The Life and Struggles of Peter Still

An Interactive Read-Aloud with Written Response Journal

Prepared by Karen E. Ragsdale, Blacksburg, VA

August 1, 2006


Grade Level: 5th  


Correlation to Virginia Social Studies Standards of Learning Include:

            US1.5.c (5th): Describe life in America from the perspective of slaves


Important Underground Railroad/Slavery Themes in Peter Still’s story:

1.    The horrors of life in slavery, including physical abuse

2.    The cruel separation of slaves from family members, including the agonizing choice of freedom versus family

3.    The great difficulty of escaping slavery, especially from the deep south

4.    The courage, determination, and longing for freedom that drove slaves to attempt to escape

5.    The necessary assistance provided by both whites and blacks to fugitives

6.    The willingness of some white men, such as Seth Concklin, to risk their very lives so that black slaves might be free

7.    The purpose and importance of William Still’s records

8.    The difficulties of life in the north for free blacks



1. Students will become more aware of the horrors of slavery, especially the separation from loved ones, and the difficulty and dangers of trying to escape.

2. Students will empathize with the feelings of slaves by considering how they would respond in similar situations, expressing their thoughts and feelings through written journal responses.

            3. Students will understand more about the workings of the Underground Railroad, including William Still’s contribution.


Approximate Time Required: About 20-30 minutes per day for 2 weeks.


Materials: One copy of Brindell’s well-written and researched children’s book, My Family Shall Be Free! The Life of Peter Still.  Colored maps printed for each student of the Underground Railroad routes, to follow as the story is read, plus an overhead transparency of this map for teacher reference. A written response journal for each student, consisting of a pocket folder (in which to keep the map) with 16 sheets of notebook paper, one for each chapter.


Instructional Procedure: In conjunction with the Social Studies unit on slavery in America, the teacher will read aloud this story of Peter Still’s life.  One chapter will be read each day, with discussion led, and clarification provided, by the teacher. Then students will make brief, daily responses in their journals, either to a prompt or spontaneously. Responses may involve sketches, poems, a diary format, or other personally creative methods selected by the students.  Suggested prompts are provided below, but use your own creativity and go where your class discussion leads. Most importantly, encourage students to make emotional connections with the characters in the story. This promotes retention and fosters motivation to learn more about the topic.

Suggested Prompts:

            Ch.1 - Write your reaction to how the boys were tricked into thinking they were going to see their mother. How would you feel if you were in their place?  Have you ever been lost or separated from your parents? How did you feel?

            Ch. 2 - If you were a slave, would you leave your family to obtain freedom?  Cidney’s story is a lot like that of a woman from our town, Blacksburg, named Mary Draper Ingles. Long before Peter Still lived, Mary and her two little boys were kidnapped from their home (where the Duck Pond is now) by Shawnee Indians. They were taken to Ohio, hundreds of miles away. Mary left her sons in Ohio, taken into Shawnee families, and walked all the way back to Blacksburg, where she found her husband. She chose to be free with her husband, instead of living as a slave to the Shawnee.  Do you think Peter’s mother did the right thing? What would you do?  Did this chapter make you appreciate getting to go to school and get an education?

            Ch. 3 – What was life like for free slaves in the north like Peter’s parents?  Find on the map the distance from Kentucky to New Jersey (NJ).  Do people of different races still have a hard time making a living in our country today?  Do you know any examples that you can share?

            Ch. 4 – Draw a picture of an event from this chapter. (Such as the brothers being separated.)  Write a caption expressing your feelings, as if you were Peter or Levin.

            Ch. 5 – Did Peter care more about running away to freedom or seeing his brother?  Find Tennessee and Alabama on the map.  Are they now closer to or farther from their parents?  Why was getting married difficult for slaves?  How was it different from the white people, or people today?

            Ch. 6 – How was William Still’s life different than Peter and Levin’s?  Were there any similarities?  How were their lives similar to or different from yours? (Venn diagram)

            Ch. 7 – (Note: I would skip reading aloud the sexual advances section, bottom of pg.49 to bottom third of pg. 53.)  Tell about both the happy and sad times in Peter’s life we learn about in this chapter or draw a picture showing the good, bad, or both.  Why was Levin’s death especially hard for Peter?  Do you have a brother or sister that you are very close to? 

            Ch. 8 – What type of family life did Peter have during his early 30’s?  How was it different or the same as yours?  Was it fair to make slaves work so hard and have so little time with their families? Pretend you lived back then and write a letter to a local newspaper telling your beliefs.

            Ch. 9 - Find Philadelphia on your map and circle it. If you lived there in the 1840’s, would you have been an abolitionist? Why or why not? 

    Note: provide books on the students’ reading level about Harriet Tubman for personal reading. Show them the eastern shore of Maryland on their maps so they can trace her escape route, through Delaware to Philadelphia. They can take a virtual reality escape from slavery trip with Harriet Tubman at the National Geographic website below by clicking on Journey at that site. Turn up the speakers for a slave rescue song, barking hounds, etc. This site is wonderful.

    You may go into more depth with the Henry “Box” Brown story by providing copies of his story and the illustrations included in Classroom Resources below.  Students can read Brown’s autobiography at      

            Ch. 10 – What do you think of the Friedman brothers?  What did their neighbors think about them?  Why?  Why do you think they helped Peter obtain his freedom? As the chapter is read, students add up in their notebooks the amounts as Peter pays.  Can you imagine buying yourself?

            Ch. 11 – Follow Peter’s journey north on your maps. Pretend you are Peter and write about your feelings as you met William Still and, then, other members of his family. If time, draw a picture of your favorite part of this chapter. How can you tell that Cidney’s faith in God was an important part of her life?   Now that he has found his family, do you think Peter will risk going back to Alabama as he promised Vina?  Why or why not? 

            Ch. 12 – Was your prediction correct about Peter going back?  How do you think he will try to free his family? Use your map to follow his journey. Discuss why William Still began writing careful records of all the escaped slaves that came through his office. Why did he hide these documents?

            Ch. 13 – How would you describe Seth Concklin? Why did he risk his life to try to save Peter’s family? Would you have done that?  Trace his journey on your map. What do you think Peter will do now?

            Ch. 14 - As the chapter is read aloud, students use their notebooks and a calculator to keep track of the money Peter raises until he has the $5,000 to buy his family.  If you had heard him tell his story, would you have given a donation?  Find the states he visited on your map.  What was the one sad thing at the end of this chapter.   Ch. 15 – I will show the class my copy of Peter Still’s autobiography, as told to author Kate Pickard.  What do you think about John Brown’s raid?  Describe John Brown and why he did such a dangerous thing. What did you learn in this chapter about how the Civil War began?

            Ch. 16 - Share with the class my copy of William Still’s book, The Underground Railroad.  This can be found in its entirety at  Talk about the importance of primary sources.  Final question for their notebook – What can you do to make the world a better place?


Dramatization (optional): Allow students, in small groups, the opportunity to dramatize parts of this story. Differentiate by encouraging gifted students to write dialogue or compose a script. Present their dramas to other fifth grade classes.


For additional reading about Peter Still, visit The Tennessee Valley Historical Society’s Peter Still website at


Additional Notes: Reviews of Dr. James Still’s autobiography (

Early Recollections and Life of Dr. James Still

1. Dr. James Still's (1812-1882) wonderful autobiography is a classic that should at least be in every home in New Jersey for the enjoyment of adults and children alike. His life is an amazing tale of the son of former slaves growing up in extreme poverty and becoming one of the states earliest medical doctors. He was a distinguished herbalist at a time when most doctors relied on often questionable, patent medicines. Called "The Black Doctor of the Pines," he had a large biracial practice. He was also a distinguished spokesman for the black community in South Jersey. It's a book to curl up with and to read aloud. Jean Vogrin

2. This is a book about 1 of eighteen children of slave parents. It is one of the remarkable stories involving the Still family. The books are available through the Still Family. James was a self taught Dr. who could cure cancer in the 1800's. Involved with the Underground Rail Road with his brother, Wm. Still. On 8/10/97 we will have our 128th family reunion started by Dr. James Still.  Clarence H. Still Jr


Evaluation/Assessment:  Children will be encouraged to participate in class discussions of the book, as well as to share their personal journal responses.

Contact Information: Karen Ragsdale may be contacted at with any questions or suggestions regarding this lesson plan.






Pickard, Kate. The Kidnapped and the Ransomed, Being the Personal Recollections of

Peter Still and His Wife “Vina”, After Forty Years of Slavery. Philadelphia: The Jewish Publication Society of America, 1970 (reprint of 1856 edition).       

Still, William. The Underground Railroad. Philadelphia: Porter & Coates, 1872.  (Brown’s autobiography)




Bordewich, Fergus M. Bound for Canaan, The Epic Story of the Underground Railroad,

America’s First Civil Rights Movement. New York: HarperCollins, 2005, 356-361.

Fradin, Dennis Brindell. My Family Shall Be Free! The Life of Peter Still. New York:

HarperCollins, 2001.    (Printed below) (Brown’s story written by Charles 

          Stearns, including Stearns own abolitionist sentiments) (Tubman trip) (Go to Image Gallery for

excellent images plus lesson plans and information on slavery and the UGRR,

including the colorful map below.)


Classroom Resources:







                    Illustration from William Still’s book, The Underground Railroad, page 83.

                                   William is the black man holding the lid of the box.


Henry Box Brown, a determined and innovative abolitionist!





March 25

Henry "Box" Brown

*The birth of Henry Box Brown, in 1815, is celebrated on this date. He was a Black abolitionist and writer.
         Brown was born a slave Louisa County, Virginia. He was separated from his family in 1830 and brought to Richmond to work in a tobacco factory. Brown earned extra money by exceeding his weekly production and soon married a slave washerwoman named Nancy; they had at least three children. He used his wages to pay Nancy’s master for the time she spent caring for their family. But in 1848, Nancy’s master sold her and her children to another slave owner, who sent them to North Carolina.

As Nancy began the customary walk south, shackled to other adult slaves and with her children loaded on a wagon, Brown walked hand-in-hand with her for a few miles. He then watched, powerless, as his wife and children were taken from him. Overwhelmed, Brown was determined to escape. He found an ally in a sympathetic white shoemaker named Samuel Smith, who agreed to ship Brown as dry goods to the Philadelphia office of the Pennsylvania Anti-Slavery Society. He paid Smith $84 for his assistance.

Brown survived the journey and became a well-known speaker for the Anti-Slavery Society, he wrote his autobiography “Narrative of the Life of Henry Box Brown” in 1851. He then created a panorama called "Mirror of Slavery," a moving scroll of scenes depicting slave life and his unusual escape. The panorama was exhibited in free states of America before he fled to England to avoid the Fugitive Slave Act. In England, Brown’s panorama, helped foster anti-slavery sentiment. About 1862, he began performing more light-hearted shows, with ventriloquists and singers.

It is not known if he ever found his family and all that is known of him after 1864 is that he was living in Wales. The date of Henry Brown’s death is also unknown.

Reference; The Encyclopedia Britannica, Fifteenth Edition. Copyright 1996 Encyclopedia Britannica Inc. ISBN 0-85229-633-0




“In which a fellow mortal travelled a long journey, in
quest of those rights which the piety and republicanism
of this country denied to him, the right to possess.

3 feet 1 inch long, 2 feet wide, 2 feet 6 inches high.

As long as the temples of humanity contain a single
worshipper, whose heart beats in unison with that of the
God of the universe; must a religion and a government
which could inflict such misery upon a human being, be
execrated and fled from, as a bright angel, abhors and
flees the touch of hideous sin.”



From the 1859 narrative of Henry Box Brown written by abolitionist Charles Stearns.  Brown’s story was used to influence northerners to join the efforts to abolish slavery.

This could be used to initiate a class discussion of “propaganda”.



                    Henry “Box” Brown Memorial, Box Brown Plaza

                        15th Street and Dock Street, Richmond, VA

                          Taken by Karen Ragsdale, July 30, 2006



           Historical Marker at Box Brown Plaza, Richmond, Virginia