In part 1 of this post, I introduced the story of William Hayden, who was enslaved upon his birth in Stafford County in 1785, and separated from his mother, Alcy Shelton, by their owner around 1790. Hayden freed himself in 1823, and in 1846 published a memoir: Narrative of William Hayden…Written by Himself. Aside from his book’s extraordinarily rare, eyewitness-derived woodcuts depicting slave life the Fredericksburg area, I’m fascinated by its account of the long-term psychological and spiritual influences of a particular landscape: Belle Plain plantation, Hayden’s birthplace in Stafford and his first home.
Anyone who makes a close historical study of a battlefield engages with the psychological history of terrain features. I suspect that this aspect of landscapes, and of our historical efforts, is often so obvious that we’re unaware of it. For instance, a pair of modest homesteads at Hazel Grove and Fairview assumed paramount importance during the battle of Chancellorsville. The plans of commanders who suddenly found themselves tasked with the defense or capture of those places and the ground in-between would of course have real consequences for soldiers on May 3, 1863, one of the bloodiest days in the nation’s history.
I suspect, too, that the constant interchange between specific, seemingly undistinguished collections of soil, water, foliage, and buildings on the one hand, and ideas, beliefs, or sentiments on the other—with profound consequences for people’s lives sooner or later—is even less apparent, at least at first, when we consider aspects of history that lack the broad drama of armies contending on a battlefield.
In penning his memoir, which is virtually unknown today, William Hayden located the earliest stirrings of his Christian faith at his mother’s cabin, and with his savoring during childhood of a view of the morning sun and its reflection in the waters of Potomac Creek. Part of the vista from the cabin and its immediate vicinity was bordered by the hills and flatlands of William and Alcy’s home-plantation, Belle Plain on the creek’s south bank, and by those of his father’s likely home-plantation, Crow’s Nest on the opposite bank.
William’s faith included what he termed “presentiment,” a confidence that he would serve as one of God’s instruments. The first of the resulting, happy outcomes was William’s timely intervention while still a child at the onset of a fire at the Belle Plain cabin (illustration in pt. 1 of this post). The same faith gave him the perseverance and optimism to eventually escape the enslavement that had begun on that very landscape, then return to the Fredericksburg area as a free man in hopes of rescuing his mother from enslavement as well (she having since relocated to Falmouth). He planned to remove her from Virginia. Ideally, the exodus would also include his brother, sister, her husband, and at least two of the sister’s children, all of who were evidently free people of color. Likely prominent in William’s calculations was a state law, albeit one applied irregularly, that required persons legally freed to leave Virginia within one year or face re-enslavement.
Our story resumes in the dark, early morning hours of a July day in 1828, with William arriving on the stagecoach from Belle Plain at a Fredericksburg hostelry kept by a “Mr. Young”—almost certainly the Farmer’s Hotel, managed by James Young.
Such was the prominence of Fredericksburg on coastal trade- and travel routes, and of the Farmer’s Hotel at the corner of Fredericksburg’s principal commercial thoroughfare—Caroline Street—and an extension of the Fredericksburg and Swift Run Gap Turnpike (the “Orange Turnpike”)—Hanover Street, that a number of Hayden’s slaveholding acquaintances from Kentucky and Mississippi happened to be guests of Young when Hayden arrived. That night, he shared his story and mission several times with various hearers in the barroom, all of them sympathetic and supportive. He quickly secured directions from Young, who had confirmed that Alcy Shelton still lived in the Falmouth vicinity. A “Mr. Offord,” meanwhile, offered William cash to purchase Alcy’s freedom. A “Mr. Ballard” offered credit with which William could acquire a wagon and horses “and whatever else” necessary for the reunited family’s journey from Fredericksburg.
Not surprisingly, Hayden’s memoir would recount a pragmatic, selective approach to describing his hope for a lasting reunion with his mother, brother, and sister. That July night, he spoke to his listeners about being “taken from that neighborhood when quite a child” and his hope to “alleviate the bondage of my mother.” Yet the bluntness of the terms with which his 1846 memoir would portray life under slavery—“clanking chains,” “unjustifiable bondage,” “malignant gratification of my fellow man”—was saved for that future book. In the barroom in 1828, he drew mainly upon his long-sustaining faith and emphasized his goal of a lasting reunion of believers “devoted alone to God, and looking upon the past as so many trials which the Lord had strewn in our pathway, to teach us how much we are bound to thank and adore him.” Evidently, Hayden also mentioned his sister and his confidence in a chain of happy outcomes foreordained during the cabin fire of their childhood:
This sister I had always loved as the apple of my eye. It was she whom I had snatched from the burning building, and it was she, whom I felt almost as great an anxiety to unite with me in one family, together with her husband, as the release of our poor mother.
Armed with the directions and pledges of help, Hayden departed for his mother’s before dawn, navigating by moonlight from Young’s hostelry to a bridge over the Rappahannock. The memoir describes the emotional turmoil of the hike, of Hayden’s being “wracked with anxiety” over imagining his mother’s present and future prospects but also buoyed by the hope of securing her “freedom and a home, where her declining years should be supported” (the italics his own). He walked over the bridge, probably Dunbar’s, northwest of Fredericksburg and connecting directly to Falmouth. His memoir would describe the location of Alcy’s house only generally: two miles beyond the approaches to the river-crossing that had been used by Hayden’s Belle Plain stagecoach—either the Chatham (Coalter’s) Bridge at Fredericksburg or the Ferry Farm/Fredericksburg-wharves ferry. Alcy’s dwelling, then, was likely in Falmouth’s northern- or western outskirts.
Hayden reached there after having to ask directions twice. Of the sensations that followed, he later wrote, “my heart has never since been blessed with so much happiness.” First came confirming his identity for his half-believing mother, and shortly thereafter a reunion with his sister, who lived with her family within earshot of their mother’s doorway. William’s father, James, was “sent for” the next morning and joined William and Alcy:
There was no[o]ne else present, and as I sat and witnessed the tears as they trickled down the cheeks of them both, and found a response with myself, I felt that the words of God had been fulfilled, and that one moment of my presence now added more to their happiness than many years had tended to give them previously. …thus did the Lord prosper my actions as a son. All the praise be His.
The encouragement of the reunion and of the easy recruitment of sympathizers in Young’s barroom helped offset challenges that crowded-in almost immediately. Hayden, it turned out, would face between two and four months of “much trouble and many trials” before his mother could emerge from the Stafford County Courthouse with her freedom papers in hand. Mr. Offord’s pledge of financial assistance and the efforts of many other “kind friends” notwithstanding, her son finished raising her purchase price only by begging in an elaborately humiliating jester’s costume of his own design. It featured an old petticoat, layers of grease and tar, and a tricorn hat adorned by sprigs of greenery. (For other examples of area residents meeting the challenges of fundraising for freedom, see John Hennessy’s posts here and here.)
The area’s well-established transportation corridors carried and sustained a thriving trade in people, which perhaps exacerbated William’s difficulty. Possibly, the value of Alcy’s quarter-century of experience as a midwife offset considerations of age (she was around 60 in 1828) to raise her purchase price. More than a few of the slaveholders who lent William assistance—visitors and area residents alike: his memoir alludes to the help of “many” sympathizers besides those whom he met at Young’s barroom—were likely buying or selling enslaved people that same year. The Farmer’s Hotel was itself an intermittent but longtime center for slave dealing:
When Alcy Shelton’s joyous day finally came, she “retired” from the Stafford Courthouse overwhelmed by emotion. “Some time” elapsed; her son eventually found her behind the building. He later described her transformation of a nondescript public landscape into a place of worship, however temporary:
Never can I forget that scene! My mother, bathed in tears, and clutching the certificate of her release from bondage in her hand, as if it would leave her grasp, and praying to God to still shield her through life. My heart felt heavy as I witnessed her distresses—and my soul still felt elevated as I kissed from her cheeks all traces of her sorrow, and prepared to lead her from all her trials to a land of freedom.
Reaching that land of freedom, however, required still more expense, effort, and humiliation. In Fredericksburg or Falmouth, William purchased a horse and wagon on Mr. Ballard’s credit. William’s party departed Falmouth for Natchez, Mississippi, evidently in early November 1828. William, his mother, his sister, and, additionally, “two young ladies and a young gentleman” whose status with regard to enslavement is unspecified in the memoir, composed the group. Likewise uncertain is whether the brother, and the sister’s husband and children accompanied them (although the woodcut illustrating the journey, in Narrative of William Hayden, depicts at least one child). William once again packed away the dignified clothes of his own choosing and donned his jester’s costume for the trip. Begging while thus attired, he later wrote, proved sufficient “to gather from the sympathizing people along the road…support for my family and the other inmates of the wagon.”
William, his sister, and their mother—presumably accompanied by the sister’s family—would reside in Natchez until 1835. They then moved to Cincinnati, where Alcy Shelton died in 1842. William published his memoir in Cincinnati in 1846; I leave to researchers with more time and space a recounting of other details of his life.
Aside from presenting parts of William’s story through art as well as text, his extraordinary book exacts a measure of retribution for the wrongs done his family. The memoir conveys William’s view of Alcy’s liberation without the circumspection that had been necessary to its accomplishment in 1828: “I succeeded in breaking her chains, and setting her free upon the broad basis of…freedom, which acknowledges no distinction between the human family.”
Narrative of William Hayden appeals for its complexity as well as its vividness. The book, in my reading at least, essentially equates enslaved people, male and female alike, with a universal but beleaguered womanhood. Its luckiest representatives are epitomized by Alcy Shelton. She suffers under slavery yet never falls entirely outside a sheltering Providence, whose instruments include her son. God’s protection enables Alcy to garner broad respect and “success in her line of business” as a midwife, even while enslaved. William’s book includes a special appendix presenting written praise of her professionalism—testimonials signed by Dr. and Mrs. James Carmichael and other leading citizens of the Fredericksburg area. Yet the main body of Hayden’s memoir concludes with a long, 14-verse poem, “Narrative of Woman in the Slave World,” illustrating very different and more common outcomes: jealousy, lovelessness, the “work of God to mar,” and “No shield…and no guardian.” Providential landscapes in places of enslavement, Hayden argues, are few and far between.
Noel G. Harrison
Special thanks to D.P. Newton, Director of the White Oak Museum, for a moving excursion at dawn to his beloved Belle Plain.