Sampson, James (1806-1861)

Variant Name(s):

James D. Sampson; James Drawborn Sampson


Sampson County, North Carolina, USA


  • Wilmington, North Carolina


  • Carpenter/Joiner

James Sampson (August 7, 1806-April 4, 1861) was a Wilmington carpenter born into slavery and manumitted as a young man, who became one of the wealthiest free people of color in antebellum North Carolina. He and his children became prominent citizens in Wilmington and elsewhere. No known buildings are credited to him or his workshop.

Despite his prominence and that of his family, there is little documentation of his early life beyond family tradition. The best-known account of James Sampson’s background appears in an article by James B. Browning in the Negro History Bulletin of January 1940, which related stories Browning gathered from Sampson’s descendants, few of which can be corroborated or denied by known records. Browning described Sampson as “the son and slave of a rich planter in Sampson County.” When James was about eighteen, reported Browning, in 1819 his father took him to Wilmington and “found a suitable location, set him up as a carpenter (James had been well-trained in this work), and liberated him.” Over time, the planter brought to his son “several slave boys to be trained and instructed by James whom he told, ‘Do for them what I have done for you.’” Browning stated, “The record of the family shows that James followed minutely the injunction of his father, for he treated the young men as though they were apprentices rather than slaves and trained them so well that he produced a number of efficient carpenters by the name of Sampson.” Browning reported that despite laws against it, James Sampson taught his slaves and other youths how to read and write as well as instructing them in religion, and he served as a minister who preached primarily to slave audiences. Among the men James D. Sampson may have trained was Henry D. Sampson, a house carpenter who became a leading churchman at St. Mark’s Episcopal Church after the war.

Other family information appears in a biographical sketch of James Sampson’s son John Patterson Sampson, which was published in 1904, during John’s lifetime. It identified John’s parents as James Drawhorn Sampson and Fanny (Kellogg) Sampson and his grandparents as Drawhorn and Susan Sampson and Manerva (Green) Kellogg. John H. Jackson, a former slave in Wilmington, born in 1851, recalled in 1937, “We had a lot of those mulatto negroes round here . . . they was free issues and part Indian. The leader of ‘em was James Sampson.”

James Sampson was named in the United States Census for the first time in 1840, which listed him as a free man of color and a head of a household of 14 free people of color in Wilmington, at a time when only heads of households were named in the census. Thus far no record has been located of when he obtained his freedom. In the 1850 census, the first to name all free people, he was listed as a 44-year-old mulatto carpenter with $14,000 worth of real estate and the owner of 7 slaves including 5 men of working age. That census showed Fanny Sampson, aged 37 or 39, as James’s wife, and their children as James, 20, Joseph, 18, and Benjamin, 16, all three apprentices; John, 14; May, 7, George, 8, Fanny, 4, and Nathan, 2. By 1860 at age 53 James Sampson had $26,000 in real estate and $10,000 (or $14,000) in personal property, the latter probably including slaves, though he does not appear as an owner in the slave schedule in the 1860 census. His family at home comprised Francenia (i. e. Fanny), 47, and their children James, a shoemaker; Joseph, a carpenter; and Eliza, Fannie, and Susan. Other free household members included mulatto carpenters Ben Freeman and William Campbell and several domestic servants. In 1861 the inventory of Sampson’s estate listed several buildings and lots in Wilmington, his residence on 3rd Street, a lot and workshop on 2nd Street, tools and lumber, abundant household goods, a buggy and carriage, shares of stock in the Wilmington and Manchester Railroad, and five slaves including a boy named Henry. He left much of his estate to Fanny and after her death to their children. Typical of the times, he was owed and owed substantial debts.

Sampson and his family placed great emphasis on education. Browning reported that Sampson engaged a tutor from Massachusetts to instruct his children, some of whom went north for schooling, and some of whom became teachers at a local school he founded. Daughter Fanny became an educator after the war. Son Benjamin attended Oberlin College and taught at Wilberforce College. Joseph E. and Nathan Sampson returned to Wilmington and held local offices after the war. Joseph practiced as a house carpenter in Wilmington and in 1870 at age 38 headed a household that included his wife, Caroline; Frances, aged 58 (his mother, Fanny); and his younger siblings John P., Minerva, Nathan, and Susan. In 1880 Fanny headed her own household that included her schoolteacher daughter Susan and a granddaughter, also Susan; at her death in 1882 she bequeathed her considerable property to her children. Susan, also a teacher, married in 1882 fellow teacher James B. Dudley, who became the founding president of present North Carolina A&T University in Greensboro. Son John P. attended school in New Bern, then moved north, studied in Boston, and served as editor of a Cincinnati newspaper. He returned to Wilmington early in 1865 and was among the delegates from that community at the Freedmen’s Convention in Raleigh that fall. He held local political offices in Wilmington, but then moved to Washington, D. C., and later to New Jersey, and served for some forty years as a minister of the A. M. E. Church. James Sampson was buried in Wilmington’s Pine Forest Cemetery, where his grave is marked by an impressive stone inscribed with his birth and death dates and the following text:

Many my beloved have mourned for thee.
And yet shall many mourn:
Long as thy name on earth shall be
In sweet remembrance borne
By those who loved thee here and love
Thy spirit still in realms above.
While thine absence we deplore,
Though we behold thy face no more,
In peace thine ashes sleep.
My soul with thine desires to rest
Supremely and forever blest.
Thou art not dead thou could’st not die.
To nobler life thou wert borne.
Farewell but not a long farewell, in Heaven may I appear
The trials of my faith to tell, in thy transported ear.
Erected by his beloved wife, Fanny Sampson.

Note: There are few records to corroborate or deny the family accounts of James Sampson’s life. Few manumission bonds survive in New Hanover or Sampson counties, and none concerning James Sampson, though court minutes might contain such a record. Possibly significant, too, is a codicil to the will of Mary Sampson, who died in 1830 in Wilmington and was evidently the widow of Sampson County planter James Sampson (grave marker, Oakdale Cemetery, Wilmington). Her will of January 24, 1829 made specific bequests of land and slaves cited by name. She also added an undated codicil (probably 1830) stating, “I observe that it was my full determination to emancipate my servant James in my lifetime, but as I have not been able to accomplish this my wish I direct and request my executors will have it done as soon as is in their power—in the mean time it is my direction that he be alowed [sic] to work for himself without been [sic] subject to pay wages to any one.” Her estate papers contain no mention of James. The codicil raises the possibility that Mary Sampson’s “servant James” might have been the house carpenter James Sampson, perhaps still enslaved but operating essentially as a free man—not an uncommon arrangement—who might have reminded her of her intention as she neared her death. Further investigation may clarify the events of James Sampson’s early life.

  • James B. Browning, “James D. Sampson,” Negro History Bulletin (Jan. 1940).
  • James B. Browning, “The Free Negro in Ante-bellum North Carolina,” North Carolina Historical Review, 15.1 (Jan. 1938).
  • John Hope Franklin, The Free Negro in North Carolina (1971).
  • Rossiter Johnson and John Howard Brown, eds., The Twentieth Century Biographical Dictionary of Notable Americans (1904).
  • New Hanover County Estates Papers, Mary Sampson and James Sampson Estates Papers, North Carolina Office of Archives and History, Raleigh, North Carolina.
  • George P. Rawick, ed., The American Slave: A Composite Autobiography, 1 (1972).
  • William Reaves Collection, New Hanover County Public Library, Wilmington, North Carolina.
  • William M. Reaves and Beverly Tetterton, “Strength Through Struggle”: The Chronological and Historical Record of the African-American Community in Wilmington, North Carolina, 1865-1900 (1998).
  • James Sampson grave marker, Pine Forest Cemetery, Wilmington, North Carolina.
  • Mary Sampson grave marker, Oakdale Cemtery, Wilmington, North Carolina.
  • United States Census.