William Still

Local History/ Ancestry – Still History

Vainly, I’ve thought I had the best family history of anyone I’ve ever met. In the course of my studies I’ve discovered I’m related to both Abraham Lincoln and Robert E. Lee. (We Stephanys have a long tradition of hedging our bets.) Thanks to the outstanding program hosted by the Historical Society of Moorestown this past October 9th, I had the pleasure of meeting someone with an even more profound lineage. Local resident Samuel Still III regaled the group with tales of his extraordinary ancestors.

Did I mention these individuals were extraordinary? His 4X Great Grandmother Charity (Sidney) Still had 18 children. That’s a pretty impressive feat during any era. It’s even more phenomenal that she did this during the 19th century and survived. She also spent the early part of her life as a slave in Maryland. On two separate occasions she managed to escape. The lady lived a full life.

Samuel then detailed the life of Dr. James Still. At the age of either three or four he witnessed a doctor giving inoculations. The young James resolved to become a physician. During the course of his life he received only three months of formal education. This short coming would’ve deterred a less driven person from pursuing a career in medicine. James didn’t let it prevent him from achieving his dream.

James apprenticed with another doctor and studied herbal medicine from the Lenape tribe of Native Americans. Following years of hard work, he realized his goal of becoming Dr. Still. While this feat served as a monumental achievement in itself, he went on to discover a remedy that cured skin cancer. In addition, the doctor became very successful at treating dyspepsia and scrofula. (The latter is an inflammation of the lymph nodes on the neck.)

Before readers assume that his three months of formal education the greatest schooling anyone ever received, much of Dr. Still’s success emanated from his work ethic. He labored seven days a week and even delivered his prescriptions directly to patients. In his autobiography he preached the virtues of forbearance and debt avoidance. At the age of 70, Dr. Still was the third largest landowner in Medford, New Jersey. He lived most of his life debt free. These would be tremendous accomplishments for any resident of the Garden State today. It’s even more extraordinary for the son of former slaves to do so in the 19th century.

Samuel could’ve stopped his presentation there and still delivered an outstanding tale. Instead he impressed his audience even further. Another of charity’s sons, William Still, became known as “The Father of the Undergound Railroad.” Among his myriad accomplishments he laid out the organization’s overall network. Samuel said, “Harriet Tubman didn’t make a move without telling him.” William debriefed, if you will, escaped and slaves who passed through Philadelphia. He compiled their stories into the seminal chronicle on the subject. He published it in 1872 as The Undergound Railroad. For those interested, the book is still available today.

Samuel went still further in his lecture. He related the story of a slave who stopped by William’s office after purchasing his own freedom. William wrote down the man’s story of how his mother escaped from slavery in Maryland. Before she left she told him to meet her in the New Jersey Pine Barrens when he became free. At this point William recognized the gentleman as his long-lost brother Peter.

Peter made the other two Still brothers seem like under achievers by comparison. For forty years of his life he endured slavery. After purchasing his own freedom for $500, his former owner made him a proposition. He would sell Peter the wife and children he left behind in Alabama for the princely sum of $5,000. In 2014 dollars this would equate to roughly $143,000. It took Peter several years, but he managed to raise the necessary funds and liberated his family.

Samuel certainly has a rich family heritage of which to be proud. While I enjoyed hearing his story the number of younger people who attended this meeting impressed me even more. In fact, Samuel brought along his son to help carry on the tradition of sharing the Still story. At the conclusion of his lecture, Samuel told the students in the audience that he wasn’t simply speaking about his genealogy; his talk described our history. The more all of us get to know about one another the more we can understand our similarities and common bonds.

I studied history in high school, college and grad school. Following that I did a wealth of genealogical research for my family. In all that time, I could never come up with a solid answer when people asked me what purpose history really served. After listening to Samuel Still’s comments to the next generation of historians, I finally have one.