My interest in the remarkable information contained within the widows and dependent pension files extends well beyond just those claims associated with Irish-Americans. The files are of major importance for the study of all immigrant groups, as well as native-born Americans. However, there is one category of pensioners for which the files are undeniably more significant than any other, given the paucity of information often otherwise available– the claims of former slaves and their families. Continuing our occasional look at non-Irish pensions (see for example this post, focusing on the Scottish experience), I have decided to examine a pension relating to a woman and her family whose emigration journey took them not from Europe to the United States, but from the United States to Africa. Her name was Nancy Askie (Askew), and in 1883 she was the only person claiming a United States military pension in Liberia. (1)
The value of the pension files for unearthing social history relating to former slaves was highlighted by Elizabeth A. Regosin and Donald R. Shaffer in their excellent 2008 work, Voices of Emancipation: Understanding Slavery, the Civil War and Reconstruction through the U.S. Pension Bureau Files. The case of Nancy Askie offers a fine example of how the files can be used to assist in piecing together the story of one family of former slaves.
Prior to the Civil War, Nancy was most likely a slave in the ownership of Andrew Jackson Askew, a physician and farmer in Bertie County, North Carolina. Askew appears to have been active in Democrat Party circles; a newspaper report from 1839 records an Andrew J. Askew as Secretary at a meeting of the Democratic Republicans of Hertford County, where those assembled passed a number of resolutions in support of the re-election of President Martin Van Buren. One of their stated reasons for supporting Van Buren was “because he is opposed to the agitation of the slave question, and has given a pledge to veto any bill abolishing slavery in the District of Columbia.” Askew was also involved in religious activities, and was Secretary of the Chowan Bible Society in 1845. The slave owner is recorded as a 33-year-old physician on the 1850 Federal Census for Bertie County, with real estate valued at $4,000. He lived there with his wife, four young children and two other whites. The latter included 23-year-old George Askew, who was an Overseer of the farm, which according to the 1850 Slave Schedules contained 37 slaves. As with all the Slave Schedules, no names were provided. By the time of the 1860 Census Andrew J. Askew’s family had expanded, and he was recorded as having real estate valued at $3,500 and a personal estate of $41,530. He had also increased his slave ownership, now counting 44 slaves among his property. (2)
We can only piece together something of Nancy’s story as a result of her widow’s pension file. As a result, the names of a number of those unnamed slaves who were likely connected with the farm of Andrew J. Askew in Bertie County are revealed to us. Nancy was married to another slave, George, on or around the 15th December 1843 at the Askew Farm, when she was most probably in her 20s. It is not entirely clear if both Nancy and George were owned by Askew, or if one of them was the property of a neighbour or relative. Two other slaves, who may also have worked the Askew farm– Winifred Eason and Harriet Linsay– recalled that “being slaves, they were not allowed to marry by any form or ceremony, only by their mutually consenting to live and cohabit together as man and wife.” Winifred and Harriet had helped Nancy through the birth of her children– the couple may have had as many as 12, at least 3 of whom died in infancy. Those who survived included Celia (born c. 1846), Caroline (born c. 1848), Rachel (born 2nd July 1852), George (born 11th September 1853), Chaney (born 20th December 1854), Alfred (born 4th April 1858) and Simon (born 12th December 1861). These children are also potentially among those recorded, unnamed, on the 1860 Slave Schedule. The American Civil War brought opportunity for the slaves of North Carolina, and Nancy’s husband George decided to grasp it. Taking advantage of the proximity of Union troops, on 6th January 1864 he enlisted at Plymouth, North Carolina in the 3rd North Carolina Colored Volunteer Infantry, otherwise known as the 37th Regiment, United States Colored Troops. George, like many other ex-slaves, used the name of his former master on his enlistment, signing on as “George Askie.” Askie or Askew would be the surname that George, Nancy and their children would continue to be known by into the future. (3)
George was described as a 40-year-old, 5 feet 6 inch farmer when he joined up. He was far from the only former Bertie County slave in the 37th USCT. As many as eleven men served under the name Askie in Company C of the regiment, all likely former slaves of Andrew J. Askie or one of his relatives. Three of the other Askies in Company C– Bryant, Henry and Thomas– would later say that they had known Nancy since the early 1840s and all the couple’s children since birth, further raising the probability that a number of Andrew Askie’s ex-slaves had enlisted together. Among the other Bertie County men in the regiment who would later claim to have known the couple were Thomas Freeman (four men of the regiment chose to serve using the surname “Freeman”) and Silas Miller. George and his comrades in the 37th USCT ultimately became part of the 18th Army Corps, Army of the James. Their impressive service saw them engaged during the Siege of Petersburg, as well as at locations such as New Market Heights, Fair Oaks and Fort Fisher before the close of the war. George survived it all, living to see the official emancipation of his family. He was able to visit them on furlough in Bertie County in 1866, prior to returning to his unit to see out his final few months service. On 4th January 1867– only two days shy of the end of his three-year term of enlistment– George was among a group of troops transporting timber for barrack construction by boat between Fort Sumter and Castle Pinckney in Charleston Harbor, South Carolina. The seas were rough, and during the passage both he and one of his comrades, a soldier called McCabe, were washed overboard. McCabe was a strong swimmer, and made it back to the boat. Unfortunately, George was not. He lost his life when within touching distance of a return to his family. (4)
The news must have been a severe blow to Nancy and her still dependent children back in North Carolina. She was living in Windsor when she applied for her widow’s pension, which was eventually granted. As was often the case for former slaves, she had some difficulty in proving her claim– among the steps she had to take was to have a physician examine her younger children to assess if they were under the age of 16, as they had no proper birth records due to their bondage. Despite emancipation, the immediate post-war period brought significant challenges for Nancy and other members of the emancipated African-American community. Black Codes were instituted which included a provision for African-American children to be “apprenticed”, with former masters given first preference. Republican ascendancy in the State in 1868 in the wake of black enfranchisement saw the worst of the Codes abolished, but there was a commensurate rise in the activity of the Ku Klux Klan, who perpetrated widespread violence against the African-American community. Against this backdrop, a number of Bertie County blacks turned to the American Colonization Society (ACS) for assistance. Established in 1816, the ACS, or “The Society for the Colonization of Free People of Color of America”, was a controversial group that advocated the settlement of African-Americans on the African continent. One of their aims in undertaking this was that a “homogeneous population of white men will one day prevail in America.” The ACS had assisted with the foundation of the colony of Liberia (latin for “Land of the Free”) in the 1820s, where by the late 1860s many thousands of African-Americans had settled. (5)
African-Americans in Bertie County were not the only ones who sought an escape from the racism and poverty they endured in the immediate post-war era. The ACS had sufficient interest in their scheme to purchase the vessel Golconda in 1866, a ship capable of transporting 600 emigrants at a time. From May 1867 to May 1868 she carried over 1,000 African-American migrants from various states to Liberia. Despite the interest, many African-Americans in Bertie were suspicious of the ACS motivations, with some concerned they would be sold into Cuban slavery, or that it was a scheme to remove Republican voters in order to restore Democrat control in North Carolina. Nonetheless, dozens remained keen on starting a new life across the Atlantic. On 5th November 1869 a total of 79 African-Americans from Bertie set off on the first leg of their journey to Liberia, joined by blacks from a number of other states. Among the group were five people bearing the surname Askew– Henry (27), Anika (20), Mary Jane (1), Andrew (22) and Rachel (17)– all likely known to Nancy if not related to her (it is possible Rachel was Nancy’s daughter). The Bertie settlers were known as the “Arthington Company” and were bound for the Liberian interior and a new settlement on St. Paul’s River funded by British philanthropist Robert Arthington, and named for him. Those who made their new homes there were, according to Arthington, to consist “as much as possible of men of Missionary spirit, and deeply and prayerfully interested in the moral redemption of all Africa.” (6)
The 1869 emigrants were not the last Bertie County African-Americans to leave for Liberia. The fifth and final trip of the Golconda to Liberia occurred in 1870, when she took 196 North Carolinian’s across the sea, including 112 from Bertie County bound for Arthington. The journal of the ACS, The African Repository, published the names of those who had decided to make the journey in that year’s edition. Among them were Nancy (recorded as a 60-year-old Baptist), her 28-year-old daughter Caroline, 17-year-old son George, 16-year-old son Cheney, 14-year-old son Alfred and 8-year-old son Simon. They were among the 25 Bertie residents with the surname Askew who headed for Africa. Among the others was the former comrade of Nancy’s husband in the 37th USCT, Bryant Askew. (7)
Life was undoubtedly tough in the early years for the Askews and other members of the Arthington Company. The African Repository published correspondence from the initial settlers, led by Alonzo Hoggard, dated 19th May 1870, which has something of an air of propaganda to it:
ARTHINGTON, ST. PAUL’S RIVER, May 19, 1870
DEAR SIR: We take much pleasure in writing you this letter, to inform you that all our company are now up at this new settlement, and, with the exception of chills occasionally, are well and doing well, and are much pleased with our location and prospects. All of our company are now living, with the exception of three– two of whom were children, and one grown person, who was sick before leaving the United States. We are now in our houses. This is the only place for the black man to live in. Send us all the hard-working men you can. We want such men as cleared up the fields in the South. We have under cultivation, rice, peas, potatoes, corn, eddoes, cassadas, ginger, fig and arrow root. Every family is well satisfied.
Alonzo Hoggard, Henry Reynolds, Solomon York, York Outlaw, Andrew Askew, Washington York, Benjamin Askew, Frederick Hoggard, Jonas Outlaw, Peter Sutton, Henry Askew, Blunt Hoggard. (8)
Nancy and her children succeeded for making a life for themselves in Liberia. Whether they would have ever travelled there had George not drowned in Charleston Harbor is impossible to know. When she first went to Africa, Nancy did not realise she could continue to claim her pension. As a result it lapsed until 1875, when she applied for its continuation. Former slaves like Bryant Askew and Nancy Rainey who had known her for over 30 years and now lived with her in Liberia gave statements on her behalf, as did some later emigrants to Arthington from South Carolina. Despite the fact that a number of veterans and dependents of USCT troops had left for Liberia in the immediate post-war years, Nancy was the only one claiming a pension there in 1883. She continued to do so until her death in Arthington on 27th June 1893. Her story, only possible to glimpse due to the existence of her pension file, allows us to follow the experiences of one small group of African-Americans. It allows us to follow them from their lives as slaves on the Askew farm, into the tumultuous period of the Civil War and its aftermath, and ultimately to emigration from Windsor to a new life in Liberia, where many of the family’s descendants are likely still to be found. (9)
Arthington, Liberia as it appears today (via Google Maps)
* None of my work on pensions would be possible without the exceptional effort currently taking place in the National Archives to digitize this material and make it available online via Fold3. A team from NARA supported by volunteers are consistently adding to this treasure trove of historical information. To learn more about their work you can watch a video by clicking here.
(1) Pensioners on the Roll, 617 (Nancy’s surname is recorded as Askin in the list); (2) Weekly Standard 1839, Biblical Recorder 1845, 1850 Census, 1850 Slave Schedules, 1860 Census, 1860 Slave Schedules; (3) Nancy Askie Pension File; (4) Ibid., Service Records, Index to Records, NPS United States Colored Troops 27th Regiment; (5) Clegg III 2004: 251-253; (6) Clegg III 2004: 253-254, African Repository 1869: 268; (7) Clegg III 2004: 255, African Repository 1870: 373; (8) African Repository 1870: 258; (9) Nancy Askie Pension File;
The Weekly Standard, Raleigh, 17th April 1839.
The Biblical Recorder, Raleigh, 5th July 1845.
1850 Federal Census, Bertie County, North Carolina.
1860 Federal Census, Bertie County, North Carolina.
1850 Slave Schedules, Bertie County, North Carolina.
1860 Slave Schedules, Bertie County, North Carolina.
WC117262, Certificate of Nancy Askie, Widow of George Askie, Company C, 37th USCT.
37th US Colored Infantry Service Records.
Government Printing Office 1883. List of Pensioners on the Roll January 1, 1883. Volume 5.
American Colonization Society 1869. The African Repository, Volume XLV.
American Colonization Society 1870. The African Repository, Volume XLVI.
Clegg III, Claude A. 2004. The Price of Liberty: African Americans and the Making of Liberia