The Underground Railroad in Adams County
Black History in Adams County cannot be complete without paying respect to the escaped slaves that followed the Underground Railroad. The location of Adams County, just north of the Mason Dixon line from Maryland, was once a Quaker stronghold and a place where the Underground Railroad was active. This route is filled with much history and several historical sites that served as stations along the way to freedom.
Understanding what the Underground Railroad means is much more than seeing the actual historical stations where the freedom seekers hid; it also included the brave individuals that assisted them.
The National Park Service describes the UGRR by saying it perfectly: “Beginning in the 17th century and continuing through the mid-19th century in the United States, enslaved African Americans resisted bondage to gain their freedom through acts of self-emancipation. The individuals who sought this freedom from enslavement, known as freedom seekers, and those who assisted along the way, united together to become what is known as the Underground Railroad.”
Four Underground Railroad stops in Adams County
Freedom seekers from the south often headed north, aiming for Philadelphia and beyond. It is speculated that thousands of freedom seekers found themselves traveling through Adams County on their treacherous journey to freedom. Over 680 Underground Railroad stops have been historically confirmed, four of which are in Adams County.
The first location is the McAllister’s Mill, shown above, in Cumberland Township. The Mill is on the western border of Mt. Joy Township. It sits on private property now and is sometimes available for tours. This Mill has a full circle meaning to Black History. On July 4, 1836, the first abolitionist meeting was held at the McAllister Mill, forming the Adams County Anti-Slavery Society. Then the Mill became a hiding place for freedom seekers. It is ironic that less than two decades later, the First Battle of Gettysburg, which was a war over slavery, would take place on the McAllister farm. At the McAllister’s Mill, the escaped slaves hid in the cog pit, a dirt rut under the mill’s basement, and in tiny caves along the creek. Regardless of cramped quarters or atmosphere, the freedom seekers hid.
Leaving the McAllister Mill, freedom seekers would head north to the next UGRR stop, which might have been to meet Edward and Annie Mathews on Yellow Hill. Yellow Hill was located nine miles north of Gettysburg. The Mathews were African American, and Yellow Hill was home to hundreds of African Americans from the 1700s to the 1920s.
The Mathews would have taken the freedom seekers to the home of Cyrus and Mary Ann Griest, the third Adams County UGRR site. In the 1930s, Alexander W. Griest, a predecessor to Cyrus Griest, shared memory during an interview, “In the middle of the night, Mathews took them [the escaped slaves] to the home of Cyrus Griest and hid them in the springhouse. Mathews then tapped on the Griest’s bedroom window to let him know that he had guests … The women would feed the freedom seekers in the morning.” He remembered this happening about twice a month in the summer but never in the winter.
Other freedom seekers would go to the home of William and Phebe Wright, Quakers from York Springs, which is the fourth historically proven UGRR in Adams County. This was the fourth stop on the UGRR in Adams County. The Wrights aided hundreds of escaped slaves to safety. The most well-known is James W. C. Pennington. He went on to become a minister, writer, and abolitionist.
Pennington stayed in Adams County with the Wrights from Autumn of 1828 to April 1829. He learned to read, write, and cipher, transforming writing to hide a message in code. Pennington helped on the Wrights farm for six months then returned on his journey to freedom after the winter ended. Pennington’s documented story helps carve history to understand the route that many freedom seekers used. Like Pennington, the Black people escaping slavery would head out of Adams County and closer to their destination of freedom.
Other Important Sites that aided anti-slavery principals
- The Dobbin House restaurant, the oldest building in Gettysburg, was also a safe house for the Underground Railroad.
- Two Taverns, a small village on the Baltimore Pike southeast of Gettysburg, served as the seat of the abolitionist movement. On September 17, 1836, a collection of Adams County residents, including farmers, Quakers, and Gettysburg townspeople, came together to adopt a set of anti-slavery principles, including “the Golden Rule.” The people at this meeting were those who helped fugitive slaves on the Underground Railroad.
- Yellow Hill church and cemetery, as mentioned above, was a central stop for the Underground Railroad. Nearby resident Basil Biggs guided many fugitive slaves there. At Yellow Hill, slaves were given refuge until other residents and Quakers hid and cared for them. Yellow Hill Church was burned at one time as a racist act. The Yellow Hill Cemetery contains the remains of many who lost their lives due to the tense circumstances of their time.
- Quaker Meetinghouse was where the Quakers met to proclaim an aversion to violence and a peaceful resistance to oppression. The Quaker Meetinghouse in Adams County served as a place to publicly voice an opinion about the Abolitionist movement and organize effective acts against it. Throughout U.S. history, Quakers have always been conscientious objectors to war. Student travel groups will learn about the Quaker perspective on Civil Rights and violence while touring the Underground Railroad and how their viewpoint directly impacted the Abolitionist movement.
History of Basil Biggs
Basil Biggs was a free African-American born in Carroll County, Maryland, in 1819. He moved from Maryland to Gettysburg in 1858, after his marriage to Mary Jackson, sometime in the 1840s. The couple had five children and decided to move to Pennsylvania in the hopes of giving all of their children an education. His remarkable life impressed us so that we named one of the Keystone’s rooms after him.
Basil’s own mother died when he was only four years old and left him $400 to use for school, but Basil was forced to earn a living with his hands and worked as a farmer, laborer, and even a veterinarian, in Gettysburg. It was also believed that Biggs used his home to hide runaway slaves as part of the Underground Railroad during the war.
During the battle of Gettysburg in July of 1863, Biggs’ farm was overtaken by Confederates and was left in ruins. The entire farm became part of the battlefield, and 45 dead Confederate soldiers were also buried there.
After the battle was over, the task of burying all of the dead soldiers, both Union and Confederate, was overwhelming. Biggs was hired by the government to exhume over 3000 Union soldiers and then have them buried in the Gettysburg National Cemetery. The process was long and grueling, as more bodies had to be removed from other cemeteries from the surrounding Adams and York counties, many having to be put in unmarked graves. Biggs, and several African-American laborers, completed the task in March of 1864.
In 1866, Biggs along with three other African-American men started the Sons of Goodwill, an organization for the African-American community in Gettysburg. This organization helped fund a cemetery, the Lincoln Cemetery, for African-American veterans who fought in the civil war and were banned from being buried in the Soldier’s National Cemetery.
Basil Biggs died at the age of 87 on June 6, 1906 and is buried in Lincoln Cemetery in Gettysburg.
Gettysburg Historical Tours
To reserve your tour, contact Deb McCauslin by phone at (717) 528-8553, by email.
Gettysburg Histories specializes in preserving our local history. They focus on events, people, and places at roughly the time of the Civil War. Presentations range from 20 to 60 minutes in length; fees are negotiable, with a portion going to local preservation efforts. Adams County Underground Railroad Tours last about three hours and cost $15 for adults, $5 for students.
Come stay with us
The Keystone Inn Bed and Breakfast is owned and operated by three African American siblings that had a dream to own a property where they could gather their large family during the holidays.
The inn is open year-round (with the exception of Thanksgiving and Christmas) where guests can enjoy modern comforts in the grand late Victorian home. Here you will find historic details and pictures, including a picture of Basil Briggs, comfortable guest rooms, and fabulous farm-to-table breakfasts. Our innkeeper Leah is always available to help with any details of your stay, which might include a historical tour to learn more about the Underground Railroad. Book your stay today for a fabulous Gettysburg holiday.