On this day in 1836, a group of local abolitionists gathered at the home of James McAllister in Gettysburg, Pennsylvania. McAllister and his family operated a mill on this property, and in the decades to come, the mill itself would serve the anti-slavery cause.
The abolitionists who gathered at McAllister’s home went on to form the Adams County Anti-Slavery Society, one of the earliest such societies. The society did more than attend meetings, though. Society members established a network of safe houses around Gettysburg where slaves escaping from the south could find rest, food, and a place to hide between the legs of their journey. Between 1850 and 1858, hundreds of escaping slaves were hidden in McAllister’s mill, which became one of the first Underground Railroad stops north of the Mason-Dixon line. This was risky not just for the slaves but also for the McAllisters. The Fugitive Slave Act of 1850 made it a crime to harbour an escaped slave, even in ‘free’ states like Pennsylvania, and with bounty hunters using hound dogs particularly active in Adams County, the risk of being caught was fairly high.
Helping their father shelter the fugitives made a deep impression on McAllister’s children, who grew up hearing the harrowing stories of the people who hid in their mill. “Is it any wonder I grew up to young manhood hating slavery with a mortal hatred?” James’s son Theodore wrote years later. When the American Civil War broke out, five of McAllister’s sons went to fight for the Union, and one of them died in battle. Theodore himself was a prisoner of war at the notorious Andersonville camp in Georgia.
But history was not finished with McAllister’s property – or his family. On the first of June 1863, twenty-seven years after the meeting at James McAllister’s house, Union soldiers faced off against Confederate soldiers right on McAllister’s doorstep. Macalisters (of various spellings) fought on both sides. The Battle of Gettysburg – one of the best-known battles in US history (partly because of President Lincoln’s famous speech there) – continued for three days, causing the deaths of many soldiers and considerable damage to the property. As the battle went on, James McAllister’s house became a de facto hospital for wounded Union soldiers; a confederate hospital was set up near the mill. McAllister’s daughters Mary and Martha were at home during the battle and did whatever they could to help the wounded. Many of the dead were buried near their home.
James McAllister died in 1872. The mill had not been used in years, and after the family left, it sank into disrepair. Today, almost nothing remains of the buildings that saw so much action in the fight against slavery. Although the actual battlefield has been preserved as a historical monument, McAllister’s property, which is privately owned, was forgotten; for much of the 20th century, it was used as a municipal dump. In 2002, a local preservation group began pushing for the dump to be moved and the property to be marked as a historic site. Though the borough initially dragged its feet, McAllister’s Mill was finally recognised in 2011 by the federal government as one of several hundred US properties that have a verifiable connection to the Underground Railroad. A marker was erected, and with the cooperation of the current owner, tours began the following year. Gettysburg National Military Park hopes to purchase the property eventually.
More information about McAllister’s Mill can be found at the McAllister’s Mill Underground Railroad site and the web site of the Historical Gettysburgh-Adams County preservation society.
- McAllister, Robert M.: “McAllisters at Gettysburg”, Mac-Alasdair Clan (Winter 1998): 169.
- Musselman, Curt: “McAllister’s Mill and the Underground Railroad”, in The Sentinel, Special Edition (National Park Service, 2013): 6-8.
- Stansbury, Amy: “McAllister’s Mill finally gets historical recognition”, The Evening Sun on-line, 4 August 2012 (http://www.eveningsun.com/gettysburgh150/ci_21236739/mcallisters-mill-will-finally-get-overdue-historical-recognition), accessed 29 June 2015.
copyright © Lynn McAlister, 2015
 The Mason-Dixon line, established in the early 1700s to resolve a border dispute between Pennsylvania and Maryland, took on new meaning in the 19th century, when it became a symbolic division between states where slavery was allowed and Pennsylvania, where it was not. Technically, once a slave crossed the Mason-Dixon line, he or she was no longer a slave. However, after 1850 people fleeing slavery could still be hunted down north of the line.