Wappocomo Plantation, the Fugitive Slave Act of 1850 & the Escape of Jacob Green
View of Wappocomo from other side of railroad tracks, circa 1916. Photo courtesy of West Virginia On View.
Isaac Parsons, date unknown.
General George Potts, who helped Jacob Green, and was also the prosecutor in the kidnapping case against James Parsons, Jr. Photo from 1870.
1860 Census record showing George Potts' residence and occupation as a weigh master.
Backstory and Context
The plantation is best known for two controversies related to slavery that demonstrated the legal differences between Virginia and Pennsylvania. Nicholas Casey purchased a freed slave named John who had been kidnapped and returned to slavery in 1788. The second controversy occurred in 1855 when a group of slaves led by Jacob Green escaped the Wappacomo plantation and entered Pennsylvania.
A man known only as "John" in the historical record was kidnapped in Pennsylvania and brought back to Virginia where he was reenslaved. The governor of Pennsylvania Thomas Mifflin contested the matter and wanted the men responsible to be punished. However, Virginia’s governor refused to support any measure of intervention and John remained a slave at Wappocomo Plantation.
In 1855, a group of slaves led by Jacob Green escaped Wappacomo across the state line to Pennsylvania. Then owner Col. Isaac Parsons and his nephews went north to track down the escapees. This resulted in one of Parsons’ nephews being arrested in Pennsylvania. The event led to more tension between Virginia and Pennsylvania as the former resisted the requirements of the Fugitive Slave Act of 1850.
A more detailed history
Casey purchased a slave named John Davis, who was a freeman that had been kidnapped in Pennsylvania by three men from Virginia. Reacting to Davis’ kidnapping and being sold back into slavery, the Pennsylvania Abolition Society wrote Governor Thomas Mifflin asking for help in returning Davis to his freedom, Mifflin wrote President George Washington, and in the subsequent months, set in motion the legislation that led to the Fugitive Slave Act of 1793. Wappocomo’s history with slavery also provides a case of a runaway slave that reflects the disputed cultural beliefs between northern and southern states leading up to the Civil War. Jacob Green, who escaped Wappocomo in 1855, further illustrates the decades-long conflict between Pennsylvania and Virginia over slavery and illustrates how antislavery states bypassed the amended 1850 Fugitive Slave Act.
Before the Revolutionary War started, a slave owner from Maryland named Davis, moved to what he possibly thought was northwestern Virginia, and brought with him a slave named John who took Davis as his last name. According to Andrew Delbanco, the “region Davis lived in Virginia was absorbed into Washington County, Pennsylvania in 1779.”  The following year, Pennsylvania passed its Gradual Emancipation Act that required slave owners to free slaves born on or after November 1, 1780 and have to register slaves born before the date. Because of the border dispute between Pennsylvania and Virginia was not settled until 1784, many slave owners residing on the Pennsylvania side of the border did not register their slaves. John Davis’ master did not register him and moved across the border to Ohio County, Virginia in 1788. Once in Virginia, Davis’s master contracted him out, while this happened, some abolitionists retrieved Davis and returned him to Pennsylvania under the pretense his master never registered him as a slave and was a freeman under Pennsylvania law. The man whom Davis’s master had rented him to feared being held responsible for the loss of Davis and hired Francis McGuire, Baldwin Parsons, and Absolom Wells to bring him back to Virginia.  “They tracked him down to his old neighborhood, where, according to the Pennsylvania Abolition Society, they assaulted, seized, imprisoned, bound, and carried him back against his will.”  Once returned to Virginia, Nicholas Casey purchased Davis to work on the Wamppocomo Plantation.  In turn, a Pennsylvania grand jury indicted McGuire, Parsons, and Wells on charges of kidnapping and breach of peace.
Because of the legality of another state indicting people from in a different state fell into a legal gray area, the kidnappers never appeared in court. By 1791, Governor Thomas Mifflin wrote to Virginia Governor Beverly Randolph and requested the indictment of the three kidnappers. Randolph refused to comply with Mifflin’s request, and in a peculiar set of circumstances related to the Big Beaver Creek Murders, Mifflin and Randolph had previously corresponded with each other. According to historian John R. McKivigan, the three bounty hunters who kidnapped John Davis were also involved with the murders of peaceful Delaware Indians in Western Pennsylvania at the confluence of the Ohio River and Big Beaver Creek. Governor Mifflin praised Randolph’s cooperation in seeking the arrest of the men charged with killing the Delaware Indians in 1791. “Yet this was over a month after Governor Mifflin wrote to President George Washington complaining about Virginia’s noncompliance in the extradition of the men who kidnapped John Davis.” With Randolph’s unwillingness to cooperate with Mifflin’s request for extradition, President Washington handed the case to Thomas Jefferson, who then handed down the case to Attorney General Edmund Randolph who previously advised Washington on how to bypass Pennsylvania’s abolition laws.
Attorney General Randolph found Mifflin at fault for not providing Governor Randolph enough evidence and a copy of Pennsylvania’s Gradual Emancipation Act, while at the same time, the attorney general also blamed Governor Randolph of trying to dismiss Davis’ case as mere trespassing rather than kidnapping and felonious assault.  Attorney General Randolph advised the president to give the governors more time to present each other with greater evidence for their legal claims. While Governor Mifflin provided Governor Randolph the suggested documentation from the attorney general, Governor Randolph again refused Mifflin’s request for the extradition of Davis’ kidnappers.
Despite the attorney general’s advice, Mifflin’s cooperation and Governor Randolph’s refusal to comply, President Washington had copies of the claims sent to the Senate. After two versions of a bill to legally deal with criminal extraditions and fugitive slave rendition failed, the Senate struggled to create a balanced bill that represented antislavery and proslavery sentiments as each version of the proposed bill favored one side over the other. As a result, the Senate introduced a third bill that had elements of the first two versions. The third version of the bill had four components that dealt with criminal extraditions of fugitives, fugitive slave renditions, and was quickly sent to the House of Representatives. When the bill reached the House, only minor changes occurred as the bill passed 48 to 7 in February 1793. On February 12, President Washington signed the Fugitive Slave Act into law.
The Fugitive Slave Act of 1793 represented a political shift from the conciliatory views northern politicians had in 1790 regarding the fragile state of the young nation. Paying the national debt, and establishing the Bank of the United States took precedence over differing views regarding slavery between the states and the federal government's role in 1790. Within a few years though, it was clear that northern politicians, already having accepted the federal consensus regarding slavery as an important economic aspect of the new country in 1790, these politicians operated with other social and cultural attitudes towards the abhorrent institution. Legal scholar Paul Finkelman noted that northern politicians were not overly concerned about slavery despite opposing it, they struggled against southern politicians who voted as a united bloc to protect their favorite institution, and some northern lawmakers seemed to have misunderstood the stakes fugitive slave question altogether.  Ultimately as Finkleman further stated, “northerners voted for a bill they later grew to hate.” While the bill favored slave states, southerners also grew to hate the bill because of the lack of federal courts in the early nineteenth century. Southern politicians attempted many times in the first half of the nineteenth century to change the bill to strengthen the harshness of the original law.
After the 1793 bill passed, it essentially failed, and “it did not even resolve the issues immediately surrounding its passage; the fugitive Virginians were never returned to Pennsylvania, and John Davis remained a slave, his freedom lost forever.”  Over the first half of the nineteenth century, antislavery and proslavery states circumnavigated federal law via state laws.
Colonel Isaac Parsons of Hampshire County Virginia whose family inherited the Wappocomo Plantation from Nicholas Casey continued the tradition of owning slaves to work the plantation. According to Pennsylvania newspaper accounts from August 1855, Jacob Green, a 20-year-old slave, escaped from Wappocomo. While Green escaped, for a short time was not sought after, only to return and convince four other slaves to go with him. Green returned a second time in October and helped five more slaves that belonged to Parsons neighbor, Mr. Stump, also escape. Because of this, Isaac Parsons, his nephew, and Mr. Stump pursued Green across the border into Blair County, Pennsylvania. The case of Jacob Green tested the legal boundaries of the Fugitive Slave Act of 1850, just as the case of John Davis set in motion the Fugitive Slave Act of 1793, both cases are directly linked to the Wappocomo Plantation.
The Parsons family inherited the Wappocomo Plantation when Casey’s daughter married James Parsons, Isaac Parsons father and continued operating their plantation via slave labor. Likewise, when Isaac himself inherited the plantation, he continued using slaves as well. For a brief time, Colonel Parsons worked as the justice of the peace in Hampshire County, and also served in the Virginia House of Delegates from 1854 to 1857. Existing accounts of Parsons life highlighted his typical antebellum lifestyle and lived comfortably due to his socioeconomic status. Although from 1855 to 1856, Parsons experienced many legal quandaries that often frustrated southern slave owners. As legal scholar Steven Lubet notes, “the decade before the Civil War saw a series of tumultuous trials that contributed greatly to the growing discord between free and slave states.”  According to the Fugitive Slave Act of 1850, slave owners needed to procure an order of removal that authorized the return of runaway slaves. However, “abolitionists and their allies often intervened” and in some cases helped runaway slaves escape.  The case of Jacob Green of Hampshire County, Virginia is one such case that fits into Lubet’s analysis of escaped slaves, abolitionists, and slave owners that converged in Gaysport, Pennsylvania in October 1855.
In mid-August 1855, Jacob Green escaped Colonel Parsons Wappocomo Plantation, and according to newspapers he possibly crossed the border into Pennsylvania. According to a Bloomsburg, PA newspaper, the Star of the North, Green returned a few weeks after he escaped and helped four other slaves also escape. The Star of the North went further stated that Green returned to Wappacomo a second time in early October and helped five more slaves escape who were slaves of Colonel Parsons neighbor, Mr. Stump.  When Green returned the second time to Wappocomo to help the other slaves escape, he also was accused of stealing a horse, and Colonel Parsons, his nephew James Parsons Jr., and Mr. Stump began a pursuit of the escapees. The three slave owners according to the Star of the North apprehended two of the slaves who divulged where Green was headed.  From this point, the two Parsons and Stump decided to split up in hopes of capturing the escaped slaves. Parsons Jr. headed to Gaysport, Pennsylvania based on the information gathered from the two escaped slaves the trio caught.
When Parsons Jr. arrived in Gaysport, he headed for the train station and conveniently, Green was also on the same train headed for Altoona. Once Parsons Jr. realized Green was on the same train, he began to pursue him, and both men jumped off the train as it was moving rapidly.  As Parsons Jr. chased Green, Green ran into the house of Eli Yoder where Parsons Jr. apprehended him.  Parsons Jr. then declared that Green was a runaway slave from Virginia, at this point according to multiple newspaper accounts, Green’s admission to knowing Parsons Jr. and being a runaway slave differ. The Star of the North stated that Green indeed admitted to knowing Parsons Jr. and called him by name. Whereas the Bradford, PA newspaper, the Bradford Reporter wrote that Green claimed he did not know Parsons Jr. nor did he steal the horse he was accused of. Interestingly enough, both of these newspaper articles provide the same breakdown of what happened after Parsons Jr. apprehended Green inside of Eli Yoder’s house.
Parsons Jr. proceeded to mount his horse along with Green and headed outside as a crowd had started gathering. Green slipped off the horse, and Parsons Jr. again chased him down and apprehended him. With the crowd growing in number, several people intervened in the situation and demanded to know what was going on. Members of the crowd asked Parsons Jr. to provide authority for his actions, that is, show documentation or a warrant that he was in pursuit of a runaway slave. Not having any legal documentation: “Parsons replied, D—m Pennsylvania and Pennsylvania laws; I will take him under a higher law, the Fugitive Slave law.”  Then “Parsons attempted to force Green towards the nearby tavern, but he was grappled by Col. Piper, J. R. Crawford, and General Potts, who held him down, while William Carr, the negro barber, kicked him! During the melee, they forced the slave from Parsons Jr.’s grip, and Carr took him off.”  During all the commotion, Green escaped, and Parsons Jr. was escorted to the magistrate's office. General Potts swore an oath to the magistrate that Parsons Jr. had attempted to kidnap as Justice Cox set bail at $2,000. 
While Parsons Jr. was in the Gaysport Jail, his uncle, Colonel Parsons had gone to Pittsburgh hoping to find the other escaped slaves. Parsons Jr. telegraphed his uncle and was able to get out on bail, but notwithstanding legal troubles ahead of him. Furthermore, the actions of Piper, Crawford, Potts, and Carr who came to Green’s aid because Parsons Jr. did not have any legal documentation which he could have obtained under the 1850 Fugitive Slave Act also was an important factor in the case as it illustrates the cultural dynamics between free states and slave states in the 1850s. While Parsons Jr. and his uncle returned to their home in Romney, the Virginia Legislature declared to take bold action against the state of Pennsylvania. In the meantime, as the Parsons prepared for the trial, the Virginia Legislature threatened to attack Pennsylvania and detain all of its citizens in a bombastic warning according to the Raftsman Journal of Clearfield, Pennsylvania. When the trial commenced, Colonel Parsons hired notable southern lawyers to defend his nephew, and through documentation proved the Parsons’ indeed owned Jacob Green. As a result of the evidence, the judge dropped the charges, and the case ended without further incident regarding Jacob Green or the men who helped him escape Parsons Jr.
Many northerners refused to go along with the laws of the 1850 Fugitive Slave Act and aided in the escape of runaway slaves. Likewise, throughout the 1840s and 1850s, many of the cases of escaped slaves that were tried in courts quickly became political spectacles in the media. In the case of the Virginia Legislature threatening to attack Pennsylvania over the possibility of Parsons Jr. going to prison for attempted kidnapping further highlights the escalating tensions between free states and slave states leading up to the Civil War. Because of Jacob Green’s bravery and determination for freedom, he helped at least eight other slaves escape their bondage as existing sources state the other slaves also got away. What happened to Jacob Green after the events in Gaysport, Pennsylvania in 1855 is lost to history, but newspapers speculated that he headed to Canada like many others before he had done when they escaped their bondage.
 Delbanco, Andrew. The War Before the War: Fugitive Slaves and the Struggle for America’s Soul from the Revolution to the Civil War. New York City: Penguin Books, 2018.
 Finkelman, Paul. Fugitive Slaves and American Courts: The Pamphlet Literature. Clark: Lawbook Exchange, Ltd., 2012.
 Finkelman, Paul. “The Kidnapping of John Davis and the Adoption of the Fugitive Slave Law of 1793.” Journal of Southern History, Vol. 56, No. 3 (Aug., 1990), pp. 397-422.
 Leslie, William R. “A Study in the Origins of Interstate Rendition: The Big Beaver Creek Murders.” American Historical Review, Vol. 57, No. 1 (Oct., 1951), pp. 63-76.
 McKivigan, John R. Abolitionism and American Law. Abingdon: Taylor & Francis, 1999.
 Schwarz, Phillip J. Migrants Against Slavery: Virginians and the Nation. Charlottesville: University of Virginia Press, 2001. Lubet, Steven. Fugitive Justice. Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 2011.
 Weaver, R. W. "Slave Rescue in Blair County--Excitement Among the People." Star of the North, Bloomsburg, Pennsylvania. November 01, 1855.
 "Slave Rescue in Blair County, PA." National Anti-Slavery Standard. New York City, New York. November 17, 1855.
Row, S. B. "Threatened Invasion." Raftsman Journal. Clearfield, Pennsylvania. February 22, 1856.
 "The Parsons Case." Bradford Reporter. Bradford, Pennsylvania. February 16, 1856.