Not far from the home improvement stores and light rail stations in northern Baltimore County is a painted wood structure with a marker. Blink, and you’ll miss it entirely. But even those who stop will not know the full truth: That this one-time tavern was where many historians say the Civil War really began — not in 1861, but a decade earlier, when Edward Gorsuch died in a Pennsylvania rental house attempting to recapture four enslaved men who ran from his Glencoe plantation.

Gorsuch’s death was the result of what’s known as the Christiana Uprising. It began on Sept. 11, 1851, in a Quaker hamlet outside of Lancaster, with a demand for “returned property.” It ended with Gorsuch dead, his son Dickinson gravely wounded, and a clear sign that North and South would go to war over slavery.

Across the border, Christiana commemorates the event at its historical society, even bringing the descendants of both sides in the fight together in 2001 for the 150th anniversary. And yet, in Glencoe, the Gorsuch family’s farmlands, gravestones, and barn whisper nothing of Christiana.

Deborah Harner, a historian and archivist at Goucher College, reviews a framed letter recounting the Christiana Uprising from one of the witnesses with Luke Zipp. It was a gift from Zipp’s parents; the whole family follows the history on the historic property they own. (Rona Kobell/for the Baltimore Banner)

“Baltimore County doesn’t tell this story because it’s a stain on the narrative of the county,” said Philip J. Merrill, a historian specializing in Baltimore who has amassed a substantial archive through his company, Nanny Jack and Co.

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Identical historical markers from the Maryland Historical Trust and the Baltimore County Historical Society locate the Gorsuch Tavern 19 miles from Baltimore. They then proclaim: “The tavern was the meeting place of the Baltimore Countians who went to Pennsylvania to reclaim their slaves, thus bringing on the Christiana Riot of 1851.” And though that’s all true, the markers, put up in the 1960s and 1970s, leave a lot out.

It also uses the language of slave-holders rather than freedom seekers, says Deborah Harner, a historian and archivist at Goucher College. Historians use the words “enslaved people” instead of “slaves” to reflect the condition Black people found themselves in and not to define who they were. Also, “riot” is a dated term. Historians now call it the “Christiana Resistance.”

The Baltimore County Historical Society referred questions to the Maryland Historic Trust, which referred questions to the Maryland Department of Transportation, which took over the marker program. Julie Schablitsky, MDOT’s chief of cultural resources, said the agency is reviewing the more than 700 markers it recently inherited from the historic trust for offensive and outdated language.

“My Property, or Breakfast in Hell”

The full Gorsuch story is windier than the roads and rivers the men navigated to freedom. It began in 1849, when Edward Gorsuch suspected that one of four enslaved men had stolen his grain. They included Noah Buley, Nelson Ford, George Hammond and Joshua Hammond. No one ever proved the allegation, but the men had endured enough of bondage. With the help of a free man, Abraham Johnson, they spent a night in Gorsuch’s barn and then headed for the Pennsylvania border.

When Gorsuch awoke to find them gone, he was angry and shocked. He fancied himself a benevolent master, having manumitted his enslaved men and women when they reached 28 years of age and then hiring them as seasonal workers.

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The front of the Gorsuch farm, now Crocker Farms, an auction business. (Rona Kobell/for the Baltimore Banner)

Gorsuch knew the freedom seekers were in Lancaster County, but he could do nothing — until September 1850, when the U.S. Congress passed the Fugitive Slave Act. The law compelled Northern states to return enslaved people to their plantations, with punishments for refusal. Gorsuch hired a constable who found the men and agreed to accompany him to retrieve them.

The posse gathered at his tavern included his son, Dickinson, his nephew, Joshua Gorsuch, and another nephew named Thomas Pierce. Two other neighbors, Nicholas Hutchings and Nathan Nelson, joined. The group met the constable and arrived at the Christiana home that William Parker, who had run away from the Roedown Plantation in Anne Arundel County, was renting with some other freedom seekers from a Quaker couple, Levi and Sarah Pownall.

When Edward Gorsuch made his demands, Parker’s wife, Eliza, blew her horn to summon the community, who refused to help recapture the men. Most of the Gorsuch posse saw they would not win this battle. Edward Gorsuch declared: “My property I will have, or I’ll breakfast in hell.”

A firefight ensued. Someone shot Gorsuch; another resister gravely wounded Dickinson. Sarah Pownall helped her tenants escape to Canada. Parker, Buley, Ford, and the Hammond men all left quickly.

John Wilkes Booth attended school at the Milton Academy, now The Milton Inn restaurant. One of Edward Gorsuch’s sons was a classmate. Historians believe the Christiana Uprising helped radicalize the young man who eventually assassinated President Lincoln. (Rona Kobell/for the Baltimore Banner)

The federal government charged 38 men with treason, many of them Quakers. The abolitionist Thaddeus Stevens defended them. The first defendant’s trial lasted 15 minutes; the government didn’t try the rest. Maryland Attorney General Robert Brent fumed to Gov. Enoch Lowe that Pennsylvania made a “mockery” out of Maryland’s right to “protect her citizens.”

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Also livid was John Wilkes Booth, who attended the Milton Academy, now the Milton Inn in Baltimore County, with Thomas Gorsuch, a son who had not joined the fight. In a speech he wrote in 1860, Booth said that his “bossom friend,” loved his father, who had gone to Pennsylvania, “under the protection of the fugitive slave law, not only to recover their property, but to arrest the thieves who belonged to them.”

Stories on a Cedar Beam

Christiana upended state and national politics. James Buchanan, a Southern sympathizer, became Pennsylvania’s Secretary of State and then president, campaigning on the injustices done to Gorsuch. Eight years later, John Brown and his ragtag fighters would put Harper’s Ferry on the map as the Civil War precursor. But Christiana came first, and it began in the barn where Luke Zipp and his family now manage an auction house.

On a cedar beam, Zipp points to a figure that he believes one of the enslaved men drew. He has a letter, framed, that recounts the events of Christiana. Zipp, 42, didn’t know about the history, despite growing up in Stoneleigh and majoring in 19th century history at Johns Hopkins University.

About six times a year, he said, someone stops in to ask if this is the place where Gorsuch’s men hid. Zipp said he’s proud that his workplace played such a huge role in abolishing slavery.

One of several farms that the Gorsuch family received after the War of 1812. (Rona Kobell/for the Baltimore Banner)

“It took an individual decision for these men to choose freedom,” he said, “and that individual decision undermined the institution of slavery as a whole.”

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Edward Gorsuch’s body was returned to his farm, but the public can’t see it. However, Dickinson Gorsuch is buried at Historic Jessops Church — on land, naturally, donated by a Gorsuch. His tombstone says nothing about his wounds, nor about the Quakers who nursed him back to health even as the government prosecuted their neighbors.

On a quiet winter day, the country church with the red door and the honey-colored stones is peaceful. If the land tells us stories, as Harner insists, this property is whispering that there’s nothing to see.

“It’s an interesting story,” Harner said. “How it’s remembered, how it isn’t told.”

Rona Kobell is the editor-in-chief of the Environmental Justice Journalism Initiative. Reach her at

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