Archives of Maryland
(Biographical Series)

Peter Pennington (b. circa 1831 - d. ?)
MSA SC 5496-8252
Fled from Slavery, Dorchester County, Maryland, 1856


    On November 15, 1856, Peter Pennington, along with Eliza Manokey and brothers Josiah Bailey and William Bailey, successfully escaped from Dorchester County, Maryland. Peter's owner, Turpin Wright, owned two fisheries in the Eastern Shore county, likely employing a mixture of free and enslaved laborers.1 Peter may have been one of the fourteen slaves recorded in the white man's 1840 Census record.2 Immediately following the men’s disappearance their owners, William R. Hughlett, John C. Henry, and Turpin Wright, placed a runaway slave ad offering a reward of two thousand six hundred dollars. $800 of the total reward was designated for Pennington, a young man described as being 5 feet 7 or 8 inches high and having a dark chestnut color. His owner believed that Peter was wearing "a suit of black clothes, with a black overcoat,"  likely to remain inconspicuous in his journey.3 

    Unbeknownst to the Maryland planters, the four fugitives were also accompanied by Harriet Tubman, who was personally acquainted with the Bailey family. The men faced quite a difficult journey to freedom, since their abscence was noticed immediately and the group had a relatively high value. Due to the pursuit by slave catchers, they had to constantly seek safe houses from friendly conductors, including Samuel Green Sr.. After having taken nearly two weeks to reach Wilmington, Pennington's party realized that there masters had beaten them there by three days, in an attempt to cut off that oft-traveled route to free soil.4

   Even with police and local slave catchers patrolling the area, Thomas Garrett's network of accomplices was able to execute a daring plan to extricate the fugitives. He employed a group of black bricklayers to hide the five individuals in their loaded wagon, "singing and shouting" as to ease the potential suspicions of ever present patrollers.5 They were then forwarded to William Still in Philadelphia, where he recorded the details of their harrowing journey. In William Still’s book The Underground Railroad, he describes how the “committee” helped Pennington and his companions escape north. Although he did not get the chance to interview Peter and transcribe his story, Still did note the fact that he had “a very high appreciation of freedom, but a very poor opinion of Maryland.” He also noted that the runaway was “determined not to stop short of Canada.”6 After enduring a great deal of anxiety, Pennington, Tubman, and the others crossed the suspension bridge over Niagara River into Canada. While he likely spent his first years in the nearby community, by 1871 Peter had settled at Sarnia in the western portion of the province, working as a fish dealer.7 This may have reflected the type of work that he performed while enslaved by Turpin Wright in Dorchester County. 

    Living in Ontario, Canada,  Pennington interacted with many former Eastern Shore associates, including Harriet Tubman, who had become a leader among the ex-pat community there. In 1858, he became involved in the effort to support John Brown's ambitious plot to destroy slavery in the South. Brown had met with Tubman, hoping to recruit a force of newly free blacks from the substantial community in St. Catharine's. Pennington, along with the Bailey brothers, initially chose to join the cause based on Tubman's endorsement. Brown's metaphorical and radical language was very much in line with the emotion that she, and other fugitives, felt toward the "peculiar institution." However, the potential Canadian battalion soon began to question the soundness of his plan and its chances of success. Neither Pennington nor his comrades would actually participate in John Brown's failed insurrection in October, 1859.8 Peter would reside in Ontario until at least 1881, according to the Census, but further details about his life there are unknown.9 

Footnotes - 

1. Kate Clifford Larson. Bound for the Promised Land: Harriet Tubman, Portrait of an American Hero. New York, NY: Ballantine Books, 2004, p. 345. 

2. 1840 United States Federal Census, Dorchester County, MD, New Market, pp. 23 - 24.

3. "Two Thousand Six Hundred Dollars Reward," Baltimore Sun, 22 November 1856. 

    "$800 Reward," 26 November 1856.

4. Larson, pp. 133-136.

5. Ibid. 

6. William Still. Underground Rail Road: A Record of Facts, Authentic Narratives, Letters, etc. Philadelphia, PA: Porter & Coales, Publishers, 1872.

7. 1871 Census of Canada, Sarnia, Ontario, p. 111.

8. Larson, pp. 158-161.

9. Larson, p. 345.  

Researched and Written by David Armenti, 2012.

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