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Low wood shelter over gravestones in wood.

Reinterpreting the Underground Railroad: The Sherman’s Dale Discharge Former Slaves’ Graves Site

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In my short time as an archaeologist working in southeast Pennsylvania, I’ve learned that every basement, crawl space, and root cellar older than 1860 was at one time, a stop on the Underground Railroad (UGRR).  This of course is not true, but the mythologies of the UGRR are born out of the fact that the region played an important role in the network as the first free state north of the Mason-Dixon line. 

Although many of the subterrain rooms and tunnels may have provided some respite for travelers, actual tangible evidence of the UGRR is very rare.  The UGRR, by definition was secretive and covert, and as such, the material remains of the UGRR are fleeting.

The archaeological remains of the UGRR in the region are especially difficult to identify (Fruehling and Smith 1998; Delle and Levine 2004; Delle and Shellenhamer 2008).  Which is why I was so amazed to see a resource pop up in one of my project reviews known as Sherman’s Dale Discharge Former Slaves’ Graves (36DA0247). 

Without boring you too much with the details of the Environmental Review process, I am a project review archaeologist at the PA SHPO, and we review a wide range of state and Federal projects.  The PA SHPO has a unique agreement with the Office of Surface Mines (OSM) that tasks our office with the obligation to review and visit coal and non-coal surface mines across the commonwealth and evaluate their potential for containing archaeological resources.  

Sherman’s Dale Discharge Former Slaves’ Graves

I was reviewing a submission that falls under this agreement for a sandstone quarry in Dauphin County and saw that a previous archaeological survey in 2012 recorded two headstones and a rudimentary structure covering them just outside of the proposed quarry (Godwin et al. 2013). 

Low wood shelter over gravestones in wood.
View of graves in 2012, facing north (Godwin et al. 2013).

The site documentation was limited to a photo of the headstonesand a portion of an 1897 The Newark Daily Advocate (Ohio) article entitled “In Memory of Two Slaves,” with the inscriptions on the two headstones that read:

Unknown

Here in the solitude of God’s acre lies one whose life was filled with pathos and suffering and who had a tragic end. He took the north star as a guide to liberty, yet in a fitful moment, for fear of betrayal, he took the deadly cup to save himself from bondage by his fellow man.

Domine Dirige Nos.

and

George Washington
Died April 8, 1863.
An honest colored man who lived and died on this mountain. He is buried at the site of his former home. His virtues are related by all who knew him.
Requiescat In Pace.
Friend, pause and think of the Brotherhood of God. One may have a few more grains of pigment beneath his skin. Looking into the portals of eternity teaches us that the Brotherhood of Man is inspired by God’s word. There all prejudice of race vanishes away.

Black and white scan of newspaper article.
In Memory of Two Slaves (The Newark Daily Advocate, 1897).

According to this article, George Washington escaped enslavement in Virginia and made his way to the vicinity of the monuments where he built a home and lived until his death of natural causes twelve years later.  The unnamed individual also escaped enslavement and found refuge at George Washington’s home where he lived for two years until he took his own life upon hearing that his former enslaver’s agents were in the area. 

Additionally, the article said that the remains of George Washington and his unnamed companion were interred in the location where the monuments now stand sometime in 1895, over thirty years after George Washington’s death.

Visiting the Site

Obviously, this caught my attention and in December 2021 we visited the site and project area to establish an avoidance plan for the cemetery and to investigate the area surrounding the monuments for evidence of George Washington’s former home. 

Person looking at small wood enclosure over grouping of stones.
View of monument in 2021, facing north. Photograph by PA SHPO.

Upon inspection, the markers were in similar condition as when they were recorded in the 2012: two headstones sitting on top of a large boulder covered by a roofed structure with stones outlining the locations of the burials and a larger “footstone” at the foot of the unknown grave

Low wood shelter over gravestones in wood.
View of monument in 2021, facing north. Photograph by PA SHPO.

The headstone for the unnamed individual is a simple semi-circular marker that was previously broken and repaired while George Washington’s marker is a larger rectangular marker in decent condition.  Since it was originally recorded someone stacked stones behind the markers to keep them upright and removed the miniature American flags that were present in the 2012 photo

Grouping of stones below small wood enclosure.
Rear view of monument in 2021, facing east. Photograph by PA SHPO.

Although the inscriptions appear to be the same as those that appeared in the 1897 article, the article and the previous archaeological recordation omitted the detail that both markers were “Erected by C.H. Smith M.D.” and likely carved by H.U. Coble

Gravestone with faded inscription for George Washington.
Details of George Washington’s marker in 2021. Photograph by PA SHPO.
Broken grave stone with faded inscription for "Unknown".
Details of marker for the unnamed “Unknown” grave in 2021. Photograph by PA SHPO.

Unfortunately, the leaf litter and rocky soils made it impossible to locate any remains of the former house during our site visit.  However, we did observe that the proposed mine area was extensively disturbed by previous mining, and we established a 100-foot buffer around the cemetery and surrounding area to prevent disturbance from any future mining activities.  Although we observed no signs of the former house, if anything remains, it is likely outside of the mining area and will be preserved.

Site preservation is always our primary goal, and while we were successful from that perspective, we left the site visit with new questions.  Who was C.H. Smith, what was his relationship to George Washington and his unnamed companion, and why did he erect this monument over thirty years after their death? 

Some History

Archival research revealed that Dr. Charles Heister Smith was born in 1851 and was the son of Dr. William C. and Hannah Smith who settled in Linglestown, PA sometime after 1850 (U.S. Census 1850; 1860).   Like his father, Charles was a graduate of the University of Pennsylvania and a practicing physician in Linglestown from 1873 to 1918 (PA Medical Journal: 915). 

Obituary for Dr. Charles Heister Smith of Linglestown (Harrisburg Telegraph, August 31,1921).

Dr. Smith was also an active member of his community and served as county commissioner, and while searching for possible links between his community service and the monument, I found a Pennsylvania Oddities blog post entitled “The Lost Fugitive Slave Graves of Blue Mountain”.  According to their research, Dr. Charles Smith and a local attorney, R.S. Care erected the monument on September 5, 1897, which was accompanied with a ceremony in Linglestown that was attended by hundreds and a smaller ceremony at the monument itself (Bressi 2020).   

Pennsylvania Oddities also discovered that the unnamed individual may have been named Brown or Lewis, he had escaped to George Washington’s home “within sight of Magilligan’s Rocks” from Virginia and took his life by drinking poison (Bressi 2020).  George Washington reportedly died of old age just months after the Emancipation Proclamation and was found by a resident of Linglestown “frozen in a kneeling position by his tiny shack” (Bressi 2020). 

Community

While the details of their deaths are both somber and illuminating, the Pennsylvania Oddities post also reported a significant detail about George Washington’s life that likely also had a major impact on his companion’s life in Dauphin County.  According to the Oddities’ sources, Reverend William Howard spoke about George Washington at the monument ceremony and said “Negro refugee though he was, he was never turned away from any door in Linglestown or this vicinity, for all of us had grown to esteem him as a friend…Though a different color, George Washington was a fellow human being with an immortal soul, and as such we have erected this tablet in his memory” (Bressi 2020). 

This passage is important because it depicts the side of the UGRR that is most often overlooked.  George Washington was apparently able to live a relatively free life in Linglestown, not because cabin was secluded, but because of his community’s empathy and acceptance.  While not as exciting as secret tunnels and mysterious alcoves, this more mundane view of the UGRR is likely more accurate. 

Refugees fleeing enslavement surely relied on formal networks for assistance, but as in George Washington’s case, they must have also depended on informal aid in day-to-day life.  It is unclear how the unnamed individual knew George Washington, but the fact that he also lived freely as a guest of George Washington’s inspires other questions about the UGRR.  Was George Washington’s home a depot on the UGRR, or was it a matter of circumstances and necessity that brought the two together?

Although we may not be able to answer these questions, the fact that we are able to ask them is a testament to the community that harbored these men and memorialized their lives.  The community’s desire to build a monument for the two men coupled with the informal and ad hoc preservation effort of this monument have ironically exposed these men to the world. 

Thanks to the mine and their consultation with our office, the final resting place of the two men will be preserved in perpetuity.  Hopefully this is not the end of this story. We have continued to consult with the property owner and are hoping to schedule another site visit and more extensive investigation to locate the remains of Mr. Washington’s cabin this spring. 

Citations:

Bressi, Marlin. 2020. The Lost Fugitive Slave Graves of Blue Mountain. Pennsylvania Oddities.  http://paoddities.blogspot.com/2020/09/the-lost-fugitive-slave-graves-of-blue.html (accessed 1/25/2022).

Dell, James A.  and Mary Ann Levine. 2004. Excavations at the Thaddeus Stevens/Lydia Hamilton Smith Site, Lancaster PA: Archaeological Evidence for the Underground Railroad? Northeast Historical Archaeology 33:131–152.

Dell, James A. and Jason Shellenhammer. 2008. Archaeology at the Parvin Homestead: Searching for the Material Legacy of the Underground Railroad.  Historical Archaeology,  2008, 42(2): 28-62.

Fruehling, Byron and Robert H, Smith. 1998. Subterranean Hideaways of the Underground Railroad in Ohio: An Architectural, Archaeological, and Historical Critique of Local Traditions. Ohio History 102:97–117.

Godwin, Peter, Michael B. Hornum, PhD, Kristopher West, Jenifer Evans, and Benjamin Riggle. 2013. Phase I Archaeological Survey and Phase II Evaluation of Site 36BK0912 for the Proposed Texas Eastern Transmission, LP Team 2014 Project in Fayette, Westmoreland, Indiana, Huntingdon, Juniata, Perry, Cumberland, Franklin, Dauphin, Lebanon and Berks Counties, Pennsylvania.  Christopher Goodwin & Associates, Inc.  Frederick Maryland.

The Harrisburg Telegraph. 1921. Dr. C.H. Smith, Widely Known Doctor, Dies. 31 August. Harrisburg, PA.

The Newark Daily Advocate [Newark, Ohio]. 1897. In Memory of Two Slaves. 27 November. Newark, Ohio.

Author: Casey Hanson

Casey is the Western/North Central Pennsylvania project review archaeologist for the State Historic Preservation Office.

10 Comments

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  1. Pamela Reilly says:

    What an interesting and little known story! Thanks for a fascinating article highlighting how much is unknown about the many facets of the underground railroad and the lives of escaped slaves in Pennsylvania.

  2. Scott Doyle says:

    Good post Casey. Thanks for using the preferred terms of “enslaved” in the post. Marker text struggled with that over the years. And I hope your statement that “the final resting place of the two men will be preserved in perpetuity” can be realized!

  3. jay megonnell says:

    well aware of the site been going there since1956 as a child who got the whole story from my father who stated when he was a child the maggiligans rock was like a huge barn standing out in the woods (THEY WERE JUST NORTH WEST OF THE GRAVES BUT MINING THE ROCK TOOK IT DOWN AND INTO THE EARTH). the article is exactly the story i am aware off. i now own proerty the sits north east of the graves which in the fall can be seen from my property corner.

  4. Timothy Shatto says:

    Please contact me as I can connect you with a local historian who can provide you with more information on this gravesite and Monument

  5. Georgia Halloran says:

    Very interesting…thank you..I hope you can find his home ..

  6. Gayle Gingrich says:

    As young adult living in Linglestown , we would ride our horses up blue mountain to ride on the Appalachian trail. We would pass these memorials. Locals said that Mr. Washington was a beloved man by the community. We did not know any of the details of second man. Just that they had escaped slavery. That was common in Pennsylvania, especially in quaker areas. Many rumors and historical mentions of the ugrr throughout Pennsylvania.

  7. Doreen Good says:

    Here’s another fairly recent article that I found. Maybe the 2 of you could join forces! Thanks for sharing! It was an interesting article!

    https://paoddities.blogspot.com/2020/09/the-lost-fugitive-slave-graves-of-blue.html

  8. Jon Hetrick says:

    Hi Casey,

    Thanks for the wonderful write up and working to preserve this important bit of history. I’m president of the West Hanover Township Historical Society. We built the shelter that covers the graves. I have some additional research I’ve done on the site that I can provide to you. One source I’ve found attributed the unknown grave to a “Wade”, and as you’ve found other sources attribute the Unknown to a “John Brown”. I included my email in the webform, or reach out via the West Hanover Township Historical Society facebook page. Jon

  9. Norma Ryan says:

    Great article Brownsville, Fayette County, PA has some interesting bits of history about the UGRR.
    Tunnells are well known/ a gravesite marker of a slave of Jacob Bowman who is buried in their family plot.
    Geoge Washingon’s family members are buried in a historic church graveyard who died while enroute to another location. Not sure of the cause but think it may have been Diptheria or some other pandemic

  10. It is very sad when you come across a grave without a name. That person, their life is lost to the untold stories, documents of history. These freedom seekers, just wanted to be free. They wanted to live happy, to be able to work, take care of themselves and be a productive part of a community. How gloomy it is when you had to take refuge in the woods, worried that slave hunters would find you and take you back into bondage, that you take your own life…to be free from the hatred of those who were the enslaver.
    Casey, this is a reminder of the thousands of untold stories of those who help to build America. Keep digging. Thanks

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