William Hayden was born into slavery in 1785, at Belle Plain plantation on Stafford County’s Potomac Creek and near the Potomac River. His owner separated William while still a child from his mother. William returned as a free man decades later in an effort to liberate her and perhaps his sister as well.
Hayden stands out not only for attempting this prior to the Civil War, without the new paths to liberation that the war would open for other enslaved people, but also for publicly condemning the system that had devastated his family, in a memoir published in 1846. The Narrative of William Hayden…Written by Himself also traced the origins of his faith as a Christian.
Along with written descriptions, the memoir includes wood engravings, or woodcuts. These are stylized and doubtless reflect the imagination of a non-eyewitness engraver to one degree or another. Yet several of the artworks may represent the only pictorial illustrations of enslaved people’s lives in the Fredericksburg area, prepared at the direction of someone who was once held in bondage in the area and who returned to again witness slavery there firsthand.
Narrative of William Hayden opens two years after the end of the American Revolution, with the author’s birth at Belle Plain to Alcy Shelton, a slave of “George Ware,” and James, a slave of “Mr. Daniel.” Judging from background information on the estate, in historian Jerrilynn Eby’s 1997 county history, They Called Stafford Home, William Hayden’s memory over half a century had modified some spellings slightly: Alcy’s owner was actually George Waugh, who shared occupancy of the 1,500-acre Belle Plain plantation with his brother, Robert Waugh. George and Robert’s father, John Waugh, had died in 1783 in possession of at least 39 enslaved people, Alcy Shelton probably among them.
William Hayden’s own father, James (with whom he evidently never lived and whose minimal mention in the Narrative does not even include a last name), was perhaps the property of Travers Daniel, who owned Crow’s Nest plantation on the opposite side of Potomac Creek from Belle Plain.
William’s first recorded memory was of savoring the morning scenery from the door of the cabin he shared with his mother, brother, and sister. The cabin afforded views of both Potomac Creek and the Potomac River, occupying a location on or near the main road from Fredericksburg. The plantation’s frontage on Potomac Creek adjoined the sites of a Colonial-era wharf and public warehouse for tobacco shippers, and would gain national fame during the Civil War.
(For my GoogleEarth overlay map of the Federals’ Belle Plain wharf-sites in 1864 click here and scroll down to fifth illustration; for John Hennessy’s account of Charles Dickens’ visit to Belle Plain in 1842 click here.)
Thinking back to childhood mornings in that cabin doorway in the 1780’s, William Hayden recalled the origins of his faith, and his being struck by the twin heralds of
The Day God as he peered from the chambers of the east, and cast his reflection from the clear bosom of the Potomac, appear[ing] to my infantile mind like two suns–the one in the heavens, and the other in the body of the waters; and every morning, it was my desire, and indeed, my first employment, to repair to the door and witness the rising of the two suns. …witnessing with joy, the beauties of Heaven, and Heaven’s goodness.
Hayden’s predawn awakenings proved of worldly benefit as well:
One morning, on rising from my straw pallet, to seek the door of the cabin, the bed was discovered to be on fire. A sense of danger was even then apparent to my young mind, and through exertions and persuasions, I was enabled to be the instrument of God’s holy wisdom, to save the lives of my sister and brother who slept in the same room. …God’s beauties were before my mind; his hand was over me, and leading me on; he made my soul, even at that early age acquainted with the fact, that I was to become an instrument in his hand….
Around 1790, William’s owner separated him from Alcy, and sent him initially to work at nearby properties. William managed to escape and rejoin his mother, although the reunion lasted only a week before he was discovered. William was afterwards sold at auction; his new owner soon moved him to Kentucky. William later wrote movingly of Alcy harboring a “presentiment” during the few years they had spent together. She had foreseen that she was not to be “the one designed by Providence to rear me.”
Presentiment was an essential part of William’s own faith as a Christian. He would later note that his sale at auction and subsequent separation from other slave children whose temporary company had calmed and diverted him brought home the cruelty of his situation more than any previous event:
No mother’s smiles were decreed to welcome me—no maternal words to soothe my pains, no kind and long known home to yield me sustenance and repose—naught but the clanking chains of slavery—the roof of a stranger, and my own sad reflections….
Yet, Hayden added, “My liberation from bondage was promised me by my spiritual guide…when the chains of slavery were first riveted upon me….” This consoled him right up to the moment “in which I was to become a free man…whilst toiling in servitude, and abject misery for the malignant gratification of my fellow man…it was this knowledge which supported me through nearly forty years of unjustifiable bondage.”
Kentucky would become William’s long-term home and site of experiences that included his obtaining an education, living for a time with a white woman who treated him on an equal footing with her own child, and suffering fraud by various hirers that deprived him of agreed-upon income and delayed his freedom. Hayden persevered, however, purchasing his liberty in 1824 in Paris, Kentucky.
While still enslaved, he had worked for a time as a servant for a slave trader who travelled widely. On one of these trips, around 1813, Hayden arranged to have his mother journey from Stafford County to meet him in Baltimore, their first time together since the forced separation years before. Alcy Shelton was by now a practicing midwife and a resident of Falmouth. Heartbreakingly brief, their time together reinforced her son’s determination to free her.
Once free himself, Hayden travelled to Stafford in 1828, alighting from a steamboat at Belle Plain on Potomac Creek and directly into the setting of his childhood memories.
William and the other passengers boarded a Fredericksburg-bound stagecoach. Almost immediately it passed the “charred and blackened” ruin of his childhood home. He gave vent to “loud sobs and many sighs” and visions of where
I had in infancy sat and watched the rising of the two suns…there, too, was the old apple tree, [to] which when but a sapling, my mother has often taken her chair and leaning against which, she has entertained me with some juvenile tale, as she gave nourishment to my little sister.
(Hayden’s Narrative is unclear as to whether his mother’s cabin had been destroyed or only damaged in the fire of his childhood. She was living in either the repaired cabin, or a replacement, when he had briefly escaped and rejoined her at Belle Plain around 1790.)
Returning in 1828, Hayden was so excited to reach the stagecoach stop nearest his mother, a Fredericksburg hostelry kept by a “Mr. Young”—probably James Young’s Farmer’s Hotel—that the Narrative would note the exact time of his stage’s arrival: “one o’clock at night, on the 2nd of July.”
Next: can William Hayden, having arrived “penniless” in Fredericksburg in 1828, free his mother?
Noel G. Harrison
Special thanks for research assistance to D.P. Newton, Director of the White Oak Museum.