For the Cause of Freedom: William Still and Abolitionist Data Collection

For the Cause of Freedom: William Still and Abolitionist Data Collection

Emeline Chapman faced a difficult choice in the summer of 1856. As an enslaved woman in Washington, D.C., Chapman and her husband John Henry were raising a young family while enduring the daily struggles of enslavement. Chapman’s enslaver, Emily Thompson, profited by regularly hiring her out to different White residents in the DC area. By summer 1856, however, Thompson decided that she was ready to send Chapman to the auction block and made threats implying as much. Seeing that a sale would lead to permanent separation from her two children (Margaret, age 2, and John Henry, eight months old), Chapman took matters into her own hands. Moving west by foot, Chapman and her children became freedom seekers along the Underground Railroad on August 30.

Thompson failed to locate Chapman and her children for more than three weeks after their departure. Looking for help from other enslavers and their supporters around Maryland, she posted an advertisement offering a $300 reward on September 23 in the Baltimore Sun, a proslavery newspaper that regularly posted notices about enslaved runaways in its pages.[1] Thankfully, it appears that Emeline Chapman and her children were never captured or re-enslaved. What Thompson failed to discover was that Chapman had sought freedom with the abolitionist William Still and the Pennsylvania Anti-Slavery Society (PASS) in Philadelphia.

Printed newspaper ad for the return of a self-liberating African American woman.
Emily Thompson, an enslaver in Washington, D.C., paid to have this advertisement of Emeline Chapman’s disappearance printed in the Baltimore Sun on September 23, 1856.

Chapman and her children were among nearly 1,000 freedom seekers who sought refuge with William Still during the 1850s and early 1860s. While much Underground Railroad activity around the country was shrouded in secrecy and word-of-mouth communication between the enslaved and an abolitionist community of “conductors,” Still bucked this trend by taking detailed notes about the freedom seekers who sought refuge with him. Writing down names, ages, dates of escape, transportation modes, hometowns, and more, Still remarked that he compiled this data “to show what efforts were made and what success was gained for Freedom under difficulties.” In other words, Still leveraged the power of data to demonstrate how freedom seekers like Emeline Chapman proactively worked to escape slavery. Seven years after the legal end of slavery in the United States, Still’s notes were published in The Underground Railroad, a comprehensive recollection of the people whom Still assisted in Philadelphia.[2]

In recent years, the emergence of the digital humanities as a form of scholarly inquiry has created opportunities to study the history of slavery with computational methods. Using spreadsheets, text mining, GIS mapping technology, and data visualizations, scholars now have tools for thinking anew about slavery, abolition, and emancipation in the nineteenth century. Robert Nowatski highlighted some of these projects in a 2020 article for The American Archivist, but also demonstrated how digital humanities scholars have largely ignored the study of slavery or Black history more broadly. In an analysis of 1,256 articles published with Digital Scholarship in the Humanities and 367 articles with Digital Humanities Quarterly since 1986, Nowatski found that only eight articles mentioned Black history and culture, less than one percent of all articles published in these journals.[3] It may come as no surprise, then, to discover that no comprehensive dataset of William Still’s notes was freely available online until recently.

Portrait of a Black man sitting looking at the camera.
William Still (1821-1902), a conductor on the Underground Railroad who helped nearly 800 enslaved African Americans to freedom.

Although I was previously aware of William Still’s abolitionist data, I became interested in mining the data further when I was hired to teach an Introduction to Digital Humanities course for the spring 2023 semester at IUPUI (Indiana University – Purdue University Indianapolis). Struggling to figure out a good final project for the course, I decided to see what I could do with the Still data.

One crucial study I came across was William C. Kashatus’s 2021 book, William Still: The Underground Railroad and the Angel at Philadelphia.[4] While the book is really more about PASS as an abolitionist organization rather than Still’s own life experiences, Kashatus and the late scholar James McGowan meticulously researched The Underground Railroad and created an appendix with Still’s data on 995 enslaved individuals.[5] All scholars of slavery should be grateful for this scholarly contribution, which took many years to complete. However, Still’s data in print form is, for a lack of a better term, not flexible. Scholars couldn’t create a visualization, graph, or map of the Still data from the appendix unless they spent countless hours converting the printed text to computer software.

I set out to change this situation by making the Still data freely available online. Throughout fall 2022, I converted Kashatus and McGowan’s research into an Excel spreadsheet. I also studied The Underground Railroad in an effort to correct a limited number of typos, mistakes, and missing information not included in the original print appendix of William Still. I didn’t invent the wheel, so to speak, but I undertook this work to make it more efficient and accessible. Thankfully, I managed to complete the dataset in time to include it in the syllabus of my upcoming course.

While the future online home of this dataset remains to be determined, I am hosting it on my Google Drive for the time being and you can download it for yourself by clicking this hyperlink.

Unfortunately, the digital humanities course I was scheduled to teach this spring was cancelled shortly before I began writing this essay. However, I am hopeful that I’ll get the chance to teach William Still’s remarkable story and dataset to students in the future. More importantly, I hope other scholars can use this data in their classrooms and for their own research purposes. Students can benefit from Still’s life story as they consider the ways historians use data to make arguments about the past. For example, I had planned assignments in which students would create maps highlighting the hometowns of enslaved freedom seekers, graphic representations of age, runaway date, and modes of transportation used to seek freedom, and a final project that challenged students to create a website highlighting the dataset.

By making this spreadsheet freely available, I hope others find creative ways to help students understand the relationship between data and the study of slavery. Additionally, scholars can use this dataset to provide new insights into the life experiences of individual freedom seekers such as Emeline Chapman who came to Philadelphia dreaming of liberation. The possibilities are endless, and I look forward to seeing what can be accomplished with William Still’s data moving forward.

[1] “Reward: $300,” Baltimore Sun, September 23, 1856.

[2] William Still, The Underground Railroad: A Record (Philadelphia: Henry B. Ashmead, 1872), 6. See also Julia W. Bernier, “’The Times Requires this Testimony’: William Still’s The Underground Railroad, Black Perspectives, December 5, 2022.

[3] Robert Nowatzki, “From Datum to Databases: Digital Humanities, Slavery, and Archival Reparations,” The American Archivist 83, no. 2 (Fall/Winter 2020), 430.

[4] William C. Kashatus, William Still: The Underground Railroad and the Angel at Philadelphia (South Bend: University of Notre Dame Press, 2021); see also Andrew K. Diemer, Vigilance: The Life of William Still, Father of the Underground Railroad (New York: Knopf, 2022).

[5] The appendix can be seen in Kashatus, William Still, 221-278.

Nick Sacco

NICK SACCO is a public historian and writer based in St. Louis, Missouri. He holds a master’s degree in History with a concentration in Public History from IUPUI (2014). In the past he has worked for the National Council on Public History, the Indiana State House, the Missouri History Museum Library and Research Center, and as a teaching assistant in both middle and high school settings. Nick recently had a journal article about Ulysses S. Grant’s relationship with slavery published in the September 2019 issue of The Journal of the Civil War Era. He has written several other journal articles, digital essays, and book reviews for a range of publications, including the Indiana Magazine of History, The Confluence, The Civil War Monitor, Emerging Civil War, History@Work, AASLH, and Society for U.S. Intellectual History. He also blogs regularly about history at his personal website, Exploring the Past. You can contact Nick at

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