Family ties on the Underground Railroad

During its annual gala last year, the Historical Society of Pennsylvania honored historian Eric Foner with the 2016 Founder’s Award. In his most recent book, Gateway to Freedom, Foner explores the hidden history of the Underground Railroad. Excerpts are included below with entries from Journal C of Station No. 2, compiled by one of Philadelphia’s most prominent conductors: William Still.

“In 1858, a correspondent for the New York Tribune identified Philadelphia and New York as ‘the great central stations of that glorious humanitarian institution of modern times, the Underground Railroad.’ And the effectiveness of the Underground Railroad in New York City… stemmed in considerable measure from the revitalization of the Philadelphia Vigilance Committee under the leadership of William Still.


Portrait of William Still, c. 1898. From The Underground Railroad from Slavery to Freedom

“It is impossible to say how many slaves escaped to freedom in the decades before the Civil War. Contemporary sources are often of little help. Estimates – guesses, really – suggest somewhere between 1,000 and 5,000 per year between 1830 and 1860.

“All fugitive slaves faced daunting odds and demonstrated remarkable courage. Slave patrols and armed private groups dedicated to apprehending fugitives could be found throughout the South… Most slaves had little knowledge of geography or how to locate sympathetic persons outside their immediate neighborhoods, although many seem to have been aware that there were people, black and white, willing to help them.

“Soon after the Civil War, a number of abolitionists published their reminisces, hoping to remind readers of their accomplishments and to reinforce the national commitment to protecting the freedom slaves had acquired during the Civil War… Although these memories included much information about slaves’ determination to be free, they tended to make white abolitionists the central actors of the story.


An Oct. 1855 entry in Still’s Journal C of Station No. 2

“One notable exception was William Still’s The Underground Railroad, a compilation of material about fugitive slaves who passed through Philadelphia … [Still] kept a journal… with a detailed account of hundreds of fugitive slaves.

“Still was born in Medford, NJ, in 1821. He moved to Philadelphia in 1844, where he worked as a handyman until the Pennsylvania Anti-Slavery Society hired him as a ‘clerk’ and janitor at its office in 1847. These titles belied his wide-ranging responsibilities. Still ran the society’s headquarters and was Philadelphia’s key operative in assisting fugitives, sometimes hiding them in his own home. He kept detailed records of their stories and destinations and how he aided them, which became the basis for his 1872 book, The Underground Railroad. The most detailed record now extant of how the railroad operated, Stills journal lists well over 400 fugitives he received and sent on their way between 1853 and early 1857.

“Arrived. William Nelson and Susan his wife, and his son William Thomas…William is about 40, dark chestnut, medium size, very intelligent, member of the Methodist Church…His owner’s name was Turner & Whitehead with whom he had served for 20 years in the capacity of “Packer”. He had been treated with mildness in some respects, though had been very tightly worked… Had been sold once one sister had been sold also. He was prompted to escape because he wanted his liberty—was not satisfied with not having the privilege of providing for his family.

“Arrived. Mrs. Maria Joiner per Capt. F., is 33 years of age… a fine hearty looking, and intelligent woman. Left her husband, and one Sister. Had not been badly treated until lately, after the death of the old Master when she fell into the hands of his daughter who drank and was very abuseful using great violence. For this she was induced to leave. For 8 months she was kept in private quarters where she suffered severely from Cold & Owner.

“Arrived. David Bennett, new name Henry Washington, and wife Martha, & their two children… youngest 1 month old without a name… The wife’s master was the owner of only two, but a most brutal man. Flogging Females when stripped naked was common with him. Martha had been stripped and flogged … after her marriage.

“Arrived. Henry Washington new name Anthony Henley, safely arrived from Norfolk where he had been held by Seth March, a mild tempered man. Was excessively close, in money matters however, allowing Henry only $1.50 a week to pay his board and find his clothes for his wife therefore he could do nothing… Henry is turned of 50, dark, intelligent well made & Left a wife named Polly. Henry left to purely because he was allowed no privilege to do anything for his wife.

“Family Ties on the Underground Railroad” is a grant-funded digital history prototype project by the Historical Society of Pennsylvania (HSP) that tells the story of selected enslaved individuals and families who passed through Philadelphia between 1855 and 1857 and the covert networks that aided their escape. This project is part of a larger digital effort to weave new connections between William Still’s manuscript, “Journal C,” and his published book, The Underground Rail Road. For more information about this digital history project, please contact Rachel Moloshok, Managing Editor of Publications and Scholarly Programs Associate, at

HSP’s collections document the experiences and representations of African Americans from the colonial era to the present. HSP’s archivists created a subject guide to these materials – including manuscripts, books, pamphlets, serials, prints, broadsides, other graphics, and microfilm – to help researchers navigate the collections.

Join HSP for a free workshop on March 9, 2017 at 1:00 p.m. exploring new resources available for genealogists researching African American ancestors.

Stay tuned as we share more stories throughout this year’s Black History Month.


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