“Now Absalom in his lifetime had taken and reared up for himself a pillar, which is in the king’s dale: …and he called the pillar after his own name: and it is called unto this day, Absalom’s place.”
2 Samuel 18:18
Though he died in 1838, by 1887 Absalom Dillingham managed, in his own way, to live up to his biblical namesake, establishing a, a place “after his own name,” that is called, not Absalom’s Place, but Dillingham, Buncombe County, North Carolina. Throughout his lifetime, Absalom amassed more than 2700 acres of land. To put this in perspective, Absalom’s land holdings at the time of his death amounted to about 30 times the size of the Downtown Asheville Historic District.
Absalom and his wife Rebecca Fo(r)ster* were each born in Virginia at the dawn of the Revolutionary War, and were married sometime around 1794. After a period of moving and impermanant settlement (evidence suggests the couple lived at Beaverdam for a time, and that Absalom was a Lieutenant in the Tennessee Militia), the couple eventually landed in a rich bottomland near the Ivy River. Absalom and Rebecca raised eight children on their farm in northwestern Buncombe County. The family permanently settled there sometime between 1800 and 1804 when Absalom began purchasing more and more land to increase the size of a tract granted to him by the state of North Carolina.
The Children of Absalom and Rebecca F. Dillingham
William Dillingham, b. 1795
Elizabeth Dillingham, b. 1797
Margaret Ann “Peggy” “Peggann” Dillingham, b. 1799
Thomas Foster Dillingham, b. 1802
Hiram Dillingham? b. 1805 (his birth record in the family bible is the only record of Hiram, he is presumed to have died in infancy)
John Wilson Dillingham, b. 1807
Mary “Polly” Dillingham, b. 1809
Alfred Burton Dillingham, b. 1812
*In the late 18th and early 19th century, “Foster” and “Forster” were often used interchangeably. It is clear in Thomas’ middle name, that by the time he was born, the family had settled on “Foster.” However there are other instances of Beaverdam-related Fo(r)ster folk where this does get confusing, i.e. F.A. Sondley. We mostly choose to stick with “F.A.”
According to tradition, Absalom’s home was larger than usual, and this was due in part to the amount of labor available to him. According to the 1810 census, Absalom Dillingham enslaved one person. (This is likely a woman named Unity, mentioned in Absalom and Rebecca’s wills, and found in the 1870 and 1880 census. According to some records, Unity was born in Virginia in 1787.) His wife’s family apparently also contributed enslaved people to help build the mountain plantation. It included a two story log home, a spring and smoke house, and dwellings for enslaved people. According to Absalom’s will, filed in 1836, the family raised sheep, hogs, cattle, and owned horses to assist in farm work.
Absalom’s wealth and influence in the community grew over the years, and so did the number of enslaved people in his household. By the time of his death, his personal worth was substantial. Absalom’s will explained exactly how he planned to divide his estate among his wife and children and reveals the names of all of the enslaved people on the Dillingham farm.
Enslaved People on the Dillingham Farm in 1836 and their estimated birthdates, (based on the 1850 Slave Schedule for Alfred Dillingham, Joseph Barnard, and Margaret Carson, and the 1870 and 1880 Federal Census)
Unity, b. 1787
Daymon (Daimon), b. 1819
Isaac, b. 1824
Hannah, b. 1813 or 1834?*
Phoebe, b. 1789 or 1820?*
Hannah and Phoebe’s ages are quite ambiguous because in the 1850 slave schedules the Margaret Carson and John Barnard households own more than one enslaved woman. With more research, one may be able to pin down their exact ages. One may assume the older ages are correct, however, because neither of these women appear in later census records, while Unity, Jessee, Daymon, and Isaac are all found living in close proximity. Hannah and Phoebe may have died before emancipation.
Of all the formerly enslaved Dillinghams, we know the most about Isaac. After Absalom’s Death, Isaac was passed on the Alfred Burton Dillingham, Absalom’s youngest son. At the time of emancipation, Isaac was 24 years old.
According to the Dillingham Family tradition, Isaac lived on with Alfred for some years, and Alfred, recognizing his “responsibility” to Isaac gifted him a parcel of land to call his own not many years after the war. Under scrutiny, however, this story doesn’t hold up. Isaac was apparently ambitious and industrious and like almost all formerly enslaved people, ready to set out on his own.
Census records show that Isaac may have been living in Kentucky in 1870, working with a group of other young men performing some kind of farm labor. This may have been in an effort to save some money to purchase his own piece of property. By 1880 Isaac was back in Buncombe living with his wife Linda (or Rinda, the record isn’t clear) and their five children.
In 1885, Isaac purchased 50 acres in Big Ivy from John and D.J Brigman for $35. It wasn’t until 1891 that Isaac had any land dealings with Alfred Dillingham, and Alfred did not give Isaac the lands for free. According to a deed, Alfred Dillingham and his wife Catherine, along with A.J and Rebecca Harwood, and James Russell sold Isaac another 30 acres on the Haw Branch of Ivy for $40.
According to the 1900 and 1910 census, Isaac made enough profit on his farm to be included on the agriculture schedule. Unfortunately, those are now unavailable, as they were destroyed by congressional order some years ago. Those records, now gone, were some of the only remnants of Isaac and the other formerly enslaved Dillinghams worldly existence, and would have revealed a great deal about Isaac’s life. Answering questions like, “How many animals did he have?” “What kind of food did he grow?” “How much money did he make on his farm?” unfortunately, like many other questions about the enslaved and formerly enslaved individuals in Buncombe County, those too, will have to go unanswered.
“We don’t live among defeated grandfathers and freed slaves … always reminding us to never forget.”
-A Canadian to a Southerner in William Faulkner, Absalom, Absalom!, Chapter 9
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As a reminder, this post is a part of our 52 Weeks, 52 Communities Series. In this series, we are covering a different Buncombe County community each week. Do you have materials related to Dillingham or Big Ivy you’d like to let us know about (You might have noticed this story was really short on photos from this community!!!)? Do you, your parents or grandparents have a good story to tell? Please let us know!!! We want to hear from you! The North Carolina Room is Buncombe County’s Public Archive, we want to help preserve and make accessible the history and culture of Asheville and Buncombe County for all its residents.
This post was authored by Katherine Calhoun Cutshall, a librarian working in the North Carolina Room at Pack Memorial Library.