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.