When it was first recognized as an independent county in 1799, Ashe County, sitting along the crest of the Blue Ridge in Northwestern North Carolina was a blank slate; at that time, the Appalachian Mountains were largely uninhabited. For those hoping for a better future, the largely unexplored region offered seemingly endless possibilities. For the few settlers brave enough to move into the region, however, their reward was much more tangible: land. Huge tracts of unimproved acreage were available for acquisition in large grants. These grants allowed settlers to purchase land from the state for between 30 and 50 shillings per 100 acres. This ability to amass hundreds, or even thousands, of acres allowed those with the resources to become owners of huge parcels, parcels which would soon grow in value as more settlers arrived. As a result, within just a few years of the county’s founding, notable class differences were already emerging: certain prominent individuals and families amassed wealth and land as others settled for a simple life of subsistence farming.
In 1820, George Bower, a member of one of Ashe County’s well established early families, was ready to take his place among the prominent citizens of the county. From birth, Bower was surrounded by prosperity. His father, John Bower, one of Ashe’s earliest settlers, had amassed large tracts of land around the newly established county seat of Jefferson, and had become one of Ashe’s most important early citizens. In 1799, John Bower was one of only a few residents selected to serve on the commission appointed by the state government to establish the location of Ashe’s county seat. George Bower’s brother, Absalom, had also acquired large tracts of land around nearby Naked Creek and would soon establish a large, profitable grist mill just outside of Jefferson.
George Bower had been elected as the state senator from Ashe in 1812, at the age of 24, and had served until 1818. At age 32, Bower was a member of Ashe County’s prominent citizenry and was ready to establish himself independently from his father and brother with a farm of his own. He began purchasing tracts of land near the South Fork of the New River in Nathan’s Creek, approximately seven miles outside of Jefferson, and soon amassed a farm of several hundred acres. Seeking a fitting home for his new estate, in 1820, Bower began construction of what would be one of the finer houses in Ashe County. Unlike the hand hewn log structures that were most common in Ashe County during this period, Bower’s new home was constructed of dimensioned lumber. His new, two story, federal style home sat on a hill above the road, an enviable site to all who passed by and the central focus of Bower’s large new farm.
Despite this attempt to establish himself as a farmer, Bower was soon drawn to life in the growing town of Jefferson and neglected the day to day management of the farm. Bower was quickly becoming an important figure in local politics; not only had he served as state senator, he had served as constable and was a presidential elector for both Andrew Jackson and James Polk. At the same time, Bower operated a large brick inn and a general store in Jefferson and, after 1828, spent most of his time in town, only visiting his farm in Nathan’s Creek during the weekends. During the 1840s, Bower began acquiring a large group of slaves to assist in his operations in Jefferson and to keep up the farm in Nathan’s Creek. By 1850, he was Ashe County’s largest slaveholder, owning 34 slaves.
Bower’s increased attachment to Jefferson made his ownership of the Nathan’s Creek farm a needless expense, and by 1852, he was ready to sell the property. He found a buyer in Aras Bishop Cox, a native of Grayson County, Virginia. Cox had married Phoebe Edwards on February 6th, 1845, and relocated to the Piney Creek community, which was part of Ashe County at the time, to be closer to his new wife’s family. Phoebe’s mother, Jane Edwards, suffered from paralysis that necessitated constant care.
Like Bower, Aras Cox was also soon rising in the ranks of Ashe County citizenry. He was elected clerk of superior court in 1849 and found himself regularly travelling to Jefferson to fulfill his duties. As a trained physician, one of the first in Ashe County, he was also no doubt happy to find a greater availability of potential patients in the relatively populated areas around Jefferson. In 1851, Cox’s mother-in-law, Jane Edwards, died, leaving Phoebe and Aras Cox free to move away from Piney Creek and closer to Jefferson.
As the clerk of court, Cox had probably become closely acquainted with George Bower, who was also variously employed by the court system. It was a perfect match: Bower had a large farm he no longer wanted, and Cox was in need of a new home somewhere closer to town. On April 28th, 1852, Aras Cox bought Bower’s 400 acre farm and home for $1,150 dollars and moved to Nathan’s Creek.
Like Bower, Cox must have found it difficult to manage a large farm while simultaneously serving out his professional duties, and so, like Bower, Cox would also employ slave labor to assist him. Cox’s decision to become involved with the slave economy was somewhat surprising. Unlike Bower, whose brother had owned slaves as early as the 1820s, Cox had not had much exposure to the South’s “peculiar institution.” Neither his nor his wife’s family had ever owned a slave prior to the 1840s. This was quite common in mountain counties. The reliance of subsistence agriculture made slave ownership quite impractical. Additionally, slaves were prohibitively expensive. When George Bower died in 1861, his slaves were valued at $14,000, about $435,000 today, adjusted for inflation. As a result of this cost and lack of necessity, the slave population in Ashe was always quite low. At no point in Ashe’s history did more than 2.5% of the white population own slaves, and it was usually closer to 1.5%. In 1852, when Aras Cox bought George Bower’s farm, there were only 133 slave owners in the entire county, which at that time encompassed modern day Alleghany County as well. Given the ready availability of white workers for hire, Aras Cox’s desire to own slaves was probably motivated as much by the status it imparted as the farm labor it provided.
Where Aras Cox acquired his slaves is not entirely clear. There is no record of Cox owning slaves prior to his purchase of the farm in Nathan’s Creek, so it is probable he purchased the slaves along with the farm from George Bower, who probably wouldn’t have wanted to relocate all of the slaves living on the farm to his inn and store in Jefferson. Regardless of how they were acquired, by 1860, Aras Cox was the owner of 8 slaves, making him one of Ashe’s larger slave owners. Although several individuals in the county, like George Bowers, George Hamilton, and David Worth, owned more than 20 slaves, the typical slave holder in Ashe owned only four slaves on average.
Aras Cox’s slaves ranged in age from 2 to 65 and all lived in a single house on the farm, located about a half of a mile from the large home built by George Bower in 1820. These eight slaves were not a group of unrelated male farm laborers; they were a single extended family, and the majority were women. The 1860 U.S. Census’ slave schedule does not record slave names, only ages and genders, so it is impossible to know exactly how they were related. However, their ages seem to suggest an older couple (ages 55 and 57), a daughter or granddaughter, aged 33, and several grandchildren or great grandchildren, aged 14, 11, 6, and 2. With the exception of the 57 year old family patriarch and the 6 year old, all of these individuals were women, suggesting that their duties were less related to farm labor and more related to domestic tasks.
In 1861, the election of Abraham Lincoln set off a chain reaction that led to several Southern states seceding from the Union. North Carolina was one of the last states to break away from the United States, requiring extensive debate and statewide votes to finally commit to secession. In Ashe County, the sentiment for secession was especially reluctant. After a meeting of concerned citizens in Jefferson, secretaries Nathan Waugh and Willam Gentry summarized Ashe County’s feelings, stating,
Before we would see this great country destroyed, the glories of the past sacrificed, the cause of human liberty imperiled, and thirty million free and happy men cast adrift on the bloody and boundless sea of revolution, we would appeal to every available means of reconciliation and adjustment under the Constitution and the laws.
Despite Ashe County’s protests, North Carolina left the Union and Ashe County residents found themselves fighting for a nation that sought to preserve the slaveholding system, a system that only perpetuated the radical class divisions of the county.
Like many residents of Ashe County, Aras Cox was a reluctant participant in the Civil War. As a slave owner, it would seem natural that he would vigorously defend the rights of the South, but his attitude seems to have been much more muted. As a physician and Methodist minister, he spent the war serving as a chaplain more than as a combat infantryman. After the war he described the conflict in the following way:
The war was a sad calamity. The Southern people honestly believed the principles of the constitution were disregarded and their just rights denied them. But secession was not the proper source of redress. Such conflicts are enough (were such a thing possible) to make the guardian genius of American liberty shed tears of blood.
Emancipation followed the Union victory, as slavery was permanently abolished through the 13th amendment. The end of the Civil War and of slavery resulted in a huge realignment of Ashe County’s black population. Over the next few decades, many former slaves left the county entirely, seeking reunification with lost family members or better jobs elsewhere. Others relocated within the county, moving in closer proximity to one another in order to create some sense of shared community and culture in a county where the black population has never made up more than 8% of total residents. In 1872, wealthy land owner Joshua Cox sold 52 acres of land to EM McMillian, a recently freed slave. Soon other former slaves also began seeking land of their own, and Joshua Cox continued to sell these families small farms. In 1880, Cox sold Thomas Neal 23 acres for only four dollars. In 1885, Cox sold another small farm to Joseph Reeves. Cox’s neighbor, A.H. Vannoy also sold a tract of land bordering these other farms to Ed Long. Soon a whole community of adjacent black farms was created. This area, which would eventually be known as Cox’s Grove, named after their benefactor, Joshua Cox, became the hub of the black community in Ashe County.
On Aras Cox’s farm, however, the end of the Civil War seemed to have changed very little. The family who had been slaves were now free. However, they continued to stay where they were and still lived and worked on the Cox farm, still in the same house they had occupied while in bondage. The 1870 census was the first to record the names of black residents; as slaves, they were seen as property, and, as a consequence, had only been tallied. While working as slaves they had been given first names, but their new lives as freed men and women required a last name as well. Many took the names of their former owners. Consequently, the family of freed slaves living on the farm in Nathan’s Creek became the Coxes: Arene, her children Jincy, Alfred, Ellen, Richmond, Reed, and Julia. Arene, the matriarch, was born in 1826 and had spent almost 40 years as a slave. In 1870, the census taker was required to list the place of birth for every United States citizen and their parents. Showing the scars left by the American system of slave ownership, Arene listed herself as having been born in North Carolina but listed her parents’ birth locations as “unknown.”
Arene and her children continued to live and work on the Cox farm for decades after the Civil War. In 1900, Arene was still there, living in the same spot she had inhabited since before the Civil War. However, some of her children had already begun to move on. Her oldest daughter, Ellen, had married George Reeves, whose parents had also been slaves. Like many black children born immediately before or after emancipation, Ellen probably felt little allegiance to the farm of her former slave master and had left Aras Cox’s farm, moving in with her new husband. When Ellen left the Aras Cox farm and moved up the road to live with George Reeves, she took something else with her: her two children Biddie and Walter Cox, who had been born out of wedlock in 1880 and 1882, respectively.
Ellen’s daughter, Biddie, was herself soon pregnant, and, on August 24, 1893, the 13 year old Biddie gave birth to a son: Oddie James Cox. Oddie’s father was Jesse Reeves, five years older than Biddie. He was the son of James and Fannie Reeves, who were both former slaves. Jesse, who had grown up in a small home on what is today Nathan’s Creek School Road, and Biddie had been neighbors, living only about a mile from one another. Despite their shared child and geographic closeness, the two never married. Jesse Reeves would ultimately marry Carrie McMillian in 1899.
Biddie had other children soon after. Girtrude Cox, Oddie’s half sister, the daughter of Biddie and Floyd Cox, was born in 1896. Irene Cox, the daughter of Biddie Cox and Simon McMillian would be born in 1900. Two other children, Willie and Vivian would soon follow. All of these children grew up in the home of their grandmother, Ellen, and their step grandfather. All were declared on the census records as children of Ellen, so it can be assumed that, although she was their biological grandmother, Ellen also served as primary caregiver to the children. This family, living together in cramped quarters, were typical of the families of recently freed slaves making up Ashe County’s black community.
In 1906, when Oddie Cox was thirteen years old, the black community of Ashe County was rocked by the Will Banks murder case. Banks was involved in an altercation with his uncle, Frank McMillian, outside of Cox’s Grove church. In the course of the fight, Banks shot McMillian multiple times and was subsequently indicted for first degree murder. The case quickly became a flashpoint for racial tensions in the county. Prosecutors, including T.C. “Tam” Bowie, who would be elected state representative in 1908, argued that Banks had planned to murder his uncle in advance, while defense attorney R.A. Doughton argued that the murder had taken place in the heat of the moment and was undeserving of the death penalty. One of the case’s primary witnesses was Jesse Reeves, Oddie Cox’s biological father, who had been a witness to the killing and described in detail the events of the shooting.
After the damning testimony of several other black witnesses, Banks was found guilty of first degree murder. He appealed his case to the state supreme court, arguing that no reliable evidence had been presented to establish the forethought necessary for a first degree murder conviction. His appeal was denied. In August of 1907, thousands of spectators turned out in Jefferson to witness one of the last public hangings in North Carolina history. Banks gave a long speech prior to his execution in which he accused the black community of Cox’s Grove of conspiring to execute him. He claimed that they had lied in court, having been influenced by Tam Bowie’s overzealous prosecution. Whether or not Banks’ accusations had any merit, the trial left a lasting scar on the black community of Ashe. Many residents, black and white, saw the Will Banks trial as a miscarriage of justice. Sheriff Ambrose Clark resigned shortly after Banks’ arrest and jailor Graham Witherspoon advocated for leniency for Banks. Within the black community, Banks execution had a chilling effect. The black population, which had risen in Ashe between 1890 and 1900 declined by 20% as African-American residents fled the county in the years immediately following the hanging.
During this period, the black community struggled to catch up with their white neighbors, both educationally and economically. As the 19th century drew to a close, Ashe County’s former slaves and their children and grandchildren had settled in several communities around the county. Creston, Clifton, Pine Swamp, Mount Olive, Bristol, and Cox’s Grove were all soon home to small communities of African-American families. Education became increasingly important to these enclaves. As the overall population of African-American residents declined between 1900 and 1910, the rate of school attendance actually increased. However, the segregated schools provided for these communities were understaffed and poorly constructed, making it difficult for these residents to achieve the same education levels as their white neighbors. Neither Oddie Cox’s grandmother Ellen, step grandfather George, or his mother Biddie, were ever fully literate.
However, growing up in the early 20th century, Oddie Cox and two of his siblings were able to take advantage of the limited education available to them. By 1910, they had all learned to read and write. However, the increased availability of education resulted in little upward social mobility. Although they had been liberated from slavery 50 years earlier, not much had changed for many black residents of the Ashe County. Like their poor, white neighbors, some were able to acquire property and begin farming for themselves, relying on subsistence agriculture, but many, including Oddie and his uncle, Walter Cox, were still working as hired hands in a system not much different than the one that had existed prior to the Civil War.
Black residents began looking for a more promising career, and for many that promise came in the West Virginia coal fields. Oddie, struggling to support his mother and siblings, like many others, set off sometime after 1910 to seek work as a miner. By 1917, he was living in McDowell County, West Virginia, employed as a “number 6 laborer” for the United States Coal Coke Company.