This excerpt from “The Underground Railroad” by William Still documents the escape of a fugitive from the clutches of the Governor of North Carolina.
This fugitive was William Jordan, who took the alias of William Price. Before he could find help on the Underground Railroad, he hid for ten months in a cave in the woods.
Eventually, he reached Philadelphia and the Underground Station ran by the local committee. They were most interested to hear William’s account of how the Governor went about his business.
[Any headings and italicized text in the excerpt below were added by the website editor. The rest is verbatim from the book apart from some changes to the punctuation]
Owned By The Governor Of North Carolina
Under Governor Badger, of North Carolina, William had experienced Slavery in its most hateful form.
True, he had only been twelve months under the yoke of this high functionary. But William’s experience in this short space of time, was of a nature very painful.
Previous to coming into the governor’s hands, William was held as the property of Mrs. Mary Jordon, who owned large numbers of slaves.
Whether the governor was moved by this consideration, or by the fascinating charms of Mrs. Jordon, or both, William was not able to decide. But the governor offered her his hand, and they became united in wedlock.
By this circumstance, William was brought into his unhappy relations with the Chief Magistrate of the State of North Carolina.
This was the third time the governor had been married. Thus it may be seen, that the governor was a firm believer in wives as well as slaves. Commonly he was regarded as a man of wealth.
The Committee Gathers Intelligence
William being an intelligent piece of property, his knowledge of the governor’s rules and customs was quite complete, as he readily answered such questions as were propounded to him.
In this way a great amount of interesting information was learned from William respecting the governor, slaves, on the plantation, in the swamps, etc.
The governor owned large plantations, and was interested in raising cotton, corn, and peas, and was also a practical planter. He was willing to trust neither overseers nor slaves any further than he could help.
The governor and his wife were both equally severe towards them; would stint them shamefully in clothing and food, though they did not get flogged quite as often as some others on neighboring plantations.
Frequently, the governor would be out on the plantation from early in the morning till noon, inspecting the operations of the overseers and slaves.
Separation And A Broken Promise
In order to serve the governor, William had been separated from his wife by sale, which was the cause of his escape. He parted not with his companion willingly.
At the time, however, he was promised that he should have some favors shown him; – could make over-work, and earn a little money, and once or twice in the year, have the opportunity of making visits to her.
Two hundred miles was the distance between them.
He had not been long on the governor’s plantation before his honor gave him distinctly to understand that the idea of his going two hundred miles to see his wife was all nonsense, and entirely out of the question.
“If I said so, I did not mean it,” said his honor, when the slave, on a certain occasion, alluded to the conditions on which he consented to leave home, etc.
Deciding To Flee
Against this cruel decision of the governor, William’s heart revolted, for he was warmly attached to his wife, and so he made up his mind, if he could not see her “once or twice a year even,” as he had been promised, he had rather “die,” or live in a “cave in the wood,” than to remain all his life under the governor’s yoke.
Obeying the dictates of his feelings, he went to the woods.
For ten months before he was successful in finding the Underground Road, this brave-hearted young fugitive abode in the swamps – three months in a cave – surrounded with bears, wild cats, rattle-snakes and the like.
While in the swamps and cave, he was not troubled, however, about ferocious animals and venomous reptiles. He feared only man!
From his own story there was no escaping the conclusion, that if the choice had been left to him, he would have preferred at any time to have encountered at the mouth of his cave a ferocious bear than his master, the governor of North Carolina.
How he managed to subsist, and ultimately effected his escape, was listened to with the deepest interest, though the recital of these incidents must here be very brief.
Ten Months In The Woods
After night he would come out of his cave, and, in some instances, would succeed in making his way to a plantation, and if he could get nothing else, he would help himself to a “pig,” or anything else he could conveniently convert into food.
Also, as opportunity would offer, a friend of his would favor him with some meal, etc. With this mode of living he labored to content himself until he could do better.
During these ten months he suffered indescribable hardships, but he felt that his condition in the cave was far preferable to that on the plantation, under the control of his Excellency, the Governor.
All this time, however, William had a true friend, with whom he could communicate; one who was wide awake, and was on the alert to find a reliable captain from the North, who would consent to take this “property,” or “freight,” for a consideration.
At Last, A Conductor Found
He heard at last of a certain Captain, who was then doing quite a successful business in an Underground way.
[The book doesn’t go into the details but I assume that this is a captain of a schooner who would transport concealed fugitives to Philadelphia.]
This good news was conveyed to William, and afforded him a ray of hope in the wilderness.
As Providence would have it, his hope did not meet with disappointment; nor did his ten months’ trial, warring against the barbarism of Slavery, seem too great to endure for Freedom.
He was about to leave his cave and his animal and reptile neighbors, – his heart swelling with gladness, – but the thought of soon being beyond the reach of his mistress and master thrilled him with inexpressible delight.
He was brought away by Captain F., and turned over to the Committee, who were made to rejoice with him over the signal victory he had gained in his martyr-like endeavors to throw off the yoke, and of course they took much pleasure in aiding him.
About The Book
“The Underground Railroad” was published in 1872. The book gives the testimonies of hundreds of slaves who escaped to freedom using the network of agents and safe houses.
The author, William Still, was a black abolitionist and businessman who was a key member of the Philadelphia stop in the freedom network.
The book is in the public domain. It can be found in the Library of Congress.