William had been hired out almost his entire life. For the last twelve or fifteen years he had been accustomed to hire his time for one hundred and thirty dollars per annum. In order to meet this demand he commonly resorted to oystering. By the hardest toil he managed to maintain himself and family in a humble way.
For the last twenty years (prior to his escape) the slaves had constantly been encouraged by their mistress’ promises to believe that at her death all would be free, and transported to Liberia, where they would enjoy their liberty and be happy the remainder of their days.
With full faith in her promises year by year the slaves awaited her demise with as much patience as possible, and often prayed that her time might be shortened for the general good of the oppressed. Fortunately, as the slaves thought, she had no children or near relatives to deprive them of their just and promised rights.
In November, previous to William’s escape, her long looked-for dissolution took place. Every bondman who was old enough to realize the nature and import of the change felt a great anxiety to learn what the will of their old mistress said, whether she had actually freed them or not. Alas! when the secret was disclosed, it was ascertained that not a fetter was broken, not a bond unloosed, and that no provision whatever had been made looking towards freedom. In this sad case, the slaves could imagine no other fate than soon to be torn asunder and scattered. The fact was soon made known that the High Sheriff had administered on the estate of the late mistress; it was therefore obvious enough to William and the more intelligent slaves that the auction block was near at hand.
The trader, the slave-pen, the auction-block, the coffle gang, the rice swamp, the cotton plantation, bloodhounds, and cruel overseers loomed up before him, as they had never done before. Without stopping to consider the danger, he immediately made up his mind that he would make a struggle, cost what it might. He knew of no other way of escape than the Underground Rail Road. He was shrewd enough to find an agent, who gave him private instructions, and to whom he indicated a desire to travel North on said road. On examination he was deemed reliable, and a mutual understanding was entered into between. William and one of the accommodating Captains running on the Richmond and Philadelphia Line, to the effect that he, William, should have a first class Underground Rail Road berth, so perfectly private that even the law-officers could not find him.
The first ties to be severed were those which bound him to his wife and children, and next to the Baptist Church, to which he belonged. His family were slaves, and bore the following names: his wife, Nancy, and children, Simon Henry, William, Sarah, Mary Ann, Elizabeth, Louis, and Cornelius. It was no light matter to bid them farewell forever. The separation from them was a trial such as rarely falls to the lot of mortals; but he nerved himself for the undertaking, and when the hour arrived his strength was sufficient for the occasion.