This excerpt from “The Underground Railroad” by William Still documents the escape of a party of eight fugitives who traveled together from Maryland to Philadelphia.
Their owners made threats to sell them to Georgia. As the book wryly notes, they thought it wise to leave their masters with “as few as possible to be troubled with selling”.
Three of the party were a young married couple with an eight-month-old baby. It was quite rare for fugitives to be able to travel with such a young child.
[Any headings and italicized text in the excerpt below were added by the website editor. The rest is nearly verbatim from the book. I changed the order of some sections to make the narrative easier to follow. There are also some changes to the punctuation.]
Excerpt About George Rhoads
George Rhoads is a young man of twenty-five years of age, chestnut color, face round, and hating Slavery heartily.
He had come from under the control of John P. Dellum a farmer, and a crabbed master, who “would swear very much when crossed, and would drink moderately every day,” except sometimes he would “take a spree,” and would then get pretty high.
Withal he was a member of the Presbyterian church at Perryville, Maryland; he was a single man and followed farming.
Within the last two or three years, he had sold a man and woman; hence, George thought it was time to take warning. Accordingly he felt it to be his duty to try for Canada, via Underground Rail Road.
As his master had always declared that if one run off, he would sell the rest to Georgia, George very wisely concluded that as an effort would have to be made, they had better leave their master with as “few as possible to be troubled with selling.”
Consequently, a consultation was had between the brothers, which resulted in the exit of a party of eight.
The market price for George would be about $1400. A horrid example professed Christians set before the world, while holding slaves and upholding Slavery
About James Rhoads
James Rhoads, brother of George, was twenty-three years of age, medium size, dark color, intelligent and manly, and would doubtless have brought, in the Richmond market, $1700.
Fortunately he brought his wife and child with him.
James was also held by the same task-master who held George. Often had he been visited with severe stripes, and had borne his full share of suffering from his master.
About Sarah Elizabeth Rhoads
Sarah Elizabeth Rhoads, wife of James Rhoads, was seventeen years of age, a tall, dark, young woman, who had had no chances for mental improvement, except such as were usual on a farm, stocked with slaves, where learning to read the Bible was against the “rules.”
Sarah was a young slave mother with a babe (of course a slave) only eight months old.
She was regarded as having been exceedingly fortunate in having rescued herself and child from the horrid fate of slaves.
As I mentioned in the introduction, there aren’t many examples in Still’s book of an escape with an infant. You can find another case where Aaron and Daffney Cornish escaped with six children including a babe-in-arms.
Other Members Of the Escape Party
[Eight fugitives escaped together. Here are the others.]
George Washington, one of the same party, was only about fifteen years of age; he was tall enough, however, to pass for a young man of twenty.
George was of an excellent, fast, dark color. Of course, mentally he was undeveloped, nevertheless, possessed of enough mother-wit to make good his escape.
In the slave market he might have been valued at $800.
George was claimed as the lawful property of Benjamin Sylves—a Presbyterian, who owned besides, two men, three girls, and a boy. He was “tolerable good” sometimes, and sometimes “bad.”
Some of the slaves supposed themselves to be on the eve of being emancipated about the time George left; but of this there was no certainty.
George, however, was not among this hopeful number, consequently, he thought that he would start in time, and would be ready to shout for Freedom quite as soon as any other of his fellow-bondmen.
Mary Elizabeth Stephenson
Mary Elizabeth Stephenson is a promising-looking young woman, of twenty years of age, chestnut color, and well made.
Hard treatment had been her lot.
Left her mother, two sisters and four brothers in bondage. Worth $1100.
Reaction Of The Committee
Although these travelers were of the “field hand” class, who had never been permitted to see much off of the farm, and had been deprived of hearing intelligent people talk, yet the spirit of Freedom, so natural to man, was quite uppermost with all of them.
The members of the Committee who saw them, were abundantly satisfied that these candidates for Canada would prove that they were able to “take care of themselves.”
Their wants were attended to in the usual manner, and they were sent on their way rejoicing, the Committee feeling quite a deep interest in them.
It looked like business to see so many passing over the Road.
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.