The Hill Family in Slavery, Freedom, & Transition

The following study of the Hill family illustrates the possibilities for documenting cases of Underground Railroad activity and re-interpreting its significance in American history. This account is not simply an isolated story about fugitives, but a complex history of how one family of slaves and free blacks struggled over a number of years to free some members from slavery. This story, which neither begins nor ends with their Underground Railroad experiences, includes information about slavery in ante-bellum southern Virginia, the effort to resettle in free territory, and for some individuals, the decision to return to the United States from Canada after the Civil War. Creating a narrative of these experiences reveals how the Hills were connected to broad historical patterns in American and Canadian history, and provides clues about the organized and informal networks of northern and southern slaves, free blacks, and sympathetic whites which were crucial in their escape and resettlement.


The Narrative

The Hill family in Virginia, 1830-1861

John Henry (b. 1827-1832), James, and Hezekiah (b. 1824-1829) Hill were members of a family of slaves and free blacks who lived in Richmond and Petersburg, Virginia during the mid-nineteenth century. These three men, all slaves, were connected to several of Petersburg’s many free blacks and a number of slaves and whites in southern Virginia. By 1853 John Henry Hill (then owned by John Mitchell of Petersburg) was a carpenter in his early twenties, married to a free black woman, Rose McCrae, (b. 1829-1832), and had two young children who were also free. According to the 1872 account of William Still, Rose’s father, Jack McCrea (sometimes McCrary or McCray) was a "very well to do" free man living in Petersburg. We know very little about John’s younger brother James, other than that he was a slave in Richmond during the 1840s and 1850s. The Hills’ uncle Hezekiah, married with two children by 1856, was owned by a man in Petersburg and, like his nephew John and numerous other slaves, hired out to another in the city.

Although John never mentioned his father in his correspondence, he frequently made reference to his mother in Richmond and a relative, John M. Hill, in Petersburg. John M. Hill was free to go to Richmond to visit John’s mother, and corresponded frequently with northern and southern abolitionists. Information in the correspondence suggests that the Hills were part of a close network of family, friends, and acquaintances in northern and southern black and white communities.

Interpreting From Sources: These family relationships are referred to both in letters from members of the Hill family to William Still and in correspondence found in the Colson-Hill family papers. Although the 1850 censuses for Petersburg and Richmond do not list slaves by name, the only slave-owning John Mitchell in the area owned thirteen slaves, including one twenty-three year old black male. This correlates well with John Henry Hill's age in the 1870 census and on information in family letters which indicate he was between twenty-one and twenty-six when he escaped from slavery in 1853. Although John Henry Hill does not reveal the name of his wife in his letters, he is married in 1870 to "Rosell" Hill. We know from his letters to Still that his wife’s father was named John (or Jack) McCrae, and the only free black male of that name and of a viable age listed in the Petersburg census in 1850 was a French-born carpenter with a property value of $4600. At that time, eighteen year old "Rose" McCrae lived with him, as did eleven year old Martha - a child referenced some years later in a letter from John McCrae to his "daughter Marthy," located in the Colson-Hill family papers. Whether Mr. McCrea donated money to John Henry Hill's escape is unclear, but evidence suggests that John remained in contact with him after settling in Canada in the 1850s.

Like most of the industrial, commercial, or trade centers of the mid-nineteenth century, Petersburg’s citizens were well informed about local, national, and international events. Most American cities had several daily or weekly papers in addition to the publications put out by the local churches and the temperance society. Those circulating in Petersburg at this time included The Virginia Gazette, the Petersburg Intelligencer, also known as the Intelligencer and Commercial Advertiser, popular during the 1840s, the Republican, the Southside Democrat, the Press, the Daily Express, and the Kaleidoscope, an 1850s temperance paper created by Mrs. Rebecca Brodnax. Many residents also received the Niles’ Weekly Register, a Baltimore paper published during the first half of the nineteenth century which focused on business and internal improvements.

While anti-slavery sentiments were less visible in the South than in abolitionist centers such as Philadelphia or Boston, northern news found its way into Virginia papers, and sometimes even through the mail. Rumors that underground railroad agents were trying to "entice Negroes from their owners" circulated throughout the population. Such news, both real and imagined, was often used in various ways by pro-slavery advocates to discredit antislavery activities and intentions. In addition, slave owners were well aware that rumors of successful fugitives circulated in the slave communities, and owners often tried to discourage their slaves from attempting to escape to Canada. From that country, John Henry Hill was quick to dispel the inaccurate accounts. "Our masters have told us that there is no living in Canada for a Negro but if it may Please your gentlemanship to publish these facts that we are here able to earn our bread and money enough to make us comftable."

While we cannot establish, as William Still claimed, that John Hill’s owner intended to sell him because he was "a dangerous piece of property to keep," the decades preceding John’s escape from Virginia were characterized by increasing tension about slavery. Pro- and anti-slavery debates, rumors of the underground railroad, reports about fugitive slaves, and the passage of the Fugitive Slave Law in 1850 all heightened concerns in southern Virginia. From 1831 throughout the 1850s, even as Richmond politicians adopted liberal new clauses for universal white male suffrage, elected officials, and public schooling, city laws concerning the education and assembly of free blacks and slaves became more stringent. In addition, Richmond and Petersburg were in close proximity to several of the major disturbances during the period - Gabriel’s conspiracy in 1800, Nat Turner’s Southampton Rebellion in 1831, an escape attempt by local slaves and John Brown’s raid on Harper’s Ferry in 1859 all occurred relatively near the Petersburg area, and local white militia units were often mustered for defense. The five fugitives caught escaping on the Keziah, in fact, were Petersburg slaves, and their attempted escape was quite a newsworthy event. Even from Canada, John Henry Hill was aware of this escape attempt and remained concerned about the condition of Virginia slaves and free blacks.


The Hill family in transition, 1853-1861

Although we cannot establish that members of the Hill family made any sort of organized plan to escape from slavery, John Henry, James, and Hezekiah Hill and their families were key figures in a series of escapes from southern Virginia to the northern United States and Canada during the 1850s. Evidence suggests that the escapes referenced in the Hills’ correspondence reveal only a small portion of this migration network. Our knowledge about the Hill family’s experiences as fugitive slaves begins on January 1, 1853, when John Henry Hill escaped from his owner, John Mitchell, as he was about to be sold at a public auction in Richmond. According to John’s letters to William Still, he remained hidden by a friend of his mother’s in Virginia for nine months before he was able to obtain passage on a ship, The City of Richmond, to Philadelphia. From here, John traveled by road, rail, and boat through Pennsylvania and New York to Hamilton, Canada West, where he lived for several years. Although his wife and children did not accompany him at this time, they joined him in Canada later that year, and in 1855, the family moved to Toronto.

In September of 1854, John reminded William Still that he "will have been free twelve months." As demonstrated here, his claims are consistent with the story of hiding out for almost nine months until September, 1853. After breaking away from his owner in January of 1853, John Henry Hill remained hidden in the city of Richmond for several months, until he "got tired of staying in that place." He then apparently forged himself a pass to Petersburg, where he remained hidden with a "prominent Colored person" until several friends warned him that he was at risk of being discovered. On September 12th or 13th, eight months and a few weeks after his initial escape, John boarded the steamship City of Richmond to Philadelphia. (His "conductor" paid $125 to secure him a private cabin on the boat.) He stayed in Philadelphia for several days and "put out" for Canada on Friday (September 17). From Philadelphia, he traveled one day to an undisclosed location in New York, where he remained for the weekend. He traveled in New York for two days through Albany and Rochester, traveled a short distance the next day, and spent the night (Thursday, September 29) in Lewiston. From here, he took a boat and arrived in Toronto on Friday, September 30th. While John was "on the run" for nine months, his actual journey through the United States to Toronto lasted only two and a half weeks.

Over the next three years, by corresponding with members of the Philadelphia Vigilance Committee, John actively followed the progress of other slaves and free blacks attempting to flee from Virginia to Canada. James Mercer, a fugitive slave who had been owned by Louise White in Virginia and hired out to a Richmond merchant, was in frequent contact with John in Hamilton. Although James Mercer had left his wife and child in slavery, they were able to join him in Canada in January of 1855. Although John does not mention Mercer’s travel partner William Gilliam, a Virginia slave, a letter from Gilliam to William Still references his connection to James Mercer. During this period, another fugitive from Norfolk named Isaac Forman was living in Toronto and tried without success to bring his wife, a slave in Richmond, to Canada. John Henry Hill and John Hall, another fugitive from Virginia who had arrived in Canada in 1856, tried repeatedly to secure safe passage north for a Petersburg man named Willis Johnson.

For three years, both John Hall and John Henry Hill corresponded with the Philadelphia Vigilance Committee in an attempt to arrange transportation for Willis Johnson, a slave hiding in Richmond, Virginia. In one letter, Hall informed Still that Johnson could be found at the corner of Fushee and Grace Streets "in the house of one Mr. Rutherford. There is several Rutherford in the neighborhood, there is a church call’d the third Baptist church, on the R.H. side going up Grace Street, directly opposite the Baptist church at the corner, is Mrs. Meads Old School at one corner, and Mr. Rutherfords is on the other corner. He can be found out by seeing Fountain Tombs who belongs to Mr. Rutherford and if you should not see him, there is James Turner who lives at the Governors, Please to see Captain Bayliss and tell him to take these directions and go to John Hill, in Petersburg, and he may find him."

Interpreting From Sources: Aspects of Richmond/Petersburg’s underground railroad connections became apparent in researching the Hill family. The 1850 census (free inhabitant schedule) for Richmond City was consulted first. Although several "Rutherfords" were indeed listed in the same general vicinity, as John Henry Hill suggested, the 1856 Richmond city directory lists a William Rutherford at the "s.w. cor. Grace and Foushee." Referring back to the census, we find that the only William Rutherford in Richmond was a forty-seven year old merchant with a small family and $8000 worth of property. William Rutherford owned ten slaves, two of which were twenty-one year old males and one may have been Fountain Tombs. James Turner could not be positively identified or placed. Contemporary maps reveal that Hall’s directions to the Rutherford’s were accurate. Mrs. Ann Meade is listed in the 1856 Richmond directory as the head of a "female school, s. e. cor. Grace and Foushee." The history of this establishment is detailed in Old Richmond Neighborhoods. This source also claims that Third Baptist Church was rebuilt three times on this same location - an important consideration for its interpretation as an original historic site. The 1860 city directory lists the Third Baptist at the Corner of Grace and Foushee, and provides information about its pastor and activities. The church is identified on one city map as the "Grace Street Baptist" and on another as the Third Baptist. John Hill is the relative of John Henry Hill, already in Canada. Other underground activities of Captain Bayliss, a white ship's captain, are documented in correspondence, court records, and newspaper accounts.

Among this group of mid-century fugitive immigrants from southern Virginia was John’s uncle, Hezekiah Hill. Hezekiah, who had attempted to buy and was cheated out of his freedom several times, staged an impromptu escape from a Petersburg slave trader in 1856. Like his nephew, he remained hidden in the area for an extended period of time before obtaining passage to the north through the Philadelphia Vigilance Committee. By this time, John Henry and his family had moved to Toronto, and Hezekiah settled in this city upon arriving in Canada. Once in free territory, he cooperated with John, contacts in Virginia, and the Philadelphia Vigilance Committee in an attempt to bring his nephew James Hill to Canada.

Secreting slaves on north-bound steamers was a common practice throughout the migration period, although even those who had "Underground" connections were not always quite sure how exactly to do it. "There is a way [to send fugitives north] by the N.Y. line," wrote the individual harboring James Hill in Richmond in 1861, "but they are all strangers to me, and of course I could not approach them with this subject for I would be indangered myself greatly.... you might succeed in making an arrangement with those on the New York Steamers for they dose such things but please let me know the man that the arrangement is made with..." It is significant that nearly all of the fugitives from Southern Virginia referenced in this narrative used connections to popular shipping and passenger lines to escape to the north.

John Henry Hill’s use of steam transportation, when placed in historical context, is a particularly colorful illustration of how modernization benefited some fugitive slaves:

In 1851, the Norfolk City Directory celebrated the commencement of two new direct steamer lines running between Richmond, Norfolk, and New York. Agents Dean and Thornton in New York and Ludlam and Watson in Richmond were particularly proud of this new convenient service. The new City of Richmond and City of Norfolk, each designed to carry 40 cabin and 50 steerage passengers, were primarily intended to further the trade interests of Virginia’s "horticulturists" and increase the flow of trade goods between American agricultural and industrial centers. On September 12, 1853, just two years after the lines opened, John Henry Hill was one of many slaves who purportedly escaped from bondage as cabin passengers aboard the City of Richmond. A few years later, he referred another would-be fugitive to a white ship’s captain via a slave named Esue Foster who worked at Ludlam’s warehouse on the waterfront Basin in Richmond. While delivering slaves from bondage could hardly have been the activity which New York line stockholders Josiah Wills and A. Mehaffy intended to invest in, such successful escapes ironically proved that "shipping facilities of this kind [were] plentiful for all kinds of purposes."

Unlike his brother and uncle, however, James did not receive assistance from the Vigilance Committee and remained in hiding in Virginia for an extended period of time before traveling north in 1861. Both he, his Petersburg accomplice, and his relatives in Canada repeatedly requested assistance from northern abolitionists, but communication and financial difficulties impaired the process. After spending three years as a fugitive in Virginia, James somehow made his way to Boston, where he established permanent residence as a free man.

The Hills’ fugitive experiences suggest that in the 1850s, many escapes from southern Virginia were neither officially organized nor completely chaotic. No fugitive was passed exclusively between card-holding members of vigilance committees, nor did they travel furtively at night between "stations" run by anonymous white Quakers who lit lanterns to announce their establishments. Rather, John Hill and his uncle Hezekiah were secreted for long periods of time by both black and white friends, communicated (sometimes through a third party) with members of vigilance committees to arrange their transportation, took advantage of connections in free black communities in both the north and south, and were assisted by black and white mariners and local laborers. Their sympathizers and accomplices could not simply send the Hills to the next known "station," but had to wait for verification from trusted contacts that it was safe for them to travel and that firm arrangements had been made for their accommodation. The Hills’ escapes, while somewhat impromptu, were enabled by localized and interconnected networks which functioned over a wide geographic area from the 1850s to the 1860s - networks which John Henry Hill referred to as the "Underground Railroad". These networks not only contributed to the success of several escapes, but enabled John Henry Hill to remain active in the anti-slavery movement and connected to his Virginia relations even after he settled in Canada.

Using The Sources: A careful reading of the Hill’s correspondence reveals that this merchant was located at the corner of 7th and Franklin Streets in Richmond. An initial scan of the advertisements and business listings in the Richmond city directory for 1860 yielded several viable leads. In 1860, a shoemaker identified only as "Bauman" was the only inhabitant listed at that exact location. The federal census for that same year lists both Prussian-born Jacob Bauman, a dry goods merchant, and German-born J. H. Bauman, a shopkeeper, living in Richmond. While neither can be positively identified as Still’s underground contact, the census also lists a twenty-three year old man named William C. Mayo at J. H. Bauman’s address. In several 1856 letters to William Still, John Hill’s friend, John Hall, references a William C. Mayo of Richmond, Virginia. While this would have made Mr. Mayo 19 years old at the time that Hall was depending on him to make covert travel and shipping arrangements, the high correlation between these sources suggests a possible connection between the Hills, Halls, and J. H. Bauman. It is also thus possible that Bauman’s wife Elizabeth, 42 years old in 1860, was the "friend" of Hill’s mother who secreted John in 1853, though at least one other adult woman lived in the house as well.


The Hill family in Canada and the United States, 1853-1872

Slavery had been abolished in the British Empire in 1834. While Canadian society was far from egalitarian, it was free. In the words of John Henry Hill, "not free for the white man but for all," and thus dramatically different from the slave society from which the Hills escaped. Scattered reports of his involvement in local churches, anti-slavery and Underground Railroad activities, newspaper publications, and a local militia unit support his claim that blacks who worked to establish themselves could do so, and that they enjoyed far more respect than in the United States. Both John Henry and Hezekiah Hill were members of the Queen Victoria's Rifle Guards, a black militia company organized in Canada West.

John Henry Hill may have given "thanks be to God" that he settled in Canada particularly because he arrived in Hamilton at such an opportune moment: a sudden in-migration of large numbers of Western Europeans and a smaller number of African Americans spurred growth which placed skilled workmen like Hill in high demand.

In 1853, John Henry Hill declared that he never expected to see his friends in the United States again. After the Civil War, however, he, his family, and his uncle Hezekiah joined many other ex-fugitives in a return migration to the United States. Re-establishing themselves as free people in the city where John had once been a slave, the Hills raised a large family and maintained their contacts to Mrs. Hill’s relatives. The 1870 census, in fact, reported that twenty-two year old Martha McCrae, possibly Rose’s sister mentioned ten years before in family correspondence, was living with the Hills. His listing in the 1879 Petersburg city directory suggests that John Henry continued to work as a carpenter and may have served as a justice of the peace in that town. Hezekiah also returned to Virginia, but settled instead in Buena Vista Township, where he lived in 1870 with a fifteen year old named Wilberforce Hill, who was at that time apprenticed to a carpenter.

This review of one escape from Virginia to Canada only suggests the resources available. There is more to be known about the Hill family and their contacts. We can know more if we use the resources available. The following is not a comprehensive list of sources, but an example of the kinds of sources which can be used in research. These sources not only contained evidence of the Hill family’s experiences, but raised questions, revealed themes, and suggested directions often encountered in Underground Railroad research.

The history of the Hill family was compiled and documented from a variety of primary and secondary sources, including correspondence from the Colson-Hill family papers housed at Virginia State University; William Still, The Underground Railroad (1872); the Works Progress Administration, The Negro in Virginia (1941); Samuel G. Howe, The Refugees from Slavery in Canada West (1864); C. Peter Ripley, The Black Abolitionist Papers, volumes II: Canada, 1830-1865 and III: United States, 1830-1848 (1986); James Scott and Edward Wyatt, Petersburg’s Story: A History (1960); Richmond, Capital of Virginia: Approaches To Its History by Various Hands (1938), Edward Pollock, Historical and Industrial Guide to Petersburg, Virginia (1884); Emily Salmon, The Hornbook of Virginia History (1994); Robin Winks, The Blacks in Canada: A History (1971); Michael Katz, The People of Hamilton, Canada West: Family and Class in a Mid-Nineteenth-Century City (1975), Julie Winch, Philadelphia’s Black Elite: Activism, Accomodation, and the Struggle for Autonomy, 1787-1848 (1988); Jeffrey Bolster, Black Jacks: African American Seamen in the Age of Sail (1997); Tommie Bogger, Free Blacks in Norfolk, Virginia: The Darker Side of Freedom (1997); federal census records for Richmond and Petersburg, Virginia for 1840, 1850, 1860, and 1870; J. H. Chataigne, Petersburg Directory for 1879-1880; W. E. Ferslew, Second Annual Directory for the City of Richmond (1860), Brown’s Toronto General Directory (1856), W. Forrest, Norfolk Directory for 1851-1852; Terrill, Chronology of Montreal and Canada, with Calendars A.D. 1752-1925 (1893); Richard Edwards, Statistical Gazetteer of the State of Virginia (1854), Henry Rogers, General Map of the United States (1857); M. Ellyson, Map of the City of Richmond, Henrico County, Virginia (1856); J. Keily, Map of the City of Richmond (1853); Sanborn Fire Insurance Map for Richmond; Rand McNally’s Indexed Railroads and County Maps of Virginia (1883); Peter Gross, Bird’s Eye View of Toronto (1876); J Rapkin, Map of West Canada (1845); McElroy’s Philadelphia Directory (1851), The Hamilton Spectator; and the Toronto Daily Globe (1856).

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