Archives of Maryland
(Biographical Series)

Rev. John Ashton (b. circa 1742 - d. 1815)
MSA SC 5496-041715
Slave Owner, Prince George's, Maryland


    John Ashton, a Jesuit missionary, was born about 1742 in Ireland. He entered the society of Jesus on September 7, 1759, and was sent to work in Maryland in 1767.1 He worked at the Whitemarsh under the leadership of Rev. John Lewis. In 1783 a meeting was held at the Whitemarsh, where a petition was submitted for Lewis to become the Superior of the Catholic church in the United States. The petition was submitted to Pius VI who decided that Rev. John Carroll would become the Superior and Rev. Ashton was named Procurator General.2 Ashton was one of the founders of the Georgetown University and his name can be found on the original deeds to the property. He was very influential in the early works of the Catholic church in Maryland, attending meetings and assisting with final decisions. Ashton along with Rev. James Walton and Rev. Robert Molyneaux were the founders of the Corporation of the Roman Catholic Church Clergyman which was established in 1792.3 Rev. Ashton lead the White Marsh Mission, in Prince George's County for thirty-nine years. However, over the years he took up residence in Prince George's and Charles County, MD. Ashton owned land that was situated next to the Ogle family home Belair Mansion.4 John Ashton later moved to Port Tobacco in Charles County, MD.

    Ashton was a slave owner and had 82 slaves working for him by 1790.5 Most of his slaves were raised at the White Marsh church and eventually Charles County. Two groups of slaves escaped from Ashton at the end of the eighteenth century. What lead to the flight of the slaves was a lawsuit brought against Rev. John Ashton by members of the Queen and Mahoney family's. The first case in 1791 involved Ashton's slave Edward Queen, who brought a suit against his owner for assault and battery and false imprisonment, in which the court ruled in favor of the slave.6 Following this ruling, twelve members of the Queen family (Simon, Billy, Jack, Lewis, Isaac, Paul, Matthew, Tom, Billy, Nick, Tom, and Fanny) ran away  from Ashton in May 1795.7  The year following the escape the members of the Queen family who remained enslaved under Rev. Ashton petitioned the Prince George's County Court who eventually granted them freedom. Those that were manumitted include, Edward, Basil, Nelly, Charity, Jacob, John, Nicholas, Mary, Billey and Simon.8 Stephen Queen petitioned for his freedom from Ashton at a later date and was recorded in the Registry of the County Clerk in 1819.9

    In the second case brought against Ashton, another slave named Charles Mahoney sued him on the grounds that he was descended from a free woman named Ann Joice. The case which was filed in 1791 was postponed until 1795 so that lawyers could gather evidence. Mahoney was initially represented by future Supreme Court Justice, Gabriel Duvall, in the suit against Rev. Ashton, but was later given legal counsel by Jonathan R. Wilmer.10 Ashton's lawyers argued that Mahoney's ancestor Ann Joice was never a free woman and was the slave of of Henry Darnall. Several witnesses of the Maryland gentry gave accounts of what they knew about the Joice family. Many of the deponents who acted as witnesses on behalf of Mahoney could not prove that Joice was a free woman. In addition to the lack of evidence, many of the witnesses were deemed bad characters. The one thing agreed upon by both sides is that Charles Mahoney was indeed the great-great grandson of Ann Joice. After years of deliberation, the General Court ruled that Charles Mahoney was free. This ruling did not last long because the decision was appealed.11 The Mahoney case affected other Maryland Gentry including Charles Carroll of Carrollton who also owned other Mahoney family members. Following the suit Charles Mahoney and his brother Patrick fled from Ashton in 1798.12 It is not clear whether the Mahoney's were successful in their escape, but by 1802 the court ruled in favor of Rev. Ashton in the petition that was filed by them for their freedom. However, Ashton who relocated to Charles County, MD around this time, manumitted Charles and Patrick Mahoney in 1804.13 The very next year Rev. Ashton manumitted their younger brother Daniel Mahoney.14

    Rev. Ashton's relationship with his slaves continued to be tumultuous throughout his lifetime. In 1803, two slaves Moses and Isaac escaped from his property in Port Tobacco.15 In addition to the escapes the children and grandchildren of the Queen and Mahoney family continued to petition Maryland Courts for their freedom. He also faced challenges within the catholic church. By this time he was considered an ecentric among his peers, who in turn considered some of his business dealings to be questionable. Ashton made numerous land transactions without the consent of the Jesuit church.

    Father John Ashton died February 8, 1815 in Charles County, Maryland and stated in his will that he wished to be buried at St. Thomas's burying ground.16 Also mentioned in his will were several tracts of land that he bequeathed to his close friend, Rev. Notley Young. Rev. Ashton also provided in his will that two youth's, Charles and Elizabeth Queen, (children of Susanna Queen) were to receive the unalienated part of a tract of land called Litchfield in Charles County where they already lived. The Queen's were also given horses, hogs, cattle, and utensils. In addition to the livestock, Ashton left Charles and Elizabeth Queen, a negro man called Butler and a negro woman called Linny and her children.17 Ashton does not mention the race of Charles and Elizabeth Queen in his will, but it is possible that they are relatives of the family that fled from the White Marsh.

1.    Thomas Campbell, "John Ashton." The Catholic Encyclopedia. Vol. 1. New York: Robert Appleton Company, 1907. 16 Nov. 2011,

2.    John G. Shea. Life of Archbishop Carroll: A History of the Catholic Church Within the Limits of the United States (New Jersey, The Mershon Company Press, 1888), 241.

3.    General Assembly (Session Laws) November 4, 1805 - January 28, 1806, Vol. 607, 97.

4.    Shirley V. Baltz.

5.    United States Census Bureau (Census Record, MD) 1790, Prince George's County, 1.

6.    Dorothy S. Provine. Registration of Free Negroes 1806-1863: Prince George's County, Maryland. (Washington, DC, Colombian Harmony Society, 1990), 2.

7.    "Twelve Pounds Reward", Maryland Gazette, 07 May 1795, pg. 3.

8.    Prince George's County, Certificates of Freedom, 1806-1829, Vol. 762, pg. 5-8, 21-22, 46, 65, 112, and 265.

9.      Provine, 29

10.    Eric Robert Papenfuse. "From Recompense to Revolution: Mahoney vs. Ashton and the Transfiguration of Maryland Culture, 1791-1802", Slavery & Abolition, 38-39.

11.    ibid, 40-45.

12.    "Sixteen Dollars Reward", Maryland Gazette, 11 January 1798, pg. 2.

13.    Charles County Court (Land Records) Liber IB 6 , 117-118.

 14.    ibid, 418

15.    "Forty Dollar Reward", Maryland Gazette, 10 February 1803.

16.    Thomas A. Hughes. History of the Society of Jesus in North America: Colonial and Federal (Cleveland: The Burrows Brother Company, 1910), 717.

17.    Charles County Register of Wills (Wills), Liber HB, 460-461.

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