga Wagon Company and the Studebaker Wagon and farm machinery factory in Indiana.
My happiest memories of my formative years, however, were of Sunday afternoons with family and friends. 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.
William Lloyd Garrison and Lucretia Mott both argued against Orthodox pressures to “keep the Sabbath.” They felt it unfairly deprived workingmen of any recreation on their one day of rest. Furthermore, these orthodox churches defined “keeping the Sabbath” in a way that excluded abolitionist meetings or any sort of reform activities. Lucretia had long made it a practice to not attend afternoon meeting and spent the time visiting black families or poor women. Garrison even organized an “Anti-Sabbath Convention” in 1848 to strike a blow for freedom of conscience against the state laws in Massachusetts and elsewhere that restricted nonreligious activities on Sunday. He felt this spiritual tyranny represented by compulsory observances worked against abolitionist organizing and campaigning.
2. Hicksite Friends
A split occurred between Friends in 1828, when I was ten years old. The differences were especially sad and painful as they drove a wedge between members of our meeting. We had recently built the Bart Meetinghouse as a branch from the Sadsbury Meeting in Christiana. Both of
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these meetings split with the Hicksite Friends retaining the meetinghouses and the Orthodox Friends forming new meetings. The Whitsons were among the Friends who helped found a new meeting and built the Bart Meetinghouse not too far from our farm that later became Hicksite..
The reasons for the split were many. I’ve no doubt that each Friend 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 felt that Orthodox Friends were imposing their interpretation of the Bible between individual Friends and their God. Hicksite Friends wished to bring the faith back to George Fox’s “that of God in every man.” They followed the religious teachings of Elias Hicks who believed that attention to the inward Christ was more important than understanding the biblical Christ. Hicksite Friends, like those of the Bart Meeting, felt that Orthodox Friends would be more accurate if they labeled themselves Methodists. The Orthodox Friends were indeed influenced by 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 had no paid ministry. We focused on helping those in need who we met in our daily lives. For us near Christiana those in most need were Negroes struggling to survive and remain free of the long arms of slavery creeping out of Maryland. Many in our meeting, including my mother and my wife, also became deeply involved in women’s rights. Hicksite Friends wished to be remembered for living their faith as witnessed by good works.
3. Thomas Whitson
My uncle, Thomas Whitson, was a well known abolitionist. He was one of a group of men who met in 1833 to found the American Anti-slavery Society. His public speaking and other activities cast him in as leadership role in the movement. John G. Whittier, Quaker poet and abolitionist, penned a beautiful portrait of my uncle,
Thomas Whitson, of the Hicksite school of Friends, fresh from his farm in Lancaster County, dressed
in plainest homespun, his tall form surmounted by a shock of unkempt hair, the odd obliquity of his
vision contrasting strongly with the clearness and directness of his spiritual insight.
Uncle Thomas had crossed eyes that were a bit startling as a first impression. Another poet, Benjamin S. Jones, made reference to my uncle’s powerful abolitionist speeches, his skill as a debater, and his unique grammar:
Friend Whitson, Friend Whitson,
Like “dunder and blitzen,”
Thy fists and thy words both come down;
A diamond thou art,
Tho’ unpolished each part,
Yet worthy a place in the crown,
Yet worthy a place in the crown.
Uncle Thomas’s Underground Railroad station was more active than our own. His home was on a main route with many fugitives coming from the home of Daniel Gibbons. Gibbons usually sent those 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, the next day would pass these guests on to the next station master, and his good friend, Lindley Coates.
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Our own family home was not on a main line. Though we lived about 15 miles from the Pennsylvania and Maryland boarder, we were not located on a line with other Quaker homes that were stations. Our guests came to us by chance or, as was frequently the case, sent by our Negro neighbors. I believe that more fugitives passed through the homes of Negroes in the Christiana area than through the now better known Quaker Underground Railroad stations. We tried to be a safety valve, a place our Negro neighbors could turn when slave catcher pressure was high.
Uncle Thomas also 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 in Christiana who 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, in one of the instances, break the man’s arm.
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.” My cousin wrote of Parker’s strength and leadership,
“He could walk up to an ordinary post fence, leap over it without touching it with his hands,
work hard all day and travel fifteen miles during the night to organize his people into a
society for their protection against numerous kidnappers, or rescue one of their number
that had been captured, flog the villain who was carrying him away, and return to his
labor in the morning with a bullet in his leg, apparently unfatigued and keep his secret
well to himself.”
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 any man 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 “Christiana 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.”
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“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.
4. The Fultons
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 men went first to Thomas Whitson’s home and then on toward Canada. The two women, later in the evening, also decided to flee and 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 sister 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.
5. The Fugitive Slave Law 1850
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
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buyers heading to the Deep South. I remember a sad incident when a Negro family living near us in Bart Township found their 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 barn 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.
6. Whitsons as Public Activists
The Whitson’s were, by their nature, the type of people who would publicly state their opinion. Most abolitionist preferred to quietly do the dangerous work of helping fugitive slaves. The two Whitson brothers, my father Micah and Uncle Thomas, gave speeches and took a very public stand against slavery and the Fugitive Slave Law.
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 caused my father, my brothers, and me 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 in 18--, moved my family to Juniata County, Pennsylvania for a time to repair and modernize a mill. 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.
7. Long Island with Lucretia Mott and Sojourner Truth
While my family was in Indiana, my parents moved to Long Island. They had for some time been visiting and spending time with relatives there. 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 for escaped slaves and freedmen. It was in this connection that their
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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 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.
My wife, Elizabeth, said she drew a special strength from Lucretia Mott. At a time when the roles open to women were limited, Lucretia broke social conventions. She was sweet, attractive, and every bit a lady while she would address a “promiscuous meeting,” (i.e. a mixed group of men and women). Elizabeth was especially inspired by Mrs. Mott’s sermons where she urged that women,
be placed in such a situation in society, by the recognition of her rights, and have
such opportunities for growth and development, as shall raise her from this low,
enervated, and paralyzed condition. Let women then go on, not asking favors, but
claiming as right, the removal of all hindrances to her elevation in the scale of being;
let her receive encouragement for the proper cultivation of all her powers, so that
she may enter profitably into the active business of life.”
8. The Women’s Rights Movement
The work that women did in the abolitionist movement prepared them to become women’s rights activists. Women, especially Friends, were an early and strong force in the abolitionist movement. The Society of Friends was unique among religious groups in giving women something close to equality with men. Women were allowed to speak freely at meetings and to become ministers, something unthinkable in almost any other religion. Lucretia Mott became a minister while still in her twenties. Quaker women never had the humiliating experience of sitting meekly and silently while ministers fulminated against the daughters of Eve: against women as temptress, women as inferior, women doomed to suffer and remain in subjection to man. Their confidence and self-respect were not eroded as so often happened with women of other denominations. It was almost inevitable that so many early members of the women’s rights movement would be Friends.
As women broke with social custom and tradition to become public speakers, daring to stand before a “promiscuous” audience, they faced plenty of opposition. The clergy often denounced them for; “assuming the place and tone of men as public reformer.” The clergy called for limits on a woman’s activism, saying women’s activities should, “remain separate and private, those that will not infringe upon the masculine domains of politics and power and violate the purity of ‘true womanhood’ by dragging the fairer sex into the competitive and selfish ways of men.” Clergy further complained, “Such activism is unnatural, by describing the victimization of slave women, abolitionist speakers lose that modesty and delicacy which constitutes the true influence of women in society.” My mother’s typical response to this type of religious criticism was to note simply, “While men enjoy all the rights, they preach all the duties to women.”
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My mother, Mary, and wife, Elizabeth, both identified with women’s issues. Indeed, it was Elizabeth’s activism that first drew me to her. As a young man, I first became aware of the Fulton sisters, Elizabeth and Mary Ann, because of their boldness as abolitionists. Gradually my interest focused on Elizabeth as I sensed her passion and devotion to abolitionism. I am sure that I was attracted to a strong young lady because of the way my mother had raised me. Our relationship was one of equals, much as described by Lucretia Mott, "In a true marriage relation the independence of the husband and wife is equal, their dependence mutual, and their obligations reciprocal.”
Elizabeth, like so many women activists, started her activism fighting for the rights of the Negro, but then progressed to fighting for those same rights for all women. She was a part of a brave group who stood united, “We declare our right to be free as man is free, to be represented in the government which we are taxed to support, to abolish such disgraceful laws as give man the power to beat and imprison his wife, to take the wages which she earns, the property which she inherits, and, in case of separation, the children of her love; laws which make her the mere dependent on his bounty.” Elizabeth would often point out, “Women have little more rights and protection from a wicked husband, than a slave from his master.”
Elizabeth and I had eight children: four girls, your father Wilzue, and then three 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 so many women in his home, Wilzue learned to cook, wash, iron and sew. I taught him farming, carpentry, and mechanical design. His skill at debate came to him naturally. He was, after all, a Whitson.
Wilzue’s training stood him well when, in 1873, 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 benefited early on in their marriage from your father’s ability and willingness to sew and his willingness to help with laundry and feeding a 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.