Asheville Junction: A Blog by David E. Whisnant

Retrospective I: A Primer on the Sad Truths of Slavery in Asheville, Buncombe County and Western North Carolina


The Consensus Myth: “No Slaves or Slaveholders in the Mountains”

John Preston Arthur’s popular 1914 history put the matter of slaves and slaveholders in the mountains succinctly and unambiguously::

John Preston Arthur, Western North Carolina: A history from 1730 to 1913 (1914)

John Preston Arthur, Western North Carolina: A History from 1730 to 1913 (1914), p. 636.

For 100 years, Arthur’s position has defined the settled consensus on slavery in Western North Carolina.  Within the past several decades, however, as scholars have actually looked at the record, this consensus has fallen apart.  Why?

Non-White People Were Already There Before There Was a (White) There There

In his dissertation, Darin Waters cites historian Theda Perdue’s 1984 argument that the

Fort San Juan, built by Spanish conquistador Juan Pardo, 1567. New York Times.

Current excavation of Fort San Juan / Joara, built by Spanish conquistador Juan Pardo, 1567. New York Times.

Cherokees may have encountered blacks even before the expeditions of the Spanish conquistadores Hernando De Soto and Juan Pardo through the area in 1539-40 and 1566-67.  Pardo’s Fort San Juan (now called Joara) was long believed to be on the Qualla Boundary of the Cherokees, but has recently been positively located outside Morganton, and is undergoing excavation.

Other historians (including Foster Sondley in 1922 and more recent ones such as Inscoe and McKinney) have noted that the Swannanoa Valley’s  first white settler William Davidson brought an enslaved woman with him in 1784 (seven years before there was a Buncombe County and nearly ten before Asheville’s predecessor “Morristown” appeared).

Slaves Came to Buncombe County Early, and in Substantial Numbers

The U.S. census of 1800 listed 5,812 people in Buncombe County.  Among them, Waters notes, there were 107 slaveowners who owned 300 slaves.  The names of some of those owners, and later ones, persist in city, county and state history, and on the landscape: Vance (monument, Birthplace historic site), Davidson (River), Patton (Avenue), Woodfin (Street, for  Nicholas Woodfin, Buncombe’s largest slave owner, with 122 slaves), Chunn(‘s Cove), Swain (County, for David Lowry Swain, president of UNC 1835-1868).  Inscoe’s Mountain Masters (1996) count of whites/slaves in three mountain counties in 1860 is instructive: Buncombe (12,600/1,933; 15.3%), Burke (9,237/2371; 25.6%), McDowell (7,100/1,305; 18.3%).  In that year, .  Wilma A. Dunaway’s The First American Frontier (1996) presents a key corresponding detail: within the Appalachian counties of eight southern states in 1860, between 9% and 52% of farm families owned slaves.  North Carolina ranked in the middle at 21.5%.

No plantations?  No matter.  There was plenty of money to be made from slave labor on small farms, in domestic service, hotels and inns, mines and foundries, manufacturing plants, and elsewhere.  Businessmen knew it.  Lawyers and doctors (of whom a third were slaveowners, Inscoe calculated) knew it.  Professional men (a majority of Buncombe County’s slaveowners) knew it.

Asheville News, February 10, 1859

Asheville News, February 10, 1859

Going Around the Barn to (Finally) Get to the Issue

Through the decades, Waters contends, the marginalization of blacks in Asheville (following Ralph Ellison, one might almost say their invisibility) “might have been missed by the casual observer because the city’s white leaders were successful in constructing a veneer that suggested the city was peaceful and progressive in all areas of life.”  As a place to begin discussing how Asheville dealt with its slave history after the Civil War, Waters’s veneer metaphor is apt.

If one doesn’t scratch beneath this veneer–which, as I have worked on this blog, I have come to think of as “Land of the Sky Asheville”–one will encounter only repeated assertions of the same dubious “truth” that most people have always “known”: there were almost no plantations in the mountains, hence no slaves, hence nothing to be gained from inquiring into the subject.  Or into the Civil War, either, because there were no major battles there, so the war didn’t matter much.  For the most part, writers, journalists, and public officials (for a hundred years after the War ended) assured people that there was no need to think about the whole messy business.

Oh well, yes, a few blacks–both slave and free–were scattered here and there, but the racial views of “mountain whites” (Google this ill-defined and undefinable phrase, and you get 18,500 hits) were asserted to have aligned more frequently with those of the non-slaveholding (even abolitionist) North than with those of the plantation South.

In any case, one reason (among several) people took so long to get around to dealing with Asheville and Buncombe’s slave history was that they found a competing topic more appealing and compelling.  Depending upon how idealizing or pejorative one was disposed to be (or not), that topic was “our contemporary ancestors,” “sturdy mountain people,”  “mountaineers,” or hillbillies.  Those interested in exploring this topic would benefit from Klotter’s article and Shapiro’s first chapter (both in References).

Shapiro brought attention to William Wallace Harney’s by then century-old Lippincott’s article, “A Strange Land and a Peculiar People,” published in 1873, just two years before Christian Reid’s The Land of the Sky name-bestowing, serialized novel ( see my previous posts) began to appear in Appleton’s Journal.  These two works, and many others akin to them, helped set public discourse about mountaineers in the post-Civil War era.

Whatever terminology or perspective one opted for, the myth has long been that the Appalachian region, a multi-state aggregation of from a few more than 100 to more than 400 counties–(depending upon who was counting, when, and for what purpose) and the people who lived there were and had always been “native” (never mind the indigenous people) and WASP.

Nativist cartoon, The Wasp, San Francisco (1888)

Nativist cartoon: “Irish American Dynamite Skunk . . . Bred in the United States.” The Wasp, San Francisco (1888)

“Native” was a term (then and now) with multiple resonances.  A key one at the turn of the20th century was “nativism,” and the resonance was to the nativist currents washing through the entire country at the height of (mostly) European immigration.  Nativism was basically a collection of anti-immigration sentiments / activities / organizations focused on the Irish, Catholics, and any other group suspected or accused of harboring threatening cultural practices or social or political beliefs.  A quick search for “nativism” in Google Images will yield literally thousands.

Congruent with the larger nativist discourse and politics, the Appalachian region was cast as an “isolated” area (though it actually never was), peopled almost exclusively by good native “stock”: white, independent “yeoman farmers” who pretty much kept to themselves, and neither needed nor wished for slaves on their small, isolated, subsistence farms, where they grew whatever they could, “handicraft”-ed  a raft of useful or even (rustically) beautiful (and collectible) objects, and did without the rest. In effect, a white, native American gene pool, valuable as a bulwark against blacks and deviant, disruptive immigrants.

A Mountain Home, from Greetings from the Mountains and Valleys of Western North Carolina (1905). North Carolina Collection, UNC Library.

A Mountain Home, from Greetings from the Mountains and Valleys of Western North Carolina (1905). North Carolina Collection, UNC Library.

Culturally, mountaineers were reputed (against all odds) to have held onto Shakespearean English, to sing ancient ballads and play the “mountain dulcimer” (more German than “mountain,” and more widespread in 1960s Greenwich Village than it ever had been before), fiddle, and banjo (an African instrument actually unknown in the region until the late 1860s, but never mind).

This romanticized, bifurcated grab-bag of images and attributes was promoted steadily after the Civil War by writers of “local color” stories and novels (see earlier post) aimed at genteel readers, on postcards, in movies, by Protestant missionaries and “settlement school” workers, and–not least–by Asheville’s own business and commercial elites. Before 1900, an Asheville souvenir “handicrafts” industry was well established.

The Truth Emerged Belatedly and Slowly

As detailed scholarly studies of the actual racial makeup and history of the Appalachian region began to appear in the 1980s and 90s, the idealizing myth (along with related others) fell apart.

University of North Carolina Press, 2000

University of North Carolina Press, 2000

Most of that early work by historians and others associated with the Appalachian Studies effort (much like Women’s Studies and related efforts) centered on black miners in the coalfields.  But slowly it spread to non-coalfields areas such as western North Carolina.  And some of that work focused on Asheville’s racial history.  Historians John Inscoe and Gordon McKinney were early and strong contributors, as was Wilma Dunaway.  UNCA’s Darin Waters have others followed them more recently with their own excellent work.

But it has taken a while (more than thirty years) for the earliest of this work to begin to substantially affect–not to mention become prominent in–public awareness.  To this day, the standard “Land of the Sky” narrative hardly gives it a nod.

The “Sad Truth” Was Unpalatable

In 2013, Pack Memorial Public Library, UNCA’s Center for Diversity Education  and the Buncombe County Register of Deeds collaborated to produce the Patton Family Online ExhibitThat exhibit stated the corrective details sharply:

The sad truth is that the rich and powerful families of Buncombe County were slave owners, and that their wealth depended in large part on their “ownership” of other human beings.  

The Patton family was preeminent among western North Carolina and Asheville slaveholders.  The first James Patton, the exhibit text continues, “a penniless immigrant

Sale of twenty-seven year-old slave Lucinda by Edward Burlison to James W. Patton, February 3, 1940, for $700. Patton was the second largest slave owner in Buncombe County. Image from Buncombe County Register of Deeds, Deed Book 22, p. 37 [online]

Sale of twenty-seven year-old slave Lucinda by Edward Burlison to James W. Patton, February 3, 1840, for $700. Patton was the second largest slave owner in Buncombe County. Image from Buncombe County Register of Deeds, Deed Book 22, p. 37 [online]


James W. Patton’s home “Henrietta,” Asheville, 1857. Pack Memorial Public Library.

laborer from Ireland, came to Asheville in 1814 and opened the city’s second inn, the Eagle Hotel. After the construction of the Buncombe Turnpike in 1828, Patton expanded his resort interests by building with his sons a 350 room hotel in the town of Warm Springs (later Hot Springs) in

Runaway slave ad by James Patton of Wilkesborough NC, 1834. North Carolina Runaway Slave Advertisements, 1751-1840.

Runaway slave ad by James Patton of Wilkesborough NC, 1834. North Carolina Runaway Slave Advertisements, 1751-1840.

Madison County. His son James Washington Patton inherited his father’s slaves and “became one of the largest slave holders in Buncombe County. He helped build Patton Avenue . . . and in 1857 . . . [built] the first Asheville residence with indoor plumbing.”

Two years later, in connection with the contemplated (but long thereafter delayed) building of the Western North Carolina Railroad, Patton and his business partner Thomas Chunn advertised for help with the project:

Asheville News, February 10, 1859.

Asheville News, February 10, 1859. Via John Inscoe, The Heart of Confederate Appalachia (2000), p. 28.




So slaves were a part of Asheville’s sad truth from long before Asheville was Asheville , and both they and the city went through the whole familiar and tragic process as a result: enslavement; forcible transportation into the city and surrounding region; integration into the local (non-plantation) economy, politics, and culture; “weapons of the weak”resistance (e.g., running away), as James Scott has called it; eventual emancipation; the aborted promise of Reconstruction; and–for many–the de facto re-enslavement laws and mechanisms of post-Reconstruction repression under North Carolina’s determinedly racist Democratic regime.

Raleigh News and Observer, Sunday, June 17, 1900; p. 1.

Raleigh News and Observer, Sunday, June 17, 1900, p. 1.

And after that, the long public ignorance and denial of the sad truth itself. Fortunately, both are addressed by some excellent recent work.

The Digital Revolution Brings Mountains of New Data on (and to) the Mountains

The advent of the precursors of the internet in the mid- and late 1960s, of super-computing centers, and of internet service providers and the World Wide Web soon thereafter (more on that complicated history here) promised revolutionary changes in countless areas of work and creativity.  Historians working in social, economic, political, cultural history and other sub-fields were among the major beneficiaries of these developments.

Especially important for historians was the digitization of massive (massive as in millions of items) collections of documents.  First was Project Gutenberg in 1971 (and on its heels, E-texts).  After that, as they say, the deluge, as what became nearly countless entities digitizing masses of historical documents of every conceivable sort and making them available to the public.  Many aspects of the work of historians were to be revolutionized, and working on this blog has made me acutely, repeatedly, and gratefully aware of that.

The University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill has been collecting plantation records, for example, since the 1920s, and many of those are now coming online.  UNC’s Documenting the American South digital site has vast, full-text, online resources.  A DocSouth search on “slavery North Carolina” returns more than 18,000 items, all online.  A “slavery Asheville” search also returns a significant number of items.  Among DocSouth’s treasures is a large collection of North American Slave Narratives, including two from North Carolina–Samuel Hall from Iredell County, and Lunsford Lane, slave servant to two governors in Raleigh.

The Federal Writers Project’s  Slave Narrative Collection (1936-1938) amassed about 2300

Ex-slave Sarah Gudger (b. 1816), interviewed 1937 by Federal Writers Project.

Ex-slave Sarah Gudger (b. 1816), interviewed 1937 by Federal Writers Project.

slave narratives.  Sociologist Wilma Dunaway has selected a list of 300 Appalachian narratives, including thirteen from Buncombe County (scroll to NC section).  Particularly noteworthy is that of Sarah Gudger, interviewed by the FWP in 1937 when she was 121 years old.

Some imaginative and industrious librarians and archivists throughout North Carolina have also worked steadily for years to digitize their own earlier (and continuously expanding) collections.  Slavery records as well as others related to the history of blacks in have received sustained attention.  UNCA library’s Special Collections includes the Heritage of Black Highlanders, East Riverside and related collections (see The Schools in the former, for example).  Asheville’s remarkable (and now nearly

First building (1877) of Pack Memorial Public Library (est. 1899; named PMPL 1919).

First building (1877) of Pack Memorial Public Library (est. 1899; named PMPL 1919).

120 year-old) Pack Memorial Public Library’s North Carolina Room has extraordinary resources.  A search for “slavery” brings (besides print items) 63 items available online.

Drawing together digital materials from these and nearly twenty other area institutions is the Western North Carolina Heritage Collection site, which includes documents, books, drawings, photographs and many other items.

Another genre of digitized resources, growing daily, is newspapers.  An important central source is Chronicling America, from the Library of Congress. More than 9.5 million pages of historical newspapers, from all states, from 1836 to 1922, are now available online at this site.  Limiting those to Asheville produces more than 25,000 separate issues of dozens of newspapers from Asheville itself and the surrounding area.

I conclude this brief discussion of new materials with a slight expansion of an item in a previous post (How’s That Again?: Some New Angles on Asheville and Western North Carolina History): Buncombe County Register of Deeds Drew Reisinger’s digitizing and posting of all of the county’s hundreds of slave deeds.

Click for Register of Deeds page

Click for Register of Deeds page

First, a slight modification of the Register of Deeds online spreadsheet.  To make the spreadsheet more usable for my purposes, I added six columns: number of  slaves traded in each transaction, number of males/females, number of children included, number of parent + child(ren) transactions, and number of two-parent families.

There were unresolvable ambiguities in the data.  Is Jemooly or Serr or Goohe or Gooday male or female, for example? In (relatively few) such cases I relied on the odds, entering one as male and the next as female.  For this and other reasons, all of my numbers in the modified spreadsheet should be taken as approximations.

In slightly more than 300 transactions (almost all for fewer than ten slaves, but several for more than twenty), some 667 slaves changed owners–almost exactly half males and half females.  That number included about 160 children.  There were a few more than sixty parent + child(ren) transactions, but I could find only one two-parent family.  Looking more broadly at other data, historian John C. Inscoe observed that a full quarter of all single-owned slaves in WNC in 1860 were ten years old or younger.  This correlates almost exactly with my count of the slave deeds number (160 of 667).

As for prominent Asheville slave owners (Inscoe counted 248 of them in Buncombe in 1850 and 293 in 1863–more than in any other WNC county), the Pattons turn up numerous times (as both buyers and sellers): Benjamin, James, James Sr., John, John E. (perhaps same as John), Joseph, J.W., Thomas L., Thomas T. (a mistranscription of L., perhaps?), and a trading pair listed as Patton & Bergin (or Burgain).  These Patton transactions together included perhaps eighty slaves.  Other familiar Asheville names include Samuel W. Davidson and Nicholas Woodfin (1810-1876).   Familiar Buncombe County names included many Gudgers and Penlands, who were notably frequent traders.

Unfortunately, dates for these transactions may be ascertained only by examining the included digital image of each transaction.  Time did not permit me to do that for even a representative (and what would that mean?) sample of more than 300 transactions. Slave price information also would be available only from individual deeds, and the number of slaves owned by any individual might or might not have been proportional to the number that individual traded.  In 1860, Inscoe says, James W. Patton was the county’s largest slaveowner except for Woodfin, but the slave deeds spreadsheet shows that the number of transactions–and the number of slaves bought or sold by the former much exceeded those of the latter.  In his Mountain Masters study (1989), Inscoe reported that the average slave sold for $400 in the area in 1850, but for more than twice that ten years later.

Expanded and Newly Energized Public Awareness and Engagement

The availability of these digitized materials (among other factors), has recently brought new public awareness of and engagement with the history of slavery (and related matters) in Asheville and Buncombe County.  This awareness/engagement has taken a number of forms: recovery of  a forgotten slave cemetery, investigative and historical journalism, conferences, new discussion of public sites and monuments, and public discussion of and organization around the local history of slavery.

I will mention several items, and these only briefly.  All may be pursued online.

Rediscovery and renovation of South Asheville Cemetery (initially for slaves, later for WNC blacks, which I discussed briefly in a previous post (How’s That Again?: Some New Angles on Asheville and Western North Carolina History).

UNC Asheville’s Center for Diversity Education, now twenty years old, develops and presents a broad array of K-12 and community programming and exhibits. Their striking and effective online exhibit An Unmarked Trail: Stories of AfricanAmericans in Buncombe County from 1850 to 1950 pays considerable attention to slavery, the Civil War, and Reconstruction.

In a related series, Asheville Citizen-Times writer Rob Neufeld’s “Visiting Our Past” provides excellent historical columns (about 170 of them to date).  Topics range

Matthew Brady photograph of Thomas Clingman, Brady-Handy Collection, Library of Congress, via Asheville Citizen-Times.

Matthew Brady photograph of Thomas Clingman, Brady-Handy Collection, Library of Congress, via Asheville Citizen-Times. .

widely, and several have to do with slavery: Thomas Clingman and other opponents to slavery in 1851, testimonies about slavery, the Civil War in WNC, and the Vance Monument and Vance’s legacy as a slaveowner.

On April 26, 2015, the Asheville, dozens of Asheville citizens gathered on Pack Square to commemorate  and celebrate the departure 150 years earlier of 2700 Federal troops from Asheville, followed by several hundreds of freed slaves.  David Forbes’s account of the event (planned as annual one) in the Asheville Blade offers links to further materials. Ceremonies, commemorations, and public monuments related to slavery and the history of blacks in Asheville will no doubt continue to emerge.

It is not clear yet what configuration the emerging consensus history of Asheville will be, but it is clear that the former romantic, unproblematized version of it will yield to a more nuanced and inclusive narrative.  Since I began this blog some sixteen or so months ago, it has been my hope to make some useful contributions to that new narrative.


John Preston Arthur, Western North Carolina: A History from 1730 to 1913 (1914); Wilma A. Dunaway, The First American Frontier: Transition to Capitalism in Southern Appalachia, 1700-1860 (1996), Slavery in the American Mountain South (2003); Jon Elliston, Asheville 1915 series; John C. Inscoe, “Slavery, Sectionalism, and Secession in Western North Carolina” (Ph.D. diss., UNC, 1985); John C. Inscoe, Mountain Masters, Slavery, and the Sectional Crisis in Western North Carolina (1989); John C. Inscoe, Appalachians and Race: The Mountain South from Slavery to Freedom (2001); John C. Inscoe and Gordon B. McKinney, The Heart of Confederate Appalachia: Western North Carolina in the Civil War (2000); James C. Klotter, “The Black South and White Appalachia” in William H. Turner and Edward J. Cabell (eds.), Blacks in Appalachia (1985); Kevin E. O’Donnell and Helen Hollingsworth, Seekers & Scenery: Travel Writing from Southern Appalachia, 1840-1900 (2004); Theda Perdue, “Red and Black in the Southern Appalachians,” Southern Exposure, 12 (November/December, 1984); “David Lowry Swain, 4 Jan. 1801-29 Aug. 1868,” in William S. Powell (ed.), Dictionary of North Carolina Biography; James C. Scott, Weapons of the Weak: Everyday Forms of Peasant Resistance (1985); Henry Shapiro, Appalachia on Our Mind: The Southern Mountains and Mountaineers in the American Consciousness, 1870-1920 (1978); Darin J. Waters, “Life Beneath The Veneer: The Black Community in Asheville, North Carolina from 1793 to 1900” (Ph.D. diss., UNC, 2011).

8 thoughts on “Retrospective I: A Primer on the Sad Truths of Slavery in Asheville, Buncombe County and Western North Carolina

  1. Ruth Slawson

    I live above chunns cove in South Asheville
    I was told that there use to be a black cemetery off of Chunns Cove and that the City and County ignored the existence of the Cemetery and buried it with the rocks that were removed from the area to build 240
    I know that the sub division, The Wildes, is built on those rocks.
    I am wondering if I also live on sacred ground that never should have been disturbed
    Thank you for your time
    Ruth Slawson

  2. John Burgin

    All ground is sacred ground. If we live our lives with this in mind, we do no dishonor to those who sleep beneath it. If we do not do so, we dishonor all those who sleep beneath any ground.

  3. Todd Ransom

    Interesting read, thanks David. Do you know what the fliers mean by “likely” negroes? It seems like a strange usage of the word, I’m wondering if it holds a meaning that is no longer used.

  4. L. Holt Felmet

    My family is from Old Buncombe County. In the census of the area that became Buncombe in 1790 the two largest slaveholders were my descendants – William Mills and William Davidson. Each reported 7 slaves. I have always been curious about what mountain economy supported this practice. Many of my ancestors fought for the CSA. But, few of those men who actually fought were slaveholders. They were largely small farmers at that time or artisans.

    1. David Whisnant Post author

      Mr. Felmet: Reading back through some comments on my blog this morning, I found yours from nearly 5 years ago. First, my sincerest apologies! I just missed it earlier. Fortunately, there are some scholars who have commented on the matter you raised about what aspects of the mountain economy supported slavery. Look up (or get your local reference librarian to help you) John Inscoe’s MOUNTAIN MASTERS book from some years ago. Also Darin Waters’s UNC PhD dissertation LIFE BENEATH THE VENEER: THE BLACK COMMUNITY IN ASHEVILLE (2012); it is online. And Wilma Dunaway’s SLAVERY IN THE MOUNTAIN SOUTH (2007); not online, but in most libraries, I would guess. Also her websites: Slavery and Emancipation in the Mountain South [pick North Carolina from lsit] ( and others. Just Google her name, and a lot of options will come up. Thank you for your now-much belated comment. Best wishes, and write again if you need/want to. I try to keep up, but just writing the blog takes so much time! David

  5. Pingback: Black Owned Vs Blackwashing: Asheville Black History - NewsDeal

  6. Lenora Wesley

    In my research as a result of reading your blog, Mr. Whisnant, “Likely” meant, generally desirable, very tolerably …attractive and or useful. Having studied archaic languages in college, for operatic studies, I learned to look for a translation and then find a middle ground or consensus for the word or words, in question. Therefore using this methodology, I arrived at the most probable conclusion, of period usage. This seems to fit.

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