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[Detail] William Ashworth was described as a “native of South Carolina…a man of family consisting of six, and…a man of good moral and industrious habits, a good citizen and friendly to the laws and religion of this country.”

The Ashworth Act — “An Act for the Relief of Certain Free Persons of Color”

Character Certificate for William Ashworth, 24 November 1834, Box 71, Folder 12, Records of the Spanish Collection, Archives and Records Program, Texas General Land Office, Austin, TX.

Passed on December 12, 1840, the Ashworth Act was drafted in response to earlier legislation that aimed to remove all free black residents from the Republic of Texas.[1] The act of February 5, 1840, made it unlawful for “any free person of color to emigrate to this Republic” and required all free blacks then residing within the Republic to leave within two years, or risk being captured and sold into slavery.[2] The Ashworth Act thus represented a small but significant step towards justice, and its namesake is represented in the archives of the GLO.

Free blacks in the Republic of Texas might have represented a small segment of the total population, but their roots in Texas were often deep. Under Spanish legal norms that encouraged manumission, the free black population had swelled to 15% of Texas’s population by 1792. After independence in 1821, meanwhile, the Mexican government’s hostility towards slavery attracted numerous free black settlers and escapees from US slavery.[3] Several of these families that arrived before the Texas Revolution appear in the records of the General Land Office Spanish Collection.

Unfinished Title for William Ashworth, 30 May 1835, Box 60 Folder 24, pp. 84, Records of the Spanish Collection, Archives and Records Program, Texas General Land Office, Austin, TX.

Such is the notable case of William Ashworth. William and his brother, Aaron, came to Texas in 1831 and received approval to locate a survey from local land commissioner George Antonio Nixon. Although they were unable to complete the process before the outbreak of the Revolution, the Ashworths carried out several of the steps required by Mexican colonization laws and left traces of their efforts to obtain a land grant in the GLO archives. GLO records include a character certificate dated from 1834 describing Ashworth as “a native of South Carolina…a man of family consisting of six and that he is a man of good and moral industrious habits…” Also found in the Spanish Collection is an unfinished title signed by Ashworth with an “X” in Nacogdoches on January 31, 1835.[4] Despite their failure to obtain a land grant, though, the Ashworths put down strong roots in Texas.

[Detail] William Ashworth of the United States of the North applied for a land title in Mexican Texas.

The Ashworths remained in Texas after the Revolution, establishing themselves as ferry operators in Jefferson County. When the law of 1840 was passed, white neighbors quickly came to the defense of the Ashworths by petitioning Congress for their relief. Sixty people signed an initial petition requesting an exemption for the families of Abner, William, David, and Aaron Ashworth, as well as Elisha Thomas. A second petition, regarding only William and Abner, garnered seventy-one signatures. This petition noted that the men had been citizens of Texas for six years and had contributed greatly to the Texan efforts during the Revolution. Finally, a third petition was signed by sixty-one people in support of Elisha Thomas, a veteran of the Texas army.[5]

[Detail] Ashworth made his mark with an “X” above the Spanish form of his name, Guillermo Ashworth.

When the legislature reconvened in November 1840, the Ashworth petitions were brought before Congress by Joseph Grigsby, a representative of Jefferson County. A bill was drafted for their relief, which would allow them to remain in Texas. It passed its first reading, as did a bill for Revolution veteran Samuel McCulloch, Jr. Additional petitions were brought by other representatives, including Timothy Pillsbury of Brazoria, who presented in favor of Samuel H. Hardin and James Richardson. Declaration of Independence signer Thomas J. Rusk supported the petition of William Goyens.[6]

On November 20, 1840, the Ashworth bill, titled “An Act For the Relief of certain Free persons of Color,” came before the Senate. It referenced by name William, Abner, David, and Aaron Ashworth, as well as Elisha Thomas. An amendment included the words “and all free persons of color together with their families, who were residing in Texas the day of the Declaration of Independence,” which effectively extended residency to all free blacks who had arrived in Texas prior to the Declaration of Independence. The bill, causing those named to be “exempt from the operation and provisions of” the act of February 5, 1840, and granting them permission to remain in the Republic, was signed into law by President Mirabeau B. Lamar.[7]

The Ashworth Act was narrow in scope and failed to resolve larger societal issues, but it did represent a positive change in the treatment of free African Americans in Texas. Land grant records held at the General Land Office bearing the name Ashworth provide a reminder of this small step toward progress.

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[1] Hans Peter Mareus Neilsen Gammel, The Laws of Texas, 1822–1897, Volume 2, pp. 549–550,1898, (http://texashistory.unt.edu/ark:/67531/metapth6726/ : accessed February 11, 2016), University of North Texas Libraries, The Portal to Texas History, http://texashistory.unt.edu; crediting UNT Libraries, Denton, Texas.

[2] Gammel, Volume 2, pp. 325–327, (http://texashistory.unt.edu/ark:/67531/metapth6726/m1/329/ :accessed February 11, 2016).

[3] Handbook of Texas Online, Doug Hales, “Free Blacks,” accessed January 31, 2017, http://www.tshaonline.org/handbook/online/articles/pkfbs; Sean Kelley, “‘Mexico in His Head’: Slavery and the Texas-Mexico Border, 1810–1860,” Journal of Social History 37: №3 (Spring 2004), pp. 709–723; Mekala Audain, “Mexican Caanan: Fugitive Slaves and Free Blacks on the American Frontier, 1804–1867,” Ph.D. Dissertation, Rutgers, 2014. Mexican law offered free black people full citizenship rights. The term “manumission” refers to the legal act whereby an owner freed his or her slaves.

[4] Character Certificate for William Ashworth, 24 November 1834, Box 71, Folder 12; and Unfinished Title for William Ashworth, 30 May 1835, Box 60 Folder 24, pp. 18–19, Records of the Spanish Collection, Archives and Records Program, Texas General Land Office, Austin, TX.

[5] Handbook of Texas Online, Nolan Thompson, “Ashworth Act,” accessed January 31, 2017, http://www.tshaonline.org/handbook/online/articles/mla03. Uploaded on June 9, 2010. Published by the Texas State Historical Association.

[6] Thompson.

[7] Gammel, pp. 549–550.

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Texas General Land Office

Texas General Land Office

Official Account for the Texas General Land Office | Follow Commissioner George P. Bush on Twitter at @georgepbush. www.txglo.org