The Underground Railroad (1871)

William Still recorded the narratives of people escaping to freedom on the Underground Railroad. This excerpt from his book highlights the stories of several enslaved people who gained their freedom while evading bounty hunters.
William Still
Grade Level

This text is part of the Teaching Hard History Text Library and aligns with Key Concept 5.


CAPTAIN F. was certainly no ordinary man. Although he had been living a sea-faring life for many years, and the marks of this calling were plainly enough visible in his manners and speech, he was, nevertheless, unlike the great mass of this class of men, not addicted to intemperance and profanity. On the contrary, he was a man of thought, and possessed, in a large measure, those humane traits of character which lead men to sympathize with suffering humanity wherever met with.  

It must be admitted, however, that the first impressions gathered from a hasty survey of his rough and rugged appearance, his large head, large mouth, large eyes, and heavy eye-brows, with a natural gift at keeping concealed the inner-workings of his mind and feelings, were not calculated to inspire the belief, that he was fitted to be entrusted with the lives of unprotected females, and helpless children; that he could take pleasure in risking his own life to rescue them from the hell of Slavery; that he could deliberately enter the enemy’s domain, and with the faith of a martyr, face the dread slave-holder, with his Bowie-knives and revolvers—Slave-hunters, and blood-hounds, lynchings, and penitentiaries, for humanity’s sake. But his deeds proved him to be a true friend of the Slave; whilst his skill, bravery, and success stamped him as one of the most daring and heroic Captains ever connected with the Underground Rail Road cause.  

At the time he was doing most for humanity in rescuing bondsmen from Slavery, Slave-laws were actually being the most rigidly executed. To show mercy, in any sense, to man or woman, who might be caught assisting a poor Slave to flee from the prison-house, was a matter not to be thought of in Virginia. This was perfectly well understood by Captain F.; indeed he did not hesitate to say, that his hazardous operations might any day result in the “sacrifice” of his life. But on this point he seemed to give himself no more concern than he would have done to know which way the wind would blow the next day. He had his own convictions about dying and the future, and he declared, that he had “no fear of death,” however it might come. Still, he was not disposed to be reckless or needlessly to imperil his life, or the lives of those he undertook to aid. Nor was he averse to receiving compensation for his services. In Richmond, Norfolk, Petersburg, and other places where he traded, many slaves were fully awake to their condition. The great slave sales were the agencies that served to awaken a large number. Then the various mechanical trades were necessarily given to the Slaves, for the master had no taste for “greasy, northern mechanics.” Then, again, the stores had to be supplied with porters, draymen, etc., from the slave population. In the hearts of many of the more intelligent amongst the slaves, the men, as mechanics, etc., the women, as dress-makers, chamber-maids, etc., notwithstanding all the opposition and hard laws, the spirit of Freedom was steadily burning. Many of the slaves were half brothers, and sisters, cousins, nephews, and nieces to their owners, and of course “blood would tell.”  

It was only necessary for the fact to be made known to a single reliable and intelligent slave, that a man with a boat running North had the love of Freedom for all mankind in his bosom to make that man an object of the greatest interest. If an angel had appeared amongst them doubtless his presence would not have inspired greater anxiety and hope than did the presence of Captain F. The class most anxious to obtain freedom could generally manage to acquire some means which they would willingly offer to captains or conductors in the South for such assistance as was indispensable to their escape. Many of the slaves learned if they could manage to cross Mason and Dixon’s line, even though they might be utterly destitute and penniless, that they would then receive aid and protection from the Vigilance Committee. Here it may be well to state that, whilst the Committee gladly received and aided all who might come or be brought to them, they never employed agents or captains to go into the South with a view of enticing or running off slaves. So when captains operated, they did so with the full understanding that they alone were responsible for any failures attending their movements.  

(Twenty-eight fugitives were concealed in this vessel.)  

The way is now clear to present Captain F. with his schooner lying at the wharf in Norfolk, loading with wheat, and at the same time with twenty-one fugitives secreted therein. While the boat was thus lying at her mooring, the rumor was flying all over town that a number of slaves had escaped, which created a general excitement a degree less, perhaps, than if the citizens had been visited by an earthquake. The mayor of the city with a posse of officers with axes and long spears repaired to Captain F.’s boat. The fearless commander received his Honor very coolly, and as gracefully as the circumstances would admit. The mayor gave him to understand who he was, and by what authority he appeared on the boat, and what he meant to do. “Very well,” replied Captain F., “here I am and this is my boat, go ahead and search.” His Honor with his deputies looked quickly around, and then an order went forth from the mayor to “spear the wheat thoroughly.” The deputies obeyed the command with alacrity. But the spears brought neither blood nor groans, and the sagacious mayor obviously concluded that he was “barking up the wrong tree.” But the mayor was not there for nothing. “Take the axes and go to work,” was the next order; and the axe was used with terrible effect by one of the deputies. The deck and other parts of the boat were chopped and split; no greater judgment being exercised when using the axe than when spearing the wheat; Captain F. all the while wearing an air of utter indifference or rather of entire composure. Indeed every step they took proved conclusively that they were wholly ignorant with regard to boat searching. At this point, with remarkable shrewdness, Captain F. saw wherein he could still further confuse them by a bold strategical move. As though about out of patience with the mayor’s blunders, the captain instantly reminded his Honor that he had “stood still long enough” while his boat was being “damaged, chopped up,” &c. “Now if you want to search,” continued he, “give me the axe, and then point out the spot you want opened and I will open it for you very quick.” While uttering these words he presented, as he was capable of doing, an indignant and defiant countenance, and intimated that it mattered not where or when a man died provided he was in the right, and as though he wished to give particularly strong emphasis to what he was saying, he raised the axe, and brought it down edge foremost on the deck with startling effect, at the same time causing the splinters to fly from the boards. The mayor and his posse seemed, if not dreadfully frightened, completely confounded, and by the time Captain F. had again brought down his axe with increased power, demanding where they would have him open, they looked as though it was time for them to retire, and in a few minutes after they actually gave up the search and left the boat without finding a soul. Daniel in the lions’ den was not safer than were the twenty-one passengers secreted on Captain F.’s boat. The law had been carried out with a vengeance, but did not avail with this skilled captain. The “five dollars” were paid for being searched, the amount which was lawfully required of every captain sailing from Virginia. And the captain steered direct for the City of Brotherly Love. The wind of heaven favoring the good cause, he arrived safely in due time, and delivered his precious freight in the vicinity of Philadelphia within the reach of the Vigilance Committee. The names of the passengers were as follows:  

ALAN TATUM, DANIEL CARR, MICHAEL VAUGHN, THOMAS NIXON, FREDERICK NIXON, PETER PETTY, NATHANIEL GARDENER, JOHN BROWN, THOMAS FREEMAN, JAMES FOSTER, GODFREY SCOTT, WILLIS WILSON, NANCY LITTLE, JOHN SMITH, FRANCIS HAINES, DAVID JOHNSON, PHILLIS GAULT, ALICE JONES, NED WILSON, and SARAH C. WILSON, and one other, who subsequently passed on, having been detained on account of sickness. These passengers were most “likely-looking articles;” a number of them, doubtless, would have commanded the very highest prices in the Richmond market. Among them were some good mechanics—one excellent dress-maker, some “prime” waiters and chambermaids;—men and women with brains, some of them evincing remarkable intelligence and decided bravery, just the kind of passengers that gave the greatest satisfaction to the Vigilance Committee. The interview with these passengers was extremely interesting. Each one gave his or her experience of Slavery, the escape, etc., in his or her own way, deeply impressing those who had the privilege of seeing and hearing them, with the fact of the growing spirit of Liberty, and the wonderful perception and intelligence possessed by some of the sons of toil in the South. While all the names of these passengers were duly entered on the Underground Rail Road records, the number was too large, and the time they spent with the attempts to escape were made by Daniel, after being sold to North Carolina; for this offence, he was on one occasion stripped naked, and flogged severely. This did not cure him. Prior to his joining Captain F.’s party, he had fled to the swamps, and dwelt there for three months, surrounded with wild animals and reptiles, and it was this state of solitude that he left directly before finding Captain F. Daniel had a wife in Portsmouth, to whom he succeeded in paying a private visit, when, to his unspeakable joy, he made the acquaintance of the noble Captain F., whose big heart was delighted to give him a passage North. Daniel, after being sold, had been allowed, within the two years, only one opportunity of visiting his wife; being thus debarred he resolved to escape. His wife, whose name was Hannah, had three children—slaves—their names were Sam, Dan, and “baby.” The name of the latter was unknown to him.  

MICHAEL VAUGHN. Michael was about thirty-one years of age, with superior physical proportions, and no lack of common sense. His color was without paleness—dark and unfading, and his manly appearance was quite striking. Michael belonged to a lady, whom he described as a “very disagreeable woman.” “For all my life I have belonged to her, but for the last eight years I have hired my time. I paid my mistress $120 a year; a part of the time I had to find my board and all my clothing.” This was the direct, and unequivocal testimony that Michael gave of his slave life, which was the foundation for alleging that his mistress was a “very disagreeable woman.”  

Michael left a wife and one child in Slavery; but they were not owned by his mistress. Before escaping, he felt afraid to lead his companion into the secret of his contemplated movements, as he felt, that there was no possible way for him to do anything for her deliverance; on the other hand, any revelation of the matter might prove too exciting for the poor soul;—her name was Esther. That he did not lose his affection for her whom he was obliged to leave so unceremoniously, is shown by the appended letter:  

NEW BEDFORD, August 22d, 1855.  

DEAR SIR:—I send you this to inform you that I expect my wife to come that way. If she should, you will direct her to me. When I came through your city last Fall, you took my name in your office, which was then given you, Michael Vaughn; since then my name is William Brown, No. 130 Kempton street. Please give my wife and child’s name to Dr. Lundy, and tell him to attend to it for me. Her name is Esther, and the child’s name Louisa.  

Truly yours,  


Michael worked in a foundry. In church fellowship he was connected with the Methodists—his mistress with the Baptists.  

THOMAS NIXON was about nineteen years of age, of a dark hue, and quite intelligent. He had not much excuse to make for leaving, except, that he was “tired of staying” with his “owner,” as he “feared he might be sold some day,” so he “thought” that he might as well save him the trouble. Thomas belonged to a Mr. Bockover, a wholesale grocer, No. 12 Brewer street. Thomas left behind him his mother and three brothers. His father was sold away when he was an infant, consequently he never saw him. Thomas was a member of the Methodist Church; his master was of the same persuasion.  

FREDERICK NIXON was about thirty-three years of age, and belonged truly to the wide-awake class of slaves, as his marked physical and mental appearance indicated. He had a more urgent excuse for escaping than Thomas; he declared that he fled because, his owner wanted “to work him hard without allowing him any chance, and had treated him rough.” Frederick was also one of Mr. Bockover’s chattels; he left his wife, Elizabeth, with four children in bondage. They were living in Eatontown, North Carolina. It had been almost one year since he had seen them. Had he remained in Norfolk he had not the slightest prospect of being reunited to his wife and children, as he had been already separated from them for about three years. This painful state of affairs only increased his desire to leave those who were brutal enough to make such havoc in his domestic relations.  

PETER PETTY was about twenty-four years of age, and wore a happy countenance; he was a person of agreeable manners, and withal pretty smart. He acknowledged, that he had been owned by Joseph Boukley, Hair Inspector. Peter did not give Mr. Boukley a very good character, however; he said, that Mr. B. was “rowdyish in his habits, was deceitful and sly, and would sell his slaves any time. Hard bondage—something like the children of Israel,” was his simple excuse for fleeing. He hired his time of his master, for which he was compelled to pay $156 a year. When he lost time by sickness or rainy weather, he was required to make up the deficiency, also find his clothing. He left a wife—Lavinia—and one child, Eliza, both slaves. Peter communicated to his wife his secret intention to leave, and she acquiesced in his going. He left his parents also. All his sisters and brothers had been sold. Peter would have been sold too, but his owner was under the impression, that he was “too good a Christian” to violate the laws by running away. Peter’s master was quite a devoted Methodist, and was attached to the same Church with Peter. While on the subject of religion, Peter was asked about the kind and character of preaching that he had been accustomed to hear; whereupon he gave the following graphic specimen: “Servants obey your masters; good servants make good masters; when your mistress speaks to you don’t pout out your mouths; when you want to go to church ask your mistress and master,” etc., etc. Peter declared, that he had never heard but one preacher speak against slavery, and that “one was obliged to leave suddenly for the North.” He said, that a Quaker lady spoke in meeting against Slavery one day, which resulted in an outbreak, and final breaking up of the meeting.  

PHILLIS GAULT. Phillis was a widow, about thirty years of age; the blood of two races flowed in about equal proportions through her veins. Such was her personal appearance, refinement, manners, and intelligence, that had the facts of her slave life been unknown, she would have readily passed for one who had possessed superior advantages. But the facts in her history proved, that she had been made to feel very keenly the horrifying effects of Slavery; not in the field, for she had never worked there; nor as a common drudge, for she had always been required to fill higher spheres; she was a dress-maker—but not without fear of the auction block. This dreaded destiny was the motive which constrained her to escape with the twenty others; secreted in the hold of a vessel expressly arranged for bringing away slaves. Death had robbed her of her husband at the time that the fever raged so fearfully in Norfolk. This sad event deprived her of the hope she had of being purchased by her husband, as he had intended. She was haunted by the constant thought of again being sold, as she had once been, and as she had witnessed the sale of her sister’s four children after the death of their mother.  

Phillis was, to use her own striking expression in a state of “great horror;” she felt, that nothing would relieve her but freedom. After having fully pondered the prospect of her freedom and the only mode offered by which she could escape, she consented to endure bravely whatever of suffering and trial might fall to her lot in the undertaking—and as was the case with thousands of others, she succeeded. She remained several days in the family of a member of the Committee in Philadelphia, favorably impressing all who saw her. As she had formed a very high opinion of Boston, from having heard it so thoroughly reviled in Norfolk, she desired to go there. The Committee made no objections, gave her a free ticket, etc. From that time to the present, she has ever sustained a good Christian character, and as an industrious, upright, and intelligent woman, she has been and is highly respected by all who know her. The following letter is characteristic of her:  

BOSTON, March 22, 1858.  

MY DEAR SIR—I received your photograph by Mr Cooper and it afforded me much pleasure to do so i hope that these few lines may find you and your family well as it leaves me and little Dicky at present i have no interesting news to tell you more than there is a great revival of religion through the land i all most forgoten to thank you for your kindness and our little Dick he is very wild and goes to school and it is my desire and prayer for him to grow up a useful man I wish you would try to gain some information from Norfolk and write me word how the times are there for i am afraid to write. i wish yoo would see the Doctor for me and ask him if he could carefully find out any way that we could steal little Johny for i think to raise nine or ten hundred dollars for such a child is outraigust. just at this time i feel as if i would rather steal him than to buy him. give my kinde regards to the Dr and his family tell Miss Margret and Mrs Landy that i would like to see them out here this summer again to have a nice time in Cambridge Miss Walker that spent the evening with me in Cambridge sens much love to yoo and Mrs. Landy give my kindes regards to Mrs Still and children and receive a portion for yoo self. i have no more to say at present but remain yoor respectfully.  


When you write direct yoo letters Mrs. Flarece P. Gault, No 62 Pinkney St. 

This text is in the public domain. Retrieved from http://www.gutenberg.org/files/15263/15263-h/15263-h.htm.
Text Dependent Questions
  1. Question
    When Captain F’s vessel was searched, how many fugitives were traveling along the Underground Railroad?
    There were 28 fugitives.
  2. Question
    What role, if any, did the Vigilance Committee play in assisting fugitive slaves?
    They offered protection and assistance once fugitive slaves crossed the Mason-Dixon Line.
  3. Question
    What can you tell about William Still from his writing and collection of narratives?
    Answers will vary and may include that he did not agree with slavery.
  4. Question
    How might these narratives provide a different picture of the Underground Railroad?
    Answers will vary and may include the biographies of those on Captain F’s vessel that reflect everyday people and give a face to people who were legally considered “property.”
Reveal Answers
Illustration of person holding and looking at laptop.

New Virtual Workshops Are Available Now!

Registrations are now open for our 90-minute virtual open enrollment workshops. Explore the schedule, and register today—the first workshop begins October 16th and space is limited!

Sign Up!