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Forgotten History, Part IV

by | May 4, 2023


Although some researchers trace the Byers family back to Robert and Margaret Byers, who arrived in Mecklenburg County in 1722, according to a history of the Byers family written by Dr. P.F. Laugenour and published in the Statesville Sentinel on July 20, 1916, the first Byers to settle in Iredell County were brothers Joseph and James. They had come to America in 1748, and after stopping in Pennsylvania, came to North Carolina around 1760. They settled on Davidson’s Creek, just a mile from Centre Presbyterian Church.

According to Laugenour, “The old home was a very large log house standing on the brow of the hill some 50 or 75 yards from the spring east of the branch. The house…was built of large pine logs beautifully hewn. The nails in the old building were home made.” Joseph Byers died childless, but his brother James and his wife Margaret Smith Byers raised a large family. James Byers fought in the Revolutionary War, and in 1779 he bought over 500 acres on Lambert’s Creek, east of the Catawba River, which included the Oliphant Mill, later known as the “Old Byers Mill.” At the time of the 1800 census, he owned 16 slaves. He died intestate in 1807.

James and Margaret’s son James Smith Byers was born in 1782. In 1812 he married Nancy Cecelia Osborne, the daughter of Adlai Osborne. By 1820 he was the owner of 35 enslaved people. By 1860 Byers’ real estate was valued at $14,000 and his personal property, which would have included his 54 slaves, at $97,000. Byers died in 1863, and it is hard to judge how many enslaved people he bequeathed to others, but it seems to be 65 adults plus their children (and sometimes grandchildren) and their increase, which would amount to many more. “Their increase” refers to any children they might have after the will was written, thus consigning an unborn generation to slavery. This was not to come to pass, however, as the South’s enslaved people were freed soon after at the end of the Civil War.


Dr. George W. Stinson’s family was not one of the original families to settle in present-day Iredell County. Stinson was born in Lancaster County, South Carolina, in 1809. His father was Robert Stinson, who was born in Ireland in 1763. At different times he was married to two of James Smith Byers’ daughters, Mary and Margaret. His 1836 plantation, which he named “Woodlawn,” was located on Shearer’s Road about 1.5 miles from the Davidson College campus. It was situated on the original land granted to Alexander Osborne, and Osborne’s home, Belmont. stood nearby until around the time of the Civil War. Stinson’s house is now used as the administration building for the Woodlawn School, and the school describes it as “a fine example of a Greek Revival/Federal style home, with a fireplace in each of its eight rooms, large entry hall, columns on the front porch, and spiraling staircase.”

When Stinson’s name first appeared in the census for Iredell County in 1840, he owned 17 slaves. By 1850 he owned $4000 in real estate and 30 slaves, and the 1860 census indicates that he owned 43 enslaved people. Stinson died in 1883. There is no information in the records about the names or ages of his slaves.


Rufus Reid was the son of John Reid, a native of Maryland. John Reid moved from Maryland to Lincoln County, North Carolina. His son Rufus was born in 1797, and following his father’s death, he briefly managed their resort, Catawba Springs, in Lincoln County. Around 1825 he moved to Spring Grove in Rowan County. After three or four years there, he moved to Iredell County. He purchased a tract of land on Coddle Creek in 1828, and he continued to buy and sell land in Iredell and Lincoln County, eventually ending up with 1800 acres in southern Iredell County. There he built his plantation house, first referred to as the mansion house and later as “Mount Mourne,” sometime during the 1830s. Rufus Reid had three wives, all of whom came from Mecklenburg County plantations. The first was Nancy Latta, and when she died, he married her sister, the widow of Benjamin Davidson who owned Oak Lawn near Huntersville. He then married Isabella Torrence Smith of Cedar Grove Plantation near Huntersville.

Rufus Reid died in 1854. His wife Isabella survived him. A handwritten obituary, which can be found in the archives of the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill, noted that “his life has been one of constant action and exertion, by which he has been enabled to leave his family surrounded with ample means to secure their comforts.” At the time of his death, he owned 84 enslaved people. When Isabella died her estate included 62 slaves, the largest number in southern Iredell County at that time.

Rufus Reid’s plantation, “Mount Mourne,” which still stands on Highway 115 north of Davidson. (Photo from


There were two well-known families in Iredell County who, even though their slaves appeared in public records over the years, apparently do not technically fall into the category of planters. One was the family of James Franklin Houston, who was born in Ireland and moved to Iredell County before the Revolutionary War. He built a plantation house in Mount Mourne, near present-day Highway 115, in 1818. When he died, he apparently had about a dozen slaves. His son, George Sidney Houston, also lived on the plantation, but in 1830 he had five slaves. His name does not appear in the 1840 census, and in 1850 and 1860 he is not listed in the schedule of slave owners. He died in 1870.

The second family that had extensive land, but enslaved fewer than 25 people, was that of James Kerr. Another native of Ireland, he also came to present-day Iredell County before the Revolutionary War. He married Jane Eliza Davidson, the daughter of George Lee Davidson, in 1773. When he died in 1814, about a dozen slaves were included in his will. When his wife Jane died around 1834, she included ten slaves in her will. James and Jane’s son, Alfred D. Kerr enslaved 21 people in 1820, but by 1850 had only fourteen. When he died in 1852, his will listed 19 slaves.


Since enslaved people were considered personal property — like livestock, household furnishings, farm Implements, and crops — they were frequently sold, rented, gifted, or bequeathed. George Davidson’s 1758 will is an early example of a case where the decedent gave his enslaved people to his heirs. He bequeathed around a dozen slaves, including children. One of these slaves, named Mitchell, he left to his brother George L. Davidson. Mitchell was valued at $400 and was the most valuable of the group. Deed records indicate that between 1822 and 1842, George L. Davidson was involved in buying, selling, or gifting 23 enslaved people. When Robert Brevard died in 1768, he also left his heirs around a dozen enslaved persons. There appears to be some attempt here to keep mothers and children together, as he left Leah and her two youngest children to his wife, Sarah. In 1790 Sarah Brevard had eight slaves, and in her 1801 will she left her daughter Charlotte “a negro girl named Venus and two cows.” She bequeathed two other enslaved people to another daughter and grandson. Since this was before the cotton gin was generally available to process cotton, most of these slaveowners had less acreage planted in cotton, and thus enslaved fewer people.

Alexander Torrence’s 1843 will bequeathed 27 enslaved people to his children and grandchildren. In his will the future children and grandchildren of a female slave were included in the inheritance. Torrence left his heirs the enslaved people Sudi and Suki with their “children and grandchildren, all that [they] have or may have.” Mary and Sarah were bequeathed along with “any children they may bear.” As a negro woman named Dice who had “been a faithful servant to her mistress,” was allowed to live with “any one of his children that she might choose,” and be treated “with the kindness and indulgence which she merits.”

The will of James Smith Byers, written in the midst of the Civil War in 1862, included a large number of slaves. He bequeathed 65 named slaves, plus their increase, to his children and grandchildren. Once again, some of the younger women, including Mary, were bequeathed with their younger children, apparently an attempt to keep them together. Two of his granddaughters inherited two females identified only as two “negro girls.” James’ son, Augustus, inherited the most slaves, 17 plus their increase. Among those bequeathed were several older slaves, including Old Jeff and his wife Dinah, Old Andrew, Old Maria, and Old Sam. When the war ended in 1865, all of Byers’ many slaves would gain their freedom.

As was noted in the previous installment of this article, slaves were also rented out to provide income to the owner. An example of this is the hiring out of Amelia White’s slaves in 1865. Her guardian, Edwin Falls, hired out the following for one year: boy Jeb, $905; boy Sam, $1000; boy Hugh, $730; boy Pearson $900; boy Virgil, $825; boy Andy $730; boy Jim $600; boy Tom, unsound, $482; girl Mag $315; girl Maria $300; boy Aaron, one arm deficient, $350; small boy Ead (or Cad), $14.50. Her income from these 12 slaves would amount to $7100. Their ages were not given but grown male and female slaves were often referred to as “boy” or “girl.” It is interesting that a boy, Tom, who was unsound, was among those hired out, along with Aaron, who had a deficient arm. They, along with a small boy, were rented for much less than the other males. It is also noteworthy that she was able to hire out these enslaved people, especially the men, for very high prices.

Iredell County deed records provide much more information on the transfer of slaves. The county was formed in 1788, and the first such transaction appears in 1789 when John Henderson sold 15-year-old Jacob to William Young for 100 pounds. In addition to outright sales, enslaved people were exchanged as gifts, put into trusts, or used to settle debts. Sometimes they were sold for a nominal amount, often to family members.

The families considered here were involved in numerous sales. The earliest seems to be in 1794, when Hannah Work and Adam Brevard sold Adlai Osborne, Alexander’s son, an unnamed 12-year-old and an 8-year-old girl named Ruth for 136 pounds. Presumably these children were sold away from their parents. In 1809, a man named Oran Bass sold 20-year-old Adam to George L. Davidson for $525, a substantial price for that period. In 1822, George L. Davidson sold two of his slaves, Edy (aged 17) and Newton (aged 2) to Absalom K. Simonton for $600. Within the next twenty years, he was to sell or gift twenty more enslaved people.

Although there were apparently some attempts to keep families together, or to at least sell mothers along with their younger children, some children were sold individually. For example, in 1822, Joseph Byers sold three minors to his nephew Washington Byers, Reuben (16), Stefney (12) and King (10) for fifteen shillings. In 1827, J.M. Davidson, acting as a trustee for Alfred D. Kerr, sold Moses White a six-year-old enslaved girl named Betsy for $120, a considerable sum for a child. Four years later, Barry Hobbs sold 5-year-old Jack to Rufus Reid for $39.76. In 1847, Joseph Steelman sold A.C. Houston a 12-year-old enslaved girl named Mary for $400, again a considerable amount. It is difficult to think of such young children being sold away from their families, their disposal being equivalent to the sale of a horse or a cow.

Some enslaved people were sold for considerable sums. In 1818, James Kerr sold Serah to Alfred D. Kerr for $425, a substantial sum for a female slave at that time. On a similar occasion in 1827, William Lee Davidson II, acting as a trustee for Alfred D. Kerr, sold Washington Byers an enslaved woman named Molly for $343. In 1847, W.L. Davidson, A.D. Kerr and George F. Davidson purchased Jim, Mary, John, Amelia, and Caroline and her child for $2375. In 1860, when the values of enslaved people were near their height, Moses White bought 21-year-old Camilla and her 2-year-old child for $1440, equivalent to almost $51,000 dollars today.

On other occasions enslaved people were given as gifts or sold at such a low price that it amounted to a gift. Such was the case in 1809 when Adlai Osborne gave Nancy Cecelia Osborne, Fan (16) and Lucy (8) for 5 shillings; his daughter Panthea Lemira Osborne received Rachel (10-12) and Amos (10) for five shillings; and his daughter Eliza received Celia (10) and Maria (14) for 5 shillings. Note again that all of these enslaved people were minors.

In 1824 Joseph Byers gave his nephew James Smith Byers a 25-year-old enslaved man named George for 5 shillings. In 1826 Alfred Kerr gave his son-in-law William L. Davidson eight slaves named Sarah, Betty, Lucy, Phebe, Simon, Debby, Bill, and Molly for $10, and that same year Kerr gave 35-year-old Isaac to James Sloan for only $10. In 1828, Ephraim Davidson gave George F. Davidson slaves named Rainey, Jane, and Hannah for a consideration of $10, and three years later he gave him Tilly, Mary and Margaret for the same amount. Alfred D. Kerr made another gift of enslaved people in 1835, when he gave five slaves to Theophilus Falls for $1.

Several enslaved people were conveyed to local planters to settle debts. In 1842, Theopholis M. Knox gave a slave named Abram to George F. Davidson, and in 1849 Julius W. Houston gave James H. Houston Eliza (10), Rebecca (7) Litha (25) and Workman (1) for $1, both transactions made to secure a debt. In 1853 Alexander Graham gave Rufus Reid slaves named Charlotte (21), Maria (22), and a one-year-old-child for no consideration, also to secure a debt.

Slaves could also be conveyed in trust. In some cases, this was done to hold them for a minor child until that child reached majority. There were several such trusts made in Iredell County, and it is impossible to know if that was their purpose. In 1833, William L. Davidson II put eight adult slaves and one child in trust for William Houston for a consideration of $5. George F. Davidson received four enslaved people in trust from Ephraim Davidson in April 1835 and five enslaved people in trust in 1837 from Andrew Caldwell for a consideration of $5. The last Iredell County deed record concerning enslaved people was the probate of the estate of Mary Lawson, settled in 1867, two years after the end of the Civil War.

These legal records reveal much about the names, ages, and movements of a large number of Iredell County’s enslaved people. They reinforce the idea that enslaved people, whatever their age and whatever their value as workers, were nothing more than commodities to be bought, sold, and bequeathed like livestock or farm and household goods. We can hope that these records will also provide a way to see what became of those slaves and their descendants. The next installment of this series will delve into some of the former local slaves who may have lived in Davidson after the war.

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