Ashley, William (1793-1852)
William Ashley (September 28, 1793-May 3, 1852) was a carpenter and builder prominent in Raleigh’s civic life. His early life and career are not established. He is best known for executing the carpentry work on the Raleigh Market House and Town Hall in 1840, which was planned by brick builder Dabney Cosby. His son, William D. Ashley (1827-1860), became a builder as well as a partner in the firm of Ashley and Dudley.
As related by Elizabeth Reid Murray in Wake: Capital County of North Carolina, in January 1840, after great controversy, Raleigh’s civic leaders voted to erect a new market house and town hall on a site in the second block of the east side of Fayetteville Street. The commissioners accepted a plan from builder Dabney Cosby—a “most beautiful design,” according to one report (Raleigh Weekly Standard, April 8, 1840, from the Register). William Ashley, one of the commissioners, resigned his post in order to take the contract for the woodwork of the brick building (Raleigh Register, May 5, 1840). It was completed in December of that year and praised by the Raleigh Register of December 29, 1840, as “quite an ornament to our city. Even those who were most violently opposed to its erection, have now, we believe, become convinced of the propriety of the measure.” The edifice served as both a meeting hall and a municipal market.
Although Ashley likely constructed other buildings in Raleigh, none has been identified thus far. He was evidently highly regarded in the community, as indicated in numerous newspaper citations. One of the first references to Ashley as a house carpenter appeared in the Raleigh Register of November 30, 1839, reporting that the workshop of “Mr. William Ashley, House Carpenter, in this city,” had been destroyed by fire including “a large assortment of Tools, a quantity of window-sashes, &c.” The report commented, “The loss could not have fallen on a worthier man.” During the 1840s, Ashley’s projects included making a table for the state (North-Carolina Star, December 13, 1843) and completing minor work on the Governor’s House (Raleigh Register, December 15, 1847). He may have engaged in speculative construction, as suggested by his advertisement offering “An Elegant New House for Sale,” just finished, behind the residence occupied by Mrs. M. A. McPheeters (Raleigh Register, May 12, 1843).
William Ashley’s role in Raleigh civic life included his service on the town board of commissioners (Raleigh Register, January 24, 1837, January 24, 1840, September 6, 1844) and activity in the Whig party (Raleigh Register, October 23, 1840; North-Carolina Star, October 11, 1843). He was also an early leader in the local temperance movement (Raleigh Weekly Standard, February 9, 1842). Like a number of men involved in the construction industry, he joined in forming a local Internal Improvement Association to encourage the completion of the North Carolina Rail Road that led from Goldsboro through Raleigh to Charlotte. As reported in the Raleigh Register of August 18, 1849, during an early meeting of the association, Ashley spoke strongly for the project, which would connect Raleigh to distant locales and would “give life to business, employment and good wages to mechanics, enhanced value to property, and rapid increase to our population. Those who will give one hundred dollars to this road, will give two hundred to their children.”
Little is known of Ashley’s early life and career. He may have been related to an earlier William Ashley active in the Cape Fear region in the first decade of the 19th century. The United States census of 1850 listed William Ashley in Raleigh as a carpenter aged 57 from North Carolina and the owner of $1,200 in real estate. He headed a household that included his wife Nancy and children including son William D. Ashley, 23, who owned $300 in real estate, and daughter Elizabeth, aged 18. Ashley was noted as owning one female slave, aged 50. The household was located just two doors from Silas Burns, a leading citizen and blacksmith who had worked on the State Capitol in the 1830s. The younger Ashley (see Ashley and Dudley) likely learned his trade from his father.
At his death, the Raleigh Register of May 8, 1852, described William Ashley as a man “generally beloved and respected by all who knew him,” a devoted Baptist, generous to the poor, and an early organizer of the Sons of Temperance in the state. A “large procession” of the members of that order “accompanied his remains to the grave,” in Raleigh’s City Cemetery. As the administrator of his father’s estate, William D. advertised the older man’s property in Raleigh for sale in the Raleigh Register of December 22, 1852. Several years after the older man’s death, the Raleigh Sentinel of October 26, 1866, published a tribute to him: “‘Uncle Billy,’ as he was often familiarly designated, was a good carpenter and a good citizen. . . . To be true to his work and to engagements, to his family and to himself, to his neighbors, his country, and his Maker,—this was his ambition, and the best and truest of all ambitions it is. Though denied the advantages of all but the most common education, he was a man of shrewd and reliable judgment, and of an excellent practical sense, that often caused his counsel to be sought and followed.”
- Elizabeth Reid Murray, Wake: Capital County of North Carolina, Vol. I, Prehistory through Centennial (1983).