Thursday, January 7, 2016

Tracing Ashley's Sack

"Ashley's Sack," Middleton Place.
 Note on 12/7/16:   for an updated discussion of the origin of Ashley's Sack, please see my new publication:

Like many, I have been excited to learn that “Ashley’s Sack,” a fascinating, enigmatic artifact in the collection of Middleton Place (Dorchester County, South Carolina), one of the nation’s preeminent slavery-era plantation sites, will be on long-term loan to the National Museum of African American History and Culture in Washington D.C., where it will presumably be viewed, in time, by millions, once the museum opens in Fall 2016.  The object is described in the epilogue of Heather Andrea Williams’ book, Help Me to Find My People: The African American Search for Family Lost in Slavery (University of North Carolina Press, 2012; pp. 196-197) and has been the subject of coverage in such newspapers   as the Summerville Journal Scene and the Savannah Morning News. The bag, evidently made out of the same “Negro Cloth” used to produce the clothing of enslaved people, is embroidered with the following text:

My great grandmother Rose

mother of Ashley gave her this sack when

she was sold at age 9 in South Carolina

it held a tattered dress 3 handfulls of

pecans a braid of Roses hair. Told her

It be filled with my Love always

she never saw her again

Ashley is my grandmother

Ruth Middleton


The “sack” was purchased at a market in Springfield, Tennessee in Feburary 2007; the finder surmised that it might be connected to Middleton Place in Dorchester County, South Carolina, given the last name of the embroiderer and given the grandmother’s name, “Ashley,” which, it was thought, might be linked to the nearby Ashley River.  My understanding is that at the present moment, the provenance of the object has not yet been traced. Curators have assumed that the story told in these 56 or so words is accurate: that there was a woman named Ruth Middleton who in 1921 wrote in embroidery the story of her grandmother Ashley, who was sold at age nine, during the era of slavery (which would mean Ashley would have been born prior to 1857) somewhere in South Carolina--and that Ashley was the daughter of an enslaved woman named Rose. It is further presumed that the sack was an heirloom passed down through a family line until Ruth decided to embroider the story on it in 1921.

Having helped many African American families trace their lineages over the years, I have been wondering who might Rose and Ashley have been.  Rose was a common name for enslaved women. The marvelous searchable database of the South Carolina Department of Archives and History generates hundreds of entries from its digitized collection of slavery-era wills, bills of sale and other documents, when the query “Rose (Slave)" is entered. However, Ashley was a comparatively rare name in the 19th century for enslaved women, being used more often for men (as in "Solomon Ashley Northup,"  author of Twelve Years a Slave).  The South Carolina database has only two antebellum entries I believe for “Ashley (Slave).” One of them is a bill of sale, recording the purchase of three “mulatto slaves” to John E. Bonneau named “Sappho, Ashley and Abraham,” dated 25 May 1836.  “Sappho” was clearly female and “Abraham” was clearly male. But what about “Ashley,” who might have been of either gender?  Fortunately, for our purposes, Ashley's gender is implied by a phrase in the bill of sale,  “Three mulatto slaves Sappho Ashley Abraham and with issue [thereof?] of the females;” the use of the plural indicates that both Sappho and Ashley were female. (By law and convention, the enslaved or free status of a person followed the status of the mother, so the authors of wills and bills of sale were usually carefully to append, “and the future issue thereof,” to any mention of female slaves who were, or who might someday, be fertile.)
1836 Bill of Sale to John E. Bonneau for Sappho, Ashley, Abraham (Detail)

There is no indication in the bill of the age of Ashley; if she were nine at the time of this 1836 sale, then she would have been born  in 1827. It is possible of course that Ashely was sold repeated times during her life, and that she might have sold away from her mother before this 1836 sale.

Ashley and the two other slaves were sold, the document indicates, by Samuel Wilson of Charleston , acting as attorney on behalf of a Judith I. Wilson, "currently residing in Bordeaux."   This woman is almost surely Judith Isabel Wilson (January 8, 1760-December 11, 1838), a woman whose fascinating life might cast some light on the history of the enslaved woman “Ashley.”  The daughter of the Charleston physician Dr. Robert Wilson (Sr., 1736-1815) and Ann Isabel (Chisholm), Judith Isabel Wilson married, on September 14, 1782, just before British troops evacuated Charleston, her cousin Lieutenant John Wilson, an officer in the British Army (who had been held as a prisoner of war in Concord, Massachusetts in the early days of the Revolutionary War). John Wilson was a planter in Jamaica and later settled with his wife Judith in Stirling, Scotland, his ancestral home. After his death in 1798, Judith and her family returned home to Charleston in 1807. She left Charleston around 1826, with her daughter Ann, for Philadelphia and then settled around 1832 in the Bordeaux region of France, where she died in Libourne  (Gironde, Aquitaine, France), northeast of Bourdeaux, in 1838. Hence, the reference in the  1836 Bill of Sale to “Judith I. Wilson, currently residing in Bordeaux.” It would make sense that Samuel Wilson (the son of Judith Isabel's brother Samuel, Sr.) still based in Charleston, would have acted on her behalf in selling the slaves, “Sappho, Ashley, and Abraham.”

Perhaps the mulattos “Sappho, Ashley, and Abraham” came to Judith Isabel Wilson out of the estate of her late father Dr. Robert Wilson Sr., who died in 1815, eight years after Judith Isabel returned from Scotland, and that they were related to other enslaved people owned by the extended Wilson family of Charleston. It may also be relevant that Judith Isabel's son, Major John Wilson, died in 1833, three years before the slave sale; in 1820, we had owned six slaves in Charleston, including four enslaved women; perhaps Judith Isabel acquired one or more of these persons.  In this connection it is interesting that Judith’s nephew, Isaac Mazyck Wilson (born 1789, died 1828 in Charleston) on September 1, 1815 purchased from William H. Wilson, a  “Mestiizo slave named Abraham, son of Rose.”  Seven months earlier on February 13, 1815 Isaac sold to another cousin, William Chisholm, a “Mulatto slave named Will, son of Rose.”  It is perhaps significant that Isaac Mazyck Wilson's 1828 estate inventory lists an Abram, valued at $500 and a Rose, valued at $250. It is possible that Abraham, Sappho, and Ashley, named in the 1836 bill of sale from Wilson to Bonneau, were brother and sisters, all three children of the same Rose. It is possible that Rose was retained within the Wilson family network; we do not how long she lived.

What might have become of Ashley, following the 1836 sale? John Ewing Bonneau (1786-1849), who purchased Ashely, Sappho, and Abraham, was a prominent businessman and importer. a partner in the firm of Mathews and Bonneau on Hamilton’s Wharf in Charleston.  He was also a significant slave owner and rice planter whose rural holdings in Charleston District were based along the eastern branch of the Cooper River at Villa Plantation-- thirty miles north, or upriver, from the city of Charleston. Evidently, Bonneau and his white family primarily resided within Charleston city itself, at 15 Church Street (adjacent to Calhoun House, owned by Bonneau’s nephew John Ewing Calhoun.)   In the 1840 census, Bonneau held six slaves at his Charleston city residence and 73 slaves at his plantation within St Johns Berkley Parish, Charleston, South Carolina. (As lighter skinned mulattos, we might speculate that Ashley, Sappho and Abraham were held in the urban location as house servants, but we cannot be sure of this.)  It is also possible that these slaves were bought and sold as investment property, since John E. Bonneau had at least some involvement in the domestic slave trade; in 1833 his ship the John Chevalier transported a 30 year old enslaved woman "Rose" (part of the estate of John Garrett) from Norfolk, VA to Charleston. ( I do not know if this "Rose" had any relationship to the mother of Ashley.)

After John E. Bonneau’s death in 1849, Villa Plantation and 84 slaves in his estate were sold in a large estate sale in March 1852; about a dozen other slaves were sold b his daughter and executrix, Eliza McCraady Bonneau, who under the terms of her father's will had freedom to dispose of his estate "real and personal," as she thought best. The South Carolina Archives contains a detailed list of these slaves and their buyers, but there is no mention of Ashley, Sappho or Abraham, so it is possible that they had been resold elsewhere, or had passed away, prior to the estate sale, or that they were sold in a related estate sale that left behind no documentation. It is also possible that Ashley was  retained by Eliza M. Bonneau. Among the 12 slaves in her home in 1850 were three adult women, ages 19, 28, and 30; perhaps one of these was Ashley?

Alternately, Ashley may be referenced three years before John E. Bonneau's death  in the 16 January 1846  manifest of the slave ship The Parthian, owned by the Richmond, Virginia-based slave trader George W. Apperson, which arrived in New Orleans, Louisiana from Norfolk, Virginia.  On its arrival in New Orleans, the ship contained 17 year old woman "Ashley Dunn" (five feet high and "copper" colored) and her infant child. This Ashley would have been born around 1829, which would be roughly consistent with our estimated age of "our" Ashley if she was in fact sold at age 9 in 1836. (Ashley Dunn's "copper" color is also consistent with the "mulatto" designation in the 1836 bill of sale.)  Between 1844-1847 Apperson is known to have run five domestic slave shipments by ship from Virginia to Louisiana, transporting a total of 308 enslaved people.  His ships at times stopped in Charleston, where there are records of him selling slaves; it is possible that Ashley Dunn and her infant child were taken on board The Parthian in Charleston, or they may have begun the journey in Norfolk. (In this connection, it is worth recalling that John E. Bonneau, who purchased Ashley in 1836, himself imported on his ship at least one enslaved person from Norfolk.)

As Solomon Northup reports in Twelve Years a Slave, George W. Apperson's New Orleans partner was the slave trader Theophilus Freeman, who ran a major slave-selling operation in the city, notorious for its violent abuse of captives.  Freeman primarily sold slaves in the lower Mississippi valley, but from New Orleans, Ashley Dunn and her infant child could have been sold anywhere in the Deep South.

Finding Ruth Middleton

How old we presume Ruth Middleton to have been in 1921 when she did the embroidery? If we read the stitching as done in a child or adolescent’s hand, Ruth was likely to have been born between 1900 and 1915. Her mother thus was likely to have been born after Emancipation in 1865. Ruth does use the present tense (“is”) in referring to her grandmother Ashley, but it is conventional at times to use the present tense in referring to a dead family member, so we do not know if Ruth ever met her grandmother, or if she only learned the story from her mother or other relations.

The 1920 U.S. Census lists three African American female children or adolescents with the name "Ruth Middleton" born in this time frame (born 1900-1915), who are literate and who might be potential candidates to have been the Ruth who embroidered the sack:

1.  Ruth Middleton born around 1912, residing on Adams Run Road on the Toogoodoo River in Saint Paul’s Township, Charleston County, South Carolina. This is a point north of Edisto Island about 25 miles southwest of the city of Charleston. Ruth would have been nine years old in 1921, so presumably of an age that would be likely to embroider. Her mother, Lousia Middleton, was born around 1886 and her father, Will Middleton, was born around 1881. Perhaps Louisa or Will was the child of Ashley? The census indicates that neither parent can read nor write, but that Ruth herself is literate. The 1930 census indicates that Ruth now has a newborn brother, named Abraham. (One can’t help but imagine that the family name Abraham came down from earlier generations!) The 1940 census records that Ruth, still unmarried, is employed as a cook in a private family, and the highest educational level she attained was fourth grade.

2. Ruth Middleton, born around 1912, residing in Hemmingway, Carroll County, Mississippi (near Greenwood, on the edge of the Mississippi Delta.)  She also would have been nine years old in 1921.  Her father, George Middleton, was born in 1870 and her mother, Nora Middleton, was born 1890. Her father's mother is evidently Mariah Middleton, who is listed in the  1870, 1880 and 1900 census records as born in Virginia, around 1824, 1825, or 1828. Mariah married an Elijah Middleton, born in Kentucky, around 1850.  This Ruth appears to be the only one of our 'candidates' with a grandparent born in time window consistent with the narrative proposed above (but could her name have shifted from "Ashley" to "Mariah'?).

3. Ruth Midleton, born 1906, living in Meadville, Franklin County, Mississippi (the southwestern corner of the state) would have been 15 years old in 1921.  Her father Bennie was born around 1879 and her mother, Verlon (or Verlene) was born 1884.

It appears that the final three lines of the embroidery (in blue or green thread) are in a somewhat more mature or skilled hand  than the preceding lines ("Ashley is my grandmother/Ruth Middleton/1921." So it is possible that Ruth returned to work on the sack after an interval of a few years, noting her relationship to Ashley, signing her name, and dating the piece.

There is a good deal of speculation in all of this, of course, but perhaps we now have enough hints in the historical record to the reconstruct the family line and the passage of this precious object across the generations. It will be fascinating to see what future research unearths; perhaps it will be possible to locate Ruth’s descendants and bring them into the conversation and the exhibition development process.

NOTE: The above entry was revised on 1/9/2016, in light of several helpful suggestions from Toni Carrier of Low Country Africa. 

Addendum on 1/23/16: In addition to the above "candidates," I should note a Ruth Middleton (born about 1902( who does not appear in the 1920 census, but who married, in Philadelphia, PA, in 1918, an Arthur Middleton. She appears as Ruth Middleton in the Philadelphia area in the 1930 and 1940 censuses. Her roots, and her husband's roots, appear to be in Richland County and Kershaw County, South Carolina. 

Addendum on 2/7/16: It is also worth considering Middeltons with connections to Springfield, TN, where the sack was found in February 2007.  Consider, for example, Harvey Nathaniel Middleton, an important African American physician. Born in Denmark, South Carolina in 1895 (or 1893), he lived for most of the 1910s in Columbia, South Carolina (roughly during the same period that Ruth Jones  [later Ruth Middleton] was growing up in the same city. He attended Boston University in the early 1920s, then Meharry Medical  College in Nashville, TN, and during the year 1928 briefly practiced medicine in Springfield, SC, the town where Ashley’s Sack was later discovered. He spent most of his career in Indianapolis, Indiana, as a prominent cardiologist.  I have not been able as of this writing to determine if he had any kinship ties to the other Middletons discussed above.  (It may be significant that during the period Dr. Middleton resided in Middleton, the Rev. Williima Hailey, an African American minister in the Methodist Church, who was also born in South Carolina, was also residing in Springfield; perhaps he invited Dr. Middleton to practice medicine in Springfield, after Dr. Middelton’s graduation from Meharry, a Methodist-sponsored institution.  

Also of interest is a white woman, “Tiny” Williams Middleton (1904 -1974), at least two of whose childrens resided in Springfield, TN. Her firstborn child, Estel Lee Middleton, (born. Nov. 15, 1921) lived in Springfield from at least 1988 onwards, and passed away in Springfield, TN on Nov. 24, 1992. His widow Mary Middleton passed away in Springfield in 2008/  (Estel Lee is  incorrectly identified as female in several records.)  Tiny’s daughter, Ruth Middleton (born 1935), married a Rev. Ewing Hale in 1953 in Springfield, and the couple appears to have resided in Springfield until at least 1960. So far as I can tell, the parents and grandparents of Tiny Williams Middleton identified as white; I have not found any genealogical connection to South Carolina.  

Addendum on 12/7/16: After more research in South Carolina and Pennsylvania, I have re-thought much of the above. I believe the Ashley purchased by John Bonneau is probably too old to have been the historical Ashley referenced in the embroidery, although perhaps she was related to the "Ashley" of Ashley's Sack. I am convinced that Ruth Jones Middleton, born 1903 in Columbia SC and married in 1918 is in fact the embroider of the sack.  My new conclusions are published in Southern Spaces, at;