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Risking All for Freedom

running slaves and quaker silhouette
old fashioned drawing of a black man

Harry was in a terrible situation: it was 1828 and he was an enslaved man in Loudoun County, Virginia. Harry had been rented by his owner to a man named Samuel Cox. Because Harry was chattel – personal property – he had no recognized surname, a common fact among enslaved men and women thoughout the South. On learning that his owner, a “Miss Allison” of Stafford County, was planning to sell him to slave traders who would take him further south, Harry decided to escape.

He approached a freeman named Alex McPherson and asked to borrow McPherson’s manumission “freedom paper,” a document carried by all free blacks verifying their status. McPherson, at great risk to his own safety and liberty, agreed to lend Harry his paper, but insisted it be returned to him as soon as possible. Harry would carry the paper with him on his journey north; if he was stopped and questioned along the way, he would show the paper and claim to be freeman Alex McPherson.

black man alex mcpherson freedom papers
“I certify that Alex McPherson has this day deposited in my Office to be recorded, his manumission from Catherine McVickers and Mary Thomson – Clerks Office Washington City, May 5th 1815 Wm Brent Clk” Alex Mcpherson’s manumission paper carried by freedom seeker Harry in Loudoun County, Virginia escape attempt, 1828 Courtesy of Office of Historic Records and Deeds, Loudoun County Courthouse, Leesburg, VA

Before leaving Virginia, Harry needed to learn the best route north. Once safely in a free state, he would need a job and place to live, or need aid to go further on to Canada. For this help, Harry turned to a Loudoun County Quaker. It was common knowledge as to where Quaker communities were located, their speech and dress singled them out. In Loudoun County, Quakers generally lived in or around the villages of Waterford, Hillsboro, Unison, and Goose Creek (now called Lincoln.) And it was known within both the black and white Southern culture that Quakers were anti-slavery and pacifist.

On Jan. 23, 1828, Harry approached the Quaker home of Yardley and Hannah Taylor located outside Lincoln, and explained his plight. Yardley Taylor listened to Harry and agreed to help him. He wrote a letter for Harry to carry north to Quaker Jonathan Jessup of York, PA, a man involved in abolitionism and activity that would later be known as the Underground Railroad (a term that didn’t exist in 1828.)

Yardley Taylor (1794-1868) attempted to help Harry escape to the North, Daguerreotype in private collection

Yardley’s letter to Jessup explained that Harry was “a man of good character,” who was soon to be sold to slave traders. Yardley wrote that Harry would be “forced to the south by a set of men who to say the least of them their mercies are cruel.” Yardley asked Jessup to return Alex McPherson’s freedom paper quickly. He warned that the paper must not be mailed back, but sent in person by “safe conveyance.” Yardley Taylor possibly thought his own mail was under surveillance. He was already known in the state of Virginia for his anti-slavery writing and behavior. Here is Yardley Taylor’s letter to Jonathan Jessup, carried by Harry:

quaker underground rail road letter
1828 Yardley Taylor letter to Jonathan Jessup in York, Pennsylvania Courtesy Office of Historic Records and Deeds, Loudoun County Courthouse, Leesburg, VA
quaker underground railroad letter
1828 Yardley Taylor letter to Jonathan Jessup in York, Pennsylvania Courtesy of Office of Historic Records and Deeds, Loudoun County Courthouse, Leesburg, VA

Yardley also gave Harry a small piece of paper which listed six Maryland and Pennsylvania towns through which Harry would pass on his journey to York: “From Frederick to Woodborough 13 miles Taneytown 14 miles… .” This information would be important help, allowing Harry to follow the right roads as he walked from town to town heading north.

towns to travel north paper captured from escaping slave
Courtesy of Office of Historic Records and Deeds, Loudoun County Courthouse, Leesburg, VA

However, the envelope Yardley addressed to Jessup, containing Yardley’s letter, also bears other handwriting: “This Taken by me from Negro slave named Harry the 28th day 1828 January, belonging or as he says to Pa [Pennsylvania] … Jonas Dixon.”

old 19th century envelop and writing
Courtesy of Office of Historic Records and Deeds, Loudoun County Courthouse, Leesburg, VA

Jonas Dixon’s notation explains a tragedy: Harry got caught. Five days after receiving Yardley’s help on Jan. 23, Harry was stopped and questioned by Dixon, who possibly was a slave catcher patrolling on Maryland roads. When stopped, Harry would have shown the freedom paper he was carrying, and he would have claimed to be Alex McPherson. But that ruse obviously didn’t work. Once Harry’s pockets were searched and Yardley Taylor’s letter was found and read, the desperate gamble was lost.

Harry was brought back to Loudoun County and put into the Leesburg jail, located near the county courthouse. Punishment for an attempted slavery escape was a lashing; the courthouse grounds had a public whipping post for just these occasions. Public punishment was intended to set an example and serve as warning to other slaves. Harry’s owner, identified on court documents as “Miss Allison” was contacted to come to Leesburg and pick up her property. Either she or, more likely, her farm overseer would have come for Harry, taking him back to Stafford County where he had lived before being rented out in Loudoun County. He was likely punished again at his home farm. Then what Harry most feared, being sold to slave traders and forced south, would have happened. After all, that is what his owner had intended for him all along. Now Miss Allison had all the more reason to sell Harry: he had proven himself to be troublesome. “Their mercies are cruel.”

       Alex McPherson, by loaning out his freedom papers, would now find his own freedom in jeopardy. Virginia Slave Codes at the time provided that freemen could lose their liberty if they were involved in helping others flee bondage. McPherson would not be able to assert that his papers had been lost or stolen – because Yardley Taylor’s letter clearly laid out McPherson’s involvement. Knowing Alex was vulnerable to harsh punishment would have added to the misery felt by Harry and Yardley when the escape effort failed.

Yardley Taylor was a mail carrier for Loudoun County, and his family ran a plant nursery near the Quaker village of Lincoln. Taylor gave public speeches against slavery and wrote abolitionist articles and letters to Leesburg newspapers. He was president of various anti-slavery societies until those societies were outlawed by the state of Virginia. (In 1853, Yardley Taylor drew a detailed map of Loudoun County used by both armies during the Civil War. He is best known for that map.) More information about Yardley Taylor is on wikipedia and on the page devoted to Yardley and wife Hannah Taylor on Nest of Abolitionists.

What happened to Yardley for his role in Harry’s escape? Shortly after Harry’s capture, Yardley Taylor was arrested for “enticing, persuading and advising a certain negro slave named Harry… .” Taylor was put in jail in Leesburg until neighbor and fellow Quaker, Daniel Cockrill, posted a $300 bail. Yardley pled not guilty to the charge and his case dragged on for two years. Finally, Yardley changed his plea to guilty, and paid a $20 fine. He continued with his outspoken abolitionist opinions, but was never again arrested for helping slaves escape. Maybe that is because Taylor learned to not sign his name on letters carried by freedom seekers heading north!

pro slavery attack on quaker underground railroad virginia
Broadsheet, published 1857, calling Yardley Taylor “Chief of the abolition clan” among other purported crimes. Courtesy of Thomas Balch History and Genealogy Library, Leesburg, VA

In 1857, a Leesburg lawyer published and posted around Loudoun County a broadsheet condeming Yardley Taylor for his abolitionist and anti-slavery efforts. That broadsheet, shown above, can be seen at the Thomas Balch Library in Leesburg, VA.

The other documents: Alex McPherson’s freedom paper, Yardley Taylor’s letter to Jonathan Jessup, the handwritten paper listing towns/mileage, and the letter envelope, are in Loudoun County Courthouse’s Office of Historic Records and Deeds. They were kept as evidence against Harry and for the trial of Yardley Taylor.

It is ironic that these rare documents were kept safe for almost 200 years because Harry’s escape to freedom failed. If he had been successful, the manumission “freedom paper” would have carefully found its way back to Alex McPherson. The letter to Jonathan Jessup and the scrap of towns/mileage paper would have been destroyed. Protection of these documents, part of our national record, came at a high price: Harry’s freedom. Anyone can go to the Office of Historic Records and Deeds, Loudoun County Courthouse, Leesburg, Virginia, and request to see the Yardley Taylor file. It is an extraordinary American story.

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