In 1855, Chatham’s Marium Alston set her slaves free. What happened next?

Steve Brooks is a native of Siler City, where he lived until age 18, when he went to college in Chapel Hill. He now lives in Durham. He has maintained an interest in Chatham history and people and is a member of the Chatham County Historical Association. He holds a Masters degree in American History, and his specialty was race relations both before and after the Civil War. Bev Wiggins contacted him about the Marium Alston story, and together they began a lengthy process of piecing together the details of what happened.

Posted 7/3/20

Editor’s note: In 1855, one Chatham resident emancipated 28 slaves she owned, provisioning in her will that they be freed. Local historians Steven E. Brooks and Beverly Wiggins, members of the …

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In 1855, Chatham’s Marium Alston set her slaves free. What happened next?

Steve Brooks is a native of Siler City, where he lived until age 18, when he went to college in Chapel Hill. He now lives in Durham. He has maintained an interest in Chatham history and people and is a member of the Chatham County Historical Association. He holds a Masters degree in American History, and his specialty was race relations both before and after the Civil War. Bev Wiggins contacted him about the Marium Alston story, and together they began a lengthy process of piecing together the details of what happened.

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Posted

Editor’s note: In 1855, one Chatham resident emancipated 28 slaves she owned, provisioning in her will that they be freed. Local historians Steven E. Brooks and Beverly Wiggins, members of the Chatham County Historical Association, recently researched and wrote an academic paper on this piece of Chatham County’s history. Here’s the story of Marium Alston. Second in a series.

Getting the Slaves to Freedom

Marium Alston apparently intended to free her slaves for several years before her death in 1855, as evidenced by her petition for the dower share and her subsequent actions, which resulted in her acquisition of additional slaves and kept a large number of the enslaved family members together. Marium’s will indicates an understanding of the legal situation of her slaves and provides clearly and adequately for a legal process to free them. It puts great trust in her executor and agent, Jesse Marley, to carry out that plan. Marley had a longstanding relationship with the Alston family, as he witnessed the will of her husband Oroon in May 1851. He arranged, after Marium’s death and the probate of her will, for his son, Dr. Henry B. Marley, to transport the enslaved people to Ohio and then free them. This step was important and clearly planned — emancipating slaves was illegal in North Carolina absent the posting of large bond to ensure their positive behavior while in the state. If the slaves somehow had been legally freed in North Carolina they would have been required to leave the state within ninety days and subject to capture by slave catchers as they made their way north. This was the era of the Fugitive Slave Act and of great unrest across the nation. It was also the era in which the Dred Scott case was proceeding in federal court (decided in 1857 in the infamous ruling that black people were not citizens and “had no rights which the white man was bound to respect”). By planing to hold them as slaves during the transportation to Ohio, Marium Alston increased the chances that these people could travel uncontested by slave catchers. As the trusted agent of Alston, Jesse Marley complied with her wishes even though he himself was a slaveowner, and during a period in which the political discussion was ever more intense as the Union came apart.

Indeed, within only five years of her death, the General Assembly of North Carolina outlawed the practice of manumission, freeing people from slavery, by will. The situation surrounding slave ownership was politically fraught during this time of Fugitive Slave Act consternation, North and South, and it would have been practically impossible for Marium to free her slaves in North Carolina and then arrange for them to be transported and settled in a free state.

It is unlikely that Marium found any support for her intention to free her slaves within her marital family. Marium, as the widow of Oroondates Alston, was part of a family that included several of the largest landowners and slaveowners in Chatham County. Oroon was a grandson of Captain Joseph John Alston of Halifax County. Two of his grandfather’s many children had moved to Chatham County: Joseph John Alston (“Chatham Jack”), a prominent land and slaveholder who owned land from Pittsboro to what is now Siler City, and William Alston, who served as the Clerk of Court for Chatham County during the American Revolution. Oroon, born in 1780, was a son of William Alston and a nephew of Chatham Jack Alston. He was the brother of Nancy Ann Alston, born 1780 and of Mary Ann Alston, born in 1785, both of whom also lived and were married into influential families in Chatham County.

The heirs of Oroondates, besides Marium, were the sons of Nancy Ann Alston (Joseph Palmer and Oran A. Palmer) and the sons of Mary Ann Alston (William Alston Rives and Robert E. Rives). The practice of the Alston family was to marry cousins, so the relationships were intertwined and represented several prominent Chatham County names by 1851 — Alston, Rives, Palmer, and others. There is no evidence that anyone in the family was an abolitionist or anti-slavery. The only known possible exception relates to the son of Oroondates’ heir Robert E. Rives, Dr. Oran Alston Rives, who defied the wishes of his father and joined the Union Army. Even in his case there is no known evidence that his views were antislavery as opposed to pro-union. With this exception, Marium’s actions appear totally contrary to the political views of her husband’s extensive family, which is likely an additional explanation of why she waited until her death to provide for the emancipation of her slaves.

What motivated Marium’s plan to free these people? She was, as we know from her tombstone and obituary, a devoted Baptist. Yet that denomination was not known to be opposed to slavery, as were the Quakers who lived nearby her home. She was a part of the Sandy Creek Association of Baptists, and that group had been long on record as desirous of ameliorating the conditions of slavery but not necesarily opposing the institution of slavery itself. As historian Guion Griffis Johnson documented, the Sandy Creek Association had adopted as early as 1815 a policy condemning the buying or selling of slaves for profit. However, by 1845, the Association joined fellow Baptists in the South in splitting the denomination from their northern associates and forming the Southern Baptist Convention. Still, Bassett explains that some antislavery impulse existed with Baptists despite the hardening social context, citing as evidence of that impulse and of that context that:

In 1835 the Sandy Creek Association spoke still more emphatically. It said:

“WHEREAS, We believe it inconsistent with the spirit of the gospel of Christ for a Christian to buy or sell negroes for the purpose of speculation or merchandise for gain. Resolved, therefore, that this association advise the churches of which it is composed to exclude members who will not abandon the practice after the first and second admonition.”

When in 1847 the Association was asked if it was agreeable to the gospel for Baptists to buy and sell human beings or to keep them in bondage for life, the only answer vouchsafed was to refer the interrogators to the minutes of 1835. The slavery dispute was then well-nigh in its stage of highest passion, and it is likely that the Church authorities did not like to take a more definite position on either the first or second part of the query.

Marium’s home in western Chatham County (and other plantation property in eastern Randolph County) was in territory adjacent to a large Quaker population, however, and as historians have documented, the area had both an antislavery bent (largely out of sympathy for white labor rather than based on empathy for the plight of the slave) and, within a few short years, was the site of numerous efforts by the Confederate state government to root out deserters from the Southern army and to punish “disloyalists” to the Confederate war on the United States. Though there is no direct evidence of Marium’s motivations, it is likely that her religious beliefs and her location proximate to sentiments against slavery may have influenced her decision to set the families under her control free of bondage, to finance and legally secure their transportation to Ohio, and to there provide them with some financial support for their futures.

That decision required careful planning and attention to detail. After Marium’s death in September 1855, it took Marley, as her executor, forty-four long and arduous months to collect on debts and pay creditors, the accounting of which effort required estate papers some 154 pages long, and to make the other arrangements necessary to carry out Marium’s wishes. To assure that other potential heirs of Marium Alston did not attempt to invalidate or make claims against her will, Marley filed and advertised in local papers a “bill of complaint against” multiple potential claimants “praying for a construction of the Will of Miriam P. Alston, and an account and settlement of the plaintiff’s administration of her will as her testator.” The law at the time made slaves emancipated by will subject to claims of creditors and executors were prohibited from emancipating any enslaved person under the directions of a last will and testament before the expiration of two years from and after the probate of the will.

Per Marium’s wishes, Marley hired out the to-be-freed people, paid for their clothing and board, and accounted for their earnings and expenses as part of the estate. Eventually, he had made all the legal arrangements, including getting court permission to take the slaves north.

He purchased the supplies and wagons needed for transportation, and on April 23, 1859, probably in frail health himself, Marley drew up a power of attorney and entrusted the supervision of the slaves’ arduous journey to Ohio to his son, Dr. Henry B. Marley, who freed them there on May 31, 1859. Within six months Jesse Marley was dead. While it fell to the son to accompany the slaves legally owned by his father to Ohio, Jesse Marley had worked diligently to fulfill the wishes of Marium Alston.

The area of Ohio to which the Alston slaves traveled was an important Underground Railroad station, through which it is said that many runaway slaves made their way to Canada to freedom. However, it must have been somewhat unusual for a large group of slaves to be brought to the area to be freed, as the Alston slaves’ journey attracted some press attention in Ohio. The Columbus Citizens Journal, May 20, 1859, reported: “On Tuesday last, thirty negroes from North Carolina, who had lately been emancipated by their master, passed through this city, on their way, as they said, to the northern part of this county, where they intend settling... In our humble opinion the county is none the gainer by this increase in the population.”

The story concludes next week.

About the authors

Wiggins has lived in Chatham County, near Bynum, since 1978. Before her retirement she worked at UNC’s Odum Institute for Research in Social Science. She has been involved for many years in the Chatham County Historical Association (CCHA) and currently serves as the website coordinator and maintains the Association’s Facebook page. She became intrigued by the story of Marium Alston, having seen a posting about the Ohio marker by Sue Ashby. That story, especially in these times of renewed focus on racial justice, is a relevant and important piece of Chatham County history. But it has remained obscure until now. The authors hope that the people of Chatham will be inspired by reading this previously unknown episode of our past and that telling Marium’s story will help her take a deserved place among historical Chatham County figures.

The document by which Henry emancipated these people on May 31, 1859, reflects the care and diligent legal efforts Marley had taken to fulfill Marium’s final wishes, stating that Marium Alston, “by her last Will and Testament which was duly established in the proper Court according to Law” bequeathed her slaves...

“(i)n number to Jesse Marley, her Executor in Trust for them to be free, and for him to remove said slaves, or cause them to be removed, from North Carolina to some free State, & there to be emancipated & enjoy the rights of Freedom. And the said Jesse Marley having caused said slaves by his son & Agent, Henry B. Marley to be removed to the State of Ohio, with his consent & by his own direction, that they may there be free...” He then named all of the newly freed people, gave their ages, and further stated that his actions were “in consideration of the promises, and the desire of said Jesse Marley to carry into full execution the Trust reposed in him by his Testatrix (Marium Alston) by her last Will & Testament, and, to do the same according to the Laws of North Carolina & the State of Ohio, & all said slaves being now in the State of Ohio, the said Jesse Marley by his Agent and Attorney in fact Henry B. Marley doth herby emancipate & set free the whole of the afore named slaves; and doth hereby invest them & each & every of them with all the rights & privileges of Free persons of color according to the laws & constitution of the State of Ohio.”

The careful legal language of this document and its emphasis on the compliance of Marley’s actions with both North Carolina and Ohio law, suggests just how tense the political and legal climate of the United States had become by fall 1859.

In Ohio, the newly-freed people were given a modest amount of cash ($9 each for single individuals and $27 each for the three families) from Marium’s original bequest. Marium’s allocation of $300 at the time of her death in 1855 was equivalent to $8,846 in 2019. The supplies and equipment from the journey (“five horses, two wagons, one carriage together with harnesses”) were turned over to the two United Brethren ministers who witnessed the emancipation document per a receipt included in the estate papers and the proceeds were to be distributed to the freed people in shares specified by Henry Marley.

After a full accounting was made of income from the slave’s labor before their emancipation and expenses incurred during the time between Marium’s death and their journey to Ohio, as well as the journey itself, the surplus, approximately $1,800 was to be distributed among the freed people, according to Marium’s estate papers. This distribution was more substantial. Each single freed person was to be given $100.62 (or $2,967 in 2019 dollars), and each family $301.86 (or $9,297 in 2019 dollars).

In addition to the support of the local anti-slavery advocates and the resources willed to them by Marium, the freed Alston slaves surely must have benefitted from the support they derived from one another. Other accounts of escaped or freed slaves highlight the effort they expended on trying to find ways to free their still-enslaved family members. By freeing whole families in this large group, Marium Alston helped prevent this common source of suffering and gave the freed persons the benefit of their families’ support.

Lives Forever Changed

The story of the Alston freed slaves can still be found within the history of Delaware County, Ohio. Various versions, with some errors, have been told and recorded over time, but the documents available in North Carolina show with certainty that this is where Marium Alston’s freed slaves ended up and clearly show Marium’s own hand in this outcome.

The Westerville Public Library web pages contains the following:

This group of slaves ended up in East Orange. It is not know why they came to that community or how difficult the journey was that they made. It is known that the residents welcomed them, housed them, hired them to work on their farms and made them part of the community. The freed Alston slaves became landowners, musicians and artists and also participated in hiding runaway slaves who travelled to the village. Their descendants served in the military and became educators.

The impact on the lives of those persons of being granted freedom and helped to settle in a relatively safe place can hardly be fathomed. Sharon Lytle’s research in Ohio focused on identifying and learning about the Alston freed slaves who settled there. Although the details of that research have not been published, the information is on file at the Westerville Public Library, and Ms. Lytle has shared highlights with us via personal communications.

• The births, deaths and marriages of the Alston freedpersons are recorded in several Ohio communities. For example, Peter’s marriage was conducted by the Rev. William Hanby (Bishop of the Church of the United Brethren in Christ and an active conductor on the Underground Railroad.)

• Ms. Lytle documents that several of the Alston freedpersons (including Peter, Andrew, and Anthony) became landowners in Ohio in Franklin County, Delaware and Worthington.

• At least two of the freedmen, Wesley and David, served in the Union Army. Other Alston descendants served in the Spanish-American War and in WWI.

• The freed Alstons became affiliated with local churches. For example, burial records for Viny and Sarah are recorded in the parish register of St. Johns Church in Worthington.

• Mary Frances Alston Austin’s obituary notes her acquaintance with Bishop William Hanby’s son, Benjamin Hanby, author of several popular songs. She was an artist and art teacher, according to her obituary.

There is also evidence that the Alston freedpersons may have helped others settle in Ohio after Emancipation. We know that they were in touch with still-enslaved persons back in North Carolina after their settlement. For example, the June 6, 1860 entry in Rachel Bowman’s diary says she helped Susan

Alston write a letter to her friends still in bondage back in NC. A number of former slaves from Chatham and Randolph Counties moved to the central Ohio area after Emancipation. Some of these have documented connections with the Alston freedpersons.

Marium’s actions, from the time of Oroon’s death through the posthumous efforts of her faithful executor, Jesse Marley, deserve recognition in North Carolina, as they have gained in Ohio. Her actions have historical significance in North Carolina precisely because they represent the hidden history of women and of anti-slavery sentiment in the state. The impact of her actions reaches beyond the twenty-eight slaves she sent to freedom and even beyond their descendants.

Next week, XXXXXXXXX

About the authors

Steve Brooks is a native of Siler City, where he lived until age 18, when he went to college in Chapel Hill. He now lives in Durham. He has maintained an interest in Chatham history and people and is a member of the Chatham County Historical Association. He holds a Masters degree in American History, and his specialty was race relations both before and after the Civil War. Bev Wiggins contacted him about the Marium Alston story, and together they began a lengthy process of piecing together the details of what happened.

Wiggins has lived in Chatham County, near Bynum, since 1978. Before her retirement she worked at UNC’s Odum Institute for Research in Social Science. She has been involved for many years in the Chatham County Historical Association (CCHA) and currently serves as the website coordinator and maintains the Association’s Facebook page. She became intrigued by the story of Marium Alston, having seen a posting about the Ohio marker by Sue Ashby. That story, especially in these times of renewed focus on racial justice, is a relevant and important piece of Chatham County history. But it has remained obscure until now. The authors hope that the people of Chatham will be inspired by reading this previously unknown episode of our past and that telling Marium’s story will help her take a deserved place among historical Chatham County figures.

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