The Randolph Society Foundation Board is pleased to announce that William Hayes, who risked his reputation, his property, and even his life to help men and women escape from slavery, will be inducted into the 2020 class of honorees.
William Hayes, a descendant of early settlers of New England, was born in New York in 1795. Raised as a devout Reformed Presbyterian, he was a part of the anti-slavery Covenanter movement from childhood. In 1819, William married Anna Johnston, a woman who was equally devoted to his faith, and the couple began raising a family on a farm in their hometown of Galway. In 1833, the family decided to head west, buying land near present-day Peoria. When Anna contracted malaria, however, they relocated once more, settling near friends who had moved to Flat Prairie near Eden in Randolph County, Illinois.
In Randolph County, the Hayes family became part of the growing Covenanter community of Sparta and Eden, centered around Bethel Reformed Presbyterian Church. The growing faith community was full of abolitionists who were passionate about ending the institution of slavery in America. In Illinois, that also meant putting an end to the legal system of indentured servitude, which was essentially slavery in all but name. Many prominent members of the church were deeply involved in the secret network known as the Underground Railroad, and William Hayes joined in their work. He and Anna sheltered, fed, and clothed freedom seekers, even sometimes transporting men, women, and children on their journey north. The work was perilous, and the Hayes family risked their reputations, their livelihoods, their own freedom, and even their lives with their involvement. None of these dangers outweighed the moral responsibility they felt toward their fellow human beings.
In the summer of 1842, the Hayes family gave refuge to two women and three children who were indentured to Andrew Borders, a prosperous but brutal Randolph County mill owner. Borders was known to physically assault his indentured servants, and he kept them in line with threats to sell them to slaveholders in southern states. Hannah, Susan, and Susan’s three sons, Jarrot, Anderson, and Harrison, turned to William and Anna for help in escaping the cruel treatment they had received in the Borders household. William personally conveyed the five of them north to central Illinois, where he had many contacts in Peoria and Galesburg. While in Knox County, however, the five were apprehended. Though the abolitionist community tried valiantly to free all of them, Borders managed to assert his right to the contracts of all three boys, one of whom later died in his mill. Both Susan and Hannah, however, were eventually emancipated and lived free lives in Illinois and New York.
Borders sought revenge on William for his part in aiding the freedom seekers’ flight. In 1843, he sued William in civil court, seeking $2500 in damages – an amount that would have financially ruined the Hayes family. Although William’s lawyers managed to have the case moved to Perry County, which had a much less pro-slavery population, the jury decided in Borders’s favor, reducing the damages awarded to several hundred dollars. William’s lawyers appealed the decision to the state supreme court, who confirmed the previous verdict. The case was financially damaging to the Hayes family, but perhaps more importantly, it also revealed William’s secret work with the Underground Railroad to the larger community.
Even so, William continued to help enslaved men and women seeking freedom. Until his death in 1849, he remained a vital part of the Underground Railroad in Randolph County. Decades later, he was named in a major history of the railroad as an important conductor in the Sparta area. We’ll never know how many men, women, and children he aided in their quest for freedom, but we can be sure that his bravery helped countless people start new lives. William’s descendants have treasured his legacy for generations, saving valuable correspondence from his time living in Eden. One letter, written to him by a fellow abolitionist, includes a bold reminder of the importance of their work: “My brother, our cause is a holy one.” The citizens of Randolph County can look to William as an example of a man of principle who was willing to risk his life in service to the moral good. His cause, indeed, was a holy one.