Our Avery County: An incomplete story: Slavery in Avery County
Michael Hardy / (firstname.lastname@example.org)
Avery County has always been sparsely settled. In 2011, Avery County, with a population of 17,834, ranked 85th in size out of 100 North Carolina counties. Any discussion of involuntary servitude in our area must always keep that in mind. There have just never been many people who lived in the area.
Slavery existed among the Native Americans long before the arrival of Europeans. However, since large-scale farming was not in practice, their forms of slavery were different from those in succeeding centuries. The first slaves from Africa were brought by the Spanish into present-day South Carolina in 1526. In 1619, Dutch traders brought slaves into Jamestown, Va., to work in the tobacco fields. By 1776, slavery was in practice in all of the colonies. Following the American Revolution, slavery declined in the Northern colonies, and by 1804, all of the Northern states had abolished slavery by outright outlawing the system, or in places like New Jersey, providing gradual emancipation. Had it not been for the industrial revolution in the North, slavery would have died a gradual death in the South, as well. However, Northern industrialists needed the slave-grown and slave-harvested cotton to power their looms. Horton Cooper, in his history of Avery County, writes, “William Davenport, who lived close to the extreme southern boundary of what is now Avery County, brought the first negro slaves to this region." Davenport, born in 1770, came with his father, Martin, from Virginia to settle in the backcountry of North Carolina. Davenport later served in the House of Commons in 1800 and the Senate in 1802. The first Avery County heritage book, published in 1976, relates that after a fire at the old Davenport home, a tunnel was found that might have been used as a stop on the Underground Railroad. That seems unlikely, and the tunnel was probably used to escape from hostile natives or for illegal activity.
It was probably around this same time that Waightstill Avery made his appearance in the area. Avery, who was from Connecticut, took out several large land grants in 1775 in the Cranberry area. Cooper writes that an area of the county was once known as Avery's Bottom, "Because the Averys quartered their slaves there." Local tradition has it that the Averys would drive their livestock into the area during the summer months to make use of the cooler weather. According to Volume 3 of the Avery County heritage series, John Ollis Jr. was overseer for the Avery family. During the Civil War, several of Avery's slaves slipped across the mountain and joined the Union Army, serving in the 40th United States Colored Troops. One of those slaves, Isaac Avery, is supposed to be buried at Connelly's Chapel Cemetery, although a recent search could discover no grave marker. After the war ended, the Averys supposedly gave a portion of land in the Beech Bottoms area for their former slaves to live and farm.
Cooper also mentions that Lodawick Oaks and the Connelly family also owned slaves, but details appear sketchy.
There were not many slave owners in the area in the 1850s and 1860s. One slave of interest was Peter Hardin, purchased by Jordin Council Hardin in 1852 for $100. Peter was four years old. The Hardin family ran the Cranberry Iron Mines (for the Confederacy) during the Civil War, and Peter Hardin worked there. As local history goes, the young Peter Hardin drove a wagon of pig iron from the mines down the mountain to the railroad head near Morganton to be loaded onto the train and taken to refineries in Salisbury and Charlotte. After the war was over, Peter Hardin continued to live in the Cranberry area, working at the Cranberry Mines. He is buried in the Peter Hardin cemetery above Elk Park.
Possibly the most interesting story regarding local slave owners is that of Lewis M. Banner. The story of the Banners' foray into the area that bears their name is well documented. When they came, they brought their slaves with them. Horton Cooper writes that Lewis Banner owned 17 slaves. According to the 1860 Watauga County Census, he owned but six: four of them were males, aged 52, 13, 12 and 11. The two females were ages nine and six. Despite being slave owners, the Banners were Unionists. Lewis's brother was Martin Banner, and he had several sons in the Union army. While the Banners owned slaves, their homes and the area were known as stops on a local underground railroad that funneled escaped Union prisoners and dissidents out of the area and into east Tennessee.
All of the above may seem like a copious amount of information, but in reality, we know little about the lives that these enslaved people lived. The northern portion of the Toe River Valley did not have large farms and the “plantation houses” consisted of simple log cabins. Slaves might have lived in a room in the kitchen, but usually were quartered in an attic in the house. And the slaves were often skilled in many different jobs, like carpentry and blacksmithing. During harvest and planting time, they could be rented out to other local famers for a day, or a week, or month. Of course, all of this is based upon the lives of slaves in other portions of the mountains. The lives of local slaves remain shrouded in mystery. We know almost nothing about their cultural practices, including burial traditions, or simple details about their everyday lives.
If you have other information regarding local slaves, please let me encourage you to drop me a line. It would be great to be able to flesh out this article even more for future generations and to bring to life just a small portion of those lives that have been forgotten.