William Ashworth, free Black colonist and landowner, was born in South Carolina about 1793. He was the son of James Ashworth Sr. and Keziah Dyal. In 1831 he moved from what is now Calcasieu Parish, Louisiana, to Lorenzo de Zavala's colony in East Texas. William came to Texas before the Texas Revolution and settled in San Augustine. William and his brother Aaron Ashworth obtained an order of survey from George Antonio Nixon, but before they could locate their lands the revolution began and the Texas provisional government closed the land offices. During the revolution Ashworth sent a substitute, Gipson Perkins, to the Texas army. Perkins served from July 7 to September 7, 1836, in Capt. B. J. Harper's Company of Beaumont Volunteers.
Opposition to the immigration of free Blacks into the area of present Jefferson and Orange counties appeared as early as 1835. The committee of public safety at Beaumont warned the General Council against admitting free Blacks into Texas, and the council passed an ordinance forbidding their immigration. The law was not enforced against William Ashworth, however, or any of the many Ashworths who followed him to the area.
In 1838 Ashworth obtained a franchise from the Jefferson County board of roads and revenues to operate a ferry across Lake Sabine and up the Neches River to Beaumont. His ferry and landholdings were threatened, however, by an act of the Texas Congress passed on February 5, 1840, which ordered all free Blacks to vacate the republic within two years or be sold into slavery. White neighbors came to the aid of Ashworth and his relatives with three petitions to the Texas Congress requesting their exemption from the act. This support brought about the passage of the Ashworth Act of December 12, 1840, which exempted the Ashworths and all free Blacks residing in Texas on the day of the Texas Declaration of Independence, along with their families, from the act of February 5.
In 1842 Ashworth and his relatives again faced a threat to their livelihood when a traveling land board charged with detecting fraudulent claims refused to certify the headrights given them by the Jefferson County board of land commissioners. The land board refused certification on the grounds that their jurisdiction did not cover free Blacks. The board members nevertheless joined three members of the Jefferson board, along with some seventy other citizens, in petitioning Congress to make a direct issuance of the certification patents. The suggested bill easily passed the Texas Congress and was signed by President Sam Houston.
In 1850, of the sixty-three free Blacks in Jefferson County, thirty-eight were named Ashworth. William Ashworth probably had the longest residence of any Ashworth in the area at that time. He and his wife, Leide or Delaide, a native White Louisianan, had seven children listed in their household in the 1850 census, although they probably had older children who had started their own families. While other Ashworths experienced legal difficulties because of interracial marriages, William and Leide appear to have been left alone. The 1850 census describes Ashworth as a farmer with large property, including two slaves. He and many of his relatives apparently were respected in their community as wealthy and relatively autonomous free Blacks.
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Hans Peter Nielsen Gammel, comp., Laws of Texas, 1822–1897 (10 vols., Austin: Gammel, 1898). Andrew Forest Muir, "The Free Negro in Jefferson and Orange Counties, Texas," Journal of Negro History 35 (April 1950). Harold Schoen, "The Free Negro in the Republic of Texas," Southwestern Historical Quarterly 39–41 (April 1936-July 1937).
Activism and Social Reform
Civil Rights, Segregation, and Slavery
The following, adapted from the Chicago Manual of Style, 15th edition, is the preferred citation for this entry.
Handbook of Texas Online,
accessed May 16, 2022,
Published by the Texas State Historical Association.
Original Publication Date:
November 1, 1994
Most Recent Revision Date:
September 29, 2020
This entry belongs to the following Handbook Special Projects: