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Illinois Digital Archives

About this collection

Collection provided by: Sparta Public Library


The William Hayes Papers are primarily family letters written from 1830-1857. However, they also inlcude legal documents, business letters, and copies of "Andrew Borders vs. William Hayes," his 1844 civil trial at Picnkneyville for helping five Borders slaves escape to northern Illinois and the Illinois State Supreme Court trial which followed.


William Hayes was born on November 9, 1795, the son of Henry Hayes (1762-1823) and Mary Ann (Molly) Ferris(s). Little is known of his life prior to his marriage to Anna Johnston (1800-1861) on November 25, 1819. In 1825 he was a resident of Galway, New York. By 1826 he had "undertaken the farm for mother's and the girl's comfort." The mother mentioned here was probably Rachel Johnston, Anna's mother. The "girls" were Anna's half-sisters, Leah (1781-1843) and Jane (1792-1857) Cownover (variously spelled "Conover" and "Cowenhoven"). As early as 1826 William and Anna were receiving letters from her half-sister Ursula Taylor, to sell the farm and move her mother and sisters to Cleveland where she lived with her husband Charles. In 1829 William began receiving letters from Oliver Bannister, who had settled in Randolph County, Illinois, urging him to move to the Illinois country.


In late May of 1833 William, Anna, and their children (Mary Rachel, Margaret, Euphemia, William James, Isaac Henry, and Jane Ann) left their home in Galway and traveled to Cleveland to look over the land and visit with her half-sister, Ursula. Besides their large family, Anna's two half-sisters, Leah and Jane Cownover, also made the trip. In July of that same year, William left Cleveland, leaving the women and children behind, and went to Illinois to see if he liked it better than Ohio. Apparently he liked what he saw because in September 1833 he moved his family to Fort Clark, Illinois (present-day Peoria). While living in the Peoria area, William bought and sold land in northern Illinois. He seems to have been a land speculator. The Hayes family left Peoria in 1834 and settled in Randolph County. The reason given in one letter is that his wife had been sick with "the ague" for the entire year they lived in Peoria.


The first mention of William's work with the Underground Railroad occurs in a letter from his brother, James, in 1841. The following year on August 31, 1842, William helped five "indentured servants" (Susan Richardson - "Sukey", Hannah Morrison, and Sukey's children Jarrot, Harrison, and Anderson) escape from Randolph County. The five had "belonged" to Andrew Borders, a very wealthy and influential man who lived west of Sparta. The route the escapees traveled is not known, but by September 5, 1842 they had arrived in Farmington, Illinois. In February 1843 Andrew Borders sued William Hayes for aiding his servants in escaping and asked for $2500 in damages. The case was finally tried in April 1844 in Pinckneyville, Illinois. Hayes was found guilty and fined $300. He appealed the case to the Illinois Supreme Court which upheld the Perry County decision and refused to grant a new trial. A letter exists from 1845 that clearly indicates that William Hayes did not stop his involvement in the Underground Railroad. In 1848 a criminal charge was leveled against him and a Daniel Morrison for "harboring a slave" in Clinton County. This case never came to trail because William Hayes died intestate in 1849. His estate was probated in 1852. When the estate was finally settled, Anna Hayes received $118.25.


The documents in the Illinois Digital Archives website are only a portion of the letters written to William Hayes. Transcripts of the entire collection cam be found at the Sparta Public Library, Sparta, Illinois and the Knox College Library, Galesburg, Illinois. The entire story of Sukey, William Hayes, and Andrew Borders is told in the book Betwixt Two Suns: A True Tale of the Underground Raiload in Illinois by Carol Pirtle (Southern Illinois University Press, 2000.)

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