The Ashworth Surname

The Ashworth arose in Lancashire. There is a local chapel in the parish of Middleton named Ashworth.   In Rochdale there is a lovely valley named Ashworth valley and is well known locally for Sunday afternoon walking and a camping area for scouts. There is also an Ashworth Hall at Rochdale. Ashworth is a very common name in England and is represented in every town and village in Lancashire according to a common surname reference.

The Ashworths of Pee Dee Region

According to family legend, the Ashworths originated in Craven County where James Ashworth was born about 1762. Craven County was one of the first three counties formed in South Carolina in 1683 and consisted essentially the northeastern third of South Carolina This included much of what was commonly known as the "Pee Dee" region named after the Pee Dee and Little Pee Dee Rivers. Craven County was discontinued in 1769 when seven judicial districts were formed.

The Pee Dee region was also the home of the Dial and Perkins families who later married into the Ashworths. The Dials reportedly lived in Prince Frederick Parish. All three families are of an unknown racial mix but are thought to have a very strong American Indian component. The Pee Dee region was an area that had a large population of European-Indian mixtures. The Lumbees of Robeson County, NC, while lies a sort distance up the Little Pee Dee and its tributaries, are closely related to the Virginia-Tennessee group known as "Melungeons". It is known that persons associated with the Lumbees lived in South Carolina in the Pee Dee area, including members of the Dial family, Dial being a very common name among the Lumbee.

In 1774 James Ashworth received a royal land grant in the Pee Dee region. Much has been made of this fact, and there are suggestions that it indicates a special link to England. Some believe it was a reward for James' loyalty to the crown in the Revolution, but that can't be true since the Revoluition had not started in 1774. The probable answer is that South Carolina was a royal colony, and the king owned all public land. Any land grant would naturally be a royal grant. The grant was probably a reward for James' service in the Cherokee Wars in the late 1760s. Similarly, later U. S. land grants were made to military service veterans in the name of the President of the United States although they were actuaIly signed by a land office official.

Loyalists in the Revolution

James (who will be referred to as James II to avoid confusion) may have been the son of James Ashworth (James I), who lived in Craven Co.. This was probably the same James Ashworth who served as a Loyalist in the Little Peedee Militia and other units during the American Revolution. A Joseph Ashworth was also a loyalist during the Revolution. The Pee Dee Militia also included Locklears, a very common Lumbee surname. Some have suggested that the post-Revolution difficulties faced by Loyalists is one reason the Ashworths moved west.

The Move to Pendleton District, South Carolina

Some time in the 1780's James Ashworth II moved to Pendleton District, SC in the far western corner of the state, and area that now comprises the present counties of Pickens, Anderson, and Oconee. The Dials also apparently moved to Pendleton since James and Keziah were reportedly married there in 1783. The service on the British side may have been the impetus from the Ashworths to pull up stakes,and family connections may have been the reason for the choice of Pendleton District. It is known that life was miserable for Loyalists after the war, which might have spurred a desire to start afresh where their past was not known. As the choice of Pendleton District, it is in the area state that was the site of the largest Cherokee villages in the region, and presumably still the home of a large Cherokee population. Family Legend says that the Ashworths lived near the Keowee Indian Village. Some say that the Ashworths were 3/4 "Choctaw", but if true they were more likely of Cherokee extraction since the Keowee village was a Lower Cherokee town. It is known that some whites married into the Indian tribes in that area since marriageable English women were scarce on the frontier.

It also appears that there may have already been Ashworths in the area since family legend says that a Benjamin Ashworth, said to be an orphan of John and Elizabeth Ashworth, was raised in that village about 1750. 

The 1790 census for Pendleton District lists James and Moses Ashworth, both "white".

The Move to Southern Louisiana

The James Ashworth family was still in Pendleton District, South Carolina in 1790 and 1800, but James moved with his brothers Aaron and William to southern Louisiana about 1810. James was in the Louisiana census for 1810. Several of their children were born to James and Keziah on the way to Louisiana, and some say that several children reportedly stayed in Tennessee, though there is no proof. One source states that James was in New Madrid, Missouri in 1813, Natchez, Mississippi in 1814, before moving to St. Landry Parish, Louisiana before 1820. Another source says the Ashworths left New Madrid, Missouri after the great New Madrid Earthquake of 1811, but others say they left before that seismic event [research@wt.net].

Keeping track of the Ashworths is very difficult since there were so many cousin marriages and so many children in each family, many repeating names of close relatives. The Ashworths settled all over southern Louisiana, and many moved west to Texas, including the Jefferson County area as will be discussed later.

James' and Keziah's son James J. Ashworth was born in Pendleton District, SC in 1788, and he married Mary (Polly) Perkins in 1811 in Opelousas, St. Landry Parish, LA. Polly was the daughter of Joshua Perkins and Mary Mixon, South Carolina natives who were also of the mixed race group. 

The Jefferson and Orange County Ashworths and the "Ashworth Law"

Four sons of James and Keziah Ashworth -- William, Aaron, Abner and Moses -- settled in Jefferson County, Texas, near what later became Beaumont, where they became prominent ranchers who supported the Texas Revolution.

According to cultural historian Terry G. Jordan in his book North American Cattle-Ranching Frontiers (University of New Mexico Press, 1993), "redbones," amongst which numbered the Ashworths and their kin, brought a cattle tending system from the Pee Dee regions of South Carolina to Southern Louisiana. There it mixed with Spanish cattle culture to create the Anglo-Texan cattle ranching system that became an integral part of the Old West legend. Jordan states that the largest cattle raiser in early Jefferson County, Texas, was a "redbone" of mixed white, black, and Indian ancestry. It is likely that he was referring to one of the Ashworth brothers.

In 1840 the Congress of the Republic of Texas became concerned about settlement of freed slaves in Texas, and passed a law prohibiting "free persons of color" from living in Texas. The Ashworths, due to their dark features were considered to be "free persons of color" by many. To prevent the Ashworths from being expelled from Texas a large number of their neighbors drafted petitions to the Congress to exempt the Ashworths, which the Congress did several months later. The resulting "Ashworth Law" contained a generic exception, but it specifically named the Ashworth brothers. 

The uncertain ancestry of the Ashworths of Jefferson and later Orange Counties led to an episode known as the Orange County War of 1856. Underlying the "War" was a desire of newcomers to the area to gain access to large land holdings that the Ashworths used for cattle ranching, a version of the classic struggle between ranchers and "sodbusters" throughout the West. The "War" followed the same pattern as in Virginia in earlier generations. Persons of Indian or mixed ancestry who came to own valuable land had the same rights as other citizens, but they could be dispossessed of their holdings if it could be shown that they were part African. As in other such struggles the larger numbers of the farmers overwhelmed the ranchers, and the ranchers moved on to the frontier. Many of the Ashworths, Perkins, Dials and Johnsons moved on to "middle Texas" with the Texas cattle industry. 

The Angelina County, Texas Ashworths

James J. and Mary (Polly) Perkins Ashworth and their family moved from Calcasieu Parish, Louisiana to Burke in Angelina County, Texas in the late 1840's. Related Ashworths moved from Jefferson County, Texas to Angelina and Trinity Counties following reported persecutions there. The Ashworths were early Texas cattlemen when the Texas frontier was in East Texas, a family trait that endures to this day. 

The Controversy about the Ashworths' Racial Makeup

The most interesting question about the Ashworths is their racial makeup. The Ashworths and the related Dial, Perkins, Johnson, Sweat, Bunch, and Drake families are members of an unusual people of unknown origin who originally resided in the Southeastern United States known as "Redbones". The Redbones are similar to the better known Melungeons who lived in western Virginia and eastern Tennessee and the Lumbee Indians of Robeson County, North Carolina. The Redbones are often called "Louisiana Melungeons." The Redbones are probably closely related to the Lumbee, who also inhabited the Pee Dee region from whence the Ashworths and related families came. Keziah Dial, wife of James Ashworth, is thought by some to have been a Lumbee.

Many believe that these groups have African ancestry, and they are referred to by some researchers as "tri-racial isolates". That conclusion is very controversial, however. While others argued their origins, the Ashworths suffered. The Ashworths to this day are caught between those who do not want the Ashworths to have African ancestry and those who do. In the former category are some family members who violently reject the possibility of African ancestry for the Ashworths. Vanda Ashworth was motivated to write the definitive Ashworth genalogy by her desire, according to the book's Foreword, to prove that her hustand's family had no African ancestry. In the latter category are newspapers and historians who are anxious to identify African-American role models in history without firm historical foundation.

There were whispers as late as the mid 20th Century in Trinity County, Texas that the Ashworths have African blood, and they still suffer a certain stigma among some because of it. A woman who grew up during that era at Apple Springs, Texas in Trinity County, where many Ashworths settled, told the author that some parents would not let their daughters date Ashworth boys in high school becase they had "n____r blood". Ironically, many of them probably unknowlingly had similar ancestry.

In the pro-African camp the Beaumont Enteprise newspaper which several years ago cited one of the Ashworths as a notable and prosperous early African-American in Southeast Texas who financially supported the Texas Revolution. The Ashworths were for their time wealthy cattlemen in Orange County who supplied beef ot the Texas Army. For a time the Texas Military Forces Museum displayed an exhibit honoring African Americans in the Texas Revolution that included two of the Ashworth brothers. The Ashworths were removed from the exhibit after complaints from Ashworth descendants who argued that there was no proof that the Ashworth brothers were of African ancestry. Further, the Handbook of Texas, a widely used refenence published by the Texas State Historical Association, describes brothers Aaron Ashworth and William Ashworth each as a "free black colonist." An Ashworth descendant has protested that characterization as unproven, seeking to have it changed in future editions.

Whether the Ashworths had African blood probably will never be known since there is no documentary evidence either way. All we have are the imprecise observations of census takers and other lay observers. The best published eyewitness account of the early Ashworths appeared in a newspaper article written in 1910 by freelance newspaper writer Tom J. Russell about Clark Ashworth of Voth, Texas, born in 1832 in Jefferson, Orange or Hardin Counties, as follows: 

The Ashworth family had a peculiar history that to a certain extent mitigated against them. The grandfather of Clark Ashworth was a native of South Carolina, and the family originally came from Portugal and were of the Moorish race. They had a dark complexion, but had hair on their head, instead of wool, like that of African negro; though the complexion was about as dark. The fact often caused them to be taken for negroes. An effort was made to disfrachise [sic] the family at one time during the days of the Republic, and their friends took the matter up in the Congress and had a law passed declaring that the law relating to free Negroes in the Republic of Texas (did) not apply to the Ashworth family. (See Act of Congress, date Dec. 12, 1840 H. D. Art. 2571). The men named are William Ashworth, Abner Ashworth, David Ashworth, Aaron Ashworth and Elisha Ashworth...Among the early settlers these families were recognized socially as white persons, and were so treated to the present time by the same.

The petitions that led to the Ashworth Law clearly show that the citizens of Jefferson County considered the Ashworths be "persons of color," but is it evidence that they were considered part African mulattos? It is hard to say. The petitions refer to a "taint of blood" and their being "people of color under great and embarrassing circumstances." One petition states that a "doubt" exists about the application of the Act Concerning Free Persons of Color to the Ashworths. The only way to understand their doubt is to assume that the Act was intended to apply to freed Negro slaves and that "free people of color" was a larger class than just Negroes. That is consistent with research by Jack D. Forbes in his 1993 book Africans and Native Americans -- The Language of Race and the Evolution of Red-Black Peoples (University of Illinois Press), which concluded that Negroes, Indians, and mixes of all types were considered "people of color" and "mulattos." Forbes found that the early U. S. census takers did not bother to distinguish among Negroes, Indians, and other dark peoples and simply divided people into "white" and "colored" or similar designations regardless of actual racial makeup. Forbes research found entire Indian tribes classified as "Negroes".

In other words, the Jefferson County petitioners liked and respected the Ashworths and considered them part of the "white" community. They must not have considered them to be Negros, but because of their dark skin they feared that the Act would be applied to them anyway and prepared three petitions with long lists of signatures. If the petitioners had considered the Ashworths to be Negros or mulattos, then the petitions were a remarkable act of racial tolerance in an era and region in which the "one drop" rule prevailed. We must keep in mind, however, that the opinons of the citizens of Jefferson County are no more conclusive than that of the census takers.

The related Perkins family had similar experiences. The Perkins were also considered to be "white" despite their dark skin, but one Perkins brought a slander action in Tennessee against someone who called him a Negro. The report of the resulting Perkins Trial makes fascinating reading. The extensive contradictory testimony of both sides shows as much confusion then about the Perkins' ancestry as moderns display about that of the Ashworths today.

The article and the petitions that led to the Ashworth Law are good early evidence that the Ashworths and their related clans are probably what they have always claimed -- that they are "Portygee", or Portuguese. That appears to be a common theme among the Melungeon-type peoples across the Eastern United States. Clearly, the Ashworths are a lot more than Portuguese, including American Indian, as the discussion of Melungeons and Redbones above shows. It does not rule out African ancestry, but it make it less likely, at least in later years. 

On the other side of the argument are recent tests by one Ashworth descendant that shows his genetic makeup includes 3% sub-Saharan African.

The Spindletop Legend

Family legend says that the Ashworths of Jefferson County, Texas lived on land that later yielded the legendary Spindletop oil gusher. The legend says that the Ashworths, despite the Ashworth law, encountered increasing discrimination, and eventually were forced to leave the area and move to Angelina and Trinity Counties. Their land was quickly occupied by squatters who never gained clear title to the land. When the oil companies later leased the land, the residents did not have clear title. Consequently, the Spindletop royalty money, which is rumored to be in the millions, was placed in escrow. Since then numerous Ashworths have attempted unsuccessfully to claim it.

Bill Forsythe of Lufkin, Texas relates that he heard about the money when a child in the early 1940's, and he asked his grandmother Sarah Forsythe, an Ashworth descendant, why she didn't try to claim the money. Sarah, a minister's wife, replied, "Shut up, boy, that's the devil's money." Perhaps the money was too closely intertwined with the free people of color controversy to be discussed.

The validity of the Spindletop legend is not accepted by all researchers. 

"I'm a Redbone"

Finally, here is a music video by Hershel Frazier about the Redbones showing many Redbone faces.

My Ashworth Line

  1. M. Lee Murrah (Angelina Co., TX)
  2. Ina Gertrude Johnson m. Earvin Elroy Murrah (Angelina Co., TX)
  3. Hester Ann Laura Forsythe m. Samuel Virgil Murrah (Angelina Co., TX)
  4. Sarah Alice Darenda Landrum m. William David Forsythe (Angelina Co., TX)
  5. Mary Jane Johnson m. Maston L. Landrum (Angelina Co., TX)
  6. Vianna Ashworth m. Patrick Johnson (Angelina/Houston Co., TX)
  7. James J. Ashworth m. Mary (Polly) Perkins (SC/Southwest LA/Angelina, TX)
  8. James Ashworth m. Keziah Dial (SC/Souhtwest LA)
  9. James Ashworth (SC) [unproven]

Published Genealogies and Other Sources

Other Ashworth Internet Resources

Sources

Updates to Ashworth Family Information

The above information is based on the best sources currently available to the author and is subject to correction. If you have information that is different or additional to that shown above, I would like to receive it. Please contact me by e-mail and mention this web page in your message.

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