Exploring the History of Slavery in Washington County

WASHINGTON COUNTY, Md. – Wedged between the free state of Pennsylvania and the slave state of Virginia, Washington County had a unique history when it came to slavery in the United States.

More than 3,000 slaves lived in Washington County during its peak in 1820.

“The average slave owner had five or less slaves, and this would probably be the case here in Washington County,” said Ted Alexander, chief historian at Antietam National Battlefield.

The Warfield’s were one slave family in the area back then.

“Isaac and Letty Ann were slaves in the neighborhood of Boonsboro and Fairplay,” said Emilie Amt, chair of the history department at Hood College. “They lived around there and they had three little daughters.”

Although the county had 2.5 percent of the slaves in the state, it had an influx of runaways. Five escape routes went through the county, the majority of which led to Pennsylvania.

“Some would escape along the way of Hancock, and then they would come up on North Mountain, and there would be safe houses in the Mercersburg area,” Alexander said.

Many slave catchers roamed the area, and slaves were caught and thrown into the Hagerstown jail.

Some were sold on the steps of the courthouse, one of the four slave markets in the county. 

“Washington County was a place where slave traders came looking for slaves to buy and sell into the Deep South,” Amt said. “Then, families were broken apart and never saw each other again.”

With the fear of being torn apart, the Warfield’s headed north.

“One day, Isaac overheard someone say that one of their daughters was going to be sold, so he and Letty Ann made the decision to run away with their children,” Amt said. “They made it across the Mason-Dixon line out of Washington County up to Williamsport, Pa., and they lived there until after the Civil War.”

It is possible the Warfield’s used one of those five escape routes, which also aided John Brown’s raid of Harper’s Ferry in October of 1859.

“Brown and his raiders were going to utilize people involved with the Underground Railroad in this region to have safe houses to stay at,” Alexander said.

Brown’s raid was unsuccessful, but was an example of the conflict in the region over slavery, and how times would soon change.

“By 1860, writings were on the wall that slavery was not going to last,” said Edith Wallace, historian at Paula S. Reed & Associates.

In November of 1864, Maryland ratified a new constitution, ending slavery.

By 1870, there were about  2,000 free blacks living in Washington County, which included the Warfield’s, who are buried at a church in Boonsboro. Although gone, their legacy, like many others, are still being told and remembered by those living in the county.

WHAG would like to thank the Washington County Free Library, Washington County Historical Society, Western Maryland Historical Library, the Doleman Black Heritage Museum and Paula S. Reed and Associates for their help on this story.

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