Though well over a hundred people were enslaved by the Smith and McDowell families and many of them worked in Buck House and on its grounds on a day-to-day basis, we know very little about their individual identities. Enslaved African Americans were not allowed to learn to read or write, and white historians rarely recorded their stories – or even their names. The census only records the sex and age of enslaved people and, most often, their names were only written if/when they were sold, purchased, or inherited.
In 2020, we are embarking on a research project utilizing documentary, archaeological, and oral source material to piece together the lives and stories of those held captive by the Smith and McDowell families. This is Caroline’s story – so far…
Caroline is born. Her mother is Arsela. Caroline was likely enslaved by the Smith family from the moment of her birth.
February 9, 1850
James M. Smith’s will, written February 9, 1850, is the first mention we have found relating to Caroline, a child he enslaved.
“I give and bequeath to my daughter Sarah L McDowell all the property heretofore placed in her possession + a negro girl Caroline (child of Arsela)…”Last Will and Testament, James M. Smith, February 9, 1850
January 7, 1854
While we search for more information on Caroline – including a photo – we can start to understand a little about the uncertainty of her young life through this amendment James M. Smith added to his will on January 7, 1854.
“I further direct that the girl Caroline in which said will be given to my daughter Sarah L. McDowell, be given to my daughter Jane Cordelia, and in her stead I give to the said Sarah L. a negro woman Rebecca and her child Charlotte which I purchased of William W. McDowell and placed in her possession, and further will and direct that the said girl Caroline together with the Piano Forte in my house…”Codicil to the Last Will and Testament, James M. Smith, January 7, 1854
May 18, 1856
With James M. Smith’s death on May 18, 1856, Caroline became enslaved by James’ daughter, Jane Cordelia. At 19, Jane was only a few years older than Caroline. Because she was unmarried when her father died, one of Jane’s uncles, Montraville Patton, was assigned to be her guardian. It is likely that Caroline traveled with Jane to live at the Patton home until Jane could be married the following year.
April 15, 1857
On April 15, 1857, Jane Cordelia Smith married George Thomas Spears, 29, a business partner of her uncle/guardian, Montraville Patton. George, then, became owner of all Jane’s property — including Caroline. It is likely that Caroline moved with Jane to George’s home in Asheville.
August 16, 1860
W.B. Baird, the census taker in Buncombe County, records George Spears enslaving 16 people. It is likely that Caroline is recorded in these slave schedules as an 18-year-old black female.
Caroline marries Mathew Cope.
George Thomas Spears and Jane Cordelia Smith build a house at 53 Orange Street in Asheville. It is likely that Caroline is no longer enslaved by the time the couple moves to this residence.
April 23, 1865
The Union Army of General George Stoneman rode into Asheville on April 23, 1865. Brigadier General Alvan Gillem led 2,700 troops and hundreds of now-free African Americans along Main Street (now Biltmore Avenue). Many of these same people followed the troops out of town three days later. Fannie Patton remembered, “Well, they have passed quietly through–2,100 men and numberless negroes, horses and mules which they have stolen…a great many negroes have left town with the yankees–crowds of men, women, and children just gathered up a bundle of clothes and went with them.”
Caroline and Mat stay in Asheville.
August 31, 1866Patricia Reese Dockery in Early Buncombe County, North Carolina African American marriage records, 1814-1868
“Slave marriages before the Civil War had been duly celebrated by civil or religious authorities or simply by ‘living together’. In 1866, the General Assembly passed ‘An Act concerning Negroes and Person of Color or of Mixed Blood’. ‘Those persons whose cohabitation was thus ratified into a state of marriage were required to appear before the Clerk of the County Court or a justice of the peace to acknowledge the fact. These acknowledgements were to be recorded in books and regarded as proof that a marriage existed’.”
Mathew Cope and Caroline Spears register as a married couple at Buncombe County’s Register of Deeds as required by law. They report that they were married in April 1864. According to the Buncombe County Register of Deeds, which has made these records available online for Buncombe County, cohabitation records were “created to identify and legitimize marriages and children born to those in slavery.”
June 4, 1870
Caroline, 27, and Mat, 30, live alone in Asheville. He works as a tanner. She is “keeping house.” Neither can read or write. For many formerly enslaved people, it was almost impossible to know their date of birth. In 1870, Caroline reported her birth year as c1843.
June 8, 1880
Caroline, 36, and Mat, 40, live alone in Asheville. It is likely that they do not have children. He works as a tanner. She is “keeping house.” Neither can read or write. Caroline reports her birth year as c1846.
June 5, 1900
Caroline, 60, and Mat, 69, host two lodgers in the home they own on Mountain Street in Asheville. Mat chops wood for a living – possibly at a tannery. Neither can read or write. Caroline reports her birth as being in January 1840.
October 27, 1907
Mat dies at “age 65” of “supposed to be old age.”