by Deion Clifton
If you’re from this area, you’ve probably seen the Mendenhall name all over. However, many don’t know about the family’s relationship to the area.
The Mendenhalls are a family filled with a rich history whose family tree traces back much further than our nation’s founding year. They were some of the first settlers in Chester, PA. Many successes can be attributed to this family. Still, their role in the abolition of slavery is among their most commendable accomplishments. The family was instrumental in this regard, helping slaves escape to freedom on their large Chester County property. I spoke to HAC Preschool teacher Pam Foster, a descendant of the Mendenhalls, about the history of her family.
The Mendenhalls first sailed to the United States of America from Wiltshire, England, in 1681-1682. Four Quakers sailed up the Delaware River and landed in Chester County, Pennsylvania. These four Friends included John, Benjamin, Moses, and Mary (though they are all family, they call one another “Friends” out of respect for their religion). The Mendenhalls eventually settled on 600 acres of land purchased from William Penn in Chester County, Pennsylvania.
ISAAC & DINAH MENDENHALL
Isaac (1806-1882) and Dinah (pronounced “Die-nuh”) Mendenhall (1807-1889) married on May 12, 1831, at the Old Kennett Meeting House in Chester County. Together, they had six children: Anna, Aaron, Luther, Sarah, Sallie, and Hannah. The two were married for 51 years until Isaac passed in 1882. They were both members of the Religious Society of Friends, also known as Quakers. They viewed (and lived) life through the lens of their religious beliefs. The couple was what we would call “activists” today. They were abolitionists and often fought for human rights. Together they spent a substantial part of their lives acting as shelter and support systems for runaway slaves, providing food, water, clothes, and medical support. They also helped to guide them to freedom.
Isaac and Dinah functioned as conductors of the Underground Railroad. They built a network of Friends and worked with Harriett Tubman to aid several hundred liberty-seeking enslaved people to freedom. Tubman would first lead fugitives from the South to Delaware. Thomas Garrett, another Quaker abolitionist, would then direct those on the railroad to “go on and on until they came to a stone-gate post, and then turn in it.” With a note, Garrett would send these stowaways from Wilmington, DE, to Kennett Township of Chester County, PA. The message read, “I send you three bales of black wool,” and the number of bales would indicate the number of passengers headed toward Pennsylvania’s first stop on the railway to liberty. The letters assured that the people seeking out Isaac and Dinah were not imposters.
Since Kennett Meeting refused to respond to their abolition cause, Isaac and Dinah helped form the Society of Progressive Friends at Longwood in 1853. Those who did not participate actively in anti-slavery were disaffiliated from the group. Dinah Mendenhall said, “We had always said we would never submit to carry out that accursed Fugitive Slave Law, what come might.” That’s what being in the Society of Progressive Friends was all about; standing up for what is right, even if you’re standing alone. Dinah had a greater fear of the fugitives getting caught than she did going to jail for harboring them.
A MEETING WITH THE PRESIDENT
In June of 1862, six delegates from the Society of Progressive Friends were sent to Washington, DC to issue what they called a “Memorial” (a petition) to President Abraham Lincoln. These delegates were Thomas Garrett, Alice Eliza Hambleton, Dinah Mendenhall, Oliver Johnson, Eliza Agnew, and William Barnard. During their meeting, they expressed the ongoing civil war as “vials of Divine retribution which are now poured out upon the whole land, for its grievous and unrelenting oppression of a guiltless and inoffensive race.” They urged President Lincoln to put an end to the Civil War and to abolish slavery.
Towards the end of their meeting with the President, Lincoln said, “I’ve sometimes thought that perhaps I might be an instrument in God’s hands of accomplishing a great work, and I’m certainly not unwilling to be.” He went on to say, “It is my earnest endeavor, seeking light from above, to do my duty in the place to which I have been called.”
Just a few months later, in September of 1862, President Abraham Lincoln issued the Emancipation Proclamation despite objection from cabinet members. The Proclamation would take effect January 1, 1863, freeing those slaves in confederate states. All slaves had officially been freed by June 19, 1865, when federal troops finally arrived in Galveston, Texas to take control of the state. Being marked a Federal Holiday on June 17, 2021, we celebrate this occasion today as Juneteenth.
The 13th Amendment, which would officially abolish slavery in the U.S., was passed by Congress on January 31, 1865, and was ratified on December 6, 1865. Due to the timeline of these events, one can imply that the words of those six Progressive Friends may have sparked the change that would allow our nation to work toward achieving its founding principle of freedom for all.
Oakdale was the home of Isaac and Dinah Mendenhall in Kennett Township, near Longwood. Being just ten miles from Wilmington, DE, this was the first stop of the PA underground railroad. It makes sense that freedom seekers sought their home out as they entered the free state. The house was built in 1840, and along with it came a spring house, a barn, a carriage house, and a tenant house.
Women and children would usually be housed in the spring house, while men would stay in the barn. Though they utilized their barn and spring house more often, Isaac and Dinah could hide fugitives in any of their buildings. Having a variety of quick hiding places was convenient for Isaac and Dinah, especially with slave hunters roaming the PA borders in search of fugitives. A unique feature of the carriage house is a hidden room built into a walk-in fireplace. It sits between the fireplace and the west wall.
The Oakdale farm housed several hundred enslaved people on the path to freedom for 34 years. There’s a record of one fugitive who lived at Oakdale with Isaac and Dinah for three months. Her owners had told her “Abolitionists were wicked people,” but after her time with the Mendenhalls, she said, “she never knowed there was such kind people in the world as they.”
Oakdale also housed four survivors of the Christiana Riot: Parker, Pinkney, Johnson, and one other. James N. Taylor, who helped form Chester County’s first anti-slavery coalition, brought all of them to the farm. The four fugitives had a party of hunters after them, so they would sleep in the barn at night and function as regular farm hands during the day, staying in the fields and husking corn. Isaac and Dinah made plans with the four that they would make a specific noise if hunters came in search of the fugitives.
The Christiana Riot
After Congress passed the 1850 Fugitive Slave Act, disagreement between Northern abolitionists and Southern slave owners had begun to breed conflict. Several battles between civilians of the North and South would break out between 1851 and 1861. One of the earliest confrontations was what came to be known as the Christiana Riot, which took place in September of 1851 when a group of men from Maryland traveled into Lancaster County, Christiana, PA. Members of the Gorsuch family with help from US Marshalls attempted to forcefully enact arrest warrants they had out on four enslaved fugitives. Upon their arrival to Christiana, free African American men and women, black and white armed sympathetic neighbors, and abolitionists confronted the party, which lead to fighting. The fight ended in a retreat by the US Marshalls and the slave catchers along with the death of Edward Gorsuch. US Marshalls later came back aided by US Marine Troops. All involved parties were to be arrested and charged with treason. In total, 38 men were arrested, including four Quakers. After being tried, all 38 men were acquitted. This was seen as a major victory against slavery and The Fugitive Slave Act but would only be the beginning of a series of battles between Northern abolitionists and Southern slave owners, eventually leading to the Civil War (1861-1865).
Isaac and Dinah had set up a system with their network of Friends to assist in helping those escaping bondage find their way north. Isaac and Josiah Wilson, who was more than happy to assist his Friends, took the runaway slaves to either Dr. Bartholomew Fussell in Hamorton or John Vickers. Arrangements would then be made to send them through William and Simon Barnard to John Jackson in Darby, PA. Jackson would then coordinate their journey to Philadelphia, PA, and into the care of James Miller McKim and William Still. Philadelphia had an even more extensive network of Friends who worked together to help the fugitives escape further north. Though Isaac and Dinah Mendenhall would make getting these fugitives to Philadelphia work, it was hard for them. Even though there were many nearby families opposed to slavery, they would refuse to help the cause due to fear of being caught harboring fugitives. This setback continued as more local families began to oppose slavery when they saw runaway slaves.
Dinah and Isaac would eventually move to a house south of the village of Hamorton. They would give their eldest son Aaron the deed to their 600 acres (now equivalent to 1,000) of land, which includes Oakdale. The property, originally purchased from William Penn by Robert Pennell and Benjamin Mendenhall, was passed down from Benjamin to Joseph (Benjamin’s son) and from Joseph to Isaac. After building the Oakdale farm and aiding in the abolition of slavery, Isaac passed the estate down to Aaron, and Aaron passed the estate down to his son Isaac. Frank Mendenhall now lives in the carriage house.
The Oakdale structures remain standing just 20 minutes away from Hockessin, DE, in Chadds Ford, PA, on Hillendale Rd. The property, however, is a private residence and is not open to the public.
It wasn’t until the year 2018 that Isaac and Dinah’s efforts were officially recognized with a historical marker. The effort to get this dedication was led by Carol Luzak, a descendant of Isaac and Dinah Mendenhall and Pam Foster’s mother.
According to Pam, “the process to obtain a historical marker is extensive and costly.” After several months of rewrites and a formal submission to the PA Historical and Museum Commission, all they could do was wait anxiously for a reply. On March 8, 2018, their answer had finally come; the submission had been approved. However, they had to find a way to come up with the money it would cost to manufacture a historical marker. Carol would end up receiving donations from a total of 34 families, friends, and organizations including the Kennett Underground Railroad Center.
On November 10, 2018, at 1:00 pm, a Historical Marker Dedication was held at 301 Kennett Pike in Chadds Ford, Chester County, Pennsylvania.
THE NAME MENDENHALL
The name Mendenhall is known throughout the eastern region of the United States, not just because of Isaac and Dinah but because of their relatives’ efforts, too. Many of their family members fought in the Civil War alongside the people they assisted. In Jamestown, North Carolina, there was another Mendenhall who was well known. Jamestown, founded in 1816, was founded by George Mendenhall in honor of his father, James Mendenhall (1718-1782), who settled there in 1762. Richard Mendenhall (1778-1851), a descendant of John Mendenhall, is most famous for co-founding the Manumission Society (1816), which used legal means to help abolish slavery. The Manumission Society had a mission of transferring willing slaves out of the US to Liberia or Haiti.
The Mendenhalls are a family that strongly opposed slavery and went to great lengths to end it despite what might come of them if they were to be caught harboring fugitives. This family of Quakers allowed their religious views to lead them. Being a Quaker means being able to see God in everyone. Gaining a Friend is gaining a brother or a sister, someone that will stand by you no matter the harm that could come their way. In turn, values were instilled that would enable them to think for themselves and fight for ethical issues instead of believing what lawmakers told them was right or wrong. Because of the unselfish efforts of members of the family, the name Mendenhall lives forever on the east coast of the US, from Pennsylvania to Georgia.
We want to thank HAC childcare attendee, Pam Foster and mother, Carol Luzak, for their contributions, acting as a resource for questions and supplying documents during the research and writing of this article. Pam and Carol are descendants of Isaac and Dinah Mendenhall.
- Smedley, Robert Clemens. (n/a). History of the Underground Railroad in Chester and the Neighboring Counties of Pennsylvania.
- Pg. 249-259. Lancaster, PA: Office of the Journal, 1883.