Asbury Whisnant and Ella Austin were not born in Asheville. They arrived as fully-formed adults: he came in 1900 when he was twenty-eight, and she came in 1907 when she was thirty-eight. So it is important to understand who they already were when they arrived in an Asheville that had just gone through forty years of turbulent change, and was about to embark upon another forty.
Thus the purpose of this present post is to sketch the post-Civil War down-mountain world in which Ella Austin (b. 1869) and Asbury Whisnant (b. 1872) grew up and lived their early adult lives. That in turn will help us understand something about who they were when they left that world and moved to Asheville.
This post deals with the lingering social, cultural, and political effects of the Civil War, and the racial and interracial environment–both established and emergent, including a brief take on the black branches of the Whisnant family. The next post will extract as much as possible about Asbury’s and Ella’s lives from the history of the Western North Carolina Insane Asylum, where they worked for a time before moving to Asheville.
The Aftermath of the Civil War: “Hard Times Come Again No More”
If any sentiment was nearly universally shared among ordinary people at war’s end, it might have been the hope that, at long last, hard times might soon be over–as in Stephen Foster’s “Hard Times Come Again No More.” The song was widely sung during the war, and by countless performers since. Besides Springsteen’s, here are two others: Tommy Fleming, with bagpipe; Nanci Griffith, with contemporary images of hard times.
In a previous post, I discussed a few key aspects of the Civil War period (1861-1865) in the down-mountain counties, although no major Civil War troop movements or engagements occurred there.
Nevertheless, those counties escaped neither the attitudes and structural patterns grounded in pre-war racial demographics, nor the war’s turbulent after-effects. In 1860, after all, of Rutherford County’s 11,564 inhabitants nearly 21% were slaves; in Caldwell County, 15% of all households were headed by slaveholders.
And even after slaves were freed and slaveholders were no more, social patterns, family and community structures and institutions, and beliefs and norms of behavior were deeply resistant to change.
In The Heart of Confederate Appalachia: Western North Carolina in the Civil War, historians John Inscoe and Gordon McKinney note repeatedly that the formal end of the war was not followed quickly by a return to normalcy (however that may have been defined) in the days and months following Lee’s surrender in early April 1865.
Both Rutherford County, where Asbury grew up in Golden Valley township, and Caldwell County, where Ella’s family lived on Lower Creek (close to the county seat of Lenoir), took years to settle down. As numerous historians (including Inscoe and McKinney) have pointed out, remnants of Confederate units ranged over the area, creating fear, pain and havoc. Personal and intra-family or -community grudges that arose during (and before) the war provoked violence: bitter court fights and bitterly fought elections (especially those of 1868 and 1870); vendettas, riots, murders and outright executions; and the re-activation of quasi-military units.
Especially in Rutherford and Cleveland counties, which, together with neighboring Polk County constituted one of the strongholds of the Ku Klux Klan, Klan-directed violence ran high. Local newspaper founder/editor Randolph Shotwell became head of the Klan in 1870, at a time of vicious attacks that brought in federal troops to restore order. Shotwell and more than thirty others were arrested; he was sent to federal prison, but soon pardoned by President Grant.
Such patterns were present in many other places at the time, as the entire state careened toward (and through) the turbulent Constitutional Convention of 1868 (official journal
here) in which a thirteen-member “Black Caucus” represented nineteen majority-black counties. Close upon its heels came the Kirk-Holden War (1870-1871) to suppress Klan violence (leading also to Gov. Holden‘s impeachment) and a bitter nationwide struggle over the Civil Rights Act of 1875.
Riding partly upon a torrent of horribly racist cartoons from the Raleigh News and Observer in the 1890s, the North Carolina Democratic Party rose to new heights of
racist invective and threat.
The newspaper’s relentlessly racist journalism, together with the marauding
It also fueled the vicious Wilmington massacre and coup that exploded in its wake–its most proximate cause the burning of the only black-owned newspaper in the city, the Wilmington Daily Record, edited by Alex Manly (1866-1944). Manly’s pro-black newspaper had for weeks been the focus of outraged and threatening articles in newspapers across the state determined to silence him and shut down his newspaper.Two days after the November election, local white supremacists dramatized their determination by burning Manly’s press and building.
Paradoxically, journalistic evidence of the precipitous slide into racial, cultural, and political darkness ran side-by-side with articles promising social and political and stability, advertisements offering beguiling new products, tantalizing offers to gain wealth, and surefire patent remedies for whatever ailed you.
For the moment dropping back some pages in the calendar and using the staunchly unionist Rutherford Star (1866ff.)–the newspaper closest to Ella’s and Asbury’s homes–as a source, what do we find in the weeks and months after the war’s close?
A few months after Ella was born, one report from Asheville said that a black voter was
killed in an election-day race riot after a poll worker challenged his right to vote. Another report in the same issue said that the governor of Arkansas had declared martial law. An advertisement by the Immigrant Homestead Association of California (“Secure a Home in the Golden State!!”) offered shares for $5.00 each and promised a full description of the properties.
Most of the postwar turmoil emerged around, and was shot through with, issues of race, class, and partisan political strife, much of which dated from antebellum times. As Paul D. Escott chronicles in Many Excellent People: Power and Privilege in North Carolina, 1850-1900, many of these dynamics were oriented precisely toward maintaining the pre-war power and privilege of the state’s elites, as well as–insofar as it could be engineered–pre-war racial arrangements.
For Caldwell County elites, Escott ticks off the antebellum enterprises of the multi-generational Patterson family: “a grist mill, a textile mill, a store, a tan yard, an oil mill, and a wool-carding mill.” Rutherford County deeds for land transactions by the powerful Coxe family (Tench Coxe and his multi-generational offspring) date from 1796 into the mid-nineteenth century. Their later real estate and other business transactions reach westward into Buncombe and continue into the late twentieth century.
After the war, many such families resented the freedmen and considered them a threat, and momentum for white supremacy increased throughout the state. Meanwhile, Escott is careful to note, the majority of the state’s population had few pre-war assets or arrangements to long for. Statewide in 1860, seventy-two percent had owned no slaves and “only modest amounts of land.” Over forty percent of farms consisted of fewer than fifty acres.
County, Township, and Neighbors: The Whisnants (White and Black) and Austins in the Post-war Years
I have not found much information strictly about the Whisnants or Austins in the post-Civil War years. Neither family had had wealth or prominent social position before the war. Neither had suffered great financial loss when the slaves were freed, because (except for Asbury’s grandfather Philip Whisenhunt, who reportedly owned one female slave and her daughter) they had not owned any. For the most part, they had been small farmers. So for them, the pre-war years were not something to long for.
Part of what Asbury and Ella had to move forward within, was of course the postwar racial environment they saw around them, beginning in their earliest years. The only individual- or family-level numbers I have found on this matter (aggregate county- or state-wide totals are not very useful), are in the manuscript censuses of 1860, 1870, and 1880. Unfortunately, even those censuses are burdened with omissions and inconsistencies, as numerous analyses attest. But it is what I have; I tried to make the best of it.
Sarah Ella, at least a third-generation Caldwell County Austin, was born four years after the “cruel war” was over. Her Austin grandparents Samuel and Sarah had been in North Carolina at least since the 1790s. They had ten children (1819-1837), one of whom was Sarah Ella’s father Elcana[h] (b. ca. 1827 in Lower Creek township). Elcana married Rose Ann Kaylor (b. 1835, likely in Lenoir). Sarah Ella was their middle child of seven.
And what of the racial situation at the time? By the time of the 1870 census (which listed “Inhabitants” rather than “Free Inhabitants” as in 1860), the portion of Lower Creek township where Elcana Austin lived with his family (p. 22) appears to have been quite mixed racially: six families (forty people in all) lived in the houses nearest to the Austins along the census-taker’s path. Twenty-seven residents were white (68%) and the other thirteen (32%) were–it appears from the handwritten coding–mulatto. Oddly, the enumerator’s tally at the bottom of the sheet counted them as “colored,” although the options in the column heading were white, black, mulatto, Chinese, and Indian.
This pattern continued at least until Ella was eleven years old. In the 1880 census, many blacks and mulattos were living in Lower Creek township (by then numbering just over 900 people). Since census enumerators went from house to house, manuscript census sheets constituted (among other things) a linear map of neighborhoods. Some black households (Bristols, Harshaws, Johnsons, Bradshaws, Corpenings [which also had a small white branch], Kincaids, and Perkinses) were clustered together, but others were intermingled with white families.
One of the latter was that of Harriet Wishant (as best I can make out the name; image above) and her two children Sallie (13 y.o.; coded black) and Julious (4 y.o.; coded–it appears–mulatto). There were also at least two white Whis[e/a]nant families: Tod[?] and Sara and their five children (p. 9), and Newton and Mary and their ten (p. 11). Further along the way, Alphonse McDowell [?] was coded black, but his wife as mulatto; their nine daughters were coded black (p. 18). Several white families had what appear to be black female live-in servants.
The McDowells’ next-door neighbors, the Kincaids, had four children coded black and two granddaughters coded mulatto. In this census, the Austins’ near neighbors included Laura and James Powell (b. ca. 1850) and their five children–all born during slavery and coded as “mulatto.” Nearby, widower Richard Barnhardt (b. 1832) was raising his four sons (b. 1867-1872); they were black. Just beyond them lived five white farm families: Lewis and Clarisa Hartly, their six children and Lewis’s ninety year-old mother; the much younger and still childless Van and Susan Teague; Bunyan and Ann Coffey and their three young children; John (perhaps Bunyan’s brother) and Mary Coffey and their eight daughters; and William and Susan Ballew, also parents of eight children (four sons and four daughters, seven to twenty-eight years old).
Age-appropriate playmates for Ella thus might have included several of the Powells’ mulatto children, all four of the black Barnhardt boys, and as many as a dozen white children: perhaps two of Bunyan and Ann Coffey’s, maybe as many as six of John and Mary Coffey’s daughters, and probably several of the Ballews. Unfortunately, we know nothing about who Ella actually played or associated with on Lower Creek, but it seems fair to assume that she could not have been unaware of race as a defining social/cultural category.
And to what extent might the local racial situation have helped shape Asbury during his early years? In 1860, Rutherford County, where his family lived before he was born, had just over 8000 whites, 110 free blacks, and about 2200 (over 27%) slaves. But in Whiteside township, where the (few, as nearly as I can tell) Whisnants were, it was only 1%.
What was the situation a couple of decades later? For comparison, in the 1880 census for Cleveland County (bordering Rutherford to the east), fifty-eight Whisnants were listed in townships No. 4 and 8, of whom twelve (ca. 21%) were black (two black families and two black “servants” living with white families). But among the 1000+ people in Rutherford’s Golden Valley township (enumerated by Asbury’s uncleEli Whisnant, it would appear), there was not a single black or mulatto resident.
What significance might this apparent disappearance of blacks have had for Asbury’s family? A couple of benchmarks first: Before they moved (sometime between 1850 and
1860) to Pigeon in Haywood County (in the mountains west of Asheville), Asbury’s father Jackson Pinkney Whisnant had lived with his parents and siblings in the Whiteside Settlement in Rutherford County. In 1860, its hundreds of residents included only eight–tallied but uncoded and unnamed–blacks.
By 1870 the Whisnant family had returned to Rutherford County, but instead of Whiteside, they chose Golden Valley (adjacent to Whiteside, it appears, in the NE corner of the county). Prominent among census listings were the Smawleys, Meltons (they seemed to live just around every curve), McCurrys, and Biggerstaffs, whose names I recall hearing in childhood. So the Whisnants had moved back among longtime friends and acquaintances.
All white? No, at least not before 1880. Out of just under 200 Golden Valley households in the 1870 census, one (no. 45, lines 27-29) was mixed-race: forty-eight year-old William Moose [?], coded black, was married to twenty year-old Sarah, coded white. Living with them was fourteen year-old Susan, coded black and presumably William’s daughter by another woman. Much closer by–indeed next door to young Jackson Pinkney Whisnant, his wife and child (no. 79)–lived (in household no. 80) Cisco [?] McCurry , his wife Jinny, their two children (seventeen and twenty), a woman of sixty-seven (name indecipherable) and two younger children. All were black. Another small black McCurry family lived a bit further down the road (no.89). These two McCurry families, one might surmise, may suggest the existence of a black branch of the McCurry family. Still further on down the road (households 119 and 120)–on past many Meltons–lived two more small black families (nine people; men coded as “farm laborers”); at household 138 were the young Thomas family; at 157, the young black Dogett [?] couple.
It would appear, then, that more important than the proximity of blacks was the presence of friends and acquaintances, and the availability of land, since virtually all Golden Valley and Whiteside men were farmers, except for a single blacksmith, a cabinetmaker, and a miller.
Whisnants: Black and White
Taking a perspective broader than that of one’s own neighborhood, here is a racial fact (from statistics in the Whisnant Surname Center) I had never heard mentioned in the family: a large number of North and South Carolina whites and blacks shared the Whisnant (spelled variously) surname. Of the 39,969 Whisnants in the database, 38,523 were white and 1,166 (nearly 3%) were black. As of 2000, I learned further, the longest-lived Whisnant woman was Minnie (1883-1989). And Minnie was black.
Minnie Whisnant’s father Henry, born during slavery times in South Carolina (1855), married Mary (b. ca. 1865) about 1881, and they had eight children (b. 1882-1900). All are listed as black on the Whisnant Surname Center site, but instead of having any of the usual Whisnant male or female first names (blessed relief!; not a John, Peter, Philip, Adam, Elcana or Mary Magdalene among ’em), they were Florence, Minnie, Henry, Oma, Bettie, Summy, and Jake (go, Jake!). Whether they were so named because their Whisnant line had by then been so long separated from the white ones, or consciously in order to differentiate, one cannot know. The earliest census record on them is 1910, so we cannot check prior generations.
I was a bit surprised by this Whisnant racial demographic, but not greatly. Years earlier in the post office in Washington DC, I recalled, a gracious black gentleman whose badge said his name was John Whisnant (as was my father’s) had helped me at the counter. I identified myself, and in our brief chat he told me he was from the Lincoln County area of North Carolina–the epicenter of the North Carolina Whisnants. I had never heard of any black Whisnants before, but I never forgot this initial encounter.
At the very least, one would expect that the existence of these (no doubt widely known) black Whisnant lines would likely have shaped some aspects of what one might call “Whisnant family culture” in the nineteenth century.
What I have not yet seen in existing Whisnant genealogical sources is whether a black branch of the family had already emerged even back in Lancaster County PA. But these later North and South Carolina parts of it are intriguing to say the least.
My hope is that this brief concluding inquiry, together with the rest of this post, sufficiently establishes that Asbury and Ella grew up in a turbulent post-war environment shot through with race and class issues. That turbulence would still be much in evidence in post-1900 Asheville as well, though it may have been more evident to Asbury as a streetcar conductor and (later) bus driver than it would to Ella, who after her years as a professional healthcare worker settled into to “keeping house” and raising children.
Since this post appeared a few months ago, I came across an excellent New York Times article by Geoffrey P. Downs entitled The Dangerous Myth of Appomattox (April 11, 2015), which argues elegantly and persuasively that soon after accepting Gen. Lee’s surrender at Appomattox, Gen. Grant told his men that “the war is over.” But “Grant soon discovered he was wrong,” Downs argues:
Not only did fighting continue in pockets for weeks, but in other ways the United States extended the war for more than five years after Appomattox. . . . [Fighting] against a white Southern insurgency that relied on murder and intimidation to undo the gains of the war.
And yet the “Appomattox myth” persisted, and continues today. By severing the war’s conflict from the Reconstruction that followed, it drains meaning from the Civil War and turns it into a family feud, a fight that ended with regional reconciliation. It also fosters a national amnesia about what wars are and how they end . . . .
As I’ve tried to show in this brief post, North Carolina–eastern, piedmont, and western–saw local, on-the-ground evidence of the validity of Downs’s argument. And Asbury Whisnant and Ella Austin grew up in the midst of it.
Paul D. Escott, Many Excellent People: Power and Privilege in North Carolina, 1850-1900 (1985); John C. Inscoe and Gordon B. McKinney, The Heart of Confederate Appalachia: Western North Carolina in the Civil War (2000); NCpedia (numerous articles; linked in text); North Carolina Collection, UNC Library, The Election of 1898 in North Carolina; North Carolina Department of Cultural Resources, Wilmington Massacre and Coup d’état of 1898 – Timeline of Events; The Rutherfordton Star (1868)