A Kidnapping at the Cox House, 1851

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Chris Densmore, Curator, Friends Historical Library, Swarthmore College

A news item from the Pennsylvania Freeman of March 13, 1851 reported: “A friend from Kennett informs us of a bold attempt to kidnap a free colored man in the employ of John Cox… Early in the morning four men in a carriage drove by, and seeing a young colored man on a haystack near the road, feeding cattle, they called to him to enquire whether his employer had hay for sale, and its price, etc., and then requested him to come down to call his employer, but no sooner had the young man descended, than the men attempted to seize him.  He defended himself with the pitchfork, and dealt his blows so rapidly and dangerously that they left him, and before any alarm could be given and pursuit made, they were far on their way to Wilmington.  Who the robbers were that attempted thus boldly to kidnap a free man from the heart of an anti-slavery neighborhood was not ascertained.”

In the long war between slavery and freedom, Chester County was the front lines.  

While the Kennett area has a wealth of documented Underground Railroad, there is much that we don’t know. Through local researchers, like the late Mary Dugan, we have frequently uncovered new stories.  We know about John and Hannah Cox and their anti-slavery activities, but we know far less about the “freedom seekers” who sheltered under their roof.  How many people did they aid? Fifty, a hundred, a thousand? In the story just related, we don’t know the name of the young man with the pitchfork, the exact date of the incident or the names and intentions of the kidnappers.  Was he a freeman as the story states, or was he a fugitive?  Those escaping enslavement were justifiably wary of trusting anyone with their names or location of the place they were enslaved.  Freedom- seekers traveling on the Underground Railroad usually kept their names and details of their escapes secret, even from those who assisted them.   Was the “colored man” working for John Cox indeed free?  He would hardly admit to being an escaped slave.   Maybe the person was free as the article states, or perhaps he was keeping his origins to himself and letting people believe he was free.

In the 1850 manuscript census, two African Americans are living with the Cox family, Thomas Price, aged 19, from Delaware, and Jack Morse, aged 20, from Maryland.  Both men gave their occupation as laborer, and it was likely they worked for the Cox family.  Perhaps Thomas Price or Jack Morse was the man with the pitchfork. We know that Hannah Cox kept a diary of her daily life but to this day no one has found it or come forward with it.  If found questions like those above will possibly be answered; if anything the diary will enrich our knowledge of daily life during this period of our local history.

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The John and Hannah Cox house (shown above in an early 20th C. photo) still stands on the north side of Baltimore Pike (Route 1), just east of the Longwood Fire Department.  The building is under the care of Longwood Gardens.  As you drive by, remember the brave young man defending his freedom with a pitchfork, and thank Longwood for their continued preservation of the Cox House.