Escaping Richmond

By the time it was over, both Browns and Mitchells had escaped Richmond.

Julia Mitchell Sr
Julia Ann Mitchell, courtesy of the American Civil War Museum

In 1859, a man known to Julia Mitchell as her slave, Stepney, ran away. Mitchell, a widow of jeweler William Mitchell, Jr., likely lived on Franklin Street, across from where Greenleaf’s Pool Room is now in that year. William had died in 1852, but his estate was still under legal dispute seven years later.

Julia Mitchell’s brother-in-law and executor of William’s estate, Samuel P. Mitchell, placed an ad in the newspaper, offering a reward for Stepney’s return.

Stepney Brown ad use this

Mitchell described Stepney, from Amelia County and aged about 45, as “a good looking man, but a little stooping and round shouldered.” He offered a reward of $50 if captured in Virginia, and $100 if captured out of state.

We do not know how he escaped Richmond, but it is likely that Stepney—like his friend John Dungy who had escaped from Richmond about the same time—walked down to Shockoe Bottom and slipped aboard a ship with a friendly crew and stowed away down the James River on a packet to Philadelphia.

John Dungy
John Dungy

Stepney next appeared in the offices of William Still, a major operator of the Underground Railroad, in Philadelphia. Now he was Stepney Brown, aged 35. Mr. Brown told Mr. Still that he had belonged to Julia Mitchell, who was

Decidedly stingy and unkind, although a member of St Paul’s church.

He sought his freedom because “I believed that I had a right to be a free man.” Though in Philadelphia, Mr. Brown still needed to leave the country. The Fugitive Slave Act of 1850 had made escaped slaves unsafe anywhere in the United States.

William Still directed him north, through Niagara Falls, where an Underground Railroad hub at the Cataract House hotel operated, and into Canada. There Stepney Brown lingered at the Clifton House hotel on the Canadian side of the falls before settling near his friend John Dungy in Brantford, Ontario.

Clifton House
Clifton House, Niagara Falls, Canada, courtesy of Niagara Falls Museums

Mr. Brown, a free man, then took stock of his situation. He wrote back to William Still to inquire about other arrivals and news from Richmond. He enrolled in school. He joined the First Baptist Church of Brantford. And his health improved. “I have not lost a day in sickness since I came to Canada.” Stepney Brown found work at the Kerbey House hotel and turned his thoughts to marriage, noting that “I must get a little foothold before I do marry if I ever do.” He was on his way, reporting that “I am in a very comfortable room all fixed for winter and we have had one snow.”

He had likely seen snow before in Virginia, but this was his first snow as a free man. I wonder if it smelled different.

Julia Mitchell continued to buy and hire enslaved people up to the moment that—along with her daughter—she too left Richmond in 1863.

The Mitchells were originally from Vermont, and their extended family frequently travelled to Boston and Europe. Before the Civil War, daughter Julia met and fell in love with Frank Coggill, a New York wool importer.

In the middle of the Civil War, mother and daughter boarded a ship—with tickets and a comfortable cabin—cruised down the James River, and by flag of truce, passed out of the Confederacy and into the arms of Mr. Coggill.

Julia Mitchell Jr
Julia Mitchell, daughter, courtesy of American Civil War Museum

Where Stepney Brown saw freedom in school and snow, the Mitchell’s first sat for photographs in New York, finding relief in the latest fashion, far from the dire shortages of Confederate Richmond. Julia and Frank wed, started a family, and lived well in Westchester County. The elder Mrs. Mitchell returned to Richmond and a still-disputed estate after the war.

Stepney Brown’s fate is harder to discern. As it happens, Stepney appears to be a common name for African American men from central Virginia in the mid-19th Century, making it difficult to trace his movements in the historical record.

He may have returned to Virginia, settled in western Henrico, and—having found work on a farm—married in 1873. He may have fathered a son, also named Stepney, who continued as a farm laborer in Henrico.

Stepney Brown may also have taken a job as a waiter at the Cataract House in Niagara Falls in the mid-1870s.

Either way, he probably never walked with rounded shoulders again.


Stepney Brown’s letters to William Still can be found in Still’s The Underground Rail Road 

Thanks go to the Reverend Ben Campbell for discovering Stepney Brown in Still’s book.

Cornell University’s Freedom on the Move is a neat crowd-sourced database of runaway slave ads.

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