Frank Wanzer



Depiction of Frank Wanzer's group in flight and their gunfight with pursuers at Hood's Mill in Maryland. From William Still's The Underground Rail Road.
Alternate name: Robert Scott
Frank Wanzer was born into slavery in 1830, probably in the southern region of Loudoun County, Virginia, near the village of Aldie. He described his master, Luther Sullivan, as "the meanest man in Virginia"—a farmer who freely profited from selling his slaves, including Frank's mother and his two siblings. Frank likely grew up farming the wheat and Indian corn that were the predominant crops of the region. By 1854 or so, Frank must have married, for 1870 US census records for the region indicate that two adolescent girls living in Aldie—Mary Etta, 16, and Harriet Ann, 14—listed Frank and Harriet (Johnson) Wanzer as their parents. Their mother apparently died in 1855 from typhoid fever at age 19. Perhaps her demise contributed to Frank's flight later that year.
Certainly by the 1850s, numerous enslaved individuals, aided by networks of antislavery Quakers and helpful blacks in the area, fled from Loudoun County to Pennsylvania, traversing part of the state of Maryland. In fact, a few years earlier Charles Peyton Lewis, the blacksmith of nearby Leesburg, Virginia, had successfully escaped to Toronto by this route.
By late 1855, Frank Wanzer had become betrothed to a new young woman, Emily Foster, who was enslaved by a planter from Middleburg, Loudoun County. Frank and Emily planned to escape to Pennsylvania, along with Emily's sister, Mary Elizabeth Grigsby—enslaved on the same plantation as Emily—Mary Elizabeth's husband, Barnaby Grigsby, who was enslaved by a neighboring Loudoun County farmer, and two as-yet-unidentified young men, at least one of whom likely hailed from nearby Fauquier County, Virginia1. On Christmas Eve, 1855, the group stole a wagon and horses and set off for Pennsylvania and beyond2. For the Christmas holiday, many of the usual restrictions on slaves were relaxed, and the roads would have been full of both enslaved and free people traveling to visit family for the holidays, lessening the likelihood that the group's flight would be discovered quickly or that their presence on the road would arouse suspicion. Nevertheless, they took the lightly traveled country roads that followed alongside the Baltimore & Ohio Railroad. To cross the Potomac River into Maryland, they may have taken Conrad's Ferry, operated by the son of Bazil Newman, a free black businessman and Underground Railroad agent.3
Despite their calculated planning, the fugitives' absence was noted within hours of their escape, and by Christmas Day, the owners of Emily and the Grigsbys published a broadside advertising $300 for their return. The group travelled unhindered until the 25th, when, about one hundred miles from their starting point, they were confronted by six armed white men and a boy at Hood's Mill by the Cheat River in western Maryland. According to Still's accounts, the fugitives were commanded to stop, but Wanzer, who was light-skinned and may have been attempting to pass as white, objected that these "gentlemen" would not interfere with travelers who were passing through "civilly." When the men repeated their command, Wanzer and his allies pulled out their own "pistols and dirks" and prepared to fight. Seeing their determination, the white men stepped aside and allowed the carriage—containing Wanzer, Foster, and the Grigsbys—to pass. The fate of the two anonymous men who were following on horseback, however, is unclear. The passengers in the carriage reported hearing gunfire behind them, and according to the Frederick (Md.) Examiner, at least one of the unnamed fugitives was shot and captured. The other may have either escaped or been killed. An article from Canada West's Provincial Freeman provides a slightly different version of events, specifying that the fugitives "took their horses from the carriages, and mounted them; two of the men taking each a female behind him, and the other two going singly. Those with the females escaped, but the men who were alone were probably captured, as they have not been heard from." In any event, the group of six fugitives was reduced to four.
By the following day, probably after having been conducted by a well-established network of black and white agents in Lancaster County, the remaining fugitives arrived at the Columbia, Pennsylvania, station managed by two intrepid black businessmen, William Whipper and Stephen Smith. They may have remained in Columbia or at another waypoint for two weeks or more, as William Still's Journal C does not indicate the party's arrival in Philadelphia—along with Caroline Graves, a fugitive from Maryland traveling alone—until January 16, 1856. Accounting records suggest that they stayed in the city for only two days or so, during which time several local individuals provided housing, food, transportation, and medical services.
On or about January 18, Wanzer, Foster, and the Grigsbys were forwarded to Syracuse, New York, probably along with as many as four other fugitives who had arrived in Philadelphia around the same time—George and Jane Graham from Alexandria, Virginia, William Henry Laminson, from Delaware, and Caroline Graves. In Syracuse, they were received by the local African American conductor, Reverend Jermain Loguen. Although evidence suggests they remained in Syracuse only briefly—possibly leaving as early as January 20 or 21—Frank and Emily were there long enough to be married by Rev. Loguen on the 19th. Sometime between January 21 and 28, Frank Wanzer and his companions arrived in Toronto, Canada West, where Mrs. Agnes Willis, treasurer of the Ladies' Society to Aid Colored Refugees, welcomed them and helped them find housing and employment.
Frank, however, remained uneasy about the family members he had left behind in Loudoun County. Although settled in Toronto with his new wife, Frank decided to return to Aldie, Virginia, to rescue those he could from slavery. Around July 1856, he departed without alerting anyone and traveled to Columbia by train. For safety, he completed the trip to southern Loudoun on foot, taking with him $22 in cash and three pistols. It was likely Frank's knowledge of the covert antislavery networks of blacks and whites in northern Virginia and Maryland that allowed him to reach Aldie so quickly without being detected. As Frank contacted family and planned their extrication, he may well have hidden in the mountains hugging the eastern edge of Aldie that had sheltered settlements of sympathetic free blacks for decades. By August 18, 1856, Frank, again having passed through Columbia, reached Philadelphia with his sister, Betsey Smith, her husband, Vincent, and their friend, Robert Stewart. He had not been able to rescue his two young daughters, Harriet Ann and Mary Etta, from slavery. Betsey and Vincent would settle in Hamilton, Canada West.
By 1861, as the Canada census records, Emily and Frank shared a single-story house and a half-acre of land in Toronto with the Grigsbys. The young couple owned some livestock (two pigs and one horse) and had two infant children: two-year-old Mary E. Wanzer and one-year-old George F. Wanzer. By the time of the 1871 census, the Wanzers owned their own house (they were still neighbors of the Grigsbys), where they lived with their daughter Mary, now twelve years old, and a five-year-old daughter named Abigail. Their son George had died of consumption in late 1861 or early 1862, and they had lost two other young sons: Frank, who died of whooping cough at four months of age in 1869, and Nathaniel, who died from complications of teething in 1870, a little over three months after his birth. Their oldest child, Mary, died at age fourteen in 1873 of an abscess. The Wanzers were active members of the Wesleyan Methodist community.
Frank worked as a gardener for many years and lived a long life with his family in Toronto. He died on August 13, 1911, and was buried in Prospect Hill Cemetery with his sister-in-law, Mary Elizabeth Grigsby. Their headstone reads: "Resting in freedom."
DeRamus, Betty. Freedom By Any Means: Con Games, Voodoo Schemes, True Love and Lawsuits on the Underground Railroad. New York: Atria Books, 2009.
Drew, Benjamin. A North-Side View of Slavery. The Refugee: or the Narratives of Fugitive Slaves in Canada. Boston: John P. Jewett, 1856.
Franklin, John Hope and Loren Schweninger. Runaway Slaves: Rebels on the Plantation. New York: Oxford University Press, 1999.
"Fresh Arrival of Fugitives," Provincial Freeman, February 2, 1856, reprinted from Syracuse (NY) Chronicle, January 19, 1856.
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