A Biographical Sketch of Matthew Ashby
by Emma L. Powers
Matthew Ashby (b. by 1727-1771) local carter.
A free man of mixed race, Matthew was the son of Mary Ashby, a “white woman
servant and brother of John Ashby (mulatto).”1 As the
child of a biracial union, Matthew was bound out by law until he was thirty-one years
of age. He worked in and around Williamsburg as a carter and carpenter.
2 He also served as a messenger who carried diplomatic
papers for Governor Botetourt to the western regions of Virginia.3
Matthew Ashby bought his enslaved wife Ann and their children, John and Mary,
from Samuel Spurr for £150 in 1769. He then successfully petitioned the
Council in 1769 that “he may be permitted to set her and his Children free” claiming that “she
has been a faithful and diligent Wife ever since marriage, and praying that he may
be permitted to set her and his Children free.” The Council “were of the opinion,
that the said Ann, John, and Mary were deserving of their freedom, and it was order’d
that the said Matthew Ashby have leave to manumit and set them free.”
Matthew and Ann Ashby’s daughter Mary, was baptized at Bruton Parish Church
24 Oct 176. The entry describes Mary as a “free mulatto.”5
As the slave of Samuel Spurr, John their son was listed as attending the Bray School in
1765 and 1769 and their daughter Mary was listed as attending in 1769 when she was
four years old. John and Mary were taught the Church of England catechism
and other subjects by Mrs. Wager. 6
In the autumn of 1769 a runaway slave ad for Sam in the Virginia Gazette
“forewarns all persons” that Sam “pretends to lay claim to freedom, and is now harbored
at one Matthew Ashby’s” suggesting that Ashby was in contact with the larger
On 15 April 1771, less than two years after freeing his wife and children,
Matthew Ashby died. In his will signed with his mark, Ashby stated that
“I resign my soul to God trusting in the merits & mediation of my dear
Redeemer Jesus Christ for the pardon of all my sins & as to my worldly
goods which it has pleased God to bless me… [and requested that] my good friend
John Blair,” former President of the Governor’s Council, be his executor and see
to the “maintenance & support of my loving wife Ann Ashby & for the
education and maintenance of my two children.” John Blair had been president
of the Governor’s Council for many years and had also served as acting
governor twice. Blair refused the executorship perhaps because of his advancing
age or because he was hesitant to accept the responsibility.8
Ashby’s estate was inventoried at a value of £80.18.06 and listed four
horses and four cows, some furniture, and equipment for doing laundry and making
candles. A teaboard, and silver watch, and a “parcel of old Books were also listed.”
9 Ashby’s widow Anne was not a femme sole long for
she married George Jones by 30 January 1772. The Virginia Gazette on that date
carried George Jones’s notice that “my Wife Anne and myself cannot agree in the
Management of our Affairs… [Jones] forewarns all Persons from giving her Credit
on my Account, as I will not pay any of her Contractions after the Date hereof.
The Debtors to the Estate of Matthew Ashby, deceased, are desired to make speedy
Payment, that I may be enable to pay the Creditors, who are desired to bring
their Accounts against said Estate.”10
The fate of Anne Ashby and her two children is unknown except we do know that
they were free rather than enslaved persons after 1769 because of the actions of
Matthew as husband and father. Through Matthew’s brother John, the Ashby family survives
in this area today.
1York County Orders and Wills 17: 509
(hereafter all county records are York County, Virginia, unless otherwise noted).
2Wills and Inventories 22: 34-36, recorded 17 June 1771.
3Diane McGaan, “Official Letters of Norborne Baron
de Botetrout,” M.A. thesis, William and Mary.
4Executive Journals of the Council, vol. 7, pp.
5Bruton Parish Church Register, 24 Oct 176. The
register lists her father Matthew rather than her master Samuel Spurr
in the entry, which is most unusual since Mary was still a slave. At birth, a
child took the status of his or her mother. Ann was enslaved in 1765 and not
manumitted until 1769. It is impossible to determine whether Matthew Ashby initiated the
baptism for religious reasons.
6John C. Van Horne, editor, Religious
Philanthropy and Colonial Slavery: The American Correspondence of the
Associates of Dr. Bray, 1717-1777 (Urbana, ca. 1985), pp. 242, 191.
7The Virginia Gazette, 27 Nov. 1769
8Wills and Inventories 22:25-26, dated 25
November 1769, probated 15 April 1771. Note that the preamble to the will follows
a standard form and may not have particular religious significance.
9York County Wills and Inventories 22, pp.
34-36, recorded 14 June 1771.
10Virginia Gazette, 30 January 1772.