A quiet, unassuming farmer with a deep moral conscience, William Hayes risked his reputation, his property, and even his life to help men and women escape from slavery to live free lives.
William James Hayes, the third child of Henry Hayes and Mary Ann Ferris, was born on November 10, 1795, in Galway, New York. William grew up on his family’s farm, surrounded by his siblings, James, Polly, Anne, Isaac, Harry, and Rebecca, as well as a large, extended network of aunts, uncles, and cousins. William’s family had deep roots in New England. His mother was descended from Jeffrey Ferris, one of the earliest residents of the Massachusetts Bay Colony, and subsequent generations of her family had settled in Connecticut.
Strong personal conviction, even when it countered prevailing public opinion, was part of William’s heritage. William’s maternal grandfather, Silvanus Ferris, publicly supported the patriot cause during the Revolutionary War; the backlash he received from his loyalist neighbors was so severe that he moved his family across the state border to Westchester County, New York. Both the Ferris and Hayes families were devout Presbyterians. They belonged to a particular branch of the faith, the Reformed Presbyterian Church, whose members were known as “Covenanters.” Members of the religious movement, which began in Scotland, were strongly anti-slavery. In 1800, when William was four years old, the Reformed Presbyterians voted to ban members of the church from owning slaves, because they believed the practice was immoral.
William grew up in a tradition that supported abolition, and so did the woman he married. Anna Johnston, who was also raised in Galway, married William in November 1819. Surviving letters from her brother and sister show that matters related to the Covenanter church were a regular part of the family’s thoughts and conversations. William and Anna began their married life in Galway, close to their parents and siblings as well as their church. Their young family grew quickly. In 1830, the federal census found them living in Galway with three children (Mary Rachel, Margaret Euphemia, and Isaac Henry), as well as two of Anna’s half-sisters, Leah and Jane Cownover, and a farm hand.
In 1832, Anna gave birth to another daughter, Jane Ann, in Galway. By that time, though, the couple had already begun planning to leave their hometown for a new life further west. Numerous friends and family had moved from Galway to other parts of the young country. Anna’s sister, Ursula Taylor, urged the couple to consider moving near her new home in Cleveland, Ohio. Friends, including Andrew Miller and Oliver Bannister, had gone even further toward the frontier, settling in Randolph County, Illinois. Both men wrote glowingly of their new home in Illinois, describing the area as “the best land you have set your eyes on,” where they “have all the happiness … that is possible to be had in this world.”
As early as 1829, Andrew Miller’s letters began urging William and Anna to move to Randolph County. He wrote about the pleasant climate, the good health of his family and neighbors, and the opportunity to purchase land nearby. Even more importantly, he emphasized the success of the Covenanter church which had been planted in the small community of Eden. In May 1819, the congregation of Bethel Reformed Presbyterian Church began worshiping in Eden, using the home of James McClurken and other congregants for services. Their first preacher was the Reverend Samuel Wylie, a Presbyterian minister originally from Northern Ireland, who had been sent as a missionary to Kaskaskia (as well as the Irish Settlement near Preston) around the time Illinois had become a state. Both Andrew Miller and Oliver Bannister joined the church on arriving in Eden. In 1830, Bannister wrote to William and Anna, enthusing that Rev. Wylie was “a good and great preacher” who “takes great pains to instruct his people” and who presided over a growing church community, which was in the process of building a brick meeting house in Eden.
William and Anna ultimately decided to move to Illinois – but not to Randolph County. Instead, they packed up their belongings and moved with their children and Anna’s sisters to Fort Clark (near present day Peoria), arriving in September 1833. William began participating in land speculation in central Illinois after the family had settled near the Illinois River, but the health of both Anna and Leah was negatively impacted by their new home. Both suffered from malaria, and the impact on Anna’s health in particular was apparently enough to convince William that another move was necessary. This time, he headed for the land where Andrew Miller and Oliver Bannister had written of good health and happiness, buying 160 acres in Flat Prairie, near the present-day towns of Sparta and Eden. The Hayes family arrived in Randolph County in 1834, finally settling in the place where both William and Anna would live for the rest of their lives.
The Hayes family was immediately folded into the Bethel Presbyterian community. Though the denomination as a whole was in the midst of a nationwide schism, William and Anna were quickly incorporated as prominent members of the church in Eden. William’s papers demonstrate that, by 1835, he was already being consulted on matters related to a nearby church building by John McClurken. Receipts for the purchase of pews in the church building at Eden are also found among the documents. But the business being done by the members of the Covenanter church went far beyond church services, new buildings, calls to preachers, and educational institutions. Several prominent members of the church were deeply involved in the secret network known as the Underground Railroad, helping men and women escape from slavery to pursue free lives.
There’s really no way to know the extent to which William was aware of the Underground Railroad work being done in Sparta and Eden before he moved there. It seems likely, given his strong connections to members of the Bethel congregation even before he arrived in Illinois, that he knew that the local Covenanter community was involved in aiding the escape of enslaved people. William was certainly personally interested in the cause. His papers include receipts for subscriptions to two abolitionist newspapers: the Western Citizen, a paper published in Chicago, and the Kaskaskia Republican, a local paper supporting the anti-slavery movement. Some sources even suggest that he may have been involved with the Underground Railroad in some way in the 1820s, while he was still living in New York. What we know for certain, though, is that he became deeply involved with the secret network in Randolph County, working as an active agent on the road.
For a man who wanted to help enslaved people become free before the Civil War, Randolph County was a very appropriate place to be. The county’s relationship with slavery and abolition in the 1830s was complex. Though Illinois had nominally entered the union as a free state, a system of legal indentured servitude had been in place since territorial days. The servitude law’s provisions permitted slaveholders to retain people as property, even within the confines of an area that legally prohibited slavery. The act allowed slaveholders to bring enslaved people from other parts of the country to Illinois and maintain them as “indentured servants.” For example, a man who purchased an enslaved person in Kentucky or Missouri could bring that person to Illinois. Within 30 days, the slaveholder was legally required to bring that enslaved person to the local county clerk, where he or she would have to consent to a contract of indenture that specified the length of time he or she would serve.
The system was slavery in all but name, as in some cases servants could be contracted for up to 99 years. And declining to agree to the contract didn’t mean freedom. If the enslaved person objected to the indenture, the slaveholder then had 60 days to take the enslaved person out of Illinois, removing them to a part of the country where slavery was permitted in order to retain legal ownership. As a whole, Randolph County citizens favored the continuation of the indentured servitude system, and some even agitated to legalize slavery in the state. In 1830, the federal census of Randolph County enumerated nearly two hundred people in the category of “slaves.” The people who sought out the help of conductors and agents to make their way to freedom weren’t just enslaved people escaping from places like Kentucky and Missouri; they were also Randolph County residents.
In 1842, five of these local residents turned to William Hayes for help. All five were indentured servants living in the household of Andrew Borders, a prominent mill owner who had come to Randolph County from Abbeville, South Carolina. Borders was a powerful and influential figure in the early development of Randolph County. An 1894 history of the area describes the Borders family as “one of prominence in Randolph County, its members having been inseparably connected with the material progress and development of this community.” That progress and development, however, wasn’t accomplished by the Borders family alone; it was significantly enabled by the number of enslaved people working for the family under indenture contracts. Borders and his wife, Martha Jane, brought four enslaved people with them when they moved from Martha’s home state of Georgia to Illinois in 1816, and Borders continued to engage in transactions that treated people as property throughout his life.
One of the enslaved people who came to Illinois with Andrew and Martha Borders was a four-year-old little girl. Her name was Susan, though the Borders family always referred to her as “Sukey.” Borders family tradition states that she was given to the couple as part of their dowry when they married in 1813 – when she was no more than a year old. When Andrew Borders brought Susan into Illinois in 1816, territorial law required that he bring her to the county clerk and register her as an indentured servant. He waited nearly a year to take Susan to Kaskaskia to make her indenture legally valid, finally registering her contract on January 10, 1817. She was five years old at the time the contract was made. Borders indentured her (under the name “Suky”) for the maximum term legally allowed: 27 years, meaning that she wouldn’t be free until she reached the age of 32.
The numbers of enslaved people living in the Borders household shifted as his fortunes in Randolph County rose. The 1820 census lists three people of color in the household. By 1830, the Borders homestead was occupied by Andrew, Martha, their six children, Martha’s mother, and five enslaved women (two women between the ages of 36 and 54, one between the ages of 10 and 23, and two girls under ten years old). Eighteen-year-old Susan was likely the third woman on the list; one of the older women was Sarah, and one of the children was Sarah’s daughter, Hannah. Borders had purchased the contracts of both Sarah and Hannah from Elias Kane in 1825.
At some point after the census was taken in 1830, Susan’s life changed significantly. That year, at the age of eighteen, she gave birth to her first child, a son named Jarrot. The identity of the boy’s father is unclear, but historian Carol Pirtle has speculated that – given the lack of other men in the household and the description of Jarrot’s race as “mulatto” – Andrew Borders himself may have fathered Susan’s child. The baby’s unusual first name, interestingly, corresponds with the surname of a large slave-holding family from Randolph County, the Jarrots, who were part of a landmark decision by the Illinois Supreme Court in 1845 regarding the practice of slavery in the state. Within a decade, Susan had two more sons: Anderson, born in January 1839, and Harrison, born in the autumn of 1840. All three of her children were also indentured to Andrew Borders until they reached the age of 21.
Histories of Randolph County sometimes laud Andrew Borders for the treatment of the enslaved people in his household. One hagiography even claimed that he showed “great humanity and kindness” to them. Shortly after Harrison’s birth, though, an incident happened that demonstrates otherwise. In 1841, Sarah apparently took exception to work she was ordered to do by the Borders family. In retaliation, Andrew Borders beat her badly, seriously injuring her arm in the process. Traumatized, Sarah fled so quickly from the household that she left her young daughter, Hannah, behind. She sought refuge with members of the abolitionist community of Sparta, hiding at the home of Matthew and Nancy Chambers, a local shoemaker and his wife. Borders brought the weight of the court system to bear against Chambers for his role in facilitating Sarah’s flight, accusing him in April 1842 of harboring her. Initially found guilty, Chambers was later exonerated by the state supreme court on a technicality.
The turmoil in the Borders household continued even after Sarah’s escape. Carol Pirtle describes the incident that happened next in careful detail. She explains that an argument erupted between Susan’s son, Jarrot, and the Borders children. “In the ensuing squabble between the children,” she writes, Jarrot was beaten. Martha Borders was livid about the fight, and she “demanded that [Susan] also be punished,” as Jarrot already had been. Andrew Borders allegedly refused to whip Susan, though he “granted permission for his wife to administer a punishment herself.” But even worse than the prospect of a physical punishment was Borders’s next response: “he threatened to sell the young boys south.”
Before Borders could make good on his threat to separate her from her sons, Susan decided to take the matter into her own hands. On the night of August 31, 1842, she fled the Borders farm, taking her three sons with her. Also accompanying the family was Hannah, the teenage daughter of Sarah, who had already escaped from the Borders household. The five made their way through the rural countryside, likely walking the six-mile distance that separated the Borders home from their destination. Carol Pirtle thinks they may have followed the twisting, winding path along Plum Creek as they made their way to the home of William Hayes in Eden.
The decision to stop at William Hayes’s home was not made by chance. Although he was living quietly as a farmer in public, Hayes had a second, secret occupation, too: he was one of the most active station keepers and agents on the Underground Railroad in Randolph County. Along with several other members of his church, and other sympathetic members of the community, he was part of a chain of people who helped to shelter, feed, and even transport freedom seekers as they escaped from slavery. Many of those in power in Randolph County may have been in favor of slavery, but there was also a growing community of people in the area who understood that the institution of slavery was abhorrent. Some of those abolitionists, like William Hayes, were willing to risk everything – their reputations, their property, and even their lives – to help men and women seek freedom.
In her history of the Underground Railroad in Illinois, Verna Cooley explains the methods that the agents and conductors had to use to keep freedom seekers safe during their journey. She writes, “It was necessary to conceal the fugitive until suspicion cleared away, for often the slave-owner … was close upon his quarry and both the pursued and the pursuer without be in the same neighborhood.” Families who aided these men and women provided them with shelter, hiding them in closets, cupboards, and any other places that they could be concealed. (Hayes family tradition says that William and Anna built a special box in their attic specifically for this purpose.) Agents harbored freedom seekers for days, even sometimes weeks. They prepared food for the men, women, and children to take with them on their travels and often even provided them with extra sets of clothing. They advised them on the best ways to get to the next station, suggesting where to borrow horses and sometimes even using their own wagons to help larger parties make the trip. Cooley explains, “The conductors made it a matter of conscience to aid the fugitive in any way, and if it was necessary, they felt it a moral obligation to help him on his way.”
The personal risk to those who aided in these escapes was great. Secrecy was paramount. They faced the possibility of legal consequences for their actions as well as the scorn of their neighbors. Even pro-slavery friends and relatives were often skeptical about the conductors’ involvement. In April 1841, William’s brother, James Hayes, wrote to him from New York to register his displeasure at William’s cover activities. “I have heard you had trouble for helping the Blacks with a ride,” he declared, adding, “I should think it would be more pleasure and as much profit to wait on your own family and let the concerns of others, especially, the Blacks, go to others for help. I am not opposed to slavery, but think free states better not interfere with the laws of the states where slavery exists no further than to exert a good moral influence.” Even among abolitionists, there were disagreements about the methods that should be used to end the institution of slavery – and about the choices made by agents and their families to engage in illegal means to do so.
Social ostracization wasn’t the biggest potential consequence for an agent on the Underground Railroad, however. The threat of physical violence against both the agent and the freedom seeker was also great. Because of its proximity to Missouri and Kentucky, as well as its own indentured servitude laws, Randolph County was haunted by slavehunters: men looking to cash in on lucrative rewards offered for the return of enslaved people. But the anti-slavery community of Sparta was not afraid to stand up to threats made by opportunists. Cooley explains that on at least one occasion, the “abolitionists of Sparta armed themselves and threatened to attack a band of Missourians if they made any effort to recover a fugitive hiding there.” The network established safety in numbers, and as the abolitionist community in Sparta and Eden grew, they became a force to be reckoned with, buoyed by their convictions that what they were doing was just and right. Historian Norman Dwight Harris writes, “The spirit displayed by these men was admirable and worthy of a noble cause. Many were well-to-do farmers, brave, rough-handed men, simple in their lives and creeds. Some were honest tradesfolk and prominent citizens in the towns. Everywhere they displayed an indomitable courage backed by a will not to be balked or thwarted.”
Because the work was so risky, and secrecy was so vital, the men and women who worked with the secret network left very little concrete evidence of their actions behind. Most never expected their actions to be made public – indeed, many probably hoped that they would never be found out. Putting together a clear picture of who conducted the railroad and how it functioned has been the work of later historians. At the end of the nineteenth century, the historian Wilbur H. Siebert conducted extensive correspondence and interviews with those who personally remembered the days of the Underground Railroad. He used the resulting evidence to put together a map of the railroad in Randolph County. One correspondent told him that freedom seekers “came up the river to Chester,” and then headed “northeast on the state road.” Stations along the way in Eden, Oakdale, Nashville, and Centralia were run by Covenanters, who “kept a very large depot wide open for slaves escaping from Missouri,” sending them in the direction of Chicago and, eventually, Canada. He remembered that “scores at a time came to Sparta,” where there “was an almost constant supply of fugitives.” Even so, the agents and conductors in Randolph County had an incredible record of success. We’ll never know how many people were helped to freedom through the county, but Siebert’s research suggests that almost none of them were captured along the way. A letter from one correspondent noted that “few were ever gotten from the aegis of the Hayes and Moores and Todds and McLurkins and Hoods and Sloanes and Milligans of that region.”
The “Hayes” family named in that letter was indeed the family of William and Anna Hayes. We don’t know precisely how Susan and Hannah became aware that the Hayes family could help them in their escape, but it seems likely that William’s activity on the railroad was well-known, at least in certain circles. When Susan, Hannah, and the boys arrived at the Hayes home before dawn on September 1, 1842, they found a sympathetic household ready to help them go forward. Carol Pirtle believes that William and Anna hid all five in their home for at least a day. After dark had fallen that night, they bundled all five into the back of the family’s wagon, and William drove them on the hazardous route back through the county toward Chester. In the morning, it’s likely that William, the women, and the boys all boarded a ship at the landing on the Mississippi River. The boat conveyed them north to St. Louis, where they climbed aboard a second vessel that took them up the Illinois River and into central Illinois.
William knew central Illinois well, both from his time living in the Peoria area and from family connections in the region. In 1837, his uncle, Silvanus H. Ferris, had relocated from New York to Knox County. He was part of the committee that founded Knox College, an abolitionist institution in Galesburg. Like William, many of the families that were associated with the college were also part of the Underground Railroad. When William disembarked with Susan, Hannah, and the boys, he connected with several contacts working with the secret network. Almost as quickly, though, the presence of the freedom seekers was discovered. A local justice of the peace confronted them at the home of the Rev. John Cross and captured all five, depositing them in the Knox County jail.
For several weeks, William worked with the abolitionists of Knox County to try to secure the freedom of the women and children. Eventually, though, he was forced to return to Randolph County. Meanwhile the Knox County sheriff had advertised widely to try to find the purported owner of Susan, Hannah, and the boys. In time, Andrew Borders saw one of these advertisements and traveled north, asserting his rights over of all five. He was not able to provide sufficient evidence that Susan and Hannah were still legally indentured to him, but a local court ultimately decided that the boys were rightfully contracted to work for him. Borders was willing to go to extensive lengths to ensure a victory, even bribing one courtroom with a barrel of peach brandy. (They returned with a decision in his favor.) The boys returned to Randolph County. Jarrot died while working in Borders’s mill, and Anderson and Harrison’s stories have been lost to history. Susan’s and Hannah’s stories had happier endings. Hannah was educated in Knox County before moving to New York, while Susan made a new life for herself in Galesburg. She married twice to prominent free citizens of color: first to Harry Van Allen, with whom she had three more children, and after his death to Thomas Richardson. Susan died in Chicago in 1904 at the age of 92.
After his legal case was settled in Knox County, Borders arrived back in Randolph County with Susan’s sons, having secured the right to continue to compel them to work in his household. But he still wasn’t satisfied with the outcome of the events in the north. He set his sights on the man he considered responsible for the escape: William Hayes. In March 1843, Borders sued Hayes in civil court for his role in aiding Susan, Hannah, Jarrot, Anderson, and Harrison in their flight. He asked for a stunning $2500 in damages – something in the neighborhood of $90,000 in today’s money. William was not a wealthy man, and his finances were often precarious at best. A decision in Borders’s favor would certainly have ruined William financially, which seems to have been the intent behind the suit.
William’s attorneys, Lyman Trumbull and William Underwood, successfully argued that William could not receive a fair trial in Randolph County, given the county’s strongly pro-slavery views. In April 1843, the trial’s location was moved to Pinckneyville. Pirtle writes that the federal census of 1840 recorded “not a single slave being held in Perry County,” meaning that the members of a jury chosen there would not be as intimately connected with the institution of slavery as the residents of Randolph County were. A year later, a three-day trial was held in Pinckneyville before presiding judge James Shields. Pirtle’s biography offers a detailed and extensive depiction of the trial. She notes that Borders’s attorneys made a “strong circumstantial case,” introducing indenture records and establishing a timeline that placed William away from home during the escape. The testimony of witnesses on William’s behalf weakened his case even more; they admitted to knowledge of his role in the escape, and they spoke of his strong abolitionist beliefs. In the end, the jury found William guilty, but they only awarded damages totaling a few hundred dollars to Borders. William and his lawyers appealed the verdict to the state supreme court, but they merely confirmed the previous verdict.
The trial shone the public spotlight squarely on William and his work with the Underground Railroad. The notoriety he earned from the Borders case certainly would have made him a target. With legal fees mounting, and additional court cases on the horizon, it would be easy to presume that William curtailed his efforts with the secret network. But that wasn’t the case – instead, he persisted in working as an agent on the railroad for the next several years. The legal decisions of the courts could not outweigh the moral responsibility that William felt to help aid men and women in their pursuit of freedom. A letter found in William’s papers confirms this frame of mind. A fellow abolitionist, T.O. Jones of Greenville, Illinois, wrote approvingly of William’s work with the Underground Railroad: “You, Dear Sir, are to me an unknown friend, yet I believe you are a friend to the poor downtrodden slave. This is as good an introduction as I want from any man. My brother, our cause is a holy one.”
Tragically, William did not live to see the institution of slavery abolished in America. He was only 53 when he died on April 1, 1849, in Randolph County. Anna too perished before emancipation, passing away in 1861. Their descendants kept the legacy of William and Anna’s work with the Underground Railroad alive quietly for generations, retaining a collection of their letters, sharing the stories of their actions with their children, and keeping the farm property within the family. Only in 2000, when Carol Pirtle published William’s biography, Escape Betwixt Two Suns: A True Tale of the Underground Railroad, did the full story of their heroism come to light. Pirtle explains that some within the Hayes family felt that William’s work “should remain secret,” because he had been breaking the law. However, Pirtle relates, any “feelings of shame have been diluted” as years have passed, and today, “William Hayes’s involvement in the affair has become a source of pride.” The entire region owes the family a debt of gratitude for keeping William’s legacy alive and deciding to share it with all of us. 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.
William Hayes was inducted into the Randolph Society in 2020.