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Vigilance

The Life of William Still, Father of the Underground Railroad

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Here is the remarkable and inspiring story of William Still, an unknown abolitionist who dedicated his life to managing a critical section of the Underground Railroad in Philadelphia—the free state directly north of the Mason-Dixon Line—helping hundreds of people escape from slavery.

Born free in 1821 to two parents who had been enslaved, William Still was drawn to antislavery work from a young age. Hired as a clerk at the Anti-Slavery office in Philadelphia after teaching himself to read and write, he began directly assisting enslaved people who were crossing over from the South into freedom. Andrew Diemer captures the full range and accomplishments of Still’s life, from his resistance to Fugitive Slave Laws and his relationship with John Brown before the war, to his long career fighting for citizenship rights and desegregation until the early twentieth century.
 
Despite Still’s disappearance from history books, during his lifetime he was known as “the Father of the Underground Railroad.” Working alongside Harriet Tubman and others at the center of the struggle for Black freedom, Still helped to lay the groundwork for long-lasting activism in the Black community, insisting that the success of their efforts lay not in the work of a few charismatic leaders, but in the cultivation of extensive grassroots networks. Through meticulous research and engaging writing, Vigilance establishes William Still in his rightful place in American history as a major figure of the abolitionist movement.
 
"Compelling. . . . With meticulous care and a jaw-dropping amount of research, Diemer fluently charts Still’s course through the internecine rivalries of reform circles, his relationships with luminaries like Harriet Tubman and John Brown, his network of contacts in slaveholding states, and his trips to Canada in search of safe settlement for those traveling along the Underground Railroad. . . . Vigilance is a moving portrait of one’s man life, but not only his; Diemer weaves in the stories of many other figures . . . whose neglected histories deserve attention and care. Still’s archive is, as he intended, a vibrant legacy, an essential reminder that freedom is often won rather than granted. Diemer’s book, meanwhile, is a tribute to the record keepers.” —Catherine Clinton, The New York Times

“Aside from his efforts helping fugitive slaves, [William] Still was a prominent black leader before and after the Civil War. He was also a businessman and a missionary for black self-help. He assisted Harriet Tubman and kept company with Frederick Douglass. He was an early crusader for civil rights. . . . Vigilance . . . retrieves an important piece of American history . . . fulfill[ing] the purpose that Mr. Diemer lays out: to remedy Still’s ‘erasure’ from historical memory.” —Roger Lowenstein, Wall Street Journal

“The fascinating life of William Still is an essential key to understanding the Underground Railroad and the many, many enslaved people who were its engine. Andrew Diemer tells Still’s tale through deep research and vivid storytelling, bringing to life a too often overlooked champion of Black freedom. William Still’s hard-fought, lifelong commitment to justice timelessly models the best of our American ideals.” —Martha S. Jones, author of Vanguard: How Black Women Broke Barriers, Won the Vote, and Insisted on Equality for All
 
“With his deep knowledge of the volatile borderlands between the free and slave states, Andrew Diemer has both brought to life an unsung hero of the long civil rights struggle and brought into sharp focus the secret workings of the Underground Railroad. William Still’s stirring story is rich with meanings for our own time—dramatizing as it does the elusiveness and fragility of freedom, and the need for tireless vigilance in its defense.” —Elizabeth R. Varon, author of Armies of Deliverance: A New History of the Civil War

“A deeply researched life of a Black Philadelphian who, using his considerable organizational skills, pieced together much of the escape route for enslaved people seeking their freedom. . . . A welcome addition to the literature of abolitionism, spotlighting an important American.”Kirkus Reviews
Chapter One

A Boy in the Pines

William Still was born October 7, 1821, in a remote corner of the southern New Jersey pinelands, the youngest of eighteen children of Levin and Charity Steel. Their home was, as William’s older brother recalled, “a log house, with one door and no glass windows in it,” on the southern edge of Burlington County in what is now Shamong Township, but which was then part of Washington Township, a few miles east of the small town of Medford. The soil was sandy, and the Stills’ property was one of the small farms that had been carved out of the pine forest that to this day stretches over the gently undulating ground of southern New Jersey. Black residents, the vast majority of them free, made up less than 5 percent of the population in Burlington County, and while robust Black communities could be found in parts of the county, the Stills settled in an area where they were one of few Black families.

What had brought the Still family to this place? Neither Levin nor Charity had been born in New Jersey. Both had been born into slavery, a hundred miles to the south on the Eastern Shore of Maryland, in Caroline County. In contrast to Dorchester County, to its immediate south, bordering the Chesapeake, Caroline County, inland and abutting the state of Delaware along its eastern border, contained somewhat fewer slaves, about 20 percent of the population in 1800. As young children, both had been enslaved to one William Banning, but when Banning died in 1780, Levin, who was then about ten, became the property of his widow, Margaret, while Charity, then about eight and known as Sidney, passed to Banning’s daughter, Lydia Morton, who later sold her to Alexander Griffith (a man William Still would later remember as Saunders Griffin). Margaret Banning died soon after her husband, and Levin became the property of her grandson, William Wood, who was about the same age as Levin.

Slavery had been the foundation of the economy in this part of Maryland for more than a century, but that economy was changing. The turbulence of the American Revolution helped catalyze a significant shift. Planters who had once almost exclusively focused on a single crop, tobacco, now increasingly grew grains, fruits, and vegetables, and raised livestock. Wheat in particular found a ready market across the Atlantic as the French Revolution and its aftermath disrupted agriculture across Europe. With this diversified agricultural economy came a corresponding demand for different kinds of labor and a transformation in the seasonal rhythms of production. Wheat, for example, required two intense periods of labor during its cultivation: planting and harvest. At these times, farmers sought all the work they could get. The rest of the year, however, there was far less to be done in order to tend to the crop. This posed a problem for planters, who saw that their enslaved labor force continued to grow over these years. Ever creative in their exploitation of slave labor, masters turned this problem into an opportunity. In the decades which followed the American Revolution, slave laborers were put to work grinding grain, tending livestock, and transporting crops to market. They worked as coopers, smiths, millers, and tanners.

While slave masters did their best to get the most value out of their enslaved property, there was a growing sense among the planters of the Chesapeake region that they had more slave labor than they needed. Some responded by selling slaves south and west to the burgeoning cotton frontier where the lust for slave labor was almost insatiable. The division of enslaved families became the hallmark of this “generation” of Chesapeake slavery. Other masters hired out underused slaves for a period of time. Many of these hired-out slaves were put to work in towns, large and small, across the region. There was also the escalating fear among masters that their property in slaves was endangered by the possibility of flight. Slaves had always run away, of course, but the gradual abolition of slavery in the states just north of Maryland, along with the growth of free Black populations closer to home, especially in Baltimore, where fugitives might find refuge, meant that fugitives were ever more likely to be successful in evading recapture.

Enslaved Marylanders were quick to take advantage of these conditions. Masters were desperate to find some way to control enslaved property that seemed increasingly beyond their control, and as a result more and more were willing to negotiate with their slaves in order to secure them as long as possible; for some this would provide a path to freedom. Levin Steel was one of these who made his desires clear. “I’d sooner die than stay a slave,” he told his master. Rather than risk losing his slave for nothing, Levin Steel’s young master agreed to allow him to purchase his own freedom. They settled on a price and then it fell to Levin to find ways to meet that price. The complex economy of the Chesapeake presented opportunities for a man like Levin to make extra money, but this was, of course, for work done above what was already demanded of him by his master. He would have had to work late into the night, and on the Sundays that slaves were typically given off. Often enslaved families pooled their labor to pay for the manumission of a single member; perhaps this was the case for the Steel family. Levin was resolute, and on November 22, 1798, his efforts were rewarded: his master, William Wood, signed his manumission. Levin was twenty-four years old, and it had taken him years, and sacrifices at which we can only guess, to buy his own freedom.

Levin had a problem, however. His wife, Sidney, was still enslaved, as were their four children, two boys and two girls. They had a different owner, so perhaps Sidney’s owner was unwilling to negotiate with her as Levin’s master had with him. Even if their master was willing to sell, perhaps the prospect of paying the price for five manumissions was not feasible. Levin and Sidney knew that every year it took to pay the price of manumission increased the risk that a master would sell his property to the highest bidder, potentially separating the family forever. Whatever the case, Levin decided to leave his family behind, heading north to New Jersey. It is possible that Levin hoped he would be able to make more money in this new home and that he planned to return to purchase his wife and children. Perhaps he and Sidney had planned for her to run away when the opportunity arose. In any case, likely sometime in 1807, Sidney and the four children fled from their master and joined Levin in New Jersey.

The family was reunited in the small town of Greenwich, New Jersey, located along the water where the Delaware River broadens into the Delaware Bay. They likely made their home in the Black community known as Springtown, in the northeastern portion of town. Across southern New Jersey, such Black settlements provided community and protection to Black residents. Communities like Springtown also relied on close relationships with sympathetic white Quakers who were prominent in the region; Friends had been among the earliest settlers of Greenwich. Fugitives from slavery like Sidney were particularly aware of their vulnerability. New Jersey had passed a gradual abolition law in 1804, stipulating that all enslaved people born after July 4, 1804, would become free, upon their twenty-first birthday for women, and upon their twenty-fifth birthday for men, but that meant that there were thousands of people still legally enslaved in the state. Even more pressing, the fugitive slave law of 1793 permitted slave catchers to travel into the state in search of those who, like Sidney and her family, had fled from bondage in another state. The family changed their last name from Steel to Still. Of course, the names sound quite similar, but there were already many Stills in the area, and the new family likely felt that in adopting this name they would be less likely to stand out.

Unfortunately, Sidney’s reunion with her husband did not last long. Within months, a gang of slave catchers had found her and the children. They seized the five of them and dragged them back to bondage on the Eastern Shore of Maryland. Her owner, Alexander Griffith, eager to prevent the expense of another flight, decided that Sidney would be locked in the garret every night until he could be sure that she was “cured of the desire to do so again.” According to the census of 1800, Griffith owned nine slaves, so Sidney and her children constituted a significant portion of his wealth. Sidney, however, had already resolved that as soon as she could, she would run off again, but she knew she needed to convince her master that she had given up on her hopes for freedom. She did her best to project the appearance of tranquility. She consoled herself through the singing of “good old Methodist tunes.” Griffith continued to confine her at night for several months, but eventually he became convinced that Sidney “seemed better contented than ever,” and he let down his guard, concluding that she was no longer to be locked up at night. Within weeks, Sidney would once again flee north to freedom.

This time, however, she made the heartbreaking decision to leave her two sons behind. The first journey to New Jersey had been difficult; she could be sure that the second would be even worse. There would be no doubt as to where she was headed, and as soon as she was missed, Griffith would have slave catchers on her trail. The girls, Mahalah and Kitturah, were quite young, just infants. She felt she could not leave them. The boys were a bit older; Levin was eight and Peter was six. Sidney’s mother was still enslaved nearby, perhaps even on Griffith’s property, and Sidney hoped that she would be able to look out for the boys. When the night came for her to leave, Sidney crept quietly to the places where the children slept on a little straw bed. Without waking the boys, she kissed them goodbye, lifted the still sleepy girls in her arms, and set out.

When Griffith discovered that Sidney had once again fled, he was furious. He sold both boys, perhaps out of anger, or perhaps out of fear that Sidney might return for them one day. Levin and Peter, still unaware of what had become of their mother, were shipped off to Lexington, Kentucky. As Sidney made the dangerous journey back to New Jersey, her thoughts surely turned again and again to the boys she had left behind. Perhaps there were moments when she felt she had made the wrong choice, when the pain of leaving her boys behind was too much to bear. Perhaps she focused on the two little girls she had with her, reminding herself of the better life she hoped to provide them.

With the girls in tow, Sidney once again successfully navigated the treacherous path north, but once she reunited with Levin, the two realized they could not remain in Greenwich. Griffith would certainly have agents there looking for them. They decided instead to settle in a more remote section of southern New Jersey, in Burlington County, up the Delaware River from Greenwich and further into the pinelands that spread across South Jersey. There were fewer Black families here, which may have concerned the young couple, but the area had been largely settled by white Quakers, which provided some reassurance that their neighbors might welcome them and, if necessary, might shelter Sidney if slave catchers came looking for her and the girls. There was also a small Indian reservation nearby, home to a settlement of Delaware people, who had been granted this land by the colonial legislature in 1758, though most had moved on by the time the Stills arrived. Sidney and Levin hoped that in this isolated corner of New Jersey they could find refuge and make a new life for themselves. Sidney took a new name, as fugitive slaves so often did. Hereafter she would be known as Charity Still.

Western Burlington County, the part that abuts the Delaware River, was a land of rich farmland and relatively dense population, but the Stills made their home toward the east, where this farmland turns into the pinelands. Even today, this area is where suburban Philadelphia gives way to the eerie stillness of the Pine Barrens. The sandy soil of the region gives it a distinctive character. Pine trees flourish, as do wild (and cultivated) blueberries and cranberries. Small streams flow gently but steadily, twisting through the forest, their tea-colored “cedar water” often so dark that the riverbeds are obscured. The pines had long been a place of refuge. Rumor had it that during the Revolution, Hessian soldiers had deserted from the British army and found shelter in the Pine Barrens.

Levin Still, newly arrived in this place and without land of his own, had to take whatever work he could find. In this, though, he was not alone. While the fertile lands to the west were home to prosperous farmers, the pinelands where the Stills resided were home to a different sort: poor, mostly white. William Still would later recall these neighbors as “if not favored with much wealth and education . . . yet a sturdy independent people.” They survived by farming whatever small plots of land they could come by, chopping wood, charcoal burning, marl digging, and cranberry picking. This is likely the sort of work that Levin Still did at first to support his family. Eventually he found work at a sawmill that had been built years earlier by Delaware Indians and which was still called the Indian Mill.

Levin’s ambition, however, was not to work for others but to own land of his own. In the years since the Stills settled in New Jersey, their family had steadily grown; Samuel was born in 1807, shortly after Charity’s flight from bondage, and was followed by Mary, Hannah, James, and Isaac. Around 1814, the rapidly growing Still family moved in with Cato, an elderly Black man. “It was an old log house, one story high and an attic, with one door, large fireplace,” recalled James Still. “I think there were two rooms on the first floor and one on the second.” While living with Cato for a year or two, Levin saved up enough money to buy from Cato some land of his own. On this land Levin built a small house that would be William Still’s first home. Levin eventually acquired a horse and oxen, and on their small plot of land he and his family raised corn, rye, potatoes, and other vegetables. Even so, Levin struggled at times to provide for his rapidly growing family. Three more children would precede William: John, Charles, and Joseph. Food and clothing were sometimes scarce.
© Christopher Descano
ANDREW DIEMER is an associate professor at Towson University. He earned his PhD from Temple University and is author of The Politics of Black Citizenship: Free African Americans in the Mid-Atlantic Borderland, 1817-1863, published by the University of Georgia Press in 2016. He lives in Philadelphia. View titles by Andrew K. Diemer

About

Here is the remarkable and inspiring story of William Still, an unknown abolitionist who dedicated his life to managing a critical section of the Underground Railroad in Philadelphia—the free state directly north of the Mason-Dixon Line—helping hundreds of people escape from slavery.

Born free in 1821 to two parents who had been enslaved, William Still was drawn to antislavery work from a young age. Hired as a clerk at the Anti-Slavery office in Philadelphia after teaching himself to read and write, he began directly assisting enslaved people who were crossing over from the South into freedom. Andrew Diemer captures the full range and accomplishments of Still’s life, from his resistance to Fugitive Slave Laws and his relationship with John Brown before the war, to his long career fighting for citizenship rights and desegregation until the early twentieth century.
 
Despite Still’s disappearance from history books, during his lifetime he was known as “the Father of the Underground Railroad.” Working alongside Harriet Tubman and others at the center of the struggle for Black freedom, Still helped to lay the groundwork for long-lasting activism in the Black community, insisting that the success of their efforts lay not in the work of a few charismatic leaders, but in the cultivation of extensive grassroots networks. Through meticulous research and engaging writing, Vigilance establishes William Still in his rightful place in American history as a major figure of the abolitionist movement.
 
"Compelling. . . . With meticulous care and a jaw-dropping amount of research, Diemer fluently charts Still’s course through the internecine rivalries of reform circles, his relationships with luminaries like Harriet Tubman and John Brown, his network of contacts in slaveholding states, and his trips to Canada in search of safe settlement for those traveling along the Underground Railroad. . . . Vigilance is a moving portrait of one’s man life, but not only his; Diemer weaves in the stories of many other figures . . . whose neglected histories deserve attention and care. Still’s archive is, as he intended, a vibrant legacy, an essential reminder that freedom is often won rather than granted. Diemer’s book, meanwhile, is a tribute to the record keepers.” —Catherine Clinton, The New York Times

“Aside from his efforts helping fugitive slaves, [William] Still was a prominent black leader before and after the Civil War. He was also a businessman and a missionary for black self-help. He assisted Harriet Tubman and kept company with Frederick Douglass. He was an early crusader for civil rights. . . . Vigilance . . . retrieves an important piece of American history . . . fulfill[ing] the purpose that Mr. Diemer lays out: to remedy Still’s ‘erasure’ from historical memory.” —Roger Lowenstein, Wall Street Journal

“The fascinating life of William Still is an essential key to understanding the Underground Railroad and the many, many enslaved people who were its engine. Andrew Diemer tells Still’s tale through deep research and vivid storytelling, bringing to life a too often overlooked champion of Black freedom. William Still’s hard-fought, lifelong commitment to justice timelessly models the best of our American ideals.” —Martha S. Jones, author of Vanguard: How Black Women Broke Barriers, Won the Vote, and Insisted on Equality for All
 
“With his deep knowledge of the volatile borderlands between the free and slave states, Andrew Diemer has both brought to life an unsung hero of the long civil rights struggle and brought into sharp focus the secret workings of the Underground Railroad. William Still’s stirring story is rich with meanings for our own time—dramatizing as it does the elusiveness and fragility of freedom, and the need for tireless vigilance in its defense.” —Elizabeth R. Varon, author of Armies of Deliverance: A New History of the Civil War

“A deeply researched life of a Black Philadelphian who, using his considerable organizational skills, pieced together much of the escape route for enslaved people seeking their freedom. . . . A welcome addition to the literature of abolitionism, spotlighting an important American.”Kirkus Reviews

Excerpt

Chapter One

A Boy in the Pines

William Still was born October 7, 1821, in a remote corner of the southern New Jersey pinelands, the youngest of eighteen children of Levin and Charity Steel. Their home was, as William’s older brother recalled, “a log house, with one door and no glass windows in it,” on the southern edge of Burlington County in what is now Shamong Township, but which was then part of Washington Township, a few miles east of the small town of Medford. The soil was sandy, and the Stills’ property was one of the small farms that had been carved out of the pine forest that to this day stretches over the gently undulating ground of southern New Jersey. Black residents, the vast majority of them free, made up less than 5 percent of the population in Burlington County, and while robust Black communities could be found in parts of the county, the Stills settled in an area where they were one of few Black families.

What had brought the Still family to this place? Neither Levin nor Charity had been born in New Jersey. Both had been born into slavery, a hundred miles to the south on the Eastern Shore of Maryland, in Caroline County. In contrast to Dorchester County, to its immediate south, bordering the Chesapeake, Caroline County, inland and abutting the state of Delaware along its eastern border, contained somewhat fewer slaves, about 20 percent of the population in 1800. As young children, both had been enslaved to one William Banning, but when Banning died in 1780, Levin, who was then about ten, became the property of his widow, Margaret, while Charity, then about eight and known as Sidney, passed to Banning’s daughter, Lydia Morton, who later sold her to Alexander Griffith (a man William Still would later remember as Saunders Griffin). Margaret Banning died soon after her husband, and Levin became the property of her grandson, William Wood, who was about the same age as Levin.

Slavery had been the foundation of the economy in this part of Maryland for more than a century, but that economy was changing. The turbulence of the American Revolution helped catalyze a significant shift. Planters who had once almost exclusively focused on a single crop, tobacco, now increasingly grew grains, fruits, and vegetables, and raised livestock. Wheat in particular found a ready market across the Atlantic as the French Revolution and its aftermath disrupted agriculture across Europe. With this diversified agricultural economy came a corresponding demand for different kinds of labor and a transformation in the seasonal rhythms of production. Wheat, for example, required two intense periods of labor during its cultivation: planting and harvest. At these times, farmers sought all the work they could get. The rest of the year, however, there was far less to be done in order to tend to the crop. This posed a problem for planters, who saw that their enslaved labor force continued to grow over these years. Ever creative in their exploitation of slave labor, masters turned this problem into an opportunity. In the decades which followed the American Revolution, slave laborers were put to work grinding grain, tending livestock, and transporting crops to market. They worked as coopers, smiths, millers, and tanners.

While slave masters did their best to get the most value out of their enslaved property, there was a growing sense among the planters of the Chesapeake region that they had more slave labor than they needed. Some responded by selling slaves south and west to the burgeoning cotton frontier where the lust for slave labor was almost insatiable. The division of enslaved families became the hallmark of this “generation” of Chesapeake slavery. Other masters hired out underused slaves for a period of time. Many of these hired-out slaves were put to work in towns, large and small, across the region. There was also the escalating fear among masters that their property in slaves was endangered by the possibility of flight. Slaves had always run away, of course, but the gradual abolition of slavery in the states just north of Maryland, along with the growth of free Black populations closer to home, especially in Baltimore, where fugitives might find refuge, meant that fugitives were ever more likely to be successful in evading recapture.

Enslaved Marylanders were quick to take advantage of these conditions. Masters were desperate to find some way to control enslaved property that seemed increasingly beyond their control, and as a result more and more were willing to negotiate with their slaves in order to secure them as long as possible; for some this would provide a path to freedom. Levin Steel was one of these who made his desires clear. “I’d sooner die than stay a slave,” he told his master. Rather than risk losing his slave for nothing, Levin Steel’s young master agreed to allow him to purchase his own freedom. They settled on a price and then it fell to Levin to find ways to meet that price. The complex economy of the Chesapeake presented opportunities for a man like Levin to make extra money, but this was, of course, for work done above what was already demanded of him by his master. He would have had to work late into the night, and on the Sundays that slaves were typically given off. Often enslaved families pooled their labor to pay for the manumission of a single member; perhaps this was the case for the Steel family. Levin was resolute, and on November 22, 1798, his efforts were rewarded: his master, William Wood, signed his manumission. Levin was twenty-four years old, and it had taken him years, and sacrifices at which we can only guess, to buy his own freedom.

Levin had a problem, however. His wife, Sidney, was still enslaved, as were their four children, two boys and two girls. They had a different owner, so perhaps Sidney’s owner was unwilling to negotiate with her as Levin’s master had with him. Even if their master was willing to sell, perhaps the prospect of paying the price for five manumissions was not feasible. Levin and Sidney knew that every year it took to pay the price of manumission increased the risk that a master would sell his property to the highest bidder, potentially separating the family forever. Whatever the case, Levin decided to leave his family behind, heading north to New Jersey. It is possible that Levin hoped he would be able to make more money in this new home and that he planned to return to purchase his wife and children. Perhaps he and Sidney had planned for her to run away when the opportunity arose. In any case, likely sometime in 1807, Sidney and the four children fled from their master and joined Levin in New Jersey.

The family was reunited in the small town of Greenwich, New Jersey, located along the water where the Delaware River broadens into the Delaware Bay. They likely made their home in the Black community known as Springtown, in the northeastern portion of town. Across southern New Jersey, such Black settlements provided community and protection to Black residents. Communities like Springtown also relied on close relationships with sympathetic white Quakers who were prominent in the region; Friends had been among the earliest settlers of Greenwich. Fugitives from slavery like Sidney were particularly aware of their vulnerability. New Jersey had passed a gradual abolition law in 1804, stipulating that all enslaved people born after July 4, 1804, would become free, upon their twenty-first birthday for women, and upon their twenty-fifth birthday for men, but that meant that there were thousands of people still legally enslaved in the state. Even more pressing, the fugitive slave law of 1793 permitted slave catchers to travel into the state in search of those who, like Sidney and her family, had fled from bondage in another state. The family changed their last name from Steel to Still. Of course, the names sound quite similar, but there were already many Stills in the area, and the new family likely felt that in adopting this name they would be less likely to stand out.

Unfortunately, Sidney’s reunion with her husband did not last long. Within months, a gang of slave catchers had found her and the children. They seized the five of them and dragged them back to bondage on the Eastern Shore of Maryland. Her owner, Alexander Griffith, eager to prevent the expense of another flight, decided that Sidney would be locked in the garret every night until he could be sure that she was “cured of the desire to do so again.” According to the census of 1800, Griffith owned nine slaves, so Sidney and her children constituted a significant portion of his wealth. Sidney, however, had already resolved that as soon as she could, she would run off again, but she knew she needed to convince her master that she had given up on her hopes for freedom. She did her best to project the appearance of tranquility. She consoled herself through the singing of “good old Methodist tunes.” Griffith continued to confine her at night for several months, but eventually he became convinced that Sidney “seemed better contented than ever,” and he let down his guard, concluding that she was no longer to be locked up at night. Within weeks, Sidney would once again flee north to freedom.

This time, however, she made the heartbreaking decision to leave her two sons behind. The first journey to New Jersey had been difficult; she could be sure that the second would be even worse. There would be no doubt as to where she was headed, and as soon as she was missed, Griffith would have slave catchers on her trail. The girls, Mahalah and Kitturah, were quite young, just infants. She felt she could not leave them. The boys were a bit older; Levin was eight and Peter was six. Sidney’s mother was still enslaved nearby, perhaps even on Griffith’s property, and Sidney hoped that she would be able to look out for the boys. When the night came for her to leave, Sidney crept quietly to the places where the children slept on a little straw bed. Without waking the boys, she kissed them goodbye, lifted the still sleepy girls in her arms, and set out.

When Griffith discovered that Sidney had once again fled, he was furious. He sold both boys, perhaps out of anger, or perhaps out of fear that Sidney might return for them one day. Levin and Peter, still unaware of what had become of their mother, were shipped off to Lexington, Kentucky. As Sidney made the dangerous journey back to New Jersey, her thoughts surely turned again and again to the boys she had left behind. Perhaps there were moments when she felt she had made the wrong choice, when the pain of leaving her boys behind was too much to bear. Perhaps she focused on the two little girls she had with her, reminding herself of the better life she hoped to provide them.

With the girls in tow, Sidney once again successfully navigated the treacherous path north, but once she reunited with Levin, the two realized they could not remain in Greenwich. Griffith would certainly have agents there looking for them. They decided instead to settle in a more remote section of southern New Jersey, in Burlington County, up the Delaware River from Greenwich and further into the pinelands that spread across South Jersey. There were fewer Black families here, which may have concerned the young couple, but the area had been largely settled by white Quakers, which provided some reassurance that their neighbors might welcome them and, if necessary, might shelter Sidney if slave catchers came looking for her and the girls. There was also a small Indian reservation nearby, home to a settlement of Delaware people, who had been granted this land by the colonial legislature in 1758, though most had moved on by the time the Stills arrived. Sidney and Levin hoped that in this isolated corner of New Jersey they could find refuge and make a new life for themselves. Sidney took a new name, as fugitive slaves so often did. Hereafter she would be known as Charity Still.

Western Burlington County, the part that abuts the Delaware River, was a land of rich farmland and relatively dense population, but the Stills made their home toward the east, where this farmland turns into the pinelands. Even today, this area is where suburban Philadelphia gives way to the eerie stillness of the Pine Barrens. The sandy soil of the region gives it a distinctive character. Pine trees flourish, as do wild (and cultivated) blueberries and cranberries. Small streams flow gently but steadily, twisting through the forest, their tea-colored “cedar water” often so dark that the riverbeds are obscured. The pines had long been a place of refuge. Rumor had it that during the Revolution, Hessian soldiers had deserted from the British army and found shelter in the Pine Barrens.

Levin Still, newly arrived in this place and without land of his own, had to take whatever work he could find. In this, though, he was not alone. While the fertile lands to the west were home to prosperous farmers, the pinelands where the Stills resided were home to a different sort: poor, mostly white. William Still would later recall these neighbors as “if not favored with much wealth and education . . . yet a sturdy independent people.” They survived by farming whatever small plots of land they could come by, chopping wood, charcoal burning, marl digging, and cranberry picking. This is likely the sort of work that Levin Still did at first to support his family. Eventually he found work at a sawmill that had been built years earlier by Delaware Indians and which was still called the Indian Mill.

Levin’s ambition, however, was not to work for others but to own land of his own. In the years since the Stills settled in New Jersey, their family had steadily grown; Samuel was born in 1807, shortly after Charity’s flight from bondage, and was followed by Mary, Hannah, James, and Isaac. Around 1814, the rapidly growing Still family moved in with Cato, an elderly Black man. “It was an old log house, one story high and an attic, with one door, large fireplace,” recalled James Still. “I think there were two rooms on the first floor and one on the second.” While living with Cato for a year or two, Levin saved up enough money to buy from Cato some land of his own. On this land Levin built a small house that would be William Still’s first home. Levin eventually acquired a horse and oxen, and on their small plot of land he and his family raised corn, rye, potatoes, and other vegetables. Even so, Levin struggled at times to provide for his rapidly growing family. Three more children would precede William: John, Charles, and Joseph. Food and clothing were sometimes scarce.

Author

© Christopher Descano
ANDREW DIEMER is an associate professor at Towson University. He earned his PhD from Temple University and is author of The Politics of Black Citizenship: Free African Americans in the Mid-Atlantic Borderland, 1817-1863, published by the University of Georgia Press in 2016. He lives in Philadelphia. View titles by Andrew K. Diemer

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