Entwined With Slavery: A Brief Local History

By 1860, about 15 percent of the population of Western North Carolina was enslaved. Only a small percentage of the White settlers, who had pushed out Indigenous Native Americans,  owned slaves — about 2 percent of households, according to Katherine Calhoun Cutshall, collections manager, North Carolina Room, Pack Memorial Library — and of those, most owned one or two. The majority were owned by a handful of elite families, whose names are commemorated throughout the region. 

They used their wealth and influence to help build Asheville and surrounding communities, supporting government, schools, healthcare, infrastructure, parks and other civic improvements, for which they were honored. But the wealth that lifted them to prominence was derived in large part by the enslavement and exploitation of Black people, entwining their many good deeds with the evil of racism.

Asheville

Originally Morristown, the town was incorporated and renamed in 1797 to honor Samuel Ashe (1725-1813), governor of North Carolina and a major slaveowner. He never lived here. Asheland Avenue is also named for him. 

The Patton family constituted the largest slaveholders in Asheville, collectively owning more than 220. James W. Patton (1803-1861) owned 78 in 1860 and was, with J.E. Patton and others, active in buying, selling, and trading hundreds of enslaved Blacks. Patton Avenue is named for him. John Patton and Samuel Chunn were partners in a slave-trading business. Chunn has a road and a neighborhood named for him.

Asheville News 1859

Asheville businessman and hotelkeeper James McConnell Smith (1787-1856) owned 75 enslaved Blacks, some of whom built the Smith-McDowell House, believed to be Asheville’s oldest surviving structure. It is now headquarters of the Western North Carolina Heritage Center. 

William McDowell owned 40 slaves. 

James and Polly Patton Smith

Daniel Reynolds (1809-1878), namesake of Reynolds Mountain, owned 15 slaves. 

Asheville’s first merchants, brothers Zebulon and Bedent Baird, owned 14 slaves in 1820. The Baird family (Baird Cove Road) owned 36 slaves.

Augustus Merrimon

Augustus Summerfield Merrimon (1830-1892), U.S. Senator and Chief Justice of the North Carolina Supreme Court, wrote, “Slavery has certainly existed from the earliest times down to the present, and it would seem that it is, in one sense, of divine appointment … I am thoroughly convinced that Slavery in this country cannot be abolished without greatly endangering our country … If it is an evil in the abstract, it would be a greater evil to abolish it here.” Merrimon Avenue is named for him.

Asheville’s hotel and tourism industry, already thriving before the Civil War, was in large part based on slave labor.

Story: What’s in a name? For Asheville, signs point to history of racism

Buncombe County

Originally the State of Buncombe, which encompassed much of western North Carolina, it was named after Col. Edward Buncombe (1742-1778), who forced more than 100 enslaved Africans to work his sugar plantations. 

In the 1860 census the Black population of Buncombe County was 13 percent, but historians note the percentage swelled in summer months as slaveholders in Georgia and South Carolina temporarily moved their families to mountain resorts. 

In 1860 Zebulon Vance owned six Blacks; his brother owned seven. 

William Johnston, a farmer, owned 55 slaves.

Weaverville

In 1860, U.S. census data show that the families of Michael Montraville Weaver and his wife Jane Eliza Baird Weaver, who donated the land of what is today Weaverville, collectively owned 93 enslaved people.

Jane Weaver

Woodfin:

The town was named for Nicholas W. Woodfin (1810-1876), a “complicated” man who “was at best inconsistent in the application of his values,” according to the Town of Woodfin Facebook page. By 1860 Woodfin was western North Carolina’s second-largest individual slaveholder, owning 122 enslaved people. Only William F. McKesson in Burke County personally owned more, 174.

Madison County:

Originally inhabited by the Cherokee people, Madison County was named for James Madison (1751-1836), fourth President of the United States, who owned more than 100 slaves on his Virginia plantation and sold them for personal profit. 

The Black population of Madison County in 1860 was 3.6 percent. 

According to a Sept. 2, 1903, article in The Laurens (S.C.) Advertiser, African Americans were not allowed to live in Madison County except within a mile of the courthouse in Marshall.

The construction of Mars Hill College in Madison County was financed in part by using an enslaved Black man, Joseph Anderson, as collateral for the loan. A contractor seized Joe, and the sheriff jailed him until the school’s trustees paid the debt. Joe was freed after the Civil War. His great-granddaughter, Oralene Anderson Simmons, in 1961 became the first African American student at Mars Hill College and is now a noted civil rights leader and activist in Asheville. 

Henderson County:

Leonard Henderson (1772-1833), one of the first Chief Justices of North Carolina, owned 41 slaves in 1830, according to the census. As Chief Justice, Henderson argued that local Quakers had no legal right to grant freedom to enslaved workers left to them in a man’s will, citing the “mischief” it might cause if enslaved Blacks saw free Blacks getting paid for their work. “Numerous collections of slaves,” Henderson wrote, “working for their own benefit, in the view and under the continual observation of others who are compelled to labour for their owners, would naturally excite in the latter, discontent with their condition, encourage idleness and disobedience, and lead possibly in the course of human events to the most calamitous of all contests, a bellum servile” (slave war). 

By 1860 the Black population of Henderson County was 15 percent.

Leonard Henderson

Yancey County

In the 1820 census Bartlett Yancey, U.S. congressman and speaker of the North Carolina state Senate, is recorded as owning 36 slaves. In the Yancey family Bible he recorded the “Family Record of the Age of Negro Children” born to his slaves; There are 131 births listed from 1810 to 1864.

Haywood County:

Named for John Haywood, state treasurer for 40 years. After his death in 1827 auditors discovered $68,906.80 missing (equivalent to $1.86 million in 2020 dollars). His enslaved Blacks were sold to partially reimburse the state. His namesake county, however, had relatively few enslaved people in 1860; the exception was James Robert Love, proprietor of the White Sulphur Springs Resort near Waynesville, who owned 85 servants.

John Haywood

To learn more:

Patton Family History: https://www.flickr.com/photos/buncombecounty/albums/72157637087574146

Mountain Masters: Slaveholders in Western North Carolina, John C. Inscoe, The North Carolina Historical Review, April 1984

Life Beneath the Veneer: The Black Community in Asheville, North Carolina from 1793 to 1900, Darin J. Waters, PhD dissertation 2012

In the Grip of Slavery: The Rise of a Slave Society Surrounding the Establishment of Stock Stands along the Buncombe Turnpike, 1790 to 1855, Katherine Calhoun Cutshall, UNCA Senior Thesis, 2015

Some Notes on Slavery in Asheville and Buncombe County, Pack Memorial Library, 2017

Last Will and Testament of James W. Patton, 1861, Old Buncombe County Genealogical Society

AVL Watchdog is a nonprofit news team producing stories that matter to Asheville and Buncombe County.  Peter H. Lewis is a former senior writer and editor at The New York Times. Contact us at avlwatchdog@gmail.com.

7 thoughts on “Entwined With Slavery: A Brief Local History

  1. Time to rename some counties and a number of roads. Suggestions for new names? Asheville has a M.L. King Boulevard, but maybe we could rename Patton Avenue for say, Malcolm X and extend Biltmore Avenue to include both Hendersonville Road and Merrimon Avenue. That would help the out-of-town tourists who find three names for one road confusing. I’d leave it to the residents of Woodfin to find a better name for the town.

  2. Hi AVL Watchdog,

    First off, thank you! I’m from Bakersville in Mitchell County where in-depth regional (much less local) reporting has been virtually nonexistent. As a former freelance journalist, your newsroom gives me hope.

    That said, I was disappointed to see “Entwined with Slavery: A Brief Local History” stop short of mentioning Elisha Mitchell, the namesake of Mitchell County and a slaveholder. Even a simple online search of “Elisha Mithcell + slavery” reveals this starting point from UNC-Chapel Hill where he was a professor (the university’s own wrestling with its Conferderate and slave-exploiting history is another, likely separate layer).

    Seeing that Yancey County was mentioned, Mount Mitchell—also named after Elisha and the tallest peak in the entire Appalachian range—could have been an important landmark to include, too.

    I understand that Asheville and Buncombe County are the main scope of AVL Watchdog’s work given the title and mission. I also understand that writing about slavery in general is essentially limitless. Even still, I encourage AVL Watchdog writers and editors to expand their view of the region and especially to counties that are overlooked and underserved by almost every measure. Considering Western North Carolina and its history as a whole could provide deeper context for understanding and telling the story of the region’s largest city.

    Thank you for your time, attention, and reporting. I look forward to following AVL Watchdog’s work!

    • Thank you for your letter, and you’re right, it was an oversight not to include Elisha Mitchell (Mitchell County, Mount Mitchell, Elisha Mitchell Audubon Society) in the admittedly incomplete catalog of local slaveholders, White supremacists and racists for whom local landmarks are named. The Rev. Mitchell (1793-1857) qualifies on all three counts.

      Educated at Yale, Mitchell was a professor of chemistry and geology at the University of North Carolina Chapel Hill, where he first acquired a slave. He was also an ordained Presbyterian minister and once preached that the New Testament justified slavery, and that owning Black people was morally no different than owning land or cattle.

      Writing in 1848, Mitchell defended slavery as beneficial for African Americans because they were a “race of inferior moral and mental endowments.”

      AVL Watchdog regrets the error of omission.

      P.S. Mitchell’s name is honored by the Elisha Mitchell Audubon Society in Asheville. John James Audubon (1785-1851), son of a slave-trader in Haiti, himself owned at least nine enslaved people.

  3. I’m all for renaming things, but we must do more. We need to teach the truth of our country’s founding on not just the kidnap & enslavement of the black people but also the subjugation and murder of the first people. And it needs to be taught with appropriate respect for the wronged and promotion of reparation and improvement in our society. We don’t have to be weighed down by our past if we use out to guide us to a better future for everyone.

    • We do have to real careful in “renaming things.” It took us more than 200 years to realize that George Washington was a cad and a bounder. Who can say what 21st century heroes will topple in 2320 when it has been deemed unforgivable that people used to eat meat, drive internal combustion powered vehicles and own pets.

  4. I’m not sure where the author got their information on owning slaves in Madison County. My Great-Great Grandparents owned a very large farm near Mars Hill and had slaves before and during the Civil War. They were also very good to them, as several articles were written of the Murder by Carpetbaggers in their front yard, in front of my Great-Great Grandmother, and 9 children, the youngest a baby in her arms , of my Great-Great Grandfather, and spoke of this. They were Joel and Rebecca Chambers Holcombe. If the name of every southern place that held a name of a slave holder had to be changed, the whole state of NC and everything in it would have to be renamed. It wasn’t right, though the way it was then. It’s starting to get ridiculous, the way they are digging up every wrong ever done for the past 200 years. There were also many whites as indentured slaves during the 1600s , 1700s and early 1800s. They could not leave the servitude of the person until their debt was paid. Rebecca Boone was one, and Daniel paid her debt for her. I don’t agree with any slavery or mistreatment of African Americans or any race of people. I have an African American ancestor, also. I’m 65, and remember the 1950s Asheville as a little girl, asking my Mama on a city bus why the black people had to sit in the back. The bus driver threatened to put us off if I didn’t be quiet. A little girl and I played in Pritchard park near our Mamas, which both took our hands and separated us. We thought we’d done something wrong. I colored the children at Sunday School black for 2 months, and my teacher wasn’t happy with me or my Mama. With separate fountains, and bathrooms, I though maybe they had something contagious, in my child’s mind. When I asked, I was told, “Because they are Negroes”. We aren’t born predjudiced, we are taught. I hope this helped with a little history.

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