West Nottingham honors man who fought for kidnapped girls

Avon Grove Sun
by Chris Barber
May 26, 2012

The West Nottingham Historical Commission in concert with Chester County Facilities and Parks paid homage to Joseph Miller, a man who was murdered while attempting to rescue two sisters who had been kidnapped by a slave catcher in the mid-1800s.

Descendants of both Miller and the two girls gathered at the Union United Methodist Church near Fremont, where Miller is buried, on Saturday to discuss the details and legacy of Miller’s rescue.

Miller was a white farmer in the township, and he had working for him a young, free black girl named Rachel Parker, who was 16. Rachel’s family had lived in West Nottingham for several generations and was known around the area.

In 1851, a freelance slave catcher from Elkton, Md., who was allegedly in need of money, kidnapped Rachel from the Miller farm, just as he had done months earlier to Rachel’s younger sister, Elizabeth, 10, at the Donnelly farm down the road.

He took them to both to Baltimore, selling Elizabeth at auction for $1,000, and then taking Rachel to a slave pen.

While the slave catcher, Thomas McCreary, was transporting the girl to the south, one of Miller’s neighbors recognized Rachel and informed Miller where she was.

With that information, Miller and friends traveled to Baltimore, had Rachel transferred to jail (safe from the slave trade) and sought to have Rachel and Elizabeth transferred back to Pennsylvania.

In the process, however, Miller was murdered — lashed down, drenched with arsenic and purged to death. He was later hung from a tree near Stemmer’s Run in Maryland.

It was a year before the two girls were returned to Nottingham through the efforts of Pennsylvania officials and the local Nottingham community, and they both grew to adulthood, with Rachel living in Oxford and Elizabeth living in West Chester.

The event at the Union Church on Saturday was orchestrated by the West Nottingham Historical Commission, but aided by the county Facilities and Parks, which annually orchestrates Town Tours and Village Walks.

Karen Marshall of Chester County Facilities and Parks praised the work of the historical commission, which had worked also with the East Nottingham and Oxford Area historical commissions to make Saturday’s event possible.

Ryan Rohrer, chairman of the West Nottingham Historical Commission gave the background of the kidnapping in 1851, when it was typical for slave catchers to come north of the Maryland border to retrieve slaves who had run away. At that time it was perilous for all blacks in southern Chester County.

“Anyone could be captured and called an escaped slave,” he said.

He praised the residents who came to rescue the Parker girls. “One small, rural community in southern Chester County recognized that injustice had occurred,” he said.

Shirley Whyte, 76, of Pottstown, and a great niece of Rachel, talked about the lengths she has gone to in order to find descendants of the Parkers. She said Rachel Parker grew up, married a man whose last name was Wesley and had a daughter named Lucy.

Lucy took in orphans or “aid children,” and it is among those children she is seeking the extended relationships. She said she has not been able to track down the relatives of Mr. Wesley, who, she said, left Lucy and came to Kennett Square.

Whyte said after the ceremony that she has gone to libraries and historical societies — even the National Archives in Washington — to trace back the names and the generations of those offspring of Rachel and Elizabeth.

Ralph Denlinger, chairman of the East Nottingham Historical Commission, recounted the route that the kidnapper took to move the two girls to Maryland. He said he has encountered gaps in the records, but determined various locations, including that the kidnapping to place at what is now the entrance to Nottingham Park.

Cecil County historian Milt Diggins recounted the barriers the rescuers encountered in finally getting the girls back. He said that although McCreary was tried in Baltimore for the kidnapping, he was not convicted. “They said McCreary made an honest mistake,” Diggins said.

After the ceremony in the church, all the descendants of Joseph Miller — one from as far away as California — gathered around his grave outside the church. Later, several of them toured the sections of Nottingham Park where the events took place.

A highway marker that was approved and placed in front of the Union Church in Fremont last year pays homage to Miller. It concludes that, “The forcible enslavement of two young free black women galvanized antislavery sentiment.”

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