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Digital Bookshelf: Letters & Diaries

Letter from Levi Coffin to William Still, May 11, 1851

Levi Coffin was a leading Underground Railroad organizer in Ohio who wrote William Still, his counterpart in Philadelphia, to report on his fears about the fate of Seth Concklin, an agent was killed while trying to aid in the escape of Still's sister-in-law. Still and his brother Peter (an escaped slave) had just recently been reunited and the attempt by Concklin to lead Vina Still and her children out of slavery became a national sensation.

Letter from William Padgett to Edward Gorsuch, August 28, 1851

William Padgett was a white man who belonged to a group of kidnappers and slave catchers from Lancaster County, Pennsylvania called The Gap Gang. In this letter from August 1851, Padgett informs Maryland slaveholder Edward Gorsuch about the location of four male slaves who had been missing from the Gorsuch plantation for nearly two years.

Philadelphia Vigilance Committee records, February 10, 1852

This excerpt from the Philadelphia Vigilance Committee records appeared in Frederick Douglass' Paper on March 4, 1852. The report details activities by the committee in the aftermath of the Christiana Riot of 1851.

Philadelphia Vigilance Committee Journal, April 3, 1853

In his book, The Underground Railroad (1872), William Still reprinted and revised entries from the journals of the Philadelphia Vigilance Committee which he had maintained throughout most of the 1850s. Here is one example of how those pages appeared in his collection; a report of a successful escape from Baltimore in spring 1853.

Letter from John Henry Hill to William Still, January 19, 1854

John Henry Hill was a fugitive from Petersburg, Virginia who wrote William Still several letters during the 1850s from his new home in Canada. Hill was mostly concerned with trying to arrange additional escapes for friends and family but he also exchanged information about current events with Still.

Letter from Thomas Garrett to James Miller McKim, December 29, 1854

Leading Underground Railroad organizer inThomas Garrett writes about Harriet Tubman, who essentially relied on the vigilance system from Delaware through Philadelphia to support her various efforts to free slaves from Maryland.

Letter from Abigail Goodwin to William Still, August 1, 1855

In this letter from August 1, 1855, Abigail Goodwin writes to William Still, head of the Philadelphia Vigilance Committee, offering to organize a "committee of women" who might pay particular attention to the needs of female runaways.

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

Joseph Bustill's letter to William Still 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.

Letter from Joseph C. Bustill to William Still, May 31, 1856

Joseph Bustill refers to four adult runaways and two children escaping on the Underground Railroad from Harrisburg to Philadelphia.

Letter from Thomas Garrett to William Still, November 6, 1856

This letter from Thomas Garrett to William Still, reprinted in Still's book, The Underground Railroad (1872) offers a rare glimpse inside the operations of the northern freedom network. The fascinating practical challenges of their work, principally over money, are apparent here in a way that folklore and legends simply have not conveyed.

Letter from Thomas Garrett to William Still, March 27, 1857

Harriet Tubman is better known today than she was in the 1850s, but this letter from Thomas Garrett clearly demonstrates how she was already considered by many in the anti-slavery movement to be a "a hero" and how her reputation as an Underground Railroad conductor had even spread across the Atlantic.

Letter from Thomas Garrett to William Still, September 6, 1857

What is perhaps most revealing about this operational letter from Thomas Garrett of Delaware to William Still in Philadelphia is how clearly it challenges current expectations about "routes" on the Underground Railroad. Garrett refers to four runaways who came on a steamboat piloted by an operative named Captain Alfred Fountain. The runaways then passed through Delaware (still a slave state in 1857) on an actual railroad line under the guidance of a free black conductor named Severn Johnson.

Letter from Thomas Garrett to William Still, August 25, 1858

Few historical letters about the Underground Railroad are more revealing than this one. In a note from August 1858, Thomas Garrett describes in vivid detail the escape of two slaves passing through Delaware to Media, Pennsylvania, a harrowing tale that includes a near missed encounter with their master on the train platform in Wilmington.

Letter from John Hays to Charles Francis Himes, June 20, 1859

This excerpt from a letter between a young attorney and a young college professor who had been friends at Dickinson College illustrates the complicated legal and political realities of Underground Railroad operations along the Mason-Dixon Line.


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