William Still was the New Jersey born son of a former slave who had bought his own freedom from his master in Maryland, Levin Still. Levin Still relocated to New Jersey where his wife and William’s mother joined him after she escaped from slavery. Recaptured, she escaped again, and eventually she and her husband had eighteen children, with two remaining in slavery in Maryland. According to federal law, and despite being born in free New Jersey, all of the children were considered slaves, since they were born of an escaped slave. In the mid-1840s William Still settled in Philadelphia, where he went to work for the Pennsylvania Society for the Abolition of Slavery.
Still has been called the “Father of the Underground Railroad” though it had been in operation before he became involved with the movement of slaves out of the South. Operating from Philadelphia, Still is credited with sheltering and moving up to 800 slaves along the railroad towards freedom in Canada. He maintained contacts with stationmasters in Virginia, Wilmington, North Carolina, and Savannah, as well as to the North in New York and New Jersey. Still maintained contacts throughout Pennsylvania as well, enabling him to select alternative routes north in response to the activity of slave catchers and federal marshals.
Unlike most of the stationmasters and conductors along the routes, Still kept meticulous records of his activities, including the names of those he assisted and the plantations from which they escaped, in order to assist in the locations of family members later. It was the goal of many escaping male slaves to purchase their own and their family’s freedom after finding work in the north of the United States or in Canada. Some of Still’s records were published in the 1872 work The Underground Railroad: Authentic Narratives and First-Hand Accounts. Still’s work provides much of what is known of the codes used by stationmasters and conductors along the railroad.
Harriet Tubman was one conductor who moved escaping slaves through Still’s station, which was in his home in Philadelphia. Still was wont to use the actual railroads to move some of the slaves he assisted, though he avoided the rail stations in Philadelphia and used suburban depots instead. Escaping slaves were sometimes ticketed passengers carrying false papers claiming they were free, but more often rode in freight cars while bribed railroad workers looked the other way. Still was assisted in his efforts by several Philadelphia abolitionists and congregations of the Quakers and other denominations in the city and throughout Pennsylvania.
Still worked as both a stationmaster and a conductor on the Underground Railroad, preferring to move the escaping slaves as quickly as possible rather than hiding them for an extended period. Through the use of the multiple routes of which he was aware he at times moved as many as sixty per month. Although he was confronted by slave catchers on more than one occasion he was never caught, and neither were most of the slaves he helped to escape, at least according to his own records. After the war Still became a successful businessman and philanthropist, and a leading real estate investor in Philadelphia.