This excerpt from “The Underground Railroad” by William Still documents the escape of three brothers with two of their wives, and several children.
It was rare that entire families with children could escape together. The Taylor brothers hitched up their owner’s horses to his carriage and rode off with as much family as they could.
You’ll see that the owner made several failed attempts to recover the fugitives. You’ll also see that the third Taylor brother was desperate to return to Maryland to liberate his wife.
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.
Any headings and italicized text in the excerpt below were added by me. The rest is nearly verbatim from the book. There are some changes to the punctuation.
Excerpt – Three Brothers, Two Of Them With Wives And Children
About the latter part of March, 1856, Owen Taylor and his wife, Mary Ann, and their little son, Edward, together with a brother and his wife and two children, and a third brother, Benjamin, arrived from near Clear Springs, nine miles from Hagerstown, Maryland.
They all left their home, or rather escaped from the prison-house, on Easter Sunday, and came viâ Harrisburg, where they were assisted and directed to the Vigilance Committee in Philadelphia.
A more interesting party had not reached the Committee for a long time.
The three brothers were intelligent and heroic, and, in the resolve to obtain freedom, not only for themselves, but for their wives and children desperately in earnest.
They had counted well the cost of this struggle for liberty and had fully made up their minds that if interfered with by slave catchers, somebody would have to bite the dust.
That they had pledged themselves never to surrender alive, was obvious.
Their travel-worn appearance, their attachment for each other, the joy that the tokens of friendship afforded them, the description they gave of incidents on the road, made an impression not soon to be effaced.
In the presence of a group like this Sumner’s great and eloquent speech on the Barbarism of Slavery, seemed almost cold and dead:
- the mute appeals of these little ones in their mother’s arms
- the unlettered language of these young mothers, striving to save their offspring from the doom of Slavery
- the resolute and manly bearing of these brothers expressed in words full of love of liberty, and of the determination to resist Slavery to the death, in defence of their wives and children
This was Sumner’s speech enacted before our eyes.
[Editor’s note: The Sumner referred to above was a Massachusetts Senator who gave a fiery speech in the Senate in 1856. You can read more in our article on Charles Sumner’s speech against slavery.]
Owen Taylor And His (Second) Wife
Owen was about thirty-one years of age but had experienced a deal of trouble.
He had been married twice, and both wives were believed to be living.
The first one, with their little child, had been sold in the Baltimore market, about three years before, the mother was sent to Louisiana, the child to South Carolina.
Father, mother, and child, parted with no hope of ever seeing each other again in this world.
After Owen’s wife was sent South, he sent her his likeness and a dress; the latter was received, and she was greatly delighted with it, but he never heard of her having received his likeness.
He likewise wrote to her, but he was not sure that she received his letters. Finally, he came to the conclusion that as she was forever dead to him, he would do well to marry again.
Accordingly, he took to himself another partner, the one who now accompanied him on the Underground Rail Road.
Omitting other interesting incidents, a reference to his handiwork will suffice to show the ability of Owen.
Owen was a born mechanic, and his master practically tested his skill in various ways; sometimes in the blacksmith shop—at other times as a wheelwright—again at making brushes and brooms, and at leisure times he would try his hand in all these crafts.
This Jack-of-all-trades was, of course, very valuable to his master. Indeed his place was hard to fill.
Conditions Of Slavery
Henry Fiery, a farmer, “about sixty-four years of age, a stout, crusty old fellow,” was the owner of Owen and his two brothers.
Besides slaves, the old man was in possession of a wife, whose name was Martha, and seven children, who were pretty well grown up.
One of the sons owned Owen’s wife and two children. Owen declared, that they had been worked hard, while few privileges had been allowed them.
Clothing of the poorest texture was only sparingly furnished. Nothing like Sunday raiment was ever given them; for these comforts they were compelled to do over-work of nights.
Escape By Horse And Carriage
For a long time the idea of escape had been uppermost in the minds of this party.
The first of January, past, was the time “solemnly” fixed upon to “took out,” but for some reason or other (not found on the record book), their strategical minds did not see the way altogether clear, and they deferred starting until Easter Sunday.
On that memorable evening, the men boldly harnessed two of Mr. Fiery’s steeds and placing their wives and children in the carriage, started off viâ Hagerstown, in a direct line for Chambersburg, Pennsylvania, at a rate that allowed no grass to grow under the horses’ feet.
In this manner they made good time, reached Chambersburg safely, and ventured up to a hotel where they put up their horses. Here they bade their faithful beasts good-bye and “took out” for Harrisburg by another mode of travel, the cars.
On their arrival they naturally fell into the hands of the Committee, who hurried them off to Philadelphia, apprising the Committee there of their approach by a dispatch sent ahead.
Probably they had scarcely reached Philadelphia ere the Fierys were in hot haste after them, as far as Harrisburg, if not farther.
It hardly need be hinted, that the community in which the Fierys lived was deeply agitated for days after, as indeed it was along the entire route to Chambersburg, in consequence of this bold and successful movement.
The horses were easily captured at the hotel, where they were left, but, of course, they were mute as to what had become of their drivers.
The furious Fierys probably got wind of the fact, that they had made their way to Harrisburg.
At any rate they made very diligent search at this point. While here prosecuting his hunting operations, Fiery managed to open communication with at least one member of the Harrisburg Committee, to whom his grievances were made known, but derived little satisfaction.
After the experience of a few weeks, the pursuers came to the conclusion, that there was no likelihood of recovering them through these agencies, or through the Fugitive Slave Law.
In their despair, therefore, they resorted to another “dodge.” All at once they became “sort-o’-friendly”—indeed more than half disposed to emancipate.
The member of the Committee in Harrisburg had, it is probable, frequently left room for their great delusion, if he did not even go so far as to feed their hopes with plausible suggestions, that some assistance might be afforded by which an amicable settlement might be made between masters and slaves.
The following extract, from the Committee’s letter, relative to this matter, is open to this inference, and may serve to throw some light on the subject:
Attempt To Recover The Fugitives
HARRISBURG, April 28, ’56.
Your last came to hand in due season, and I am happy to hear of the safe arrival of those gents.
I have before me the Power of Attorney of Mr. John S. Fiery, son of Mr. Henry Fiery, of Washington county, Md., the owner of those three men, two women and three children, who arrived in your town on the 24th or 25th of March.
He graciously condescends to liberate the oldest in a year, and the remainder in proportional time, if they will come back; or to sell them their time for $1300.
He is sick of the job, and is ready to make any conditions.
Now, if you personally can get word to them and get them to send him a letter, in my charge, informing him of their whereabouts and prospects, I think it will be the best answer I can make him.
He will return here in a week or two, to know what can be done. He offers $500 to see them.
Or if you can send me word where they are, I will endeavor to write to them for his special satisfaction; or if you cannot do either, send me your latest information, for I intend to make him spend a few more dollars, and if possible get a little sicker of this bad job.
Do try and send him a few bitter pills for his weak nerves and disturbed mind.
Yours in great haste,
Jos. C. Bustill.
A subsequent letter from Mr. Bustill contains, besides other interesting Underground Rail Road matter, an item relative to the feeling of disappointment experienced by Mr. Fiery on learning that his property was in Canada.
HARRISBURG, May 26, ’56.
I embrace the opportunity presented by the visit of our friend, John F. Williams, to drop you a few lines in relation to our future operations.
The Lightning Train was put on the Road on last Monday, and as the traveling season has commenced and this is the Southern route for Niagara Falls, I have concluded not to send by way of Auburn, except in cases of great danger; but hereafter we will use the Lightning Train, which leaves here at 1-1/2 and arrives in your city at 5 o’clock in the morning, and I will telegraph about 5-1/2 o’clock in the afternoon, so it may reach you before you close.
These four are the only ones that have come since my last. The woman has been here some time waiting for her child and her beau, which she expects here about the first of June. If possible, please keep a knowledge of her whereabouts, to enable me to inform him if he comes.
I have nothing more to send you, except that John Fiery has visited us again and much to his chagrin received the information of their being in Canada.
Yours as ever,
Jos. C. Bustill.
Letters From Canada
Whilst the Fierys were working like beavers to re-enslave these brave fugitives, the latter were daily drinking in more and more of the spirit of freedom and were busy with schemes for the deliverance of other near kin left behind under the galling yoke.
Several very interesting letters were received from Otho Taylor, relative to a raid he designed making expressly to effect the escape of his family.
The two subjoined must suffice, (others, much longer, cannot now be produced, they have probably been loaned and not returned.)
APRIL 15th, 1857.
We arrived here safely.
Mr. Syrus and his lady is well situated. They have a place for the year round 15 dollars per month.
We are all well and hope that you are all the same. Now I wish to know whether you would please to send me some money to go after those people.
Send it here if you please.
ST. CATHARINES, Jan. 26, 1857.
MR. WM. STILL:—Dear Sir—
I write at this time in behalf of Otho Taylor. He is very anxious to go and get his family at Clear Spring, Washington county, Md.
He would like to know if the Society there would furnish him the means to go after them from Philadelphia, that you will be running no risk in doing this.
If the Society can do this, he would not be absent from P. more than three days. He is so anxious to get his family from slavery that he is willing to do almost anything to get them to Canada.
You may possibly recollect him—he was at your place last August. I think he can be trusted.
If you can do something for him, he has the means to take him to your place.
Please let me know immediately if you can do this.
Such appeals came very frequently from Canada, causing much sadness, as but little encouragement could be held out to such projects.
In the first place, the danger attendant upon such expeditions was so fearful, and in the second place, our funds were so inadequate for this kind of work, that, in most cases, such appeals had to be refused.
Of course, there were those whose continual coming, like the poor widow in the Gospel, could not be denied.