Henry Rufus Willie (more commonly referred to as “H. R. W.” or “Harry”) Hill, a native of Halifax, North Carolina, found his way with his family to the edge of the frontier in the early 1800s, to a new home in Williamson County, Tennessee, at the town of Franklin. The “Willie” in his name is a reference to a Halifax politician by the name of Willie Jones (pronounced “Wiley”) after whom the town of Jonesborough, Tennessee was named. Hill was reportedly about 12 or 13 when the move occurred, occasioned by the death of his father and his mother’s subsequent remarriage to a man who had interests out west. Hill is said to have walked the whole way, with a rifle across his shoulder, hunting small game for food on the way to feed the family.
In the new territory, at the edge of Indian lands, Hill forged a new life for himself. He met and married a young lady from the McAlister family, Margaret McAlister, whose father owned a store, and who invited Hill to join in his business, a role for which he seemed naturally gifted.
He soon began to travel as a young man, on business interests, throughout the region from Alabama to east Tennessee and Kentucky. In these travels, he became a fast friend of Methodist bishop William McKendree, a fiery preacher and missional leader who was the first native-born bishop of the Methodists in the United States. According to Bishop Robert Paine, Hill was converted under McKendree’s powerful preaching at Franklin, Tennessee, during an unusual time of revival. Hill’s conversion was described as “powerful,” which is a word that was used to describe someone who made a sharp change in character as the result of their adoption of faith. The year was about 1817.
In J. B. McFerrin’s History of Methodism in Tennessee, we find the following:
“One of the early members of the church in Franklin was Harry Hill. When a young man he embraced religion and united with the Methodists, and became a very zealous and useful member. He had formerly lived in Jonesboro, where he was the instrument of much good. Mr. Hill was a prince in liberality, and when a young man was gifted in prayer and song, and exerted a salutary influence in the community, especially on the young people. He was a successful merchant, a gentleman of fine presence and agreeable manners. He afterward removed to Nashville, where he long resided and acquired not only a large fortune, but a wide reputation as a man of great sagacity and superior business qualifications. He contributed largely of his means in support of the institutions of Christianity, and was noted for his noble and generous acts toward those who were in need of help. His house was the home of the ministers of Christ, where his brethren always met a most cordial reception. Bishop McKendree had a spacious and well-furnished apartment in his mansion, where, in old age, he spent much of his time, enjoying, without abatement, the warmest and most tender sympathies and affectionate regards of the whole family. He was the special friend of Bishop Soule, and complimented him with a handsome country residence after the Bishop removed to Nashville. He gave to the cause of missions, a short time before his death, several lots of land in Louisville, Kentucky, which proved to be valuable. Indeed his gifts and various acts of generosity were munificent. His wife, Margaret McAlister, was a modest, meek, devout Christian, an ornament to her sex, and a blessing to the Church. Mr. Hill removed from Nashville to New Orleans, buried his wife, and finally yielded up his spirit to the God who gave it. His latter years were full of business and full of cares, but it is hoped he made a safe retreat and joined his family in the land where the wicked cease from troubling and the weary are at rest.”
Hill never actually lived in Jonesborough, as McFerrin suggests, but traveled there on business and according to the history of the Methodist Church in that place, he found a prayer meeting going on in the home of a Mrs. Brown. At this meeting, Hill did some exhorting, or influencing by his personal testimony and example. God apparently used Hill to bring about a dramatic conversion in the lives of several of the young men of the old town, including the grandson of pioneer Tennessee statesman, John Sevier. After his time there a church was organized and added to the list of appointments in 1822. This congregation’s influence was great enough that the second gathering of the newly-formed Holston Annual Conference was held in Jonesborough in 1825, and was a time when a significant offering for missions was collected by the women of that place, an amount equal to a year’s salary for a preacher. Hill’s in-laws were involved in business interests in Jonesborough, so it makes sense that he traveled there.
He continued to gain wealth and standing in the Nashville area as a leading citizen. By the 1830s he had amassed a great amount of money and was serving in several capacities for Tennessee’s improvement, such as being named a member of a board to establish an Insane Asylum in Nashville, and another to build a turnpike from Nashville to Franklin. Later he was named as an ambassador from Tennessee to the Republic of Texas, and is said to have given funds from his own property to assist the young republic.
In addition to business activities, he remained loyal to the church. His influence assisted the establishment of the McKendree Methodist Episcopal Church in the heart of downtown Nashville, as well as a Methodist congregation in New Orleans, for which he is said to have hired the architect. His friendship with Bishop McKendree, and his act of opening his home to the clergyman, got him named as a co-executor of the bishop’s estate upon his death, for which service he was awarded a black cane and the bishop’s silver seal (Will Book II Page 191, Sumner County, Tennessee, as transcribed by Charlotte Wilson Williams, 1998).
A financial devastation hit southern businesses in the late 1830s, prompting Hill to relocate from Nashville area to New Orleans. He had been ruined financially, but continued with his business acumen to develop at the mouth of the Mississippi River a large cotton factorage business with his business partner James Dick. The House of Dick and Hill was an influential New Orleans partnership that grew quite wealthy and is documented in several lawsuit records that still survive.
In New Orleans, Hill opened an art gallery with several others, which, though short-lived, shows the kind of investments in which he placed his funds. He came to own at least four plantations and several slaves. Hill’s religious life affected how he conducted life on the plantations.
According to William Scarborough, in Masters of the Big House: Elite Slaveholders of the Mid-Nineteenth Century South, (Baton Rouge, Louisiana: Louisiana State University Press, 2003) writes:
“Many elite slaveholders exhibited concern for the spiritual as well as the physical health of their black wards. Some erected elaborate plantation chapels, others employed ministers to conduct services at regular intervals, and still others welcomed missionaries from the leading denominations to their estates. Planter wives, who were frequently more devoted than their husbands, participated in the religious instruction of their slaves by holding Sunday School, offering devotions, teaching hymns, and catechizing the children. The motives were mixed. Obviously, a central objective was that of social control: to encourage good behavior and to render slaves more reconciled to their station in life. (P 188-189)
“In view of their own denominational preference, it is not surprising that many elite planters sought to encourage their slaves to receive their instruction in religious doctrine within the confines of the Episcopal Church. That denomination was clearly preferable to the more egalitarian Methodist and Baptist faiths. Masters tolerated the former, especially after that church divided along sectional lines, but most refused to countenance any associations with the Baptists.” (P. 189)
It was documented that due to the influence of his wife, Margaret, H. R. W. Hill became committed to doing all he could “short of abolition” for his slaves. The language used by people in Hill’s time is no longer customary or acceptable in polite conversation. He refers to his slaves as “my negroes.” He is said to have left orders that if his slaves were to be sold after his death, that it was his will that families be kept together insofar as was possible.
An abolitionist writer, Charles Elliott, in a piece called The Bible and Slavery: In Which Abrahamic and Mosaic Discipline Is Considered with the Most Ancient Forms of Slavery, Etc. in 1862, published by the Methodist Episcopal Church (the northern branch at that time), and in it describes the scene of the sale of Hill’s slaves. The scene is pathetic in tone and moral outrage.
Mr. H. R. W. Hill resided long in Nashville, Tennessee; was a zealous, active, and very liberal member of the Methodist Episcopal Church South. He spared no pains or expense to have his slaves instructed and benefited by religion. As he became very wealthy, in the pursuit of commerce, several large plantations, with the slaves on them, near New Orleans, where the family resided, came into his possession. He built churches on the plantations, supported missionaries, and did everything he thought best to make them intelligent and happy. Last year—1854 [actually 1853]—he died, and left his vast estate to his son, after having been munificent during life, and at death, to benevolent objects.
After his death his negroes were all, or the greatest part of them, sold, at public sale. The following is the advertisement which appeared in the National Intelligencer, giving notice of the sale:
Will be sold at auction, at Bank’s Arcade, on Magazine street, in the city of New Orleans, at 12 o’clock, on Tuesday, January 16th, 1855, the slaves at the same hour on Thursday, January 18th, and the following days, for the account of the estate of the late H. R. W. Hill, without reserve, all that extensive and valuable sugar estate, known as the Live-Oak Plantation, etc., including two hundred and sixty choice plantation slaves, accustomed to the culture of sugar and cotton, and considered to be the best gangs in the south, and comprising all the requisite mechanics, such as sugar-makers, engineers, blacksmiths, coopers, carpenters, bricklayers, choice house servants, cooks, and field hands, and are to be sold in families and singly, by a descriptive catalogue. The slaves are guaranteed in title only.”
The sales took place in New Orleans. Handbills were printed with large black letters, and the words mechanics, seamstresses, cooks, etc., stood out prominent. Advertisements and editorial notices appeared in the papers. Circulars, on fine paper, were printed, giving particulars of each one to be sold, all being duly numbered. The following is the description of the sale, given by a correspondent of the New York Tribune, February 16, 1855 :
‘On the morning of the sale I wended my way to Bank’s Arcade, determined to witness the scene. I found the Arcade to be a very large building, situated in the very center of business, and used as a hall for mass meetings of the various political parties, and it is said will accommodate five thousand people on such occasions. A large bar or counter, about one hundred feet in length, placed directly opposite the entrance, and some half a dozen tenders are constantly occupied in dealing out poison at a dime a drink. Opposite to the bar the poor negroes were marshaled into line ; the men and boys were uniformed with short jackets made of cottonade, pants of the same material, hickory shirts, black brogans, and tarpaulin hats. The women were all clad in common calicoes, and a common handkerchief tied around the head. All the slaves were labeled, a tag or card being tied to the breast of each, giving the name, age, and number of the negro, so as to correspond with the printed catalogue.
‘It is impossible for me to give you a faithful description of the scene, as no pen can picture the horrors of it. One hundred and seven poor slaves were there assembled together for the last time in this world. They had for many years all had been living on Mr. Hill’s plantation, as one family. Most of them were brought up by Hill. They had always been blessed with a kind master. They were all members of one Church, which had been established among themselves. Old men and women, over seventy years of age — some of them blind — were to be separated from their children and grandchildren; husbands about to be torn from their wives ; children sold into slavery, never to know a mother’s love, or have a father’s protection and care. In a few hours the fate of all would be decided. All the slaves were crying; many of them were apparently calm in their sufferings, and had a hope that they might fall into the hands of a kind master; but others exhibited their feelings in violent outbursts of passion.
One old woman, who was put down in the catalogue as number 40, Daliah, age sixty-six years, milk-woman, etc., was in great distress, and several of the small children were clinging to her and moaning, half frightened to death, and one of her own sons, about thirty-six years of age, was receiving her farewell blessing. With her left arm clasping him to her bosom, and her right hand placed on his head, she repeated these words, ‘Bob, I shall never see you again, never, never! O, God! it will break my heart ! Your poor old mother will die!’ Other poor slaves were crowding about the poor old woman, all anxious to take leave of one who had been with them from their youth up, and to receive her blessing. She appeared to be regarded as a kind of mother to them all. I noticed among the spectators many northern men who were here on a visit, and many a sympathetic tear was shed by them. ‘
At twelve o’clock, the auctioneer mounted the stand. On either side of him were placed plans of real estate, and large posters of future sales of slaves and other property. Behind him were two clerks seated at a table, to down the names of the purchasers. On the table he placed a bottle of brandy and a tumbler, for the use of the auctioneer, who glories in the name of Beard. Before commencing the sale, this Mr. Beard smiled approvingly on the audience, and delivered the following address :
‘Gentlemen buyers, I am about to offer you some of the most valuable property ever put up, at auction, and on most favorable terms — a credit of one year. The slaves are very choice, and all brought up by our lamented fellow-citizen, Harry Hill. Most of the women, you will notice, are pregnant, and of good stock. I must impress it upon your minds that these slaves are exhibited under great disadvantage, as, after being worked hard, they were hurried on board the steamer, and have had a hard time of it. They will look twenty-five cent better after being here a few days. Gentlemen buyers, before I sell this gang of negroes, I will put up 3 boys, who were sold at the last sale, but the papers of the purchasers were not satisfactory to us. It is, gentlemen, a credit to New Orleans, that, out of the large number of slaves sold on last Friday, only three of the purchasers have been rejected. It speaks well for the prosperity of our state.’
It is due, however, to Mr. Hill, to state that he made particular request that his slaves should be kept all together, if possible, and in case of their being sold, that husbands and wives should not be separated. On this account the husbands and wives were sold together. There is at least one protest against slavery in making this arrangement. When Bob and his wife were sold for sixteen hundred and seventy-five dollars, he was about to bid goodbye to his mother, but was hurried out of the room, just as his mother was put on the block. The auctioneer praised her as a “good and motherly old wench — good and very useful to take care of children and milk cows.” In this way the whole Church was disposed of.
Twenty years before this scene Hill, like many of his contemporaries, was concerned with a runaway slave. In the greater Nashville, TN area, he took out the following ad:
[From the Randolph Recorder: 16 January 1835]:
“$100 REWARD. Ran away from the Plantation of H. R. W. HILL, two miles northwest of Covington, about the 20th October last, a negro man named STEPHEN. He is about 30 years old, 5 feet two or three inches high, remarkably black, speaks very mildly, is obedient when sober but quarrelsome and impudent when intoxicated; he is very fond of spirits. He carried off with him a black wool hat, brown jeans roundabout lined throughout with heavy domestic, brown pantaloons, and generally wore check shirts, though he had others. The above reward will be paid on his safe delivery to me, or forty dollars for his confinement in jail so that I may get him.”
Hill’s concern for order probably overshadowed the apparent regard he gave to the well-being of his labor supply. It was through their toil that he was enriching himself, along with his cotton trade.
That he gave of his wealth to help build the civilization of the antebellum South, especially its churches and other cultural institutions typifies the morals of Hill’s time. The value of slave labor to the plantation system and the cotton trade was high. There is no doubt that Hill thought he was being the best leader he could be at that time in ensuring the needs of his slaves were met and that they had a religious life that would service his needs for order and contentment on the plantation.
Hill’s later life included gifts to mission for the Methodist Episcopal Church, South. The following is a report of one such instance, with reference to his gift at the latter part:
Hill was a victim of the Yellow Fever that plagued New Orleans around 1853. His wife succumbed to it in April of that year. He is reported to have gone to his Live Oak Plantation in the summer and ministered to a dying slave who was a dear friend of the family. In his ministrations he is said to have contracted the fever and died in September of that same year.
Having been born in 1797 and dying during his 55th year on earth, Hill accomplished much, and left a legacy of generosity. He was at the time of his death Grand Master of Masons in Louisiana, and the Masons have erected a monument claiming his remains are lying in the Masonic Cemetery in New Orleans, but it is thought his son James Dick Hill removed his remains along with those of his mother Margaret McAlister Hill to Nashville where they were placed along with his own in the James D. Hill Family Vault in City Cemetery. In a letter published along with H. R. W. Hill’s will in the New York Times, in 1853, Hill instructs his executors John M. Bass and John Armfield that “I want my negroes well treated. But for Abolitionism, I should have been able to do more for them.”
Reference: Lives of American Merchants, Volume II, by Freeman Hunt, New York, 1858.