Ashworth Act

The Ashworth Act, was an act that was passed by the Texas Senate on December 12, 1840. The Ashworth Act allowed the Ashworth Family as well as all free persons of color and emancipated slaves who were residing in Texas on the day of the declaration of independence, are, and shall be exempt from the operation and provisions of an act of Congress, entitled "An act concerning Free Persons of Color," ... and that the above named persons, with their families are hereby granted permission to remain in this republic. All free people of color who had come to Texas before March 2, 1836, had the right to remain in Texas, "anything in the laws of the country to the contrary not with standing" (Shades 74)

The Ashworths' History

The Ashworths' were a family of mixed race. The family was a mix of Portuguese (Moorish race) and Anglo European (White race). The Ashworths' migrated from South Carolina, then moved through Louisiana, and finally ending their journey in the early 1830s in southeast Texas, at the town of Beaumont, when Texas was part of Mexico.[1]

The Ashworth Family which consisted of the siblings William, Abner, David, Aaron, and Elisha Thomas. Elisha Thomas was an early resident and brother-in-law to William and Abner. While residing in Texas the family became well known to their community and to influential persons of Texas. Before there were roads and towns in Texas, the Ashworth family helped to carve a community out of dense forests and swampy lowlands along the Neches River. A few years after, an Ashworth member joined in the fight for the independence of Texas from Mexico.(1)The Ashworths' were identified as people of color, "though nearly white" that rose in both wealth and social standing. William Ashworth made a living operating a ferry(the dominant mode of travel at that time) along the rivers and bays, charging enough per passenger and their possessions to earn a respectable living. The Ashworths' also raised cattle and grew crops, one of the brothers also become also became one of the largest stock raisers in the entire county, in the decade before the Civil War. Like others of their status, they also owned slaves-not relatives, but human beings that they bought, sold, and passed on to their heirs-just like their white counterparts.(2)

Texas History Before The Passing Act In 1840

Immediately in 1836 after winning the Independence of Texas from Mexico, the General Council of Texas implemented an ordinance prohibiting future immigration of black and free people of color and took the draconian measure of forcing those already in Texas to leave. "No free persons of African descent, either in whole or in part," the drafters wrote, "shall be permitted to reside permanently in the Republic, without the consent of Congress." In the next paragraph, free people of color already in Texas were to be stripped of their citizenship and all the rights and privileges that accompanied it.

Soon after, in June 1837, the 1st legislative session after the constitution was adopted, Congress reversed and allowed people of color "who were residing within the Republic of Texas at the date of the declaration of Independence" to stay in the country. (3)

In the ensuing years, Texans both encouraged and developed the institution with remarkable vigor, turning Texas from a society with slaves into a "Slave Society". Most of the people who came to Texas after its independence were Southerners and identified with that particular way of life.

There was Texan insistence on turning the new Republic into a slave country, multiple laws were passed in the favor of the white race and against people that were of African descent and colored. Laws such as:

  • The prohibition of interracial marriages.
  • Categorizing free people of color along with that of slaves, when crimes were outlined of capital punishment.
  • It was illegal to, for an African or person of color to insult a white person.
  • Another law threatened free people of color with slavery, if they were to mingle too much with slave property, planted seeds of rebellion, or escape.

These laws that were passed, were what gave way to position Texas as a society of slavery. Following, slavery became the official policy of Texan society. Blacks were welcomed to Texas, but only as slaves.

1840 and the Ashworth Act

On February 5, 1840, there was passed an act that contradicted the act of 1837. This endangered and threatened emancipated slaves, such as the Ashworths', their families, and "colored" families that did not appear white.

It was passed because of fading memories of the war for Texas's Independence from Mexico and the courageous acts that free slaves and people of color took to help make Texas an independent republic. The act passed on February 5, 1840, that was recalling the original act passed in 1836 that originally came from the General Council Ordinance.(4)In it, the Texas Congress reiterated the long-standing prohibition on free people of color immigrating into the then Republic of Texas. There was an addition to the 1936 provision that was ordering all free slaves and people of color "who are now in this Republic" to leave by the 1st of January 1842, unless they have obtained an express permission to stay from the legislature.(5)The penalty for disobedience, moreover, was severe. The person, formerly free, would be subjected to fines and, if unable to pay, sold to the highest bidder as a slave for life.(6)

Many people of color began to rise up, and get the support they needed from their white neighbors through petitioning for their right to stay in Texas. This land to them is what they called home. Many people of color like: John and Charity Bird, Allen Dimery, Diana Leonard, James Richardson, Robert Thompson, Joseph Tate, and William Goyens. (these people were free slaves, partly black, and or where of color)were among the petitioners that fought for their right to stay in the Republic of Texas.

Several petitions were created on the behalf of these free people. Most notably and recognized of all the petitions written, were of the Ashworths'. Their petitions alone where what seemed to weigh the heaviest on the passing of the new act on December 12, 1840.

In the 1st petition of the Ashworths', forty seven citizens endorsed and knew the Ashworths' for years and swore that they were "peaceable and respectable citizens" all the petitioners agreed that the act of February 5 of 1840 would "operate oppressively upon the said Ashworths's, and they therefore asked Congress to exempt them from its general scope.

In the 2nd petition that was submitted on the behalf of William and his brother Abner Ashworth, seventy two citizens from Jefferson County noted how the two, despite being "free persons of color," they had "contributed generously to the advancement of the revolution." signers or the petition were adamant that the passing of the recent act was both unfair and unjust to "force them from their County, whose battles they have fought and whose independence they assisted in achieving." The second petition put more weight on the issue and made for a stronger case for the Ashworths'.

The 3rd petition was created exclusively for the right of Elisha Thomas to stay and continue to reside in Texas. Elisha had served in the army immediately, after the battle of San Jacinto. In all three cases the petitions were signed by their neighbors, friends, and prominent officials in Jefferson County.

Representative Joseph Grigsby, was one of the wealthiest slaveholders in Jefferson County and held great influence within the Republic of Texas. He introduced the Ashworths' petitions to the House. While there is not any proof, it is assumed that the Ashworths' were, if not, at least one of the members of the Ashworths family had good relations with the influential Joseph Grigsby.

On November 5, 1840 the speaker referred the petitions to a select committee made up of Grigsby and two others. The next day the committee reported back reaffirming that, "as a general rule, it is not the true policy of this Country to encourage the introduction of this description of persons among us, nor even to allow them to remain." Grigsby's committee thought that the Ashworths' "should be an exception to that rule" also known as an amendment. It was then noticed by the committee to what the Ashworths' contributed to the independence of Texas and their aid in the building of their surrounding community.

Representative Joseph Grigsby did not sign the petition, but a family member of Joseph's named Nathaniel Grigsby did. Joseph Grigsby then, by family association of the petitioner Nathaniel Grigsby was able to testify as the committee and to sum up what the public thought of the Ashworths' ," they have at all times conducted themselves well, and are men of good credit wherever they are known, having been at all times punctual to their engagements, up right in their dealings, and peaceable in their dispositions."

On November 23, 1840 the bill passed the Senate. The act then became law on December 12, 1840. Later the law was dubbed as the "Ashworth Act" that had a lasting impact, and as the final version extended its scope to include not just the Ashworths, but all free people of color who arrived prior to the declaration of independence.

The Act was written into Texas law as:

Be it enacted...That William Ashworth, Abner Ashworth, David Ashworth, Aaron Ashworth, Elisha Thomas, and all free persons of color, together with their families, who were residing in Texas on the day of the declaration of independence, are, and shall be exempt from the operation and provisions of an act of Congress, entitled "An act concerning Free Persons of Color,"... and that the above named persons, with their families are hereby granted permission to remain in this republic. All free people of color who had come to Texas before March 2, 1836, the absolute right to remain, "anything in the laws of the country to the contrary notwithstanding" (Shades 74)


(1)See Application for Veteran Land Certificate, Delaide Ashworth, Widow of William Ashworth, Voucher File No. 1110, at B (May 5, 1884) (affidavit of Delaide Ashworth) (collection of Texas General Land Office) (on file with author) (indicating that William served in the Texas army during the fall of 1835).

(2)Slave Inhabitants, Jefferson County, Tex. 819, in BUREAU OF THE CENSUS, supra note 36 (listing Aaron Ashworth as the owner of six slaves, Abner three, William two, and Joshua one). Copies of deed records in which the Ashworths bought and sold slaves can be found in the Jefferson County Civil Court and the Orange County Civil Court. For a general discussion of slave ownership among free people of color, see IRA BERLIN, SLAVES WITHOUT MASTERS: THE FREE NEGRO IN THE ANTEBELLUM SOUTH 269-75 (1974).

(3)J. Res., 1st Cong., 1838 Repub. Tex. Laws 231 (June 5, 1837), reprinted in 1 THE LAWS OF TEXAS, supra note 124, at 1291

(4)Act Approved Feb 5, 1840, 4th Cong., R.S. Sect 1, 1840 Repub. Tex. Laws 151,

(5)The Laws of Texas, supra section 8,10 of the 1840 act

(6)The Laws of Texas, supra sections 2, 8






  1. Journal, Tom J. Russell.
  2. Race, Blood, and What the Alligator Knows: A Review of What Blood Won't Tell [comments] Southern California Law Review, Vol. 83, Issue 3 (March 2010), pp. 434-438 Gillmer, Jason A. (Cited 74 times) 83 S. Cal. L. Rev. 425 (2009-2010)
  3. Shades of Gray: The Life and Times of a Free Family of Color on the Texas Frontier [article] Law and Inequality: A Journal of Theory and Practice, Vol. 29, Issue 1 (Winter 2011), pp. 33-106 Gillmer, Jason A. (Cited 74 times) 29 Law & Ineq. 33 (2011)
  4. Russell, T.J. "Clark Ashworth." Clark Ashworth. N.p., 26 Jan. 1926. Web. 22 Apr. 2015. <>
  5. "ASHWORTH ACT." THOMPSON, NOLAN. Texas State Historical Association, 10 June 2010. Web. 24 Apr. 2015. <>.
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