Slavery in Western North Carolina


“Of the people who get their living entirely by agriculture, few own negroes; the slave holders being chiefly professional men, shop-keepers, and men in office, who are also land owners, and give divided attention to farming.”

– Frederick Law Olmsted, A Journey in the Back Country in the Winter of 1853-4.

female Smith slaveSlavery in the Southern Mountains was different from slavery in the Deep South. The mountain landscape did not allow for large labor-intensive cotton or rice plantations, and the difficulty of travel through the mountains did not encourage large-scale industries or heavy commerce. Enslaved persons made up a much smaller portion of the total population than in other areas of the South, and most slaveholders owned just one or a few persons. In the U.S. census of 1850, Buncombe County, in which Asheville is located, listed 1,717 slaves, making up about 13% of the population.

James McConnell Smith was one of the largest slaveholders in the region, owning more than 60 enslaved persons by the 1850s. Smith’s slaves worked on his farms, in his general store, his hotel, his tannery, and his other businesses. As indicated in his will, a number were skilled craftspersons. Female slaves were cooks, weavers, child care givers and house servants. Smith also frequently rented out slaves to his neighbors.

Slave owners were often characterized according to how abusive they were to their slaves. In any case, the entire system was inherently cruel because enslaved people were always human property, to be bought and sold at will. Nothing makes this clearer than the will James Smith prepared, in which he parceled out his slaves to his wife and children.

“Also I give and bequeath to my said wife Polly during her natural life the following negro slaves, viz. Bob (the tanner) and his wife Lidia and her children, Alexander, Sy (the blacksmith), Bob Hardin, Catherine and Betsey, also Moses, together with all the household and kitchen furniture at the homeplace…”

– The Last Will and Testament of James McConnell Smith, 1850

Asheville’s earliest newspaper often carried notices about runaway slaves. Highland Messenger, June 2, 1841.

Highland Messenger, November 6, 1840.Asheville’s earliest newspaper often carried notices about runaway slaves.

Highland Messenger, June 2, 1841.

Even though Asheville never had a slave market, slaves were regularly bought and sold on an owner-to-owner basis and through newspaper notices.

Highland Messenger, November 6, 1840.