William Whipper to William Still, December 4, 1871

    Source citation
    William Still, The Underground Rail Road (Philadelphia: Porter & Coates, 1872), 735-740.
    Date Certainty
    Sayo Ayodele
    Transcription date

    The following text is presented here in complete form, as true to the original written document as possible. Spelling and other typographical errors have been preserved as in the original.

    NEW BRUNSWICK, N. J., December 4, 1871.

    MR. WILLIAM STILL, DEAR SIR: - I sincerely regret the absence of statistics that would enable me to furnish you with many events, that would assist you in describing the operations of the Underground Rail Road. I never kept any record of those persons passing through my hands, nor did I ever anticipate that the history of that perilous period would ever be written. I can only refer to the part I took in it from memory, and if I could delineate the actual facts as they occurred they would savor so much of egotism that I should feel ashamed to make them public. I willingly refer to a few incidents which you may select and use as you may think proper.

    You are perfectly cognizant of the fact, that after the decision in York, Pa., of the celebrated Prigg case, Pennsylvania was regarded as free territory, which Canada afterwards proved to be, and that the Susquehanna river was the recognized northern boundary of the slave-holding empire. The borough of Columbia, situated on its eastern bank, in the county of Lancaster, was the great depot where the fugitives from Virginia and Maryland first landed. The long bridge connecting Wrightsville with Columbia, was the only safe outlet by which they could successfully escape their pursuers. When they had crossed this bridge they could look back over its broad silvery stream on its western shore, and say to the slave power: "Thus far shalt thou come, and no farther. "Previous to that period, the line of fugitive travel was from Baltimore, by the way of Havre de Grace to Philadelphia; but the difficulty of a safe passage across the river, at that place caused the route to be changed to York, Pa., a distance of fifty-eight miles, the fare being forty dollars, and thence to Columbia, in the dead hour of the night. My house was at the end of the bridge, and as I kept the station, I was frequently called up in the night to take charge of the passengers.

    On their arrival they were generally hungry and penniless. I have received hundreds in this condition; fed and sheltered from one to seventeen at a time in a single night. At this point the road forked; some I sent west by boats, to Pittsburgh, and others to you in our cars to Philadelphia, and the incidents of their trials form a portion of the history you have compiled. In a period of three years from 1847 to 1850, I passed hundreds to the land of freedom, while others, induced by high wages, and the feeling that they were safe in Columbia, worked in the lumber and coal yards of that place. I always persuaded them to go to Canada, as I had no faith in their being able to elude the grasp of the slave-hunters. Indeed, the merchants had the confidence of their security and desired them to remain; several of my friends told me that I was injuring the trade of the place by persuading the laborers to leave. Indeed, many of the fugitives themselves looked upon me with jealousy, and expressed their indignation at my efforts to have them removed from peace and plenty to a land that was cold and barren, to starve to death.

    It was a period of great prosperity in our borough, and everything passed on favorably and successfully until the passage of the fugitive slave bill in 1850. At first the law was derided and condemned by our liberty-loving citizens, and the fugitives did not fear its operations because they asserted that they could protect themselves. This fatal dream was of short duration. A prominent man, by the name of Baker, was arrested and taken to Philadelphia, and given up by the commissioner, and afterwards purchased by our citizens; another, by the name of Smith, was shot dead in one of our lumber yards, because he refused to surrender, and his pursuer permitted to escape without arrest or trial. This produced not only a shock, but a crisis in the affairs of our little borough. It made the stoutest hearts quail before the unjust sovereignty of the law. The white citizens fearing the danger of a successful resistance to the majesty of the law, began to talk of the insecurity of these exiles. The fugitives themselves, whose faith and hope had been buoyed up by the promises held up to them of protection, began to be apprehensive of danger, and talked of leaving, while others, more bold, were ready to set the dangers that surrounded them at defiance, and if necessary, die in the defense of their freedom and the homes they bad acquired.

    At this juncture private meetings were held by the colored people, and the discussions and resolves bore a peculiar resemblance in sentiment and expression to the patriotic outbursts of the American revolution.

    Some were in favor, if again attacked, of killing and slaying all within their reach; of setting their own houses on fire, and then going and burning the town. It was the old spirit which animated the Russians at Moscow, and the blacks of Haiti. At this point my self-interest mingled with my sense of humanity, and I felt that I occupied a more responsible position than I shall ever attain to again. I, therefore, determined to make the most of it. I exhorted them to peace and patience under their present difficulties, and for their own sakes as well as the innocent sufferers, besought them to leave as early as they could. If I had advocated a different course I could have caused the burning of the town. The result of our meeting produced a calm that lasted only for a few days, when it was announced, one evening, that the claimants of a Methodist preacher, by the name of Dorsey, were in the borough, and that it was expected that they would attempt to take him that night.

    It was about nine o'clock in the evening when I went to his house, but was refused admittance, until those inside ascertained who I was. There were several men in the house all armed with deadly weapons, awaiting the approach of the intruders. Had they come the whole party would have been massacred. I advised Dorsey to leave, but he very pointedly refused, saying he had been taken up once before alive, but never would be again. The men told him to stand his ground, and they would stand by him and defend him, they had lived together, and would die together. I told them that they knew the strength of the pro-slavery feeling that surrounded them, and that they would be overpowered, and perhaps many lives lost, which might be saved by his changing his place of residence. He said, he had no money, and would rather die with his family, than be killed on the road. I said, how much money do you want to start with, and we will send you more if you need it. Here is one hundred dollars in gold. "That is not enough." "Will two hundred dollars do?" "Yes." I shall bring it to you to-morrow. I got the money the next morning, and when I came with it, he said, he could not leave unless his family was taken care of. I told him I would furnish his family with provisions for the next six months. Then he said he had two small houses, worth four hundred and seventy-five dollars. My reply was that I will sell them for you, and give the money to your family. He then gave me a power of attorney to do so, and attended to all his affairs. He left the next day, being the Sabbath, and has never returned since, although he has lived in the City of Boston ever since, except about six months in Canada.

    I wish to notice this case a little further, as the only one out of many to which I will refer. About the year 1831 or 1832, Mr. Joseph Purvis, a younger brother of Robert Purvis, about nineteen or twenty years of age, was visiting Mr. Stephen Smith, of Columbia, and while there the claimants of Dorsey came and secured him, and had proceeded about two miles with him on the way to Lancaster. Young Purvis heard of it, and his natural and instinctive love of freedom fired up his warm southern blood at the very recital. He was one of nature's noblemen. Fierce, fiery, and impulsive, he was as quick to decide as to perform. He demanded an immediate rescue. Though he was advised of the danger of such an attempt, his spirit and determination made him invincible. He proceeded to a place where some colored men were working. With a firm and determined look, and a Herculean shout, he called out to them, "To arms, to arms! boys, we must rescue this man; I shall lead if you will follow." "We will," was the immediate response. And they went and overtook them, and dispersed his claimants. They brought Dorsey back in triumph to Columbia.

    He then gave Dorsey his pistol, with the injunction that he should use it and die in defense of his liberty rather than again be taken into bondage. He promised he would. I found him with this pistol on his table, the night I called on him, and I have every reason to believe that the promise gave to Mr. Purvis was one of the chief causes of his obstinacy. The lesson he had taught him had not only become incorporated in his nature, but had become a part of his religion.

    The history of this brave and noble effort of young Purvis, in rescuing a fellow-being from the jaws of Slavery has been handed down, in Columbia, to a generation that was born since that event has transpired. He always exhibited the same devotion and manly daring in the cause of the flying bondman that inspired his youthful ardor in behalf of freedom. The youngest of a family distinguished for their devotion to freedom, he was without superiors in the trying hour of battle. Like John Brown, he often discarded theories, but was eminently practical. He has passed to another sphere. Peace to his ashes! I honor his name as a hero, and friend of man. I loved him for the noble characteristics of his nature, and above all for his noble daring in defense of the right. As a friend I admired him, and owe his memory this tribute to departed worth.

    At this point a conscientious regard for truth dictates that I should state that my disposition to make a sacrifice for the removal of Dorsey and some other leading spirits was aided by my own desire for self preservation.

    I knew that it had been asserted, far down in the slave region, that Smith & Whipper, the negro lumber merchants, were engaged in secreting fugitive slaves. And on two occasions attempts had been made to set fire to their yard for the purpose of punishing them for such illegal acts. And I felt that if a collision took place, we should not only be made to suffer the penalty, but the most valuable property in the village be destroyed, besides a prodigal waste of human life be the consequence. In such an event I felt that I should not only lose all I had ever earned, but peril the hopes and property of others, so that I would have freely given one thousand dollars to have been insured against the consequences of such a riot. I then borrowed fourteen hundred dollars on my own individual account, and assisted many others to go to a land where the virgin soil was not polluted by the foot-prints of a slave.

    The colored population of the Borough of Columbia, in 1850, was nine hundred and forty-three, about one-fifth the whole population, and in five years they were reduced to four hundred and eighty-seven by emigration to Canada.

    In the summer of 1853, I visited Canada for the purpose of ascertaining the actual condition of many of those I had assisted in reaching a land of freedom; and I was much gratified to find them contented, prosperous, and happy. I was induced by the prospects of the new emigrants to purchase lands on the Sydenham River, with the intention of making it my future home.

    In the spring of 1861, when I was preparing to leave, the war broke out, and with its progress I began to realize the prospect of a new civilization, and, therefore, concluded to remain and share the fortunes of my hitherto ill-fated country.

    I will say in conclusion that it would have been fortunate for us if Columbia, being a port of entry for flying fugitives, had been also the seat of great capitalists and freedom-loving inhabitants; but such was not the case. There was but little Anti-slavery sentiment among the whites, yet there were many strong and valiant friends among them who contributed freely; the colored population were too poor to render much aid, except in feeding and secreting strangers. I was doing a prosperous business at that time and felt it my duty to contribute liberally out of my earnings. Much as I loved Anti-slavery meetings I did not feel that I could afford to attend them, as my immediate duty was to the flying fugitive. Now, my friend, I have extended this letter far beyond the limits intended, not with the expectation that it will be published, but for your own private use to select any matter that you might desire to use in your history. I have to regret that I am compelled to refer so often to my own exertions.

    I know that I speak within bounds when I say that directly and indirectly from 1847 to 1860, I have contributed from my earnings one thousand dollars annually, and for the five years during the war a like amount to put down the rebellion.

    Now the slaves are emancipated, and we are all enfranchised, after struggling for existence, freedom and manhood - I feel thankful for having had the glorious privilege of laboring with others for the redemption of my race from oppression and thralldom; and I would prefer to-day to be penniless in the streets, rather than to have withheld a single hour's labor or a dollar from the sacred cause of liberty, justice, and humanity.

    I remain yours in the sacred cause of liberty and equality, Wm. WHIPPER.

    How to Cite This Page: "William Whipper to William Still, December 4, 1871," House Divided: The Civil War Research Engine at Dickinson College, https://hd.housedivided.dickinson.edu/index.php/node/1142.