A collection of letters, papers and photos from one of western North Carolina's most powerful families through the 18th and 19th centuries lay unorganized and undocumented at UNC's Wilson Library.
It was Laura Knodel, a SILS graduate student, who was given the task of cataloging the Avery family collection and in the process, discovered just how interesting the family was.
"The Averys typify powerful families in the state at that time who were involved in a variety of things, including law, politics and business," said Knodel, a Bossier City, La., native. Knodel, who will graduate in May, is earning dual master's degrees in library science from UNC and public history from NC State University .
Knodel was given the task of cataloging the Avery family collection while working as a research assistant at Wilson Library. After going through the materials, she felt the collection was worthy of being exhibited.
“I thought they were just very interesting people, and their papers had never been on display,” Knodel said.
"The Avery Family of North Carolina," an exhibit in Wilson Library, presented 32 documents and three photos tracing plantation life, service in the Revolutionary and Civil wars and much more.
For the exhibit, she chose items from among many in the Southern Historical Collection. The Avery Family Papers are representative of many family collections available for research in Wilson, said Tim West, Southern Historical Collection director and curator of the manuscripts department. The exhibit was sponsored by the Southern Historical Collection.
Dating from 1786 to 1894, the items exhibited included family letters – some from sons who were away fighting for the Confederacy – plantation registers, land grants, bills of sale for land and slaves, property inventories and wills.
Knodel thought one of the most interesting finds in the collection was an 1832 letter showing the other side of the 19th-century debate on slavery. The letter, from a business associate of the Avery family, declares the institution "a great political, as well as moral, evil." The author goes on to detail his plans to allow the slaves he buys from the Averys to return to Africa.
The exhibit also included photos of the family plantation in Burke County; William Waightstill Avery, who gave the 1850 commencement address at Carolina and was on the university's Board of Trustees; and Alphonso Calhoun Avery, an N.C. Supreme Court Justice from 1888-1897.
The dynasty began when William and Alphonso's grandfather, Waightstill Avery, moved to North Carolina in 1769. Born in Connecticut, he had graduated from Princeton and studied law in Maryland. By 1818, he owned vast amounts of land in western North Carolina – 13,000 acres in Burke County alone. Avery County, northwest of Burke, is named for Waightstill.
Under colonial rule, Avery was a member of the provincial assembly and attorney general for the Crown. He resigned those positions in the 1770s and began working for independence. He led the Jones County militia during the Revolutionary War, until 1781, earning the rank of colonel. During that time, Avery bought Swans Pond Plantation in Burke County and sent his family there.
He was on committees that wrote the Mecklenburg Resolves in 1775 and North Carolina 's constitution in 1776. The resolves declared English laws that had governed the county "null and vacated" and set forth new laws for "the present alarming period." The constitution, now in the state archives in Raleigh, is mostly in Avery's handwriting.
Avery was elected to the first N.C. General Assembly in 1777 and named North Carolina's first attorney general. In 1788, while trying a case in Tennessee, Avery was challenged to a duel by Andrew Jackson, a lawyer for the opposing side (later to become president, from 1829-1837). Jackson, reputed to have a fiery temper, was insulted by Avery's comments in the courtroom. After meeting at the dueling ground and firing above each other's heads, the two left as friends.
Avery's descendents were active in agriculture, law, state and local politics and business ventures including railroad construction. Avery's only son, Isaac Thomas Avery, acquired more than 50,000 acres in Mitchell and Avery counties, where he raised more cattle and horses than anyone else in western North Carolina. By 1850, he owned more than 140 slaves and several gold mines in Burke and Rutherford counties.
Several of Isaac Thomas' six sons attended Carolina. Of five who fought for the Confederacy, only one, Alphonso Calhoun Avery, survived. Three died in battle – including the former UNC trustee William Waightstill – and one after the war, from combat injuries.
Isaac Erwin Avery led two regiments against the Union position at Cemetery Hill in the Battle of Gettysburg. Struck by a bullet at the base of the neck, he wrote a note to his officer as he lay dying: "Major, tell my father I died with my face to the enemy."