African slaves arrive on the North American mainland at the Spanish colony of St. Augustine.


A Dutch ship brings 20 indentured Africans to the British North American colonies at Jamestown, Virginia.


The state of Pennsylvania is chartered to William Penn, who envisions his Quaker colony as a haven for all oppressed people.  William Penn himself is a slaveholder.


In Germantown, Pennsylvania a religious sect called the Mennonites sign the first anti-slavery resolution in America.


Blacks fight for freedom in colonial America, participating as Minutemen, joining Ethan Allen and the Green Mountain Boys, and fighting at the Battle of Bunker Hill.

That same year, 100,000 slaves run away from their masters.

Benjamin Franklin is among a group of Philadelphians who form the Pennsylvania Society for the Abolition of Slavery.  He becomes its president in 1787.


The Declaration of Independence is signed in Philadelphia.  It states that all men are created equal.


Vermont adopts a constitution providing for the emancipation of its slaves.


Pennsylvania passes an Act for the Gradual Abolition of Slavery.


The American Revolution ends.  More than 10,000 blacks, slave and free, fought in the war.


Congress narrowly defeats Thomas Jefferson’s proposal to ban slavery in new territories after 1800.


On a trip through Pennsylvania, George Washington complains about Quakers trying to help one of his slaves escape.


With the first Fugitive Slave Act signed by President Washington, the United States outlaws any efforts that get in the way of recovering fugitive slaves.  The law is not generally enforced.


A new invention by Eli Whitney – the cotton gin – turns cotton into a cash crop and creates a huge demand for slave labor. 

Thomas Rees, an agent for the Pennsylvania Population Company, brings three African Americans with him to Harborcreek where he settles.  Among them is Robert McConnell, who would later buy property from Rees when he was freed under Pennsylvania’s Gradual Abolition Act.  McConnell used his land holdings to help other free blacks.  Both he and his brother, James Titus, were active on the Underground Railroad, operating out of the Gospel Hill area of Harborcreek.


The black population of Pennsylvania is 16,270.


Ohio abolishes slavery, then prohibits free blacks from voting and passes the first “Black Laws,” restricting rights of blacks in the North.


The United States abolishes slave trade with Africa.


Following the Battle of Lake Erie in the War of 1812, some of the African American sailors in Oliver Hazard Perry’s fleet settle in Erie. 

Erie County Historical  Society & Museums


The American Society for Colonizing the Free People of Colour in America promotes the idea of removing free blacks to the western shore of Africa.  Local chapters are formed in Erie County in 1828, in Crawford County in 1834 and in Conneaut Lake in 1837.


Robert and Abigail Vosburgh settle in Erie, establishing a barbershop and clothes cleaning service on French Street.  They become pillars of a small, but growing free black community.


The Missouri Compromise calls for Missouri to be admitted to the Union as a slave state and Maine as a free state.  Slavery is forbidden in all other territory north of the latitude 36/30.


White abolitionist William Himrod establishes the French Street School for Colored Children in Erie.  The Himrod Mission is a station on the Underground Railroad.


John Brown sells his property in Ohio and moves his young family to Crawford County where he will start a tannery and take a leadership role in his community.

John Brown Museum


Pennsylvania passes a Personal Liberty Act that states if any person shall, by force and violence, take and carry away, or seduce any Negro or Mulatto from any part of the Commonwealth, it will be seen as kidnapping and the person punished accordingly.


William Himrod purchases a large tract of land that is separated from the City of Erie by a deep ravine.  He sells the lots at an affordable price to African Americans and destitute white.  The area, known as Jerusalem, becomes a haven for fugitive slaves.


William Lloyd Garrison publishes the first issue of The Liberator, calling for the total emancipation of slaves.

Warren County abolitionists pass a resolution calling for the end of slavery in the District of Columbia.

Slave preacher Nat Turner stages an insurrection against whites in Southampton, Virginia, killing 60 people and striking fear in the North as well as the South.


Canada joins the entire British Empire in abolishing slavery.

John Brown talks with his wife and children about adopting a black child.  He asks his brother Frederick in Ohio to help him establish a school for blacks, believing that education was a powerful weapon against slavery.

John Brown Museum



Between 200 and 300 citizens meet at the Meadville Courthouse to express their opinions about forming an anti-slavery society.  The group adopts resolutions stating “it is inexpedient, under existing circumstances, to establish Anti-Slavery Societies in the non-slaveholding States,” and that the immediate abolition of slavery in the District of Columbia would be “an assumption of power incompatible with the Constitution.”  It would be two more years before an Anti-Slavery Society is formed in Crawford County.

Crawford County Historical Society


The Erie County Anti-Slavery Society is formed with Colonel James M. Moorhead of Harborcreek as president and William Gray of Wayne as secretary.  Other members include Philetus Glass, Dr. Smedley, and Tuttle Loomis of North East; William Himrod, A. Mehaffey and Aaron Kellog of Erie; Hamlin Russell of Millcreek; and S.C. Lee of Summit.   According to documented accounts, many of these men were also involved in the Underground Railroad.

On the verge of bankruptcy, John Brown moves his family back to Ohio.  The following year, after the murder of Illinois newspaperman Elijah Lovejoy, he would publicly vow to end slavery.


Women from several state antislavery societies hold the first Anti-Slavery Convention of American Women.

Cynthia Catlin Miller hosts the annual meeting of the Female Assisting Society in her home in Sugar Grove, Warren County.  Her diary confides, “We plan for aid to the escaped Negroes.”


Frederick Douglass escapes from slavery in Baltimore, Maryland.\

The Pennsylvania legislature amends the state constitution, stripping free black men of their right to vote.

Anti-abolitionists burn Pennsylvania Hall in Philadelphia.

William Whipper edits the first black newspaper in Pennsylvania, The National Reformer.

Robert Purvis, an African American merchant in Philadelphia, organizes a Vigilance Committee that provides money, clothes and shelter to escaping slaves.

Hamilton Waters, a liberated slave from Somerset County, Maryland, settles in Erie after purchasing his own freedom and that of his mother.  He becomes an active Agent on Erie’s Underground Railroad.  He taught the old plantation songs to his grandson, Harry T. Burleigh, who would become a famous arranger, composer and singer.


Slaves revolt on Spanish ship Amistad.


Rev. Charles Shipman is “superintendent” of the Underground Railroad in eastern Ohio and western Erie County.  A preacher who traveled among a circuit of churches, he spread the message of abolition to churchgoers in Girard, Wellsburg, Conneautville, Lundy’s Lane and Linesville.

Hazel Kibler Museum


Six “fugitives from oppression” are sent by steamboat from Erie to Buffalo.

Two men from Virginia, accompanied by a constable from Pittsburgh, forcibly arrest a free black man in the vicinity of Sandy Lake, despite a valiant rescue attempt by the local citizenry.


James Catlin, a student at Allegheny College in Meadville, hides a fugitive slave and sends him off towards Canada.


Frederick Douglass begins publishing his abolitionist newspaper, the North Star.


Harriet Tubman escapes from Maryland.  She becomes the Moses of her people, returning to the South and leading hundreds of fugitives to safety on the Underground Railroad.

Sophia Smith Collection, Smith College, Northampton, Massachusetts


A new Fugitive Slave Law makes it easier for slaveholders to come into the North and retrieve their so-called property and imposes heavy fines and imprisonment on anyone who assists fugitive slaves or impedes their capture.

Immediately after the law took effect, western Pennsylvania’s African-Americans, fearing prosecution and a return to slavery, fled to Canada. Pittsburgh lost half its black population and the entire community of Libera, on Sandy Lake in Mercer County, disappeared.



Harrison Williams, one of seven fugitive slaves living on the farm of an African American named William Storum in Busti, New York, is captured and returned to Virginia after a federal commissioner in Buffalo rules for the master.  The other fugitives had been attending the Dan Rice Circus in Jamestown and were quickly spirited out of town by abolitionists in Sugar Grove and Erie County.


Harriet Beecher Stowe’s Uncle Tom’s Cabin rocks the nation with its brutal revelations.  It is immediately translated into 11 languages and sells more than 300,000 copies in its first year.  The character George Lewis is modeled after Lewis Clark, an escaped slave who lived for a time in Sugar Grove.

Harriet Beecher Stowe Center, Hartford, CT


Abolitionist Henry Catlin publishes the abolitionist newspaper the True American in Erie with financial help from his brother James, a physician in Sugar Grove.  The newspaper office, located in downtown Erie, was a station on the Underground Railroad.  Fugitives were concealed in paper bins until it was safe to sail away to Canada.


Setting aside the Missouri Compromise of 1820, Congress allows Kansas and Nebraska to choose whether to allow slavery, igniting a bloody war between pro-slavery forces and abolitionists.

Sixty-one former slaves arrive in Pandenarium on the banks of Indian Run in Mercer County.  The experimental colony was established by Dr. Charles Everett, a wealthy physician in Charlottesville, Virginia who liberated his slaves upon his death.

Reverend Jermain Loguen, Lewis Clark and Frederick Douglass address an outdoor anti-slavery meeting attended by more than 500 people in Sugar Grove.  Before the lecture, Douglass has tea in the home of Cynthia Catlin Miller.

Onondaga Historical Association


A special Act passed by the Pennsylvania state legislature legitimizes the presence of Dr. Everett’s emancipated slaves, listing each one by name. 


The Underground Railroad helps a fugitive from Lousiana escape slavery through Erie County.

The Supreme Court passes the Dred Scott Decision, ruling that Scott, a slave who had been taken to the free territory ws not free.  The Court also ruled that slaves were not citizens and didn’t have the right to sue in court.


A group of black men in Erie form the Benevolent Equal  Rights Society for the mutual support and protection of the African American community.


Frederick Douglass comes to Erie as the guest of Henry Catlin.  Despite controversy surrounding his visit, Douglass delivers his speech entitled “Unity of the Human Race” without incident.

Library of Congress


The Crawford Messenger newspaper reports “The branch of the Underground Railroad through this county has been doing a fine business lately.  Several valuable articles of Southern property have made speedy and safe journeys to Canada.”

An African-American sailor named Benjamin “Bass” Fleming, who fought in Perry’s fleet on Lake Erie during the War of 1812, leads a parade against the Pennsylvania Railroad Company, whose right-of-way came too near a cemetery where many of the war dead were buried. 

John Brown stages his failed raid at Harper’s Ferry.


Abraham Lincoln wins the U.S. Presidential election; South Carolina secedes from the Union.


The Civil War begins.


In his Emancipation Proclamation Abraham Lincoln declares that all slaves in the Confederacy are free.


On June 19th, two-and-a-half years after the Emancipation Proclamation, Union soldiers finally bring word to Galveston, Texas that the Civil War had ended and enslaved Africans are free.  For many African Americans, “Juneteenth” celebrations are even more meaningful than the Fourth of July.

Primary documents and original research

The African Americans in Pennsylvania, Leroy Hopkins and Eric Ledell Smith (Harrisburg, Pennsylvania:  The Pennsylvania Historical and Museum Commission, 1994)

The Underground Railroad in American History, Kem Knapp Sawyer, (Berkeley Heights, New Jersey: Enslow Publishers, Inc. 1997)

Official National Park Handbook on the Underground Railroad (Washington, DC: National Park Service Division of Publications 1998)

Additional research by Karen James, Pennsylvania Historical and Museum Commission.

Boston African American Historical Site.