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The Remarkable Story of

Peter Still, William Still, and Seth Concklin

 

           The story of Peter Still and his connection with Underground Railroad conductor William Still and the valiant slave rescuer, Seth Concklin, may be the most remarkable tale in all Underground Railroad lore.

            Peterís story begins when he was six years old and living in slavery along the Maryland eastern shore.  His mother, who had taken his two sisters to escape to freedom and join their father  in New Jersey, left him and his brother Levin who was eight with their grandmother. It was her second attempt to escape from slavery. The first time, with all four of her children, she had been stopped by slave catchers. 

            Shortly after their mother left, the boys were sold to a slave trader, who sent them to Kentucky and the plantation of John Fisher in Lexington, Kentucky, only a mile from the plantation of Henry Clay where Peter became a playmate of Clayís sons. Peter spent 12 years in Kentucky, he and his brother serving a second master, Nattie Gist. When Gist died, Peter was passed on to Gistís nephew who had a plantation in Alabama.

In Alabama, Peter spent the next 31 years. It was an eventful time for him: He married and had eight children, only three of whom survived into adulthood; his brother Levin died in 1831; and he moved from working on the Gist plantation to being hired out.  Peter was a dutiful slave. But his foremost concern was his wife Vina and their children. While he wasnít able to live with them, their plantation was only a mile away from the Gist plantation and he built them a cabin there. He did his best to bring them all the material comforts he could. His master, Levi, had tried to purchase them so that they could live together but Vinaís master refused to sell them.

In 1833 Peter's mistress married a wealthy slaveholder. She moved in with her new husband while her slaves remained to work the Gist property. The overseer moved into her house, and Peter was made foreman. This continued until 1839 when it was decided to sell the plantation and hire out the slaves. During the next eight years, he worked for seven different masters, and this arrangement gave him increasing freedom and self-confidence.  Finally, when he was hired out to a Tuscambia, Alabama storekeeper, Joseph Friedman, an agreement was made that Peter would take care of his own necessities and keep whatever he earned above the cost of his hiring out. The Friedmans were generous, often giving him clothes from the store, which he in turn sometimes sold to other slaves for food that he would sell to hotels or give to his family. He continued doing odd jobs and saved a total of $210 to apply to his freedom by the end of the year.  After Friedman agreed to hire him for another year, Peter confessed that he wanted to be free. He asked Friedman if he would purchase him, then set him free after Peter had saved enough money to pay off the purchase price.  Friedman agreed, and Peter suggested that he offer his master $500.  Unfortunately, his master refused to sell at first, but the following year he agreed because he needed extra money to buy young slaves that were being offered at an auction.  On January 15, 1849, Peter became the possession of Friedman, who then offered new terms to Peter: ďYou may work, as you did before,Ē he said, ďbut you may keep your earnings. When you get two hundred dollars more, I will give you free papers, and you shall go where you like. I do not want your work--get all you can for yourself.Ē  Fifteen months later, on April 16, 1850, Peter paid the final installment of his purchase and he was free.

            Because Alabama law required emancipated slaves to leave the state within 30 days, Peter had to keep his freedom secret. He continued working odd jobs in Tuscambia, contemplating his next move. To his surprise, the Friedmans sold their business, with Joseph moving to California and Isaac departing for Cincinnati. Peter joined Isaac on the trip there, paying a final visit to his family, promising that he would do all he could to purchase their freedom so that they could join him in the North.  In Cincinnati, Peter and Isaac stayed with another Friedman brother and he related the tale of his life: how he was separated from his mother, brought to Kentucky with his brother, his memory of the Delaware River that passed by Philadelphia being close to her house, and that he was going there to see if he could find his family.

From Cincinnati, Peter took a steamboat to Pittsburgh.  There he was taken by a black man who had been on the boat and put on a stagecoach that took him to the train that went all the way to Philadelphia. On arriving, he was referred to the boarding house of a Dr. Byas (James J.G. Bias).  Bias, a black physician and clergyman, was a member of the Philadelphia Vigilance Committee who offered medical care to fugitive slaves and sometimes boarded them until they were ready to go to their next stop on the Underground Railroad.  The next day after asking Mrs. Bias the way to the Delaware River, he went in search of his former home. But nothing was recognizable. He felt hopeless and that night when he discussed this with her, she suggested he go to the local anti-slavery office where they kept records of black people. If anyone could help, she thought they could. But he was apprehensive. He was worried that something bad would happen, that he might be kidnapped and sold him back into slavery.

Mrs. Byas found a friend to escort Peter to the antislavery office. When they walked in, he saw a well-dressed black man sitting at a desk.  The man, William Still, asked them to sit down.           

William Still had worked on his fatherís farm as a boy and had little formal education. At the age of 20, he left home and worked as a farmhand before moving to Philadelphia where he worked as a handyman.  In 1847, he learned of a job at the Pennsylvania Anti-Slavery Society office. The starting salary was only $14 per month but he saw it as meaningful work and said, ďI go for liberty and improvement.Ē He started out doing janitorial work and sorting mail, and assisting J. Miller McKim, the societyís executive director. He was not only congenial but quite able, and his duties and salary quickly increased. During his early years at the antislavery office, Still was present when William and Ellen Craft were assisted there and when Henry ďBoxĒ Brown made his glorious resurrection from his box. Brown spent his first two nights of freedom at William Stillís home.

 

 

William Still

 

The escort explained that Peter had once lived in Philadelphia and was looking for his family. Peter said that he and his brother had been kidnapped from their mother more than 40 years before.  His motherís name was Sydney and his father Levin, and he remembered they said he was born near the Delaware River.

William Still was speechless.  He asked Peter to wait while he finished his correspondence and told his escort that he could leave, that he would show Peter the way back to the boarding house. Peter was apprehensive, but his escort urged him to stay.

When the work was done, Still asked Peter some questions, and then there was a long pause. Finally, William looked Peter in the eye.

ďSuppose I should tell you that I am your brother,Ē William said.

Peter was shocked and dubious. Nevertheless, after further detail were given by William, it was apparent he was his brother.  Even more shocking was that Peterís mother was still alive. That night Peter stayed with William.

            What followed in the next days were a series of tearful reunions with brothers and sisters, eight in all, and finally his mother. He could not believe that the biggest dream of his life had come true.

In spite of it all, Peter could not be truly happy while Vina and his three children remained in slavery. Somehow he had to get them out. Purchasing them was out of the question, so it was decided that his brother would try to find someone to rescue them.

Meanwhile, Peter left for Alabama to tell his family all that had happened and of the plan to free them from slavery. He went by way of Cincinnati to see the Friedmans. He needed them to write him a pass so he could return as if he were still a slave because free blacks were not permitted to emigrate into the state. He stayed in Tuscambia for a couple months, working odd jobs as he did in the past. Before he left, Vina gave him a gingham cape to give to whoever her rescuer might be so that she could identify him. Peter also revealed the plan to William Handy, a minister and slave on the McKiernan plantation, who agreed to help. When he returned to Philadelphia, he found that someone had offered to undertake the dangerous rescue mission. His only request was to be paid for his expenses. His name was Seth Concklin.

A soldier of fortune, the 49-year-old Concklin was an experienced Underground Railroad conductor.  Born at Sandy Hill (now Hudson Falls), N. Y., he came from humble beginnings which he maintained throughout his life. His mother had been a teacher in Vermont before she married his father, who regularly went into the South for his work as a mechanic and died prematurely in Georgia, leaving Seth at fifteen and the oldest of five children to be the familyís sole means of support.

It established a pattern that continued throughout Concklinís life: one of self sacrifice. His mother shortly after moved to Canada and Seth joined the army, but while he was in the service, his mother died and he was given a discharge to look after his sisters and brothers. He found a home for them at the Shaker community in Watervliet, New York, where he also lived for three years.

After leaving the Shakers, Concklin drifted from place to place and job to job. About this time, in 1830, he became an abolitionist. This is known because of a letter he wrote his sister condemning Colonization and praising the abolitionists. He also is listed as a financial contributor in early issues of the Emancipator.

He was fiercely independent and fearless in defense of his moral principles, despite his small stature and slight frame.  On occasions in Syracuse and Rochester, he defended black men against mobs. During the latter, he attacked a man who had put a noose around the neck of a black man, and then had to run for his life. On another occasion, he publicly exposed a black man who was fraudulently collecting donations for the Wilberforce Colony in Canada.  Concklin also lived in Springfield, Illinois for a time and aided runaway slaves. However, as was his custom, he acted alone. William Furnessí profile in The Kidnapped and the Ransomed also suggests that he ventured into the slave states at this time to assist them, probably St. Louis where he is known to have visited.

In 1838, he became excited about the outbreak of the Patriot War in which a fringe group of Americans were attempting to annex Canada to the U.S. Wanting to preserve Canada as a refuge for runaway slaves, he joined the side of the so-called Patriots with the intentions of obtaining intelligence for the Canadians. He ended up being imprisoned but finally was released when the Canadians took possession of the stockade where he was held.

That didnít stop him from heading down to Florida a few months later and joining the American army in the second Seminole War. He joined he said not to fight Indians but to see first hand what it was about. What he found were lies being told about the Indians and a war that was totally unjust.

            For the next decade Concklin resided principally in Troy. Despite his abolitionist beliefs, there is no record of his membership in any abolition society or the Liberty Party, which was quite active in that area. He traveled generally between Troy, Syracuse, and Philadelphia, where two sisters lived. On one occasion, he actually walked the entire distance from Syracuse to Philadelphia, a conceivable journey if you followed the lines of the Erie Canal from Syracuse to Albany, the Hudson River from Albany downstate, and then picked up the line of the New York and Erie Railroad that led all the way to Philadelphia. What couldíve motivated this 300 plus mile hike is anyoneís guess. Perhaps poverty. But it shows what kind of man Seth Concklin was: someone who wouldnít let anyone or anything stop him from doing what he wanted or felt he needed to do.           

            Though we donít find Concklin involved in any anti-slavery organizations, he obviously was reading the anti-slavery press. When William L. Chaplin was arrested and imprisoned in Maryland in 1850, Concklin hatched a plan for his rescue. It was after Chaplinís release that another heroic mission presented itself in the pages of the Pennsylvania Freeman, to rescue from slavery of the family of Peter Still, the long-lost brother of William Still.

William later wrote that Concklinís mission was known only to the Still family and J. Miller McKim, the anti-slavery societyís executive director. They were skeptical of its success and thought it much too dangerous. But with the likelihood that purchasing the family would be far beyond the means of Peter, it was decided to take their chances with Concklin, who agreed to undertake the mission for expenses only.  After obtaining all the necessary information about Florence, Alabama and the McKiernan Plantation from Peter, he set out to Cincinnati to confer with Levi Coffin. On January 28, 1851, he arrived in Florence to meet Peterís family and plan the escape.  They would take a boat up the Tennessee River near the plantation to the Ohio River.  They would move east and then take the Wabash River up into Indiana, and disembark to receive the assistance of David Stormont in Princeton, Indiana, who later would be identified by William Cockrum as one of the established members of the Anti-Slavery League, the secret Underground Railroad organization that operated along the Ohio River Valley. Concklin would then entrust them to Stormont, who had boasted he had never lost a runaway, and let him supervise the rest of their journey to Canada.

He spent only a short time in Alabama and traveled through Illinois and Indiana. He realized now that the most hazardous part of his journey would be near the Ohio River borderline between the free states of Illinois and Indiana and the slave state of Kentucky, where many slave catchers kept a close watch.

Returning to Cincinnati, Concklin procured a six-oared barge, essentially a large, flat bottomed row boat and had it shipped to South Florence before he made his departure by steamboat. The plan was to depart on March 1, but the escape had to be delayed until the night of March 16. The slated time of departure was 3 a.m. but again they were delayed and didnít get started on their arduous journey down the Tennessee River until daybreak.

            Fortunately, Peter and Levin were able oarsmen, and they arrived at the junction with the Ohio River 250 miles downstream in only 51 hours. Their journey, however, had been all downstream. Now they had to row upstream on the Ohio and cope with colder temperatures, aggravated by heavy rain. This was the most dangerous part of their journey as slave catchers lurked everywhere. The plan was to travel solely at night, but they found this difficult because of the extreme cold.

 

Escape Route in Red

            After rowing 75 miles up the Ohio and 44 miles up the Wabash River, they disembarked at New Harmony, Indiana on March 23, the seventh day of their journey. They had traveled about 369 miles and only had two threatening situations, one in Mississippi when men along the shore hailed them with gun shots, but which they ignored, and the other near Paducah, Kentucky when a boat with armed men approached. However, seeing a white man aboard, they did not scrutinize further.

            From New Harmony, they hiked 13 miles before they received their first assistance from the Underground Railroad at the home of a black man, Charles Grier. He provided them with a change of clothes: jeans and black cloth coats for Peter and Levin, plaid shawls for the Vina and her daughter, and the more formal dress of a prosperous Midwest farmer for Concklin. Because they didnít have passes, the story they were using was that Concklin, their former master, had emancipated them and was bringing them to his brotherís farm for work.

            They were supposed to go o the home of Stormont from there. But instead Concklin remained with them and they continued up through Vincennes possibly along a route later described by Cockrum: following the Wabash through Terre Haute toward a point on Lake Michigan in Lake Porter or LaPorte counties where runaways were smuggled aboard a so-called lumber bark built especially for this purpose.

            Sometime along their journey through Indiana, they met Rev. N.R. Johnston, a Cincinnati minister and cohort of Levi Coffin, who later reported on their progress in letters to William Still.  But after their meeting with him, twenty-three miles north of Vincennes, their journey to freedom was aborted.  John Emison, a slavecatcher spotted them and became suspicious. He questioned Concklin who became flustered and gave contradictory statements. This aroused Emisonís suspicions further.  Without any legal authority, he had his men tie them up and placed them in a wagon to be brought back to Vincennes. Concklin protested vehemently, and realizing the illegality of his actions released him. Nevertheless Concklin followed. When the slave catchers stopped for the night, he went into the wagon and attempted to untie Peterís family but was discovered by one of the slave catchers who pulled a gun and ordered him to leave.

In Vincennes, Vina and her family were lodged in the city jail, while telegraphic inquiries were made southward about missing slaves who might fit their description. Meanwhile, Concklin who had identified himself as J.H. Miller visited them every day despite Vinaís pleas for him to leave town and save himself. Instead, he hired a lawyer and attempted to get them released on a writ of habeas corpus, claiming that the runaways were his property. However, the writ was denied by Judge Bishop and the runaways were returned to jail until the following day not based on the evidence but merely on the suspicion that evidence would arrive by then.

Later that day, a message came to Vincennes that Bernard McKiernan was offering a reward of $400 for four runaways and $600 for the capture and return to Florence, Alabama of the person responsible and that the federal marshal from Evansville, John Gavitt, was coming to Vincennes with the necessary documents to detain the suspects. After  a court order was obtained to detain them, Concklinís lawyer came to release him, but Concklin feared for his safety as a result of mobs that had gathered and his request to remain was granted by the judge. When McKiernan arrived, Vina and the boys confessed that they were his property and Concklin was quickly apprehended.

            Gavitt brought them to Evansville, Indiana to await the arrival of a boat to return them to Alabama. While there, they were kept at the home of Gavittís mother.  She later said that she had tried to convince Concklin to provide information about his accomplices to save himself.  But he said no one was to be blamed but himself, and that he was not at all sorry, that he had done his Christian duty and had a clear conscience.

            Gavitt delivered them to the boat, Paul Anderson, and placed them in the custody of McKiernan and Emison. Concklin was heavily shackled to prevent his escape.  When the boat docked in Smithland, Kentucky, a barge passed. It was reported that Concklin tried to jump into the barge, but failed and fell into the river where he drowned. Later his body was recovered still in chains with his head bashed in. Levi Coffin, for one, expressed the belief that he was murdered.

When Peter learned of the failure of the mission and the return to slavery of his family, he decided to inquire about purchasing their freedom. He had his brother write a letter to Mr. L. B. Thornton, an attorney in Tuscumbia and ask McKiernan at what price he would sell Peterís family.  In August, 1851, McKiernan replied that it would cost $5000.  But Peter would not be deterred and went on a fundraising lecture tour.  It began in November of that year.  He traveled from city to city with letters of introduction to leading businessmen, abolitionists, and ministers. He spoke at churches, anti-slavery meetings and to benevolent associations. His appeal was simple: he described his experience as a slave, his struggle for freedom, and his effort to bring his family out of slavery. He never gave up, and after 23 months he reached his goal.

With John Simpson, a Florence merchant handling the transaction, Peterís family was placed on a boat in Florence during the Christmas season. Early in January, they held a joyful reunion. Peter and Vina were remarried in a church according to the laws of Pennsylvania. His daughter, age thirteen, began school, and his sons found jobs as free men, while Peter bought ten acres of land in nearby Burlington, New Jersey.

            Peterís brother went on to fame and fortune as one of the most well-known and prolific Underground Railroad conductors.  In part, William owed it to Peter because after meeting Peter, William decided to preserve the records of the fugitive slaves he helped so that they too might locate or be located by their families in the North. In all, William recorded the accounts of nearly 700 runaways. He later used them in part to write the most authentic and detailed history of the Underground Railroad on record: The Underground Railroad: A Record of Facts, Authentic Narratives, Letters, Narrating the Hardships, Hair-breadth Escapes and Death Struggle of the Slaves in their Efforts for Freedom by Themselves and Others, or Witnessed by the Author Together with Sketches of Some of the Largest Stockholders and Most Liberal Aiders and Advisers of the Road.

In business, Still was no less successful. During the period of his antislavery work, Still began dabbling in real estate, and when he left his position with the Vigilance Committee in 1861, he opened a store selling new and used stoves. He later went into the coal business, which made him quite wealthy, and it was estimated that his personal fortune at his death was nearly one million dollars, a huge sum for that period.

 

 

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