This excerpt from “The Underground Railroad” documents the escape of William Henry Atkins by steamboat to Philadelphia.
After his escape, Henry Atkins writes several letters to the Vigilance Committee in Philadelphia who helped him secure passage to freedom in Canada. He is very anxious to ensure that his wife is helped to follow 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.
Excerpt – The Escape Of William Henry Atkins
William Henry was…a very likely-looking article. He was quite smart, about six feet high, a dark mulatto, and was owned by a Baptist minister.
For some cause not stated on the books, not long before leaving, Henry had received a notice from his owner, (the Baptist Minister) that he might hunt himself a new master as soon as possible.
This was a business that Henry had no relish for.
The owner he already had, he concluded bad enough in all conscience, and it did not occur to him that hunting another would mend the matter much.
So in thinking over the situation, he was “taken sick.” He felt the need of a little time to reflect upon matters of very weighty moment involving his freedom.
So when he was called upon one day to go to his regular toil, the answer was, “I am sick, I am not able to budge hardly.”
The excuse took and Henry attended faithfully to his “sick business,” for the time being, while on the other hand, the Baptist Minister waited patiently all the while for William to get well enough for hunting a new master.
What had to be done, needed to be done quickly, before his master’s patience was exhausted. William soon had matters arranged for traveling North.
Henry’s Wife, Eliza
He had a wife, Eliza, for whom he felt the greatest affection; but as he viewed matters at that time, he concluded that he could really do more for her in Canada than he could in Norfolk.
He saw no chance, either under the Baptist minister, or under a new master. His wife was owned by Susan Langely.
Escape By Steamboat
When the hour arrived to start, as brave men usually do, Henry, having counted all the cost, was in his place on the boat with his face towards Canada.
How he looked at matters on John Bull’s side of the house, letters from Henry will abundantly reveal as follows.
First Letter From Henry Atkins (Spelling Unchanged, Some Punctuation Added)
ST. CATHARINES, August 4, 1854.
MY DEAR SIR
It is with plesure that I now take my pen to inform you that I am well at present and I hope that these few lines may find you injoying good health, and will you plese to be so kind as to send a leter down home for me if you plese to my wife
The reason that I beg the favor of you I have written to you several times and never recieve no answer, she don’t no whar I am at I would like her to no, if it is posible elizeran Actkins, and when you write will you plese to send me all the news
Give my respect to all the fambley and allso to Mr lundey and his fambley and tell him plese to send me those books if you plese the first chance you can git.
Mrs. Wood sends her love to Mr. Still answer this as soon as on hand, the boys all send their love to all, the reason why i sends for a answer write away i expect to live this and go up west nex mounth not to stay to git some land, i have no more at present
I remain your friend.
ST. CATHARINES, C.W., October 5th, 1854.
Second Letter From Henry Atkins (Spelling Unchanged, Some Punctuation Added)
MR. WILLIAM STILL
I take the liberty to address to you a few lines in behalf of my wife, who is still at Norfolk, Va.
I have heard by my friend Richmond Bohm, who arrived lately, that she was in the hands of my friend Henry Lovey (the same who had me in hand at the time I started).
I understood that she was about to make her start this month, and that she was only waiting for me to send her some means.
I would like for you to communicate the substance of this letter to my wife, through my friend Henry Lovey, and for her to come on as soon as she can.
I would like to have my wife write to me a few lines by the first opportunity. She could write to you in Philadelphia, 31 North Fifth street.
I wish to send my love to you & your family & would like for you to answer this letter with the least possible delay in the care of Hiram Wilson.
Very respectfully yours,
P.S. I would like for my friend Henry Lovey to send my wife right on to Philadelphia; not to stop for want of means, for I will forward means on to my friend Wm Still.
My love to my father & mother, my friend Lovey & to all my inquiring friends. If you cannot find it convenient to write, please forward this by the Boat. H.W.A.