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SharePrint Underground Railroad Escapes (described by William Still)

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In 1872, William Still published The Underground Railroad, one of the most significant books about enslaved people escaping to freedom before the Civil War. Still (1821-1902), a New Jersey native, is sometimes considered “the father of the Underground Railroad.” Through his work for the Pennsylvania Society for the Abolition of Slavery, he helped an estimated 649 enslaved people escape to freedom. He typically met them at the Philadelphia docks or train station, hid them from slave hunters, cared for them until they were healthy enough to travel, and sent them to a safe destination, often Canada, where slavery was illegal. He later recorded these accounts from memory since he had destroyed most of the physical records for his own protection. Included are several stories of enslaved individuals escaping from the present Eastern Panhandle of West Virginia. While the Underground Railroad was somewhat active in portions of Western Virginia, and specific escape refuges have been identified, the following accounts by Still are among the few specific stories known to exist.

Robert Jackson (alias Wesley Harris)

Robert Jackson was born enslaved about 1831 in Martinsburg. Based on Still’s account, Jackson was owned by Philip Pendleton, the son of a city founder. From childhood, Jackson had been hired out to others in exchange for money paid to Pendleton. At the beginning of 1853, Jackson started working for Margaret Carrell (misspelled as Carroll in Still’s book), who operated the United States Hotel at Harpers Ferry. Jackson spoke kindly of Carrell but asserted that the hotel “manager” who oversaw the enslaved workers was “cruel.” That fall, Carrell’s overseer tried to whip Jackson over an alleged offense. Jackson overpowered him and beat the manager. The incident was reported to Pendleton, who ordered that Jackson be sold. Carrell informed Jackson of the plan and encouraged him to escape.

Jackson later described to Still what happened next: Craven Matterson, also enslaved, “told me that he was going off. Then I told him of my master’s writing to Mrs. Carr[e]ll concerning selling, etc., and that I was going off too. We then concluded to go together. There were two others—brothers of Matterson—who were told of our plan to escape, and readily joined with us in the undertaking.”

They ran away one night about midnight and spent two days on foot covering 60 miles and ending up in what is likely Taneytown, Maryland (referred to by Still as Terrytown). A farmer discovered them in a thicket and “offered friendly advice” to hide in his barn. They followed his direction but discovered it was a trap. A group of men confronted them and threatened to take them before a magistrate. Jackson and the Mattersons fought back. One of the Mattersons shot a would-be captor; it is not clear how he got the pistol. Jackson pulled a sword and ran toward the barn door, but he was shot in the left arm and “badly beaten.” Jackson and the Mattersons were taken into custody.

Jackson’s wounds were so severe the captors left him with a tavern owner and took the others away. He soon learned that his companions had been sold at a slave auction in Baltimore for $1,200 each. Jackson slowly healed from his wounds and, on the night of October 14, seized his opportunity to escape from the tavern: “I fastened my nails in under the window sill; tied my rope to the nails, threw my shoes out of the window, put the rope in my mouth, then took hold of it with my well hand, clambered into the window, very weak, but I managed to let myself down to the ground. I was so weak, that I could scarcely walk, but I managed to hobble off to a place three quarters of a mile from the tavern.” With the aid of a friend, he eventually made it to Gettysburg, Pennsylvania.

Jackson reached the Pennsylvania Society for the Abolition of Slavery in Philadelphia on November 2, 1853. After some additional recuperation, he was sent to Canada. As a free man in Canada, he became a brakeman on the Great Western Railroad. Since this was the end of Still’s interaction with him, it is unclear what became of Jackson after this time.

Robert Brown (alias Thomas Jones)

According to Still, Robert Brown’s escape from Martinsburg in 1856 was one of the most daring in all his Underground Railroad experience. Brown was born about 1818 and could read and write. He asserted that his enslavers, a Col. John F. Franie and his wife, were particularly cruel to those they owned. As a footnote, no person with this name can be identified in the censuses of that time period for Berkeley or adjoining counties. According to Brown’s account, on December 20, 1856, his wife and four children were sold to a Richmond slave trader because his wife “had resisted” their owner’s “lustful designs.” Realizing he would never see them again, Brown escaped on horseback on Christmas night and crossed the bitterly frigid Potomac River, about a half-mile wide at that point. He carried with him a photo of his wife and locks of hair from her and each of his children—ages 11 years to 8 months.

In cold, wet clothes, he rode about 40 miles before leaving his “broken down” horse tied to a fence, and set off on foot. Within a day or two, he had made it to Jacksonburg, Pennsylvania, where he located “friends.” He arrived in Philadelphia in the early morning hours of January 2, 1857 (“New Year’s night, 1857, about two hours before day break”). He was sent through the Underground Railroad network presumably to Canada. Nothing more is known of his later life or whether he later reunited with his family.

John and George Logan

Although Still provided minimal details, he also mentioned the April 1856 escapes of John Logan, enslaved by a Miss Cox of “Little Georgetown” in Berkeley County, and his brother, 23-year-old George Logan, owned by Jane Coultson, which based on historical records might have been spelled either Colston or Coltston.

Last Revised on April 06, 2023


Sources

Still, William.. The Underground Railroad: A Record of Facts, Authentic Narrative, Letters, &C., Narrating the Hardships, Hair-breadth Escapes and Death Struggles of the Slaves in their efforts of Freedom. Philadelphia: Porter & Coates, 1872.

Harpers Ferry National Historical Park. Margaret Carrell: Risk Taker. Facebook post, March 15, 2021.

Cite This Article

e-WV: The West Virginia Encyclopedia "Underground Railroad Escapes (described by William Still)." e-WV: The West Virginia Encyclopedia. 06 April 2023. Web. 24 February 2024.

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