This excerpt from “The Underground Railroad” by William Still documents the escape of three friends from the same neighborhood.
Two hid together for weeks in the woods before being captured and jailed. When they escaped and hid again, they were joined by a third friend.
The trio ventured north together.
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 – Henry Banks, Kit Nickless, and Isaac Williams
Rarely were three travelers from the house of bondage received at the Philadelphia station whose narratives were more interesting than those of the above-named individuals.
Before escaping they had encountered difficulties of the most trying nature. No better material for dramatic effect could be found than might have been gathered from the incidents of their lives and travels.
But all that we can venture to introduce here is the brief account recorded at the time of their sojourn at the Philadelphia station when on their way to Canada in 1854.
The three journeyed together. They had been slaves together in the same neighborhood.
Two of them had shared the same den and cave in the woods, and had been shot, captured, and confined in the same prison; had broken out of prison and again escaped.
Consequently their hearts were thoroughly cemented in the hope of reaching freedom together.
Isaac Williams Decides To Flee
Isaac was a stout-made young man, about twenty-six years of age, possessing a good degree of physical and mental ability. Indeed his intelligence forbade his submission to the requirements of Slavery, rendered him unhappy and led him to seek his freedom.
He owed services to D. Fitchhugh up to within a short time before he escaped.
Against Fitchhugh he made grave charges, said that he was a “hard, bad man.” It is but fair to add that Isaac was similarly regarded by his master, so both were dissatisfied with each other.
But the master had the advantage of Isaac, he could sell him. Isaac, however, could turn the table on his master, by running off.
But the master moved quickly and sold Isaac to Dr. James, a negro trader. The trader designed making a good speculation out of his investment.
Joined By Henry Banks
In this situation he made known his condition to a friend of his [Henry Banks] who was in a precisely similar situation. He had lately been sold just as Isaac had to the same trader James.
So no argument was needed to convince his friend and fellow-servant that if they meant to be free they would have to set off immediately.
That night Henry Banks and Isaac Williams started for the woods together, preferring to live among reptiles and wild animals, rather than be any longer at the disposal of Dr. James.
Wounded And In Jail
For two weeks they successfully escaped their pursuers.
The woods, however, were being hunted in every direction, and one day the pursuers came upon them, shot them both, and carried them to King George’s Co. jail.
The jail being an old building had weak places in it.
But the prisoners concluded to make no attempt to break out while suffering badly from their wounds. So they remained one month in confinement.
All the while their brave spirits under suffering grew more and more daring.
Again they decided to strike for freedom, but where to go, save to the woods, they had not the slightest idea. Of course they had heard, as most slaves had, of cave life, and pretty well understood all the measures which had to be resorted to for security when entering upon so hazardous an undertaking.
They concluded, however, that they could not make their condition any worse, let circumstances be what they might in this respect.
Having discovered how they could break jail, they were not long in accomplishing their purpose, and were out and off to the woods again.
Back To The Woods
This time they went far into the forest, and there they dug a cave, and with great pains had every thing so completely arranged as to conceal the spot entirely. In this den they stayed three months.
Now and then they would manage to secure a pig. A friend also would occasionally serve them with a meal.
Their sufferings at best were fearful; but great as they were, the thought of returning to Slavery never occurred to them, and the longer they stayed in the woods, the greater was their determination to be free.
In the belief that their owner had about given them up they resolved to take the North Star for a pilot, and try in this way to reach free land. [The North Start was used by fugitives to reach Canada from the South.]
Joined By Kit Nickless
Kit, an old friend in time of need, having proved true to them in their cave, was consulted.
He fully appreciated their heroism, and determined that he would join them in the undertaking, as he was badly treated by his master, who was called General Washington, a common farmer, hard drinker, and brutal fighter, which Kit’s poor back fully evinced by the marks it bore.
Of course Isaac and Henry were only too willing to have him accompany them.
In leaving their respective homes they broke kindred ties of the tenderest nature.
Isaac had a wife, Eliza, and three children, Isaac, Estella, and Ellen, all owned by Fitchhugh.
Henry was only nineteen, single, but left parents, brothers, and sisters, all owned by different slave-holders.
Kit had a wife, Matilda, and three children, Sarah Ann, Jane Frances, and Ellen, slaves.