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This article is from the Dictionary of North Carolina Biography, 6 volumes, edited by William S. Powell. Copyright ©1979-1996 by the University of North Carolina Press. Used by permission of the publisher. For personal use and not for further distribution. Please submit permission requests for other use directly to the publisher.

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Ashe, Samuel

by Heustis P. Whiteside, 1979; Revised by SLNC Government and Heritage Library, April 2023
See also: Ashe, Samuel

1725–3 Feb. 1813

Letter from Samuel Ashe to George Washington, December 1796. Image from the Library of Congress.Samuel Ashe, judge and governor, was born near Bath, where his father, John Baptista Ashe, was speaker in the assembly, representing the Beaufort Precinct. His father and his mother, Elizabeth Swann, moved to the Cape Fear region, where Samuel's brother John, later general, Stamp Act patriot, soldier, and colonial legislator, was born. Samuel's parents died before he was ten and he was raised by his uncle, Sam Swann, head of the Popular party and speaker of the assembly.

After being educated in law, Ashe returned to the Wilmington district and became assistant attorney for the Crown. Notwithstanding this close British alliance, he was one of the first prominent men to become a zealous patriot, organizing revolutionary groups as early as 1774, when the colonial governor refused to convene the legislature. Ashe and seven others were appointed by the people to prepare a notice urging that the counties elect delegates to meet 20 Aug. at Johnston Court House, in what became the first revolutionary convention held in the state. The next January, Ashe was made a member of New Hanover's committee of safety. Later that year he became a member of the provincial congress. In August 1776, as president of the council of safety, he organized an expedition under General Griffith Rutherford against the Indians. At the Halifax congress of 13 Nov. 1776, Ashe was appointed to the committee to frame the North Carolina Constitution. One of the first acts of Governor Richard Caswell, once the constitution was adopted, was to appoint Ashe as judge to hold the first court under the authority of the State of North Carolina.

The first legislature under the new constitution elected Ashe speaker of the senate; that legislature also made him presiding judge of the state court. He served in this capacity until 1795, when he was elected governor, and held the governorship for three terms. It is interesting to note that just as Samuel was the first judge to hold court in North Carolina by popular decree, his brother, General John Ashe, was the first to receive a military commission at the hands of the people.

NC historical marker commemorating the life of Samuel AsheAlthough early in life he was a strong Federalist, Ashe later stood warmly for states' rights and became ardently Jeffersonian. Always interested in education, he served on the board of Innes Academy in Wilmington and was president of the board of trustees of The University of North Carolina. Ashe married first a cousin, Mary Porter, to whom were born three sons, John Baptista, Cincinnatus, and Samuel. John Baptista, after a distinctive military career, was speaker of the house and a member of the Continental and U.S. Congresses; he was elected governor but died before being inaugurated. After the death of his first wife, Ashe married Mrs. Elizabeth Jones Merrick, by whom he had several children; only one, Thomas, lived to maturity.

Although no portrait is known to exist, Samuel Ashe is described by James Sprunt, in a quotation from G. J. McRee, as being "of stalwart frame, endowed with practical good sense, a profound knowledge of human nature, and an energy that eventually raised him to the bench and the post of governor." Asheville (previously Morristown), Asheboro, and Ashe County were named in his honor. He died at Rocky Point, Pender County, where his grave is well marked and kept in the cemetery of his once lovely plantation, The Neck.

Additional information from NCpedia editors at the State Library of North Carolina: 

This person enslaved and owned other people. Many Black and African people, their descendants, and some others were enslaved in the United States until the Thirteenth Amendment abolished slavery in 1865. It was common for wealthy landowners, entrepreneurs, politicians, institutions, and others to enslave people and use enslaved labor during this period. To read more about the enslavement and transportation of African people to North Carolina, visit To read more about slavery and its history in North Carolina, visit - Government and Heritage Library, 2023


Appleton's Cyclopedia of American Biography, vol. 1 (1887).

Samuel A. Ashe, ed., History of North Carolina, vol. 1 (1908).

Asheville Citizen, 6 Mar. 1936.

R. D. W. Connor, History of North Carolina (1919).

DAB, vol. 1 (1928).

John H. Wheeler, Reminiscences and Memoirs of North Carolina (1883–84).

Additional Resources:

Gilpatrick, Delbert Harold, and J. Edwin Hendricks. 1967. Jeffersonian democracy in North Carolina, 1789-1816. New York: Octagon Books.

Malone, Dumas. 1932. Dictionary of American biography,  Vol. 1. London: Milford.

"North Carolina: County Tables (continued): Salisbury District, Guilford County - Wilmington District, Onslow County." 1790 Census: Heads of Families at the First Census of the United States Taken in the Year 1790. United States Census Bureau. 1790. Accessed April 25, 2023 at:

Samuel Ashe Papers, North Carolina State Archives, Raleigh, NC, USA.|Full%20text&applyState=true

Sobel, Robert, and John Raimo. 1978. Biographical directory of the governors of the United States, 1789-1978. Westport, Conn: Meckler Books.

Sprunt, James. 1973. Chronicles of the Cape Fear River. Spartanburg, S.C.: Reprint Co.

WorldCat (Searches numerous library catalogs)

Image Credits:

Samuel Ashe to George Washington, Raleigh, December 30, 1796. George Washington Papers at the Library of Congress. American Memory. Library of Congress. (accessed February 25, 2013).

"Samuel Ashe North Carolina historical marker," ID: D-7. North Carolina Highway Historical Marker Program, Research Branch of the North Carolina Office of Archives and History, Raleigh, NC, USA.