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. 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.