Colonial Williamsburg Research Division Web Site

Matthew Ashby

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.” 4

Matthew and Ann Ashby’s daughter Mary, was baptized at Bruton Parish Church 24 Oct 176[5]. 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 African-American community.7

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. 334-335.

5Bruton Parish Church Register, 24 Oct 176[5]. 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.