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PETER STILL VERSUS THE PECULIAR INSTITUTION Robert Brent Toplin One would have to search carefully among the accounts of slaves who found their way to freedom in the antebellum period to find a reference to Peter Still. His activities never produced the political impact or excited public attention as did those of Frederick Douglass, Dred Scott and other historic figures of slave background. Yet, Still's experiences are significant, for they encompassed a variety of approaches utilized to free a fortunate minority of slaves from bondage. Manumission, escape, philanthropy—all were involved in his efforts to secure liberty for himself and his family. And the list of individuals who aided Still in his endeavors reads like an honor roll of the leading antislavery figures of the 1850's An incomplete biography of Peter Still appeared in 1856 as Peter Still: The Kidnapped and the Ransomed. Written by Kate E. R. Pickard of Syracuse, New York, the book was presented primarily as an antislavery polemic. However, the market became flooded with similar works in the 1850's, and the Pickard book never received the attention it deserved.1 The experiences that Peter Still encountered during his forty-nine years in slavery are revealing enough of the peculiar institution to deserve special attention. A full account of this aspect of Still's life can be found in the Pickard biography. Only a brief sketch is presented here as background to his activities as a freedman. The efforts of Still's parents to break away from slavery resembled, in some ways, his own quest for freedom. His mother and father were slaves in Maryland when Peter was born in 1801. A few years later, his father purchased his own freedom and settled near Greenwich, New Jersey, to await his family's preplanned escape. Their first attempt was abortive. After a sojourn in Greenwich, the mother and 1 In die category of Pickard's book, die slave narrative, see, for example, Solomon Northrup, Twelve Years as a Siaoe (Auburn and Buffalo, 1854); J. W. Loguen, The Reverend J. W. Loguen as a Siaoe and as a Freeman (Syracuse, 1859); Josiah Henson, Father Hensons Story of His Own Life (1849 and 1858). 340 four children were discovered by slave hunters and taken back to Maryland. In the second escape, Still's mother managed to take only her two daughters. After a second reunion, the family settled near Burlington, New Jersey, changing their name from Steel to Still to avoid detection. The two boys were left in bondage. Shortly after their separation from their mother, Peter and his brother Levin, ages six and eight respectively, were sold in Kentucky. After thirteen years in that state, they were transported to Alabama. There, in 1831, Levin died. His death was a cruel blow to Peter. The brothers had been very close through their years in slavery, and Levin apparently had been responsible for keeping alive the hope for reunion with their parents, even though the memory of their family became fainter each year. During his years in Alabama, Peter Still lived near the towns of Florence and Tuscumbia, in the northwestern part of the state, not far from Muscle Shoals. Changes in die estate of his owners led to his being "hired out" for a variety of assignments. At times he worked on plantations where he was often appointed household servant or slave foreman—positions usually reserved for the most capable slaves. Sometimes he was hired to merchants in the neighboring towns. When Still was twenty-five years old, he married a household slave from a nearby plantation. They each remained the property of their original owners during their years in Alabama, although Still visited his wife frequentiy. He became popular with the white townspeople in the area, and they respected him for his abilities. Many years later, a woman who had known him in the South recalled that he was regarded as "faithful and industrious" and "stricdy truthful, one upon whose word you may rely upon implicitiy."2 Still became friendly with many of the businessmen in Tuscumbia and Florence, and the good will he earned there was to help him in later years. A few times...

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Additional Information

ISSN
1533-6271
Print ISSN
0009-8078
Pages
pp. 340-349
Launched on MUSE
2013-01-02
Open Access
No
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