Stories from the Underground Railroad, 1855-56
William Still was an African-American abolitionist who frequently risked his life to help freedom-seekers escape slavery. In these excerpts, Still offers the readers some of the letters sent to him from abolitionists and formerly enslaved persons. The passages shed light on family separation, the financial costs of the journey to freedom, and the logistics of the Underground Railroad.
Letter from John H. Hill, a fugitive, appealing on behalf of a poor slave in Petersburg, Virginia
Hamilton, Sept. 15th, 1856.
DEAR FRIEND STILL:—I write to inform you that Miss Mary Wever arrived safe in this city. You may imagine the happiness manifested on the part of the two lovers, Mr. H. and Miss W. I think they will be married as soon as they can get ready. I presume Mrs. Hill will commence to make up the articles tomorrow. Kind Sir, as all of us is concerned about the welfare of our enslaved brethren at the South, particularly our friends, we appeal to your sympathy to do whatever is in your power to save poor Willis Johnson from the hands of his cruel master. It is not for me to tell you of his case, because Miss Wever has related the matter fully to you. All I wish to say is this, I wish you to write to my uncle, at Petersburg, by our friend, the Capt. Tell my uncle to go to Richmond and ask my mother whereabouts this man is. The best for him is to make his way to Petersburg; that is, if you can get the Capt. to bring him. He have not much money. But I hope the friends of humanity will not withhold their aid on the account of money. However we will raise all the money that is wanting to pay for his safe delivery. You will please communicate this to the friends as soon as possible.
Letter from Joseph C. Bustill (U.G.R.R. Depot).
Harrisburg, March 24, ’56.
FRIEND STILL:—I suppose ere this you have seen those five large and three small packages I sent by way of Reading, consisting of three men and women and children. They arrived here this morning at 8-1/2 o’clock and left twenty minutes past three. You will please send me any information likely to prove interesting in relation to them.
Lately we have formed a Society here, called the Fugitive Aid Society. This is our first case, and I hope it will prove entirely successful.
When you write, please inform me what signs or symbols you make use of in your dispatches, and any other information in relation to operations of the Underground Railroad.
Our reason for sending by the Reading Road, was to gain time; it is expected the owners will be in town this afternoon, and by this Road we gained five hours’ time, which is a matter of much importance, and we may have occasion to use it sometimes in future. In great haste,
Yours with great respect,
Jos. C. BUSTILL,
Letter from G. S. Nelson (U.G.R.R. Depot)
Reading, May 27, ’57.
We knew not that these goods were to come, consequently we were all taken by surprise. When you answer, use the word, goods. The reason of the excitement, is: some three weeks ago a big box was consigned to us by J. Bustill, of Harrisburg. We received it, and forwarded it on to J. Jones, Elmira, and the next day they were on the fresh hunt of said box; it got safe to Elmira, as I have had a letter from Jones, and all is safe.
Letter from Jefferson Pipkins
Sept. 28, 1856.
To WM. STILL. SIR:—I take the liberty of writing to you a few lines concerning my children, for I am very anxious to get them and I wish you to please try what you can do for me. Their names are Charles and Patrick and are living with Mrs. Joseph G. Wray in Murphysborough, Hartford County, North Carolina; Emma lives with a Lawyer Baker in Gatesville, North Carolina and Susan lives in Portsmouth, Virginia and is stopping with Dr. Collins’ sister, a Mrs. Nash. You can find her out by enquiring for Dr. Collins at the ferry boat at Portsmouth, and Rose a coloured woman at the Crawford House can tell where she is. And I trust you will try what you think will be the best way. And you will do me a great favour.
P.S. I am living at Yorkville near Toronto Canada West. My wife sends her best respects to Mrs. Still.
Letter from James Loguen
Syracuse, Oct. 5, 1856.
DEAR FRIEND STILL:—I write to you for Mrs. Susan Bell, who was at your city some time in September last. She is from Washington City. She left her dear little children behind (two children). She is stopping in our city, and wants to hear from her children very much indeed. She wishes to know if you have heard from Mr. Biglow, of Washington City. She will remain here until she can hear from you. She feels very anxious about her children, I will assure you. I should have written before this, but I have been from home much of the time since she came to our city. She wants to know if Mr. Biglow has heard anything about her husband. If you have not written to Mr. Biglow, she wishes you would. She sends her love to you and your dear family. She says that you were all kind to her, and she does not forget it. You will direct your letter to me, dear brother, and I will see that she gets it.
Miss F.E. Watkins left our house yesterday for Ithaca, and other places in that part of the State. Frederick Douglass, William J. Watkins, and others were with us last week; Gerritt Smith with others. Miss Watkins is doing great good in our part of the State. We think much indeed of her. She is such a good and glorious speaker, that we are all charmed with her. We have had thirty-one fugitives in the last twenty-seven days; but you, no doubt, have had many more than that. I hope the good Lord may bless you and spare you long to do good to the hunted and outraged among our brethren.
Agent of the Underground Railroad.
William Still, The Underground Railroad: A Record (Philadelphia: Porter & Coates, 1872), 41, 43, 378, 137, 158.