Slavery in the Reems Creek Valley

Image of fireplace in the Vance House

Enslaved Men, Women, and Children Connected to the Vances’ Reems Creek Valley Plantation

Members of the Vance family enslaved at least twenty-six people between 1795 and 1865.  We have learned about these people through wills, census records, letters, deeds of sale, and newspaper articles.  Each source gives us precious clues about enslaved life in the Reems Creek Valley and has enabled us to compile biographical information for the twenty-six people we know were enslaved here.  These men, women, and children were considered property and could be bought, sold, bartered, willed, inherited, loaned, and hired out at their enslavers’ discretion.  Because records of these transactions are more prevalent than first-person accounts, the following histories are dominated by tales of sale and separation.  However, you will also find stories of love, strength, and connection woven into this community’s narrative.  It is vitally important to remember that enslaved people did have agency—and to discover those moments where men, women, and children created spaces of freedom within a system of bondage.

Richard (I) (?–before 1835) and Aggy (?–1837)

Aggy and Richard were born in Virginia. They most likely accompanied the Vances in their migration into the Blue Ridge Mountains as two of the three enslaved people listed in David Sr.’s 1790 census record in present-day Buncombe County.  We know the names of three of Richard and Aggy’s children:  Hudson, Ann, and “young” Dick.  The couple likely had other children; one record suggests that they had at least three more sons.

In 1813, both Richard and Aggy were willed to Priscilla Vance by her husband, David Vance, Sr.  The will also states:
 

It is my will and desire that they have full liberty and I do by these presents give them full liberty to go and live with any of my children where their own children live, not as slaves, but as old acquaintances who have labored and spent their strength to raise my children and their own also. I enjoin upon my children who may have the children of said old Black people not to confine them, but let them go awhile to one and awhile to another where their children may be, I enjoin upon my children to see that the evening of the lives of those Black people slide down as comfortably as may be. The four negroes (and any increase that may be) it is my will and desire that my wife will them among the children at her pleasure and discretion, only keeping in view merit and necessity. 

At this time in North Carolina, freeing an enslaved person took money and approval by the county court.  Although a 1741 law determined that an enslaved person could be freed for “merituous services,” his or her enslaver would have to post a bond of $250 to ensure that he or she left the state within 90 days.  Any enslaved person who remained in North Carolina after this deadline could be arrested and sold back into slavery.  Rather than pay the bond and force Richard and Aggy to leave the state, David Vance kept the couple enslaved but trusted his wife and children to allow them some freedom after his death.  

While we do not know the daily experiences of Richard and Aggy’s lives after 1813, we do know that Priscilla Vance echoed her husband’s sentiments in her own will.  Although Richard had passed away before Priscilla’sdeath in 1935, Aggy was still living.  Priscilla further stipulated in her will that Aggy’s children, Hudson and Ann, not be sold before their mother’s passing.  Although David Jr. apparently intended to sell Ann and Hudson before that, he appears to have abided by his mother’s request.  David eventually sold Hudson after Aggy’s death, but Ann remained enslaved by the Vances through the Civil War.

In an 1830 letter, Mira Vance, David Jr.’s wife, records a message from Aggy to Jane, an enslaved woman living with Vance relatives in Tennessee.  Aggy sent her love and wished for Jane to know that “Anne and the black people here is all well” and that “old Hannah Prestwood has a fine son in her old days.”  
As one of two early African American members of the Reems Creek Presbyterian Church, Aggy’s 1837 death is documented in the church’s records.  Though Aggy remained enslaved all her life, she crafted what freedom she could within the constraints of slavery.  The nominal freedom granted to her and her husband by their enslavers, her ability to request a post-script in Mira’s letter, and her position as a member of the Vances’ own church all show Aggy’s unique status on this Reems Creek Valley plantation.

Richard Vance (II) (1807–after 1870)

Sometimes referred to as “young Dick,” Richard (II) is believed to be the son of Richard(I) and Aggy and, therefore, the brother of Hudson and Ann.  David Vance Sr. willed the six-year-old Richard to David Jr. in 1813.  However, David Jr. sold Richard sometime before 1844, likely to someone living in the Reems Creek Valley.  Richard remained enslaved until 1865.  On September 1, 1866, Richard and his wife, Nancy Weaver, traveled to the Asheville Freedmen’s Bureau office and recorded their marriage—a union of 24 years.  In 1870, Richard and Nancy lived on a farm in Reems Creek Township with their three children:  Elisha, Julia, and Emily.  They lived next door to Hudson (Richard’s brother) and his family.

Ann (ca 1815–?)

One of the three known children of Richard and Aggy, Ann was born around 1815.  Unfortunately, we do not know much about Ann’s life.  Like her brother Hudson, Ann is mentioned in Priscilla Vance’s 1835 will, which stipulated that both siblings not be sold until after Aggy’s death.  However, this contradicts David Sr.’s 1813 request that any future children born to Richard and Aggy be freed upon Priscilla’s death.  Although David Vance, Jr. desired to sell Ann before his mother’s will allowed, he ultimately chose not to sell her at all.  Ann was put up for auction at the 1844 sale of David Jr.’s property and was purchased by Mira, David’s widow.  Ann then accompanied Mira and the Vance children to Asheville, where she worked in their new home.  There are no known records mentioning Ann after 1844, although she is likely one of the women listed in the 1850 and 1860 Slave Schedules for Mira Vance.  

Hudson Vance (1822–1909)

Born in 1822, Hudson was the brother of Ann and Richard (II).  According to Priscilla’s 1835 will, Hudson and his sister were not to be sold until after the death of their mother, Aggy.  However, this contradicts David Sr.’s 1813 request that any future children born to Richard (I) and Aggy be freed upon Priscilla’s death.  Hudson was sold between 1837 and 1844, since he does not appear in the David Jr. estate sale.  According to later records, Hudson was likely sold to Col. Alexander, a neighbor of the Vances.

In 1849, Hudson married Elmira “Mira” Mills, and in 1866 Hudson and Mira recorded this marriage at the Freedmen’s Bureau office in Asheville.  By 1870, the couple lived with Abraham Vance and Philis Coleman in the Reems Creek Valley; their home was next door to Richard (II) and his family.  In the 1870 census, Hudson is listed as being able to read but not write.  His personal estate was valued at $175. 

At the time of the 1880 census, Hudson and Mira lived with 22-year-old Harriet Horn and her children.  While Harriet was white, her children were listed as “mulatto.”  Based on the death certificates of the younger children, Andrew and Richard, Hudson was their father.  We do not know anything more about the relationship between Harriet and Hudson.  

By 1900, the widowed Hudson owned a house in French Broad township and lived alone.  A year later, Hudson married Mamie Berry.  However, he was living alone once more in 1909 when he was killed in a house fire.  According to articles in the Asheville Citizen-Times, Hudson had suffered a stroke weeks before his death and was killed when the fire he lit to warm himself got out of control.  Oral histories from Hudson’s descendants assert that the fire was set deliberately to punish Hudson for his relationship with a white woman.  Hudson was buried in the Alexander Chapel Cemetery in the Reems Creek Valley, in the plot set aside for the enslaved men, women, and children owned by the Alexanders.

Hudson’s descendants shared stories of their ancestor with the Asheville Citizen-Times in 2016.  Read the article here.

Jo (?–before 1835) and Leah (I) (?–before 1835)

Jo and Leah were born in North Carolina and were enslaved by the Vances prior to 1813.  The couple likely had children, including Leah (II).  David Vance Sr. willed both Leah (I) and Jo to Priscilla Vance in 1813.  David also stipulated that Jo and Leah (along with Richard and Aggy) were to be given “full liberty to go and live with any of my children where their own children live, not as slaves, but as old acquaintances who have labored and spent their strength to raise my children and their own also.”  

Like Richard and Aggy, Jo and Leah were granted some freedom within the bonds of slavery, but they were never legally free.  While it seems that Priscilla Vance respected her husband’s will, we cannot know whether Leah and Jo were forced to continue laboring or how they were treated by other members of the Vance family.  The couple may have also remained separated from their children by circumstances or difficulty traveling.  Because neither Leah nor Jo is listed in Priscilla’s will, we know that they both passed away sometime before 1835.

Leah Erwin (ca 1806–after 1880) and Sandy Erwin (ca 1807–after 1880)

Born between 1800 and 1806, Leah was likely the daughter of Leah (I) and Jo.  Leah spent much of her adult life as the cook and housekeeper for the Vances.  In 1835, Priscilla Vance willed Leah to her son, David Jr.  By this time, Leah and other men, women, and children enslaved by the Vances were transitioning from the Reems Creek Valley plantation to the drover stand in present-day Madison County.  Leah continued to cook for the Vances and their customers at the drover stand, earning a reputation as one of the best cooks in the region.  Her day began before the sun rose, prepping food for everyone at the stand, and finished after sunset—every day.  Working over a large cook fire, Leah lifted heavy iron pots and pans, chopped vegetables from the garden, baked bread, and prepared the winter store of sauerkraut.  

In 1844, Leah and her four children were put up for auction as part of David Jr.’s estate sale.  David’s widow, Mira Vance, re-purchased several of the enslaved people put up for sale, including Leah and her four children.  Leah remained with Mira until emancipation and seems to have maintained a relationship with her former enslaver.  In 1878, Leah and her husband, Sandy Erwin, attended Mira’s funeral. 

Like other couples, Leah and Sandy Erwin registered their marriage at the Freedmen’s Bureau office in Asheville in 1866.  Though marriages between enslaved people were not legally recognized, the couple stated that they had lived as husband and wife since 1841.  Their relationship may have been complicated by the fact that Sandy Erwin was not owned outright by the Vances.  As his last name attests, Sandy was owned by the Erwins, who were relations of Mira Vance’s mother, Hannah Erwin Baird.  It seems likely that Hannah hired out Sandy’s labor to her daughter and son-in-law.  In 1849, Hannah willed Sandy to her two sons, requesting that they not sell him out of the family.  They may have sold or given Sandy to their sister, Mira, at this time.  The 1850 slave schedule for Mira Vance lists a 40-year-old enslaved may who is likely Sandy.  The 1860 slave schedule lists a 51-year-old enslaved man.

Sandy and Leah are recorded in both the 1870 and 1880 censuses.  Sandy was a farmer who could neither read nor write, although by 1880 he could apparently read.  The couple’s property in Sulphur Springs Township was valued at $60 in 1870.  By 1880, Leah and Sandy were living in Asheville with their granddaughters, Leah and Jennie Williams.  

May (?–after 1865)

We do not know much about May, including her age or the names of her family members.  We do know that May was sold, along with two children, at the 1844 estate sale of David Vance Jr.  John Benjamin purchased May and the children for $857.00 (about $25,000 today).

Venus (?–before 1850)

Venus was the caretaker for David and Mira’s children.  Like 11 other enslaved men, women, and children, Venus was auctioned at the 1844 estate sale.  According to Robert Vance, Venus carried baby Hannah, the youngest Vance child, to the auction block and declared that anyone who bought Venus would take her child.  With no contest from anyone in the crowd, Mira Vance repurchased Venus from her husband’s estate for $1.  While the truth of this family legend is unclear, we can verify that Mira did purchase Venus for $1.

Unfortunately, we do not know much else about Venus.  She may have had children of her own or spent all her life raising her future enslavers.  We also do not know when she was born or whether any of her family members were enslaved in the Reems Creek Valley.  Since she does not appear on the 1850 slave schedule for Mira Vance, it is assumed that Venus died sometime between 1844 and 1850.

Abram Vance (ca 1799–after 1870)

Image:  Census Record and/or Estate Sale Record

David Vance Sr. willed Abram to his son, David Jr. in 1813.  Although his history is uncertain, Abram likely remained with David Jr. on the Reems Creek plantation before moving to the drovers stand in the 1830s.  Since there are no records of Abram’s sale or death before 1844, he is likely the Abe listed in the 1844 estate sale.  Abe was purchased by Montraville Weaver, who lived in the Reems Creek Valley.  It is also likely that Abram is the Abraham Vance listed as living with Hudson and Mira Vance in the 1870 census.

Philip (?–?)

We know very little about Phillip, except that he was willed by David Sr. to David Jr. in 1813.  There is no record of Phillip in the 1844 estate sale of David Jr., meaning he likely passed away or was sold before the auction. 

Moses (?–?)

Like Phillip, Moses is listed in David Sr.’s 1813 will, but was given to Priscilla rather than David Jr.  Since Moses does not appear in Priscilla’s 1835 will, he likely passed away or was sold before her death. 

Jim (circa 1820s?–?)

An enslaved man named Jim was to be sold as per Priscilla Vance’s will of 1835, with the proceeds to be equally divided between the orphaned children of her daughter, Priscilla Vance Whitson.  Since there is also a Jim listed in the records of the 1844 David Jr. estate sale, it is possible that David purchased Jim from his mother’s estate.  This was a common practice in western North Carolina, ensuring that wealth remained in the family.

Newspaper announcements of the 1844 auction signaled that one of the enslaved men was trained as a blacksmith.  Since Jim was purchased by John Roberts for $860—over $500 more than Abe, the other enslaved man, we believe that Jim was likely the blacksmith.  We do not know what happened to Jim after this sale.

Hannah Prestwood (?–after 1838)

Hannah was enslaved by Johnathan Prestwood but was willed to David Vance Jr. in 1838.  In the will, Prestwood states,"I desire that my negro Hannah to be free at my death and the said negro to have her bed & her wearing apparel, two pots which is her own, one table walnut, two chests, one big wheel, said negro woman has her choice to live where & with whom she pleases and makes choice of David Vance as her guardian."  

Like Richard, Aggy, Jo, and Leah, Hannah was not legally freed by her enslaver’s will.  However, she was allowed some choice in her new life and, unusually, was granted some property.  Because Hannah chose David Vance as her “guardian,” we believe that she had built relationships with the families enslaved by the Vances.  In fact, Aggy mentions Hannah specifically in her 1830 message to Jane, noting that she “has a fine son in her old days.”  This indicates strong bonds of friendship between Hannah, Aggy, and Jane.  It also suggests that Hannah was living on or near the Vances’ Reems Creek plantation before 1838.  She may have been loaned or hired out to David Jr. to provide extra labor on the farm.  Since  Hannah is described as “old” by Aggy in 1830, and since she does not appear in the records of the 1844 estate sale, she most likely passed away between 1838 and 1844.

Isaac (after 1794–?), Peter (after 1794–before 1880), and Harry (after 1794–?)

David Vance Sr. willed Isaac, Peter, and Harry to his son, Robert Brank Vance, in 1813.  The three young men probably lived in Asheville with Robert in the 1820s but were hired out to the Pattons when Robert died in 1827.  In his will, Robert states, "My boys, Isaac, Peter, & Harry, have been faithful fellows to me, and I have only to regret, that I cannot consistently with their own and the interests of the County, place them in a better condition. As I presume they would prefer living with W. Patton, to whom they are now hired, it is my will that they be sold to him, if he wishes to purchase them, for a sum not less than seventeen hundred dollars, [$51,000 today] — if he should not, it is my desire that they be sold to the highest bidder on such Credit as my executors may think proper – The annual interest arising from the bond offered for them to be placed at the discretion [sic] of my mother."

An 1828 deed lists the sale of Isaac, Peter, and Harry to James Patton.  While we have not found any records for Isaac or Harry after this sale, Peter is listed in the Freedmen’s Bureau Cohabitation Records for Asheville.  He and his wife, Harriet, recorded their 40-year marriage on   August 30, 1866.  While we have not discovered when Peter passed away, the 1880 Asheville census lists a widowed Harriette Vance who is living with several grandchildren. 

Esther (before 1813–?)

In his 1813 will, David Vance Sr. allowed his daughter, Celia Vance, to choose between Leah (II) and Esther.  Celia chose Esther and Leah remained with Priscilla Vance.  In 1817 Celia married Benjamin Brittain, a close neighbor of the Vances, and Esther likely traveled with her to the Brittains’ farm .  After 1822, the newlyweds moved west to Haywood County, then Macon County, and finally settled in Cherokee County.  This move would separate Esther from family and friends in the Reems Creek Valley.  Unfortunately, we do not know anything about Esther’s life after 1822.

Isham (before 1813–?)

Enslaved by David Vance Sr, Isham was willed to Priscilla Vance in 1813.  Upon Priscilla’s death in 1835, Isham was legally inherited by Celia Vance Brittain, although he was already living with the Brittains in Macon County at the time.  Like Esther, Isham was separated from family and friends each time Celia and Benjamin Brittain moved further west.  

Washington (before 1813–?)

Like Isham, Washington was willed to Priscilla Vance by her husband, David Sr., in 1813.  Priscilla then gave Washington to her daughter, Elizabeth Vance Davidson, in 1835—although he was already living with Elizabeth’s family in Haywood County at this time.  He may have traveled with Elizabeth to Alabama and then Cherokee County, where she settled after her husband’s death.

James Vance (1793–after 1870)

James lived on the Vances’ Reems Creek plantation and was willed to Samuel Vance, son of David Sr. and Priscilla, in 1813.  Because Samuel also inherited property in Tennessee, James likely moved there at this time.  James remained on Samuel Vance’s Bedford County plantation until he was emancipated in 1865. That same year, Samuel’s widow, Christina Weaver Vance, wrote in her will, "My desire and request is that my old and faithful Servant Jim, a colored man, that if I should die before he Should, that my Executors shall take care for Jim and see that when he dies that he may be decently buried."

A 77-year-old James Vance is listed in the 1870 census in Bedford County.  He was a blacksmith who could read and write, and was living with LB Vance, possibly his wife or daughter.  She listed her age as 48 and her profession as cook.  Like James, she could read and write.

Simon Vance (1798–after 1870)

Like James, Simon was also willed to Samuel Vance and moved with him to Bedford County, Tennessee.  Following emancipation, Simon lived in Coffee County Tennessee, bordering Bedford County to the east, with Vanna Vance--likely his wife—and a white man named Virgil Blanton.  Simon listed his profession as “domestic servant” and although he could read, he could not write.  

Dory (before 1813–?)

Dory was also willed to Samuel Vance upon David Sr.’s death in 1813.  Like James and Simon, Dory probably moved to Samuel’s Tennessee property at this time.  

Jane (After 1813–?)

Priscilla Vance willed Jane to her daughter, Jane Vance Davidson, in 1835, although Jane was already living with the Davidsons in Bedford County, Tennessee.  David Vance Sr. did not mention Jane in his 1813 will, meaning she was likely born after his death.  

In 1830, Aggy included a message to Jane in Mira Vance’s letter to Margaret Davidson, sending love and updates to Jane in Bedford County.  Perhaps Jane was Aggy’s daughter, granddaughter, or niece.  Whatever their relationship, the two women were able to communicate across hundreds of miles to maintain their connection.  Unfortunately, we do not know what happened to Jane after 1835.

Wilson (After 1813–?)

In 1835, Priscilla Vance willed Wilson to her daughter, Sarah Vance McClean, although he was already living with the McLeans in Logan County, Kentucky.  Wilson later moved with the McLeans to Rutherford County, Tennessee.  In her 1830 note to Jane, Aggy also sends her love to Wilson, who lived close to Jane in Tennessee.  He might have been her son, grandson, or nephew—or just a beloved friend.  He also maintained a relationship with Jane, who was able to relay Aggy’s message of love to Wilson in 1830.