Asheville News, August 26, 1858

The first mention we find of a young man named Ben is on August 27, 1858, when 12 people are sold at auction on the steps of the Buncombe County Court House.

At the time, Ben was 18 years old, placing his birth date around 1840.

This sale occurred because Ben’s former enslaver, John P. Smith, who lived at the Smith-McDowell House, died without leaving a will.

W.W. McDowell, who paid $1,250 to enslave Ben, was John P. Smith’s brother-in-law. McDowell also bought John’s house at a similar auction.

1870 US Census, Buncombe County

We do not know for sure that Ben Ragsdale is the same Ben that was sold on the steps of the courthouse as a young man; however, in the 1870 census, the first census to identify formerly enslaved people by name, Ben Ragsdale is listed as 30 years old, which places his birth year around 1840 – the same year as the Ben from 1858.

Perhaps more telling, one of the people living with Ben and his young family in 1870 is George Avery.

We know that George Avery was also enslaved by W.W. McDowell until he emancipated himself and joined the Union Army in April 1865.

In the 1880 census, Ben and Ellen still live in Asheville. George Avery now lives next door. Ben is a shoemaker. Ben’s mother, Celia, lives with the family.

April 30, 1888
Ben Ragsdale purchased land from WW and Sarah L. McDowell for $250. This land adjoins land on which he already has a home “at top of Ridge.”
Buncombe County Register of Deeds, Book 76, Page 308

In 1906, Ben gave his son John a portion of this land. (Book 151, Page 123)

In 1914, Ben gave his daughter, Ella, a parcel as well. (Book 190, Page 464) In this deed, it indicates that Ellen has passed away.

1900 US Census, Buncombe County

In 1900, Ben and his family continue to live in the South Asheville Community. Ben is lists his birth date as May 1840. He and his wife, Ellen, have been married 35 years, placing their marriage around 1865. They have five children.

Their children are:

  • Mary Louise Hemphill*
    (March 24, 1867 – July 1, 1941)
  • John
    (February 24, 1869 – August 31, 1859)
  • Ella*
    (August 1878 –  April 1, 1923)
  • Lillian B. Haynes
    (February 12, 1884 – May 1, 1962)
  • unknown

    *buried South Asheville Cemetery

Buncombe County Cohabitation Records

If we look at the Buncombe County cohabitation records, we do find a “Berry” Ragsdale, who married a woman named Ellen. We need to gain access to the original documentation. I believe Berry could have been Benj. misread by the transcriber. Also, it is very likely that they registered August 23, 1866 (not 1862) as 1866 was the year that the cohabitation records began. So they could have married in August 1861 and been married 5 years in 1866 or married in August 1865, shortly after they gained their freedom, and been married one year.


The entry below Berry Ragsdale is interesting as well. In the 1870 census, William Ragsdale is a neighbor of Ben Ragsdale and is married to a woman name Lela (perhaps Lela/Celia are the same person). William and Lela, who are 70 and 67 in the 1870 Census, are certainly the correct age to have been married 40 years in 1866.

They may be Ben’s parents.

Asheville Citizen, Feb. 22, 1916

Ben died Sunday, February 20, 1916 and was buried in the South Asheville Cemetery. We could not find a grave marker for Ben in the cemetery. Ellen, has already passed away. She is likely also buried in the South Asheville Cemetery.

When we look at the death certificates of Ben and Ellen’s children, we find that Ellen’s madien name was Eleanor Smith and that she was born in Charleston, SC.

Though Smith is a common last name, it is possible that Ellen was also enslaved by the Smith family at one time. That may have been how she and Ben met.

Ella and Mary Louise are buried in South Asheville Cemetery, likely near their parents. The South Asheville Cemetery closed in 1939, but Mary Louise was likely able to still be buried there in 1941 because her family had a plot there. The final burial in the South Asheville Cemetery was in 1943. John and Lillian were buried in Sunset Cemetery.