Saturday, February 1, 2014

A Tale of Two Slaves (Part 1)

When I returned home to Swain County in the late 90's, my husband and I purchased a log home at the very end of Licklog Road in the Needmore area.  It was 25 minutes from Bryson City and terribly inconvenient to our two jobs, but we were enchanted with the area.  Upon getting off Needmore Road and heading up Licklog, a gorgeous valley opens up, containing acre upon acre of beautiful pasture and scant houses.  Upon a hill overlooking the valley lies a small cemetery which I have always envisioned as a most peaceful resting spot for its tenants.  Along with several unmarked graves, the names on the stones include that of Breedlove, Ammons, Crisp, Grooms, and Burnett. 

A view up the Licklog Valley
(Source:  Point2 for

But the cemetery also holds the grave of Nathan Dehart, one of the most prominent and early settlers of the Needmore area .  He and his wife, Catherine, were among the founding members of the Brush Creek Baptist Church and eventually owned a tremendous amount of land in the area that later became Swain County.  Ownership of such vast amounts of land would have, by necessity, required help.  Much of their help likely came from their children and other family members, as well as from hired help. However, they also owned slaves.  This article is not meant as a sermon on the evils of slavery, for many of us, including myself, have slaveowners among our ancestors.  It is rather to shed light upon an interesting, but little known portion of Swain County's history (even though these events took place in what was Macon County until the formation of Swain in 1871).

Ruffin Darffin DeHart, and his wife Susan lie interred in the African-American section of the Watkins Cemetery among many of their children and grandchildren.  Their stones are old and crumbling, but their graves are marked - somewhat anomalous among many former slaves.  They were remarkable people, and much light will be shed on them in this series, but in order to appreciate their many accomplishments, it is necessary to take one back to their very beginnings.

Tombstone of Susan Dehart
Watkins Cemetery
Tombstone of Ruffin DeHart
Watkins Cemetery

The first mention of either Ruffin or Susan (that I have found to date) comes in a deed registered in Macon County, dating to November 26th, 1840.  In this deed, one Taylor McNabb sold a Negro girl, 'Suck', who was 8 years old and 'sound in body and health', for $400 (nearly $11,000 in today's currency) to Nathan Dehart.  On June 19th, 1853, Ruffin came to join 'Suck' as Nathan Dehart's property, sold by Elijah Revel for $700 (around $21,000 today).  Ruffin was described as having a deficiency in his hand, which was subject to cholic and pains.  Nevertheless, he was obviously well able to work, and work hard, for the price he commanded.  Ruffin and Suckey must have bonded and married quickly, for sometime around 1854 they had their first child - a son whom they named Henry.

An Appalachian slave cabin
(Source:  The Museum of Appalachia)
The conditions in which this young family would have lived will forever remain unknown.  Slaves in Appalachia typically lived in the same type of mud-chinked log homes in which poor whites resided - small, one room, dirt-floor dwellings that were cold and drafty in the winter.  They would have had little in the way of furniture - probably one bed and a table and chairs or log stools.  Their food would have been the typical mountain fare of the time - beans, cornbread, probably some pork from a hog they raised for the Deharts, perhaps some milk, and whatever else they were able to raise.  It is unclear as to whether or not the Deharts were kind or unkind slaveowners, but it is likely the case that impoverished white settlers in the area resented them (for they took away work opportunities) and treated them poorly. Frederick Law Olmstead, who is best known today for creating the lovely grounds of the Biltmore House, traveled about the mountain south as a newspaper correspondent during slavery's later years and noted this stong anti-Negro sentiment in a short article, which may be read here.

John Dehart, son of Nathan Dehart
(Source:  Swain County Heritage Book)
We shall now return to the Deharts.  Around 1855, Nathan moved the household to the Shooting Creek area of what is now Clay County, and at some point either sold or gifted Ruffin and Suck to his son-in-law, James Allen Shearer. Ruffin and Suckey welcomed a son, Alfred, around 1856, and a daughter, Sarah Jane, in August of 1857.  Their joy over the birth of their daughter was to be short lived.  On June 18th, 1858, the family was torn apart when Ruffin and Suckey were sold by Allen Shearer  to Nathan Dehart's son, John, for $1800 (almost $51,000 today), and returned to the Swain County area, apparently without their sons. 

In the 1860 slave schedule, John is noted as owning 5 slaves:  a 30 year old male, a 27 year old female, a 15 year-old female, a 3 year-old female, and a 6 month old male.  The identity of the 15 year-old girl is unknown, however, it seems likely, based on birthdates that the identities of the others are Ruffin (born circa 1828), Suckey (born circa 1830-1832), and their children Sarah Jane (born in 1857) and Thomas (born in 1860).   The whereabouts of their sons Henry and Alfred are not entirely clear. The 1860 slave schedule shows a 6 year-old boy in the ownership of Nathan Dehart in Cherokee County.  Nathan's will, also drawn up in 1860, contains provision for his 'negro boy, Henson', to go to no one but his children. It seems likely that 'Henson' and Henry were one and the same.  The same slave schedule records that James A Shearer had retained a 5 year old male slave, who may well have been Alfred.

In January of 1863, Abraham Lincoln's Emancipation Proclamation ordered the immediate freeing of all slaves in Confederate-controlled areas.  This was widely disregarded by many slave owners, and not until the passage of the 13th amendment, abolishing slavery, did the remainder gain their freedom.  We do not know when Ruffin and Suckey were freed, and much of what they did in the early years after emancipation are unclear.  We do know that Suckey changed her name to the more dignified 'Susan', and Henry and Alfred returned to live with their family.  The family may have stayed on and worked as tenants for John Dehart for a time, but by 1870 had moved down the Little Tennessee River with their 8 children and had acquired $200 worth of personal property.  They counted among their neighbors the William Crawford and Frank Leach families, and were the only black family in the immediate area.

'The 'Narrows of the Little Tennessee River' circa 1900
(Source:  Senate document 84, published 1902)
Upon the death of a neighbor, Alexander Crisp, in 1871, the Deharts purchased a 100 acre tract from his estate for $12.  Thus began a period of great prosperity for Ruffin and Susan, whose remaining 20+ years of life will be discussed in the next blog entry.

Postscript:  Those interested in reading more about the institution of slavery in the Appalachian mountains might find the following books of interest:

"Appalachians and Race:  The Mountain South from Slavery to Segregation" by John Inscoe
"Slavery in the American Mountain South" by Wilma Dunaway
Sources:  1860 Slave Schedule and Census Records
Cemeteries of Swain County  Point2
Macon County Register of Deeds
"Senate Document 84:  Message from the President of the United States Transmitting A Report of the Secretary of Agriculture in Relation to the Forests, Rivers, and Mountains of the Southern Appalachian Region."  Available at:
Swain County Heritage Book
Will of Nathan Dehart at
Swain County Register of Deeds