Tuesday, August 11, 2009

Another Unusual Family Reunion: Continued

While in Philadelphia Peter Still quickly raised some money and returned to northern Alabama to try to purchase his wife and three children. For whatever reason Peter's efforts proved unsuccessful and he returned to Philadelphia alone.

Meanwhile, Peter's story was published in the Pennsylvania Freeman where it was read by a sympathetic white abolitionist by the name of Seth Conklin who decided he wanted to help reunite Peter with his enslaved family. Conklin contacted the Pennsylvania Anti-Slavery Society and offered to make a rescue attempt on Peter's wife and children, but he was told that the society did not arrange slave rescues; they only helped those that made it to Philadelphia.

Peter learned about Conklin's offer, and at first was hesitant to trust the white man, but with no one else willing to help, he eventually accepted Conklin's assistance. Conklin's plan was to make away with Peter's family under the assumed name of John H. Miller and pose as a master traveling north with his slaves. Peter provided as much information as possible about his family and the plantation's layout to Conklin, and Peter also gave him his wife's cape as proof that his wife could trust Conklin's story.

Conklin planned to take the Tennessee River which ran through northern Alabama to the Ohio River and then go up the Wabash River into Indiana, and then eventually to Canada. The trip would take many days and cover many miles, but he was determined to see Peter's family freed.

In January of 1851 Conklin made it to Alabama and found Peter's wife, Vina and his three children, 21 year old Levin, 19 year old Peter Jr., and 13 year old Catherine. He informed them that he would be back in a month to make the escape. Conklin had been unsuccessful in finding a suitable boat in the area, so he went to Cincinnati and found one there. He returned as he said and one night the Stills slipped away from the plantation and made their way to the Tennessee River. They all loaded up and set off. Along the waterways they had several narrow escapes, but they eventually made it to Indiana.

One evening Conklin left the Stills to search ahead for their next stopping place. While waiting for his return seven men arrested the Stills, and although they claimed to be free people, they could not prove it and they were sent toward Vincennes, Indiana. Concklin overtook them and tried to rescue them again, but being alone was unable. In Vincennes the Stills were put in jail and while there the jailer sent out telegraphs with their information to see if anyone was offering rewards for their capture. Their Alabama owner, McKiernan, had also sent out telegraphs offering rewards for the Stills and the man who helped them escape. Conklin, who had daily visited the Stills while in jail, was quickly arrested too.

McKiernan made his way to Indiana and claimed his property. The Stills and Conklin were taken to Evansville and prepared for their way back south. The following morning it was found that Conklin had disappeared, but he was shortly found dead in the Ohio River with his handcuffs still on and his head bludgeoned.

Back in Philadelphia a distraught Peter heard of Conklin's rescue attempt and eventual death, probably at the hands of McKiernan. Peter wrote an appeal to McKiernan for the purchase of Vina and the children. McKiernan replied and placed the price at $5000; $1000 for each family member, and $1000 for all of the trouble he had been put through reclaiming his property. Peter immediately made appeals to everyone he met and hit the abolitionist speaking circuit to raise the necessary funds.

In 1854 he finally raised the required amount. Vina and the children made their way to New Jersey after their freedom was purchased and were successfully reunited with Peter. Peter Still lived with his reunited family until his death in 1868. Two years later the Stills started a family tradition that lasts to the present; they held a family reunion.

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