Escape Of John Henry Hill – The Underground Railroad

This excerpt from “The Underground Railroad” documents the escape of John Henry Hill from a slave auction in Richmond, Virginia.

“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.

This excerpt is titled:  “Escape Of John Henry Hill From The Slave Auction In Richmond, On The First Day Of January, 1853“.

Excerpt – Escape Of John Henry Hill From The Slave Auction

JOHN HENRY at that time, was a little turned of twenty-five years of age, full six feet high, and remarkably well proportioned in every respect. He was rather of a brown color, with marked intellectual features.

John was by trade, a carpenter, and was considered a competent workman. The year previous to his escape, he hired his time, for which he paid his owner $150. This amount John had fully settled up the last day of the year.

As he was a young man of steady habits, a husband and father, and withal an ardent lover of Liberty; his owner, John Mitchell, evidently observed these traits in his character, and concluded that he was a dangerous piece of property to keep; that his worth in money could be more easily managed than the man.

Consequently, his master unceremoniously, without intimating in any way to John, that he was to be sold, took him to Richmond, on the first day of January (the great annual sale day), and directly to the slave-auction.

Just as John was being taken into the building, he was invited to submit to hand-cuffs. As the thought flashed upon his mind that he was about to be sold on the auction-block, he grew terribly desperate.

“Liberty or death” was the watchword of that awful moment.

In the twinkling of an eye, he turned on his enemies, with his fist, knife, and feet, so tiger-like, that he actually put four or five men to flight, his master among the number.

His enemies thus suddenly baffled, John wheeled, and, as if assisted by an angel, strange as it may appear, was soon out of sight of his pursuers, and securely hid away.

This was the last hour of John Henry’s slave life, but not, however, of his struggles and sufferings for freedom, for before a final chance to escape presented itself, nine months elapsed. The mystery as to where, and how he fared, the following account, in his own words, must explain:

John Henry Hill’s Direct Account (Spelling Unchanged):

Nine months I was trying to get away. I was secreted for a long time in a kitchen of a merchant near the corner of Franklyn and 7th streets, at Richmond, where I was well taken care of, by a lady friend of my mother.

When I got Tired of staying in that place, I wrote myself a pass to pass myself to Petersburg, here I stopped with a very prominent Colored person, who was a friend to Freedom stayed here until two white friends told other friends if I was in the city to tell me to go at once, and stand not upon the order of going, because they had hard a plot.

I wrot a pass, started for Richmond, Reached Manchester, got off the Cars walked into Richmond, once more got back into the same old Den, Stayed here from the 16th of Aug. to 12th Sept.

On the 11th of Sept. 8 o’clock P.M. a message came to me that there had been a State Room taken on the steamer City of Richmond for my benefit, and I assured the party that it would be occupied if God be willing.

Before 10 o’clock the next morning, on the 12th, a beautiful Sept. day, I arose early, wrote my pass for Norfolk left my old Den with a many a good bye, turned out the back way to 7th St., thence to Main, down Main behind 4 night waich to old Rockett’s and after about 20 minutes of delay I succeed in Reaching the State Room.

My Conductor was very much Excited, but I felt as Composed as I do at this moment, for I had started from my Den that morning for Liberty or for Death providing myself with a Brace of Pistels.

Yours truly


William Still’s Narrative Continues…

A private berth was procured for him on the steamship City of Richmond, for the amount of $125, and thus he was brought on safely to Philadelphia.

While in the city, he enjoyed the hospitalities of the Vigilance Committee, and the greetings of a number of friends, during the several days of his sojourn.

The thought of his wife, and two children, left in Petersburg, however, naturally caused him much anxiety.

Fortunately, they were free, therefore, he was not without hope of getting them; moreover, his wife’s father (Jack McCraey), was a free man, well known, and very well to do in the world, and would not be likely to see his daughter and grandchildren suffer.

In this particular, Hill’s lot was of a favorable character, compared with that of most slaves leaving their wives and children.

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More About John Henry Hill

The book reproduces thirteen letters from William Henry Hill after his escape and further commentary from William Still.

The next section in the book concerns the escape of Hezekiah Hill, William Henry’s uncle (follow the link to read the excerpt on this website).

The section after that concerns the escape of William Henry’s younger brother. James had to hide for three years in Richmond before he could get out. The account is less clear as it is referred to in a letter from another party.

I haven’t reproduced the section on James, but I will record here that it finishes with a summary of the whereabouts of the three Hill relatives:

John Henry had returned to Petersburg, Virginia, where he was a Justice of the Peace. Hezekiah was living at West Point and James was living in Boston.

Check out the link in the source citation below if you want to get a copy of the book.


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.

Names In History

Our website tracks the black history of many names. Check out our article on Hill as an African American surname.