COLBERT COUNTY, ALABAMA
A SLAVE FAMILY'S STRUGGLE FOR FREEDOM
© 1978 by Dr. Kenneth R. Johnson
Used here with permission of author.
In January 1819, a few months before Alabama became a state in the Union, Levi Gist, a planter-businessman from Kentucky, arrived in north Alabama. He first settled in the frontier village of Bainbridge, situated about six miles up the Tennessee River from Florence on the south side. There he opened a general store but after a few month sold it to his brother and established a 480-acre plantation about seven miles south of Bainbridge and eight miles east of Tuscumbia. About thirty slaves worked on the Gist plantation. Most of which were brought from Kentucky. The slaves included a young man named Peter. Peter had never worked in cotton fields, but quickly made the adjustment. Over the years he performed many tasks on the Gist plantation. At various times he worked as a cook, house servant, carpenter, blacksmith, and shoemaker; but mainly he worked as a field hand.
While on the gist plantation Peter showed no discontent with his position and demonstrated no inclination to be anything but a faithful slave. He was well liked by his master and fellow slaves. He in turn had great respect for his master, but disliked most slave owners because they were, in his opinion, both immoral and unjust in their treatment of slaves. Peter worked 21 years on the Gist plantation. During this time Levi Gist died, leaving a widow and three children. In 1829, the Gist estate was divided among the heirs. Peter became the property of Sarah Gist, the younger daughter. a short time later she married john Hogun, Jr., who owned a plantation a few miles south of Tuscumbia valued at $21,750 in 1850.
This division of the Gist estate and the supervision of a new master turned Peterís life in a new direction. John Hogun did not need Peterís services on his plantation, so he hired Peter out on an annual basis to others. In 1840, Peter worked as a field hand for a Mr. Threat; the following year he worked on the plantation of Bernard McKiernan. The McKiernan plantation, valued at about $50,000, was the fifth largest plantation in Franklin County in 1850, located about eight miles east of Tuscumbia on what we know today as River Road. The following year, 1842, Peter was brought into Tuscumbia and hired out to a Mr. James Stoddard, a teacher and merchant. The next year he was hired by Rev. Stedman, minister of the Presbyterian church, and then to John Pollock and Michael Brady, both of whom were merchants in Tuscumbia.
Peter found that life in town had many advantages over life on the plantation. The work was much easier. He had a great deal of free time and as he became well known, he was free to move about town. This relative freedom meant that he had the chance to earn a little money for his personal use. As people learned that Peter was a dependable worker, they called upon him for various services. He seems to have worked mainly as servant and janitor at the Tuscumbia Female Academy, Major Popeís Hotel, and the Franklin Hotel which was the principal hotel in Tuscumbia in the 1840ís. On other occasions he served as a cook, gardener, grave digger, water carrier, and such. For these services he was usually given small amounts of money, clothing, food, or other items of value. Legally, everything earned by a slave belonged to his master, but Peter was permitted to keep these earnings for himself. His life was greatly enriched by these spare-time earnings, and his desire to be free and run his own life began to develop.
Conditions improved still further in 1846. Peter was hired out to a Mr. Allen Pollock, a book seller in Tuscumbia, for $85 per year and his keep. Pollock had few duties for Peter to perform and wanted his services as cheaply as possible. He therefore proposed that Peter hire himself out to do various jobs for others with the understanding that Peter would pay all his expenses and then retain any additional money he might earn. Peter accepted this proposal although it was secret and also illegal under Alabama law. When 1846 ended, Peter had saved $75. This $75 proved to be the stimulus and also the avenue to freedom for Peter. He could see clearly the material benefits of freedom.
So in the later part of 1846, Peter began a definite effort to become free. Peter had become acquainted with two Jewish brothers, Isaac and Joseph Friedman, merchants in Tuscumbia. Peter could not learn their attitude toward slavery, but he perceived that they were kind and considerate men and did not own slaves. So Peter took the initiative and asked Joseph Friedman to hire him for the year 1847. This was to be done with the understanding that Peter would maintain himself and repay Friedman for all his expenses by working on jobs about town. Of course, all Peter earned above expenses would be his to keep. although this arrangement was illegal, the Friedman brothers agreed to it The arrangement proved to be so satisfactory that it was, at Peterís request, continued the next year.
During 1848, Peter asked the Friedman brothers actually to buy him from his owner, and then permit him to buy his freedom The brothers readily agreed to this secret arrangement although it too was illegal. Joseph Friedman offered John Hogun, Peterís owner, $500 for Peter but Hogun refused to sell. The main reason was that he disliked and distrusted Jews and also he thought Peter was worth ore than $500. Peter found himself in the position of wanting to be sold but could do nothing to promote the sale. But on this occasion luck was with him.
In January 1849, Peterís owner needed cash to buy some young slaves and decided to sell. Friedman paid the $500 and acquired a written title to Peter. Peter immediately gathered all his savings which amounted to $300 and paid that amount to Friedman as a down payment on his freedom. He continued working about Tuscumbia, pretending to be the slave of Joseph Friedman. Actually Peter kept all his earnings. It took Peter fifteen months to save up the additional $200 needed to purchase his freedom. In April 1850, the last payment was made to Friedman and Peter received a receipt for the money and a certificate showing that he was a free man.
But Peter was not very free, because where slavery ended racism began. The laws of Alabama made it illegal for a slave to buy his freedom and it further required freed slaves to leave the state within thirty days. Peter could neither announce his freedom and act free, nor could he afford to leave the state. He had very little money. Also, he was reluctant to leave his family which was still in slavery. His life, therefore, continued for a while unchanged, even though he was free.
While the slave system seldom fostered strong family ties among slaves, Peter loved his family very much and filled the role of a responsible husband and father to the extent that his slave status permitted. Peterís family life had begun in 1825 while he was on the Gist plantation; at that time he married a slave girl named Lavinia, who was on the nearby McKiernan plantation. Over the years Peter had visited his wife when possible, usually every other weekend. He built her a cabin, and furniture, and provided as many other conveniences as possible. The marriage produced eleven children, seven of whom died in infance (none of whom were treated by a doctor). A teenage son drowned in spring Creek. when Peter acquired his freedom, he had two living teenage sons and a ten-year-old daughter. McKiernan, who owned the wife and children, was not anxious to sell them but had often expressed a desire to buy Peter. Peter, believing that McKiernan was neither a fair nor moral man, had always opposed becoming his property, although it would have brought the family together. Now Peter wanted his familyís freedom.
But while Peter was reluctant to leave his family, he was eager to go North, especially to Philadelphia. Peter knew little of his early life but remembered, as a small boy, living along the Delaware River near Philadelphia with his mother whom he remembered as being free. He vaguely understood that he had been kidnapped as a child and sold into Kentucky where he grew to manhood and from there was brought to Alabama. Now he was eager to go to Philadelphia and try to find hi mother or any family that he might have there.
The opportunity for this northward venture came in the summer of 1850. The Friedman brothers decided to sell their business in Tuscumbia and move to Cincinnati. Peter sought and was given permission to go with them. Still pretending to be a slave, Peter traveled north on the river boats From Cincinnati, after being briefed on the problems of his new life, Peter traveled on alone to Philadelphia, arriving there August 1, 1850. He was almost overwhelmed by the large strange city and his total lack of any acquaintances. He soon found lodging with a minister named Dr. Byas and started inquiring among the black community for his father and mother.
He received much sympathy and friendliness from the free blacks of Philadelphia, but no helpful information. Most people advised him to go to the office of the Philadelphia Vigilance Committee which kept many records of black people, gave assistance to runaway slaves, and worked for the abolition of slavery. But Peter was reluctant to go there. His knowledge of abolitionists had been gained from the talk of whites in Alabama. He was convinced that abolitionists were untrustworthy and would probably sell him back into slavery. Finally as his own efforts were obviously failing, he mustered up courage and entered the office. Peter found there a young black man who introduced himself as William still. Peter began telling the story of his life. Mr. Still at first seemed uninterested, but when he learned that Peterís father was named Levin and his other was named Cidney, he began to show more interest and started asking many questions. Then William Still stated that his own parents were named Levin and Cidney and that may years ago while they were living along the Delaware River, two of their sons were kidnapped.
Further conversation between the two men established the fact that Peter was actually telling his story to one of his younger brothers. Surprised and almost unbelieving, Peter learned that his father was dead, but that his mother was still alive. He also had five brothers and three sisters. This newly found family that peter had never seen or heard of welcomed him warmly and without reservation. Peter no only found a family; he learned his name. He would henceforth be know not as ďPeterĒ but as Peter Still. He also gained a family that could share his joy at being free and his sorrow that his wife and children were still in slavery.
Before leaving Alabama, Peter had promised his wife that he would do everything possible to gain freedom for her and the children. Neither Peter nor his relatives had much money. Purchase seemed impossible. Furthermore, William Still strongly opposed purchasing freedom for any slave even if money was available He argued that slave masters held slaves in violation of the laws of nature and the laws of god. Paying money for a slaveís freedom was the same as rewarding a master for his evil conduct. William advised Peter to hire someone to go to Alabama and help the family escape.
Added strength was given to this argument when a white man named Seth Concklin offered to come to Alabama and help Peterís family run away. Concklin, who strongly opposed slavery, was not new at this kind of activity. He had helped others to escape and asked only that his expenses be paid. But Peter was fearful. He had seen runaway slaves caught and punished severely. Having no alternative, he agreed that Concklin should help his family run away.
Peter also decided that he should return to Alabama and help prepare his family for the escape. After registering himself as a free man in Ohio and filing documents signed by the Friedman brothers, Peter boarded a boat at Cincinnati for Florence. He earned his passage by working on the boat. Although traveling alone, he pretended to be a slave of Isaac Friedman because Alabama law at that time prohibited free blacks from entering the state. Peter traveled on a written pass signed by Isaac Friedman. The pass was addressed to a Mr. Alexander in Tuscumbia. It requested that Peter be permitted to stay in Tuscumbia as long as he wished and then be permitted to return to Cincinnati.
Peter arrived back in Tuscumbia after an absence of only two months. He was warmly greeted by his black and white friends. After answering numerous questions about his experiences in the North, he resumed the practice of working on jobs about town. A few days later he visited his family on the McKiernan plantation. He told his excited family of his northern experiences and also his thoughts about gaining their freedom. He explained that they should be prepared to go with anyone that he might send to help them run away to Canada. Lavinia and the three children had no idea where Canada was, but they agreed to cooperate fully. Peter also revealed his plan to one other trusted friend, William Handy, a slave minister and shoemaker on the McKiernan plantation. Handy was sympathetic with the escape attempt and agreed to help.
In mid-November, after two-and-a-half months in Alabama, Peter left Tuscumbia and returned to Philadelphia by way of Cincinnati.
On arriving in Philadelphia, Peter gave Concklin a detailed description of his family, the McKiernan plantation, and the Muscle shoals area. He also gave Concklin $100. Thus equipped, Concklin started for Tuscumbia while Peter secured employment in Philadelphia and started making plans to receive his family.
In preparing for the escape, Concklin traveled to Cincinnati and discussed his plans with leading antislavery people there. He especially consulted Levi Coffin who was commonly thought of as the leader of the underground railroad in the mid-west. After receiving support from coffin and others, Concklin traveled through southern Indiana where he arranged with friendly people to receive and assist the runaway slaves when they arrived there from Alabama. He also bought a large six-oar boat for $20 and had it shipped to Florence, Alabama. With these details complete, Concklin started for the Muscle shoals area.
When Concklin arrived in Florence, he posed as a miller seeking employment. He traveled about the Shoals area for a few days before arriving at the McKiernan plantation. There he found William Handy working in the shoe shop and identified himself as Peterís friend. During the next few days Handy arranged for Concklin to meet Peterís family. They met in secret and worked out the details of the escape. It was agreed that all members of Peterís family would get passes authorizing them to visit a neighboring plantation some weekend. But instead of going to the neighboring plantation, they would get in the boat with Concklin and travel as rapidly as possible down the Tennessee River to the Ohio River and then up it to the Wabash River, then up the Wabash River to New Harmony, Indiana. From that point they would continue overland to Canada. the uniqueness of this plan made it appealing. The idea of escaping from slavery by traveling 400 miles in a rowboat was highly unusual. Rowboat travel was not the danger. The greatest danger lay in the fact that any time a strange Negro appeared along the Ohio River, which was the boundary between slave and free states, white men would seize him and hold him for a reward or possibly sell him back into slavery. Because Peterís family had no papers showing that they were free and Concklin had no proof of ownership, travel on the Ohio and Wabash Rivers and overland in southern Indiana was the most dangerous area.
Once the plans were made, the execution was delayed because the family was divided, working at different places, hence could not all leave the plantation at the same time. Finally, one Saturday in mid-March, the two boys secured a pass to go to Florence on Sunday and Lavinia and Catherine secured a pass to visit another plantation. The passes meant that they could be away from the McKiernan plantation all day Sunday without arousing suspicion. About 3 a.m. Sunday, March 16, 1851, the four slaves slipped out of their cabin and off to the Tennessee River. They climbed into the boat with Concklin and started down the Tennessee toward the Ohio River.
In the next seven days they traveled about 273 miles down the Tennessee River, 100 miles up the Ohio River and 44 miles up the Wabash River. The rip was filled with hardships and constant danger. Only two incidents were really threatening. As they were passing Eastport, Mississippi, a group of men on the south bank tried to attract their attention. Concklin, occupying a prominent place in the front of the boat, pretended not to hear the shouts. The shouts gradually stopped; the men did not follow. Late when they were near Paducah, and while Concklin was asleep in the bottom of the boat, two armed men came near, demanding to know where they were from and their destination. Concklin was quickly awakened. He assured the two men that he was from Eastport and gong to Paducah. The two men quickly lost interest, when they saw a white man aboard.
Although Concklin and the two boys were good oarsmen, traveling was difficult. On the Tennessee they ran into strong headwinds and much rain that kept them wet most of the time. On Tuesday morning, 51 hours after the journey started, they arrived on the Ohio and found conditions there even worse. Concklin had hoped to travel on the Ohio River only by night but the swift current and extreme darkness as well as the extreme cold made this impossible. Despite difficulty they progressed slowly up the Ohio and then up the Wabash River. On Sunday, March 25th, about one week and seven hours after the journey started, they abandoned the skiff at New Harmony, Indiana, and continued their journey overland. At this point the so-called underground railroad began to help them.
Early Sunday evening, after walling thirteen miles, they arrived at the home of Charles Grier a free Negro, who had agreed to provide food and lodging for them. This he did in an atmosphere of warmth and friendliness. They rested Sunday night and all day Monday. They also acquired new clothes. Concklin, dressed very much like a prosperous mid-western farmer while the Negroes were dressed very much as typical slaves might appear in Kentucky. Realizing that they might be stopped and questioned at any time, they made up a story that would explain their presence in Indiana.
That Monday night they traveled northward to the next station which was the home of a white man named David Storman. They continued traveling northward Tuesday, Wednesday, and Thursday nights without incident; each night was spent in the home of a person who hated slavery and who was willing to help them along the way to freedom. In each case this help was rendered free or for a small cost. by Friday they had progressed so fat northward that Concklin decided that traveling by day was safe On Friday they traveled in a cold rain without incident until late afternoon, when two boys helped some men catch a runaway horse. the men who were working at a sawmill showed much interest in the Negroes but did not try to detain them. Concklin and the four Negroes continued on and arrived at the home where they were to spend the night. As usual they were made welcome and given food. While they were warming and drying themselves before a big fire, their brief touch with freedom came to an end.
Seven men with guns gathered around the house. Slave catchers from the sawmill, led by a man named John Emison, placed the Negroes in a wagon, tied their hands and carried them southward to the city of Vincennes where they were lodged in Jail. No warrant for their arrest or detention was required. When the Negroes were safely in jail, Emison telegraphed the federal marshal in Evansville, Indiana, inquiring if any reward was offered for slaves fitting the description of these four Negroes. The federal marshal in turn sent out telegraphs inquiries southward. After some delay a reply came from Florence describing the four slaves. McKiernan was offering $400 reward for the four runaway slaves and a $600 reward for the capture and return to Alabama of the person responsible for the runaway. With this telegraphic information, the federal marshal traveled to Vincennes and secured a court order for the detention of the Negroes until McKiernan could arrive and make a positive identification of his slave property.
Meanwhile Concklin was making every possible effort to free the Negroes. He tried to help them escape from the jail, but this failed. He claimed that the Negroes were his property, but his claim would not be honored until McKiernan had a chance to see them. When McKiernan did arrive in Vincennes, all the slaves admitted being his property. At this point it was obvious that Concklin was guilty of assisting in their attempted escape. So he too was arrested and held with the slaves.
The federal marshal and McKiernan carried Concklin and the four slaves to Evansville, Indiana, where they were placed on a boat for the return to Alabama. It was well known that Concklin wanted to escape. To prevent this, he was placed in heavy chains. When the boat they were traveling on docked in Smithland, Kentucky, it was situated alongside a barge traveling up river. Concklin tried to escape by jumping to the barge. His attempt failed. He fell into the river and quickly drowned. Later his body, still in chains, was recovered and buried in Smithland, Kentucky. A simple headboard at the grave carried the inscription, ďNigre thief.Ē Peterís family was brought back to Alabama and put to work as usual, after some rather moderate punishment.
When Peter, in Philadelphia, learned of the failure of his family to escape, he began to think seriously of purchasing their freedom. He arranged for a letter to be written to Mr. L. B. Thornton, an attorney in Tuscumbia. Mr. Thornton was requested to ascertain if McKiernan would sell Peterís family and, if so, at what price. In August, 1851, McKiernan replied that he would sell the entire family for $5000. This was about $2000 above the market value of slaves at that time. And it was far above Peterís financial means. He could raise a few hundred dollars, but certainly not $5000. Another letter inquired if McKiernan would sell Peterís wife and daughter. The answer was no. The whole family must be sold or none of it. Peterís alternatives were clear. He had to raise $5000 or his family stayed in slavery.
Late in 1852, Peter had decided on a course of action. He had from time to time received small gifts from sympathetic friends. He now decided to make a comprehensive appeal for gifts all over the North. Most of his relatives and friends, while expressing a willingness to help also expressed doubts that $5000 could be raised under any conditions. In November 1852, he left Philadelphia with letters of introduction to leading businessmen, abolitionists, and ministers in other cities. For the next tow years he traveled from city to city, soliciting money from abolitionist groups, church congregations, and individuals. In the course of his travels he met many prominent people such as Harriet Beecher Stowe, Theodore Parker, Horace Greeley, William Lloyd Garrison, and numerous others. Peterís request for money followed a simple but definite pattern. Whether talking to an individual or a group of people, he described his slave experience, his struggle for freedom, and then appealed for funds with which to buy his family. In October 1854, after twenty-three months of soliciting, Peter reached his goal of $5000. He was prepared to buy his family.
Mr. John Simpson, a merchant in Florence, handled local details for Peter. About Christmas time in 1854, Peterís family was placed on a boat in Florence and sent northward. Early in January, Peter and his family held a joyful reunion in Philadelphia. Shortly thereafter, Peter and Lavinia, although husband and wife for thirty years, were remarried in a church and according to the laws of Pennsylvania. His daughter, age thirteen, started attending school for the first time in her life, and the two boys secured jobs. Peter and his wife bought ten acres of land near Burlington, New Jersey, which was used as a truck farm until Peterís death in 1868.
We often hear that a good American is a person who works hard, shows initiative, practices thrift, and appreciates individual freedom. If we apply these standards to Peter Still he was a good American.