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Digital Bookshelf: Letters and Diaries

Joseph C. Bustill to William Still, March 24, 1856

Original Citation
Joseph C. Bustill to William Still, March 24, 1856, reprinted in William Still, The Underground Railroad (Philadelphia: Porter & Coates, 1872), 43.


Joseph Bustill's letter to William Still, reprinted below, illustrates the connections between Underground Railroad operations in towns and cities such as Harrisburg and Philadelphia. Bustill refers here to a Fugitive Aid Society in Harrisburg that probably resembled in structure and mission the Philadelphia Vigilance Committee, which Still headed. Bustill's question about "signs or symbols" also raises an interesting point. Despite the name "Underground Railroad," there was no apparent preference, at least internally, for using railroad terminology. Recollected accounts often refer to "depots" and "conductors" but contemporary letters such as Bustill's below suggest a more informal and scattershot approach to code words.

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HARRISBURG, March 24, '56.

FRIEND STILL-I suppose ere this you have seen those five large and three small packages I sent by way of Reading, consisting of three men and women and children. They arrived here this morning at 8 1/2 o'clock and left twenty minutes past three. You will please send me any information likely to prove interesting in relation to them.

Lately we have formed a Society here, called the Fugitive Aid Society. This is our first case, and I hope it will prove entirely successful.

When you write, please inform me what signs or symbols you make use of in your despatches, and any other information in relation to operations of the Underground Rail Road.

Our reason for sending by the Reading Road, was to gain time; it is expected the owners will be in town this afternoon, and by this Road we gained five hours' time, which is a matter of much importance, and we may have occasion to use it sometimes in future. In great haste, Yours with great respect, Jos. C. BUSTILL.



Citation for this page

"Joseph C. Bustill to William Still, March 24, 1856," Underground Railroad Digital Classroom, Dickinson College, 2008,


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