This excerpt from “The Underground Railroad” by William Still documents the escape of William and Susan Nelson and their son, William Thomas.
William had learned about the escape network run by the Underground Railroad. He found a schooner captain who was willing to conceal and transport the family for $240.
That was a considerable sum for a man in bondage.
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.
Any headings and italicized text in the excerpt below were added by the website editor. The rest is nearly verbatim from the book. There are some changes to the punctuation.
Excerpt – William And Susan Nelson
Before this passage, the book is detailing several groups of fugitives arriving in June 1855. This excerpt is about the third arrival i.e. Arrival No. 3.
Arrival No. 3, brought William Nelson, his wife, Susan, and son, William Thomas, together with Louisa Bell, and Elias Jasper.
These travelers availed themselves of the schooner of Captain B. who allowed them to embark at Norfolk, despite the search laws of Virginia.
It hardly need be said, however, that it was no trifling matter in those days, to evade the law.
Captains and captives, in order to succeed, found that it required more than ordinary intelligence and courage, shrewdness and determination, and at the same time, a very ardent appreciation of liberty, without which, there could be no success.
The simple announcement then, that a party of this number had arrived from Norfolk, or Richmond, or Petersburg, gave the Committee unusual satisfaction. It made them quite sure that there was pluck and brain somewhere.
These individuals, in a particularly marked degree, possessed the qualities that greatly encouraged the efforts of the Committee.
About The Nelson Family
William Nelson, was a man of a dark chestnut color, medium size, with more than an ordinary degree of what might be termed “mother wit.”
Apparently, William possessed well settled convictions, touching the questions of morals and religion, despite the overflowing tide of corruption and spurious religious teachings consequent on the existing pro-slavery usages all around him.
He was a member of the Methodist Church, under the charge of the Rev. Mr. Jones.
For twenty years, William had served in the capacity of a “packer” under Messrs. Turner and White, who held a deed for William as their legal property.
While he declared that he had been very “tightly worked” he nevertheless admitted that he had been dealt with in a mild manner in some respects.
For his board and clothing, William had been allowed $1.50 per week. Truly a small sum for a hard-working man with a family—yet this was far more than many slaves received from their masters.
In view of receiving this small pittance, he had toiled hard—doing over-work in order to make “buckle and strap meet.”
Once he had been sold on the auction-block. A sister of his had also shared the same fate.
Deciding To Escape
While seriously contemplating his life as a slave, he was soon led to the conclusion that it was his duty to bend his entire energies towards freeing himself and his family if possible.
The idea of not being able to properly provide for his family rendered him quite unhappy. He therefore resolved to seek a passage North, via the Underground Rail Road.
To any captain who would aid him in the matter, he resolved to offer a large reward, and determined that the amount should only be limited by his inability to increase it.
Finally, after much anxious preparation, agreement was entered into with Captain B., on behalf of himself, wife, child, and Louisa Bell, which was mutually satisfactory to all concerned, and afforded great hope to William.
Safe Arrival In Philadelphia
In due time the agreement was carried into effect, and all arrived safely and were delivered into the hands of the Committee in Philadelphia.
The fare of the four cost $240, and William was only too grateful to think, that a Captain could be found who would risk his own liberty in thus aiding a slave to freedom.
The Committee gladly gave them aid and succor, and agreed with William that the Captain deserved all that he received for their deliverance.