Abolitionism and The Underground Railroad in Southwestern Pennsylvania (Part 1)

Well before the southern states seceded, before the Republican party existed in the United States, the citizens of Pittsburgh and Southwestern Pennsylvania were fighting to end Slavery in the United States. The heavy presence of Quakers and their belief system led Pennsylvania to pass “The Gradual Abolition of Slavery Act” in 1780. The law stated that slaves are, “not only deprived [Negro and mulatto slaves] of the common blessings that they were by nature entitled to, but has cast them into the deepest afflictions, by an unnatural separation and sale of husband and wife from each other and from their children. …” The Act prohibited the importation of new slaves into Pennsylvania, the act did not, however, eliminate slavery in the state. The act allowed property owners who currently owned slaves to retain their slaves.


The Gradual Abolition of Slavery Act also changed the children of existing slaves who were born into slavery to “indentured servants” the children were required to work for their mother’s master until they turned 26 years old. The act also required a census of all current slaves so that the state could assure that no new slaves were brought into the state. Under the act, members of the U.S. Congress were exempt regarding their personal slaves, this was put into place because the congress was meeting in Philadelphia. The act would be amended in 1788 to prevent slave-owners from taking pregnant slaves across state lines so that they too would be born into slavery and exempt from the law in Pennsylvania. The amendment also prevented the separation of husbands from wives and children from parents. Shipbuilders in Pennsylvania and ships chartered in Pennsylvania were also prohibited in assisting in or building ships for the slave trade.

In 1826, Pennsylvania passed the “Personal Liberty Law,” the intent was to prevent fugitive slaves from other states from being captured in Pennsylvania and returned to their owners. This law was a direct response to the federal “Fugitive Slave Law of 1793” which Pennsylvania saw as unjust. The “Personal Liberty Law” prevented local officials including sheriffs and magistrates from assisting anyone who attempted to remove fugitive slaves from the state. This law would be challenged in the U.S. Supreme Court in “Prigg vs. Pennslvania.” The State of Maryland had issued a court order for the return of a slave named Margaret Morgan. When a Pennsylvania Constable refused to act on the fugitive slave warrant from Maryland, Margaret Morgan and her children were abducted by men from Maryland, including a man named Edward Prigg. The men were charged with kidnapping by Pennsylvania officials and the dispute over state lines ended in the U.S. Supreme Court. The court ruled in favor of Prigg and his cohorts were in the right under the Federal Fugitive Slave Act and therefore not guilty of kidnapping. The court also ruled that Pennsylvania officials did not have to comply to warrants from other states or assist in the capture of fugitive slaves. Pennsylvania was showing to the rest of the states that it no longer wanted slavery within it’s borders.


The Quaker feelings regarding slavery spread heavily across Pennsylvania, it took a strong hold in Southwestern Pennsylvania which was bordered on two sides by Virginia until West Virginia seceded from Virginia in 1862. Southwestern Pennsylvania became a large hub for the Underground Railroad as slaves made their way north to Canada to attain their freedom from slavery outside of the reach of the Fugitive Slave Law. The Underground Railroad had the support of prominent people in Southwestern Pennsylvania and there were many places for fugitive slaves to hide in Blairsville, Pittsburgh and Washington.


Blairsville Underground Railroad. Accessed March 2018. http://www.undergroundrailroadblairsvillepa.com/.

Early Pennsylvania, Nullifying the Way to Freedom. February 22. Accessed February 2018. http://tenthamendmentcenter.com/2010/02/22/early-pennsylvania-nullifying-the-way-to-freedom/.

Free At Last? Accessed February 2018. http://exhibit.library.pitt.edu/freeatlast/.

  1. Pennsylvania Historical and Museum Commission. March 1. Accessed February 2018. http://www.phmc.state.pa.us/portal/communities/documents/1776-1865/abolition-slavery.html.


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