The holiday season is a time of togetherness and community. In the Heritage Area, for centuries the Christian holiday of Christmas has been celebrated with good cheer, good food, and traveling to see relatives. During the antebellum years these holiday traditions transcended economic class and social station. While white enslaving families hung stockings and boiled puddings, the households’ slaves were often allowed several days to visit friends and families on nearby farms. This period of limited scrutiny temporarily lifted the burden of slavery. Families sang and played music, laughed, ate, and made merry, sometimes for days at a time. With so much traveling and hubbub it may not be a surprise that enterprising freedom seekers might try to slip away during the Christmas season. On Christmas Eve 1855, six young Virginians did just that.
Barnaby Grigsby, his wife Mary Elizabeth, his sister-in-law Emily Foster, and Emily’s fiancé Frank Wanzer may have planned their escape for months. Two other men who accompanied them may have been part of the planning phase as well. One can imagine that coordinating the getaway took careful and quiet forethought, as the group were enslaved on at least 4 different properties between Aldie, Middleburg, and The Plains, straddling the county border of Loudoun and Fauquier. It seems the six freedom seekers already had a route in mind when, on December 24th, they absconded with one of Edwin Conrad Broun’s mercantile wagons and four horses and made for Edward’s Ferry. The Potomac River was the first obstacle, and their first real risk for discovery. But the group had come up with a simple ruse. Frank Wanzer, described as a mulatto man with pale hair, played the part of a white man transporting a group of enslaved workers across the countryside. Casual observers must have taken the scene at face value, especially since so many (white and black) people were bustling from here to there for Christmas. Another mark in their favor was that the ferryman, a free black man, was a suspected agent along the Underground Railroad.
By Christmas Eve night, the group had successfully crossed into Maryland and struck out North, following the B&O railroad. Their goal was to reach Canada by way of Columbia, PA, but there were still many miles to go and the route became much more treacherous. In the early hours of Christmas morning, Townsend McVeigh and William Rogers (who enslaved the sisters Mary Elizabeth and Emily, and Barnaby Grigsby, respectively) discovered that at least part of the group had gone missing, and quickly published a runaway slave ad.
Later Christmas Day in the vicinity of Hood’s Mill, Maryland, four of the freedom seekers were accosted in the road by six armed white men, who demanded to know their business. Frank Wanzer tried to deescalate the situation using his role as a white man, but to no effect. To the Marylanders’ surprise, the freedom seekers revealed weapons of their own, brandishing pistols and long knives. Even Emily and Mary Elizabeth were armed! One of the white men cocked his gun at the passengers of the wagon. Emily Foster, unafraid, shouted “Shoot!” at him, daring the group to fire on them. It was clear that this band of slaves was willing to fight and die in their bid for freedom. Deciding that discretion was the better part of valor, the six men let them pass. However, two other men from the freedom seekers’ party were too far behind to have heard the ruckus. One was shot and killed, the other captured and presumably sent back to slavery in Virginia.
From here Barnaby, Mary Elizabeth, Emily, and Frank continued their flight north, this time without the wagon. They rode hard through the rest of Christmas Day. At night they slept outside. Though the men laid on top of the ladies’ feet, Emily and Mary Elizabeth reportedly suffered frostbite. The next day, December 26th they reached the first milestone of their goal: Columbia and Underground Railroad agent William Whipper. Whipper, a free black businessman, owned industrial railcars that doubled as secret passenger cars for freedom seekers. On New Year’s Day the group were sent via railroad to Philadelphia and UGRR agent William Still. Still took the time to interview the group before sending them to Syracuse, and by the end of January 1856 they were all employed and living free in Toronto. Still’s interview and Wanzer family history ensured that their amazing story is preserved for future generations. Notably, Still also asked each of the four what made them want to escape in the first place.
Frank Wanzer described how his mother and two of her children were sold South a few years ago, probably never to return. His enslaver, Luther Sullivan, was a mean man and apparently owed a lot of money to some creditors. It is implied that Frank was concerned about being sold out of state himself if the creditors came calling. By the outbreak of the Civil War Luther Sullivan was living in Washington D.C., having lost most of his land and enslaved workers. For his own part, Frank returned to Loudoun County in August of 1856 to free his sister, her husband, and a friend.
Emily Foster and her sister Mary Elizabeth Grigsby stated that Townsend McVeigh himself was not a cruel man, but that his wife Mary Thrift McVeigh made him mean. The young women also accused him of being a drunk. According to Mary Elizabeth and Emily, enslaved people on the McVeigh farm were not permitted to raise chickens (usually slaves were allowed to supplement the meager food supply by raising crops and fowl), and were not given enough clothing.
Barnaby Grigsby did not have a long list of grievances against his former master, William Rogers. His response was a more philosophical one. Grigsby stated that what he really wanted was “to live by the sweat of his own brow”, to which interviewer William Still added, “all men ought to live so.” William Still’s Still’s Underground Rail Road Records was first published in 1872.