BHM Series Part Three: Letters From St. Catharines

Abolitionist William Still aided some eight-hundred Freedom Seekers in their journey to freedom on the Underground Railroad. Still, a clerk from Philadelphia, kept meticulous records regarding the part he played in the Underground Railroad. Still’s book: The Underground Railroad contains correspondence written by St. Catharines Freedom Seekers that he had aided. The contents of these letters vary in subject matter on everything from where to forward material goods from their old lives to the details of helping loved ones escape. Examination of these letters gives a better understanding of the transition period Freedom Seekers experienced when they reached St. Catharines and provides perspective on what they needed most to start their new life. 

Freedom Seeker, John Atkins, was described by Still as having a background in slavery that was too disturbing to describe. Still details that Atkins had to keep his plans to leave the United States secret from all, including his wife, as a means of not being discovered and abused. Atkins successfully made it to Canada and while living in St. Catharines wrote two letters to Still. The second letter that John Atkins wrote to Still from St. Catharines in October of 1854 says, 

“I have learned of my friend, Richmond Bohm, that my clothes were in Philadelphia. Will you have the kindness to see Dr. Lundy and if he has my clothes in charge, or knows about them, for him to send them on to me immediately, as I am in great need of them. I would like to have them put in a small box, and the overcoat I left at your house to be put in the box with them, to be sent to the care of my friend, Hiram Wilson. On receipt of this letter, I desire you to write a few lines to my wife, Mary Atkins, in the care of my friend, Henry Lowey, stating that I am well and hearty and hoping that she is the same. … Please request her to write to me immediately, for her to be of good courage, that I love her better than ever. I would like her to come on as soon as she can, but for her to write and let me know when she is going to start.”i 

In a preface to this letter Still informs the reader that Freedom Seekers who had acquired items like fine clothing in the United States would try to recover it when they had reached freedom. This was understandable as it meant they didn’t face the prospect of a new life with absolutely nothing. Directing letters to persons still involved with their former life and requesting them to retrieve these items was discouraged. It was also deemed risky to send a direct letter to loved ones still in the United States as it could risk details of the operation of the Underground Railroad should it fall in the wrong hands. Instead, requests were sent to Still who could make sure that the messages were conveyed in the safest way possible. We may never know if Mary managed to join John in Canada or if he retrieved his worldly possessions. These letters often provide a glimpse at the life of Freedom Seekers and as readers we are left to wonder. The next letter also contains a letter written by a Freedom Seeker attempting to contact his wife. In this case, however, the letter was written to his wife and Still was the intermediary. 

In an 1858 letter penned by Freedom seeker Jacob Blockson in St. Catharines appears in Still’s book. This letter to his wife was written after he reached Canada from Sussex County, Delaware. Jacob’s motivation for escape was knowledge that he could be sold at any minute, much like livestock. He decided that he was not going to let that happen and after planning for his wife and son to follow him should he make it to Canada, he left. When Jacob Blockson writes to his wife from St. Catharines, he provides some detail on the life that he has started here since his arrival. 

“Dear Wife: I now inform you I am in Canada and am well and hope you are the same, and would wish you to be here next August, you come to suspension bridge and from there to St. Catharines, write and let me know. I am doing well working for a Butcher this winter and will get good wages in the spring I now get $2.50 a week… if you can’t bring all bring Alexander surely, write when you will come, and I will meet you in Albany. Love to you all, from your loving Husband, Jacob Blockson. Fare through $12.30 to here.”ii 

This letter was a means of providing Jacob’s wife, Leah, with reassurance as to the preparations that had been made to reunite them in Canada. It provides the information that Jacob has found a job to start saving the financial means to bring his family here. He also states that his prospects are even better for the spring. Jacob provides the cost of travel to Canada which would help Leah understand that plans for an August removal were realistic.  

Jacob’s letter provides the reader with a sense of what was important to him. However, not all letters were written firsthand by Freedom Seekers. Some letters sent in the Underground Railroad network were written on behalf of Freedom Seekers by a member of Still’s network. In St. Catharines this role was filled by Hiram Wilson. Still’s network benefitted from having abolitionist Hiram Wilson positioned in St. Catharines to aid Freedom Seekers when they arrived. The aid that Wilson offered Freedom Seekers included providing clothing, letters of introduction and writing on their behalf to the United States. Of the letters written by Hiram to Still in the Underground Railroad most were written to confirm the arrival of Freedom Seekers to St Catharines and pass on their thanks for all those who helped them along the way. In July of 1855 Hiram wrote: 

“I have just received your letters touching U. G. R. R. operations. All is right. Jasper and Mrs. Bell got here on Saturday last, and… two more by name of Smith, John 

and Wm., have arrived the present week and were anxious to have me inform you that 

they are safely landed and free in this refuge land. They wish me to communicate their kind regards to you and others who have aided them. They have found employment and are likely to do well… yours, Hiram Wilson”iii 

The information alluded to by  Hiram intrigues modern readers and historians who would like to know exactly what was written in those letters on the Underground Railroad operations that Still sent Hiram. Even without this information this letter provides a glimpse of the St. Catharines that Freedom Seekers encountered when they reached the terminus of the Underground Railroad.  

When Hiram details the arrival of the Smiths’ he is providing the aliases of the two gentlemen that arrived. Fleeing, they chose to change their names, as many Freedom Seekers did, as a security measure. William Smith was the alias of Richard Green and John Smith was the alias of his brother George. This meant starting their new life with nothing from their old, not even their names. Hiram’s confirmation of the safe arrival of William and John Smith and passing on their gratitude and well wishes to the committee confirms the bond that was created. It also provides information on the way the brothers felt about reaching their destination. To the Smiths, to be free was to be well. While this information is being relayed through Hiram it still retains the voice of the Smiths. Hiram also provides details of others that Still had sent, arriving safely and confirming that he receives a steady stream of Freedom Seekers making their way through the Underground Railroad. 

These three letters contain a glimpse into the lives and concerns of newly arrived Freedom Seekers in St. Catharines. Whether they were writing themselves, or found a friend to write on their behalf, these letters are important because they contain the hopes for the immediate future, now that they were free citizens. They provide insight into what St. Catharines Freedom Seekers deemed important for success in Canada. The need to bring loved ones safely here, express the gratitude for aid, and detail feelings of freedom were the most common details that Still received from Freedom Seekers. These details provide modern scholars a look into the transitional period in their lives and provide understanding for the supportive community that grew out of this period.

Watch for part three of the series on the daily lives of Freedom Seekers on February 27. In part four, Abbey will discuss, education opportunities for Freedom Seekers. Catch all four parts of this series from Black History Month 2022 using the tag or category ‘Black History’.

Abbey Stansfield is a Public Programmer at the St. Catharines Museum and Welland Canals Centre.

Works Cited

i Still, William. The Underground Railroad: A Record of Facts, Authentic Narratives, Letters, &c., Narrating the Hardships, Hair-breadth Escapes and Death Struggles of the Slaves in Their Efforts for Freedom, as Related 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. United States: People’s Publishing Company, (300).

ii Ibid 265.

iii Ibid, 490-491.

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