These excerpts from William Still’s The Underground Rail Road document some of twenty-eight fugitives who escaped to freedom by river.
Their escape was successful despite the boat being boarded and searched by the Major and police force of Norfolk. You can read the account in our separate excerpt of an escape by ship via the Underground Railroad.
These excerpts are the testimonies of their background and reasons for fleeing from slavery.
Excerpt – Michael Vaughn Alias William Brown
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.
Letter From Michael Vaughn Alias William Brown
NEW BEDFORD, August 22d, 1855.
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.
Final Notes By The Vigilance Committee
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 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:
Letter from Phillis Gault
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.
FLARECE P. GAULT.
When you write direct yoo letters Mrs. Flarece P. Gault, No 62 Pinkney St.
The Underground Railroad by William Still was published in 1872.
The book is in the public domain. It can be found in the Library of Congress.