Marium Alston's Act of Emancipation

In 1855, this Chatham woman set her 28 slaves free

Posted 6/26/20

Editor’s note: Juneteenth is a holiday celebrating the emancipation of slaves in the United States, observed June 19. In Chatham County, back in 1855, one resident took it upon herself to emancipate 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. First in a series.

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Marium Alston's Act of Emancipation

In 1855, this Chatham woman set her 28 slaves free

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Editor’s note: Juneteenth is a holiday celebrating the emancipation of slaves in the United States, observed June 19. In Chatham County, back in 1855, one resident took it upon herself to emancipate 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. First in a series.

Chatham County slave owner Marium P. Alston arranged in her last will and testament for the transportation to a free state and then the emancipation of 28 slaves.

Her will, made the day before she died on September 23, 1855, shows the remarkable effort of a woman in a society in which laws favored slavery and the rights of men over women.

To obtain the slaves that she ultimately freed, Marium successfully contested the will of her husband, Oroondates (Oroon) Davis Alston. By her own will, Marium directed her executor, Jesse Marley, “as soon as he lawfully can” to transport her slaves to ”some free state” where they were to be legally emancipated. She also provided $300 and for her executor to use income from the hiring of those slaves during the period before he could lawfully free them to pay for the expenses of the move and getting the freed slaves settled in their new community. The evidence indicates that Marium’s will was the culmination of several years of effort and planning.

As a result of Marium Alston’s efforts, 28 slaves were taken by her executor’s son to Westerville, Ohio, and there emancipated. As was the fate of many free people of color in that era, some left little record of their lives in Ohio, but we have evidence that others prospered and that they likely encouraged and assisted other newly freed North Carolina African-Americans to settle in the Westerville area after the Civil War.

Marium’s Story

As with most women of her time, we know little about Marium P. Alston. Despite being the wife of a well-to-do planter, Marium appears in few official records, and there are no records that we have found of her thoughts — such as diaries or letters. She had no children, and therefore no descendants to record remembrances or to look back to learn what they could of her. So, how do we come to know Marium’s story? It was through the stories of her former slaves, whose freedom she arranged on her deathbed.

In the early 2000s, Ohio researcher Sharon Lytle was working to identify the burials in an African-American cemetery in Ohio that was believed to be associated with a group of slaves that had been freed by their mistress in North Carolina — sent by wagon to their freedom. She found that many of the surnames in the cemetery were “Alston” and noted that one man buried there had the unusual given name, “Oroon.” Census records indicated that many of the deceased were born during slavery and came from North Carolina. Ms. Lytle came across a reference to Oroon Alston in Chatham County on a website managed by researcher Sue Ashby. She contacted Ashby, who knew that Chatham’s “Oroon Alston” was a plantation owner and sent Ms. Lytle Oroon’s will and estate papers, which listed the names of his slaves just before his death in 1851. Ms. Lytle found that many of those names matched those of the freed Alstons she was researching.

Eventually, Ms. Lytle would also obtain Marium’s will and estate papers, which listed the slaves she came to own after Oroon’s death and contained details of Marium’s efforts to obtain the slaves and keep families together, as well as the arrangements for their journey to Ohio. Ms. Lytle published some of her early work online and provided several personal communications to clarify and help us document the story of the Alston freed slaves in Ohio.

Ms. Lytle’s research goals expanded from identifying the deceased in the cemetery to learning all she could about the Chatham County Oroon/Marium Alston slaves who were freed in Ohio. Based on her research, the former Alston slaves and a local Westerville man, Samuel Patterson, are recognized on an Ohio Historical Marker that credits the mistress of a North Carolina Alston plantation with arranging for the slaves to travel to Ohio and thus to freedom. Marium Alston is not mentioned by name on the Ohio marker, although subsequent research has shown that she was, indeed, the plantation mistress who arranged for the freedom of the 28 Alston slaves who moved to the free black Ohio community of Africa. The area was a stop on the Underground Railroad and likely became known to the caravan of to-be-freed people as they journeyed north.

Dr. William Hunt’s “The History of Africa” mentions that the group “crossed the Ohio River near Portsmouth, fell into the hands of the Underground people, who told them it would not be safe to locate near the river for fear of being kidnapped; indeed, it was considered a miracle that they had come that far. Following directions they came north over the Scioto Trail, and reached the Patterson station...[where] farmers needed help, and they induced them to remain there, each family moving into one of several vacant log cabins, and there they remained for several years.”

Another Ohio source, the 1880 History of Delaware (County, Ohio) explains that, “On their arrival, the friends of the anti-slavery movement were called together, and homes provided for all.” Whether they were housed in the Africa community to help the free black farmers there or just as a place where anti- slavery whites could help them settle, the Alston slaves were freed there, culminating a long saga.

Marium’s efforts on behalf of her slaves did not begin at the end of her life. Oroon’s 1851 will gave her 10 slaves outright and the use of the rest of his property for her lifetime. However, she was not satisfied with this arrangement and petitioned the court for her dower rights of one-third of Oroon’s property. Her petition was successful and resulted in her legal acquisition of 23 of Oroon’s slaves. Had Marium accepted the terms of Oroon’s will, she would have had no legal basis for freeing any of the slaves other than the 10 allocated to her outright, and likely no funds of her own to facilitate getting them to a free state. Her dower petition more than doubled the number of slaves that she owned outright and thus could arrange to set free. As well, among the 23 slaves she obtained through her dower petition were three families, consisting of, at that time, 14 people. Others of the single slaves she obtained were related to those families — as brothers or sisters, for example. Some, but not all, of these people were included in the list of the 10 slaves that were allocated to Marium in Oroon’s will, so those family members would have been separated had she accepted the provisions of the will.

Marium was awarded 1,850 acres of land in the dower settlement; yet immediately thereafter, on Oct 16, 1851, she signed a transfer deed giving ownership of this same land to the four Alston nephews who would have ultimately inherited it if she had not disputed the terms of Oroon’s will. She sold them the land for far less than its market value, suggesting that her purpose in bringing the dower suit was to acquire the slaves, not the land.

In her own will, Marium, in addition to arranging for the freeing of her slaves, allocated $300 plus net funds from hiring out the to-be-freed slaves after her death to pay for their journey to freedom and to help the newly freed slaves get a start in their new state.

By the 1850s, North Carolina law the freeing of slaves was complicated and purposefully rendered difficult at every turn. As with the rest of the South, in North Carolina the reasoning supporting the freeing of slaves that had briefly flourished at the end of the American Revolution was dramatically altered in subsequent years, as the national debate over slavery in the territories of the United States heated up. What in 1787 had seemed non-threatening to many people both North and South, as they enacted the Northwest Ordinance providing for multiple new territories that would be forever free of slavery, by 1830 was altered in North Carolina and the rest of the South by John C. Calhoun’s argument that slavery, far from being contrary to the ideals of the Revolution, was a “positive good,” and the presence of free persons of color in the state was discouraged in every way possible. As John Spencer Bassett wrote in his seminal 1899 history, Slavery in the State of North Carolina:

In 1830 it was made more difficult to emancipate. Now, the petitioner must notify his intention at the court house and in the State Gazette six weeks before the hearing of the petition; he must give bond with two sureties for $1,000 that the said slave should conduct himself well as long as he or she remained in the State, that the slave would leave the State within ninety days after liberation, and the said liberation should invalidate the rights of no creditor. Executors of wills by which slaves were directed to be liberated must secure consent of the courts and take steps to send the negroes out of the State and guard against the loss of creditors. A slave more than 50 years old might be liberated for meritorious conduct to be approved by the Court without subsequently leaving the State, provided that the master swore that the emancipation was not for money and that he gave bond that the negro would conduct himself well and not become a charge on the county. No slave was to be liberated except by this law.

This 1830 North Carolina law remained in place until the Civil War, and Bassett referenced the hardening of societal attitudes and legal context around emancipation as “the cast-iron necessity of keeping slavery unendingly confined to its present condition, cutting off the least tendency to amelioration.”

Among his evidence for this hardening of attitudes, he cited the William Quarry legal case from Mecklenburg County in 1849, in which Quarry “conveyed by deed absolute to Peoples and others a slave woman Linney, who was married to a freeman. Desiring that she might continue to live with her husband he conveyed to the same parties twelve acres of land with a house on it, presumably for her use. The defendants claimed that they were absolute owners, that the donor conveyed the woman and her family to provide for her comfort and to prevent the division of the family. They allowed the husband to occupy the house with his wife for a certain rent. They took her and her children under their personal care and agreed to control their conduct.

Yet the arrangement would not do at all. It was, said the Court, qualified slavery, and the conveyance was void. Linney and her children were given to the heirs of the donor. And, moreover, the donees were held liable, ‘with just deductions,’ for the profits due from her services while in their hands, and because the defendants had attempted to defraud the law, they were to pay the costs.”

Next week: Brooks and Wiggins look at how Marium Alston’s former slaves found their way to Ohio.

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 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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David Delaney

Great article. The focus on how law greatly curtailed emancipation opportunities from 1800-1860 is rare. A terrific, broader treatment of that issue from 1830 to 1850--with a heavy focus on North Carolina--is law professor Al Brophy's "University, Court & Slave." Chatham County and George Moses Horton are referenced. The proslavery philosophy of NC courts, legislators, UNC professors, and UNC students is also emphasized to demonstrate how law as a public institution came to drive southern society toward secession and war instead of peaceful dispute resolution. It is a lesson for our current day.

Friday, June 26, 2020

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