Jehudi Ashmun

Jehudi Ashmun (1794-1828) was the white American governor of Liberia Colony, West Africa, whose leadership enabled the early settlement at Monrovia to survive armed attacks from local Africans.

Jehudi Ashmun was born on a farm near Champlain, N.Y., on April 21, 1794. He studied at Middlebury College and graduated from the University of Vermont in 1816. In 1818 after 2 years as principal of a theological academy in Maine he resigned following a misunderstanding over his marriage of that year. He failed as editor of the Constellation, a Baltimore religious weekly, and as editor of the Theological Repository, a Washington monthly magazine of the Episcopal Church.

While in Washington in 1820 Ashmun learned of the work of the American Colonization Society (ACS) and wrote several articles supporting it. Intrigued, he started a newspaper, the African Intelligencer, to publicize the ACS program of sending free African Americans from America to found a colony in West Africa. The newspaper did not last, but Ashmun was still enthralled by the first settlement established at Monrovia. In 1822 he published Memoir of the Life … of Samuel Bacon, concerning the ACS official who had helped settle the first contingent of African American emigrants before himself succumbing to malaria. In 1822 Ashmun was put in charge of 37 African Americans who were emigrating to Africa; his wife made the trip with him, for they expected to return to the United States.

When he arrived in Monrovia in August, Ashmun found the colony of about 120 people demoralized, without supplies or leadership from the ACS, and under military threat from hostile Africans. Assuming control without authorization from the ACS, he skillfully directed the fortification and successful defense of the settlement.

Despite the recurring malaria that weakened him and killed his wife and despite the early antagonisms of some ACS officials, Ashmun remained in Africa. Later, in executing the authoritarian orders of the ACS, he made enemies of the settlers, who, under Lott Cary, rebelled and forced him to retreat to the Cape Verde Islands temporarily in 1824. The most enlightened of the white colonial agents, still Ashmun did not believe in the equality of blacks and whites. With the help of Ralph R. Gurley, new secretary of the ACS, Ashmun liberalized the government of the colony and once more won the support of the Liberians. (Gurley later wrote a biography of Ashmun.) Between 1824 and 1828 he governed the settlement, built up and fortified Monrovia, and consolidated Liberian commercial and political control over the coastal areas north and south of the town.

Trade with the Africans was lucrative and most Liberians wanted to be merchants. Although he himself was a trader, Ashmun published a booklet, The Liberian Farmer (1826), to encourage agriculture. Ashmun's reports to the ACS provide the basic history of early Liberia, and he also published History of the American Colony in Liberia, 1821-1823 (1826).

During his 6 years in Africa, Ashmun was in poor health. Early in 1828 he left Africa for the West Indies and then for the United States, hoping to regain his health. He died on August 25, shortly after his arrival in New Haven, at the age of 34. The survival of Liberia is his principal monument.


Further Reading on Jehudi Ashmun

The authoritative account of Ashmun's life was written by his close friend, Ralph Randolph Gurley, Life of Jehudi Ashmun: Late Colonial Agent in Liberia (1835). It includes a number of letters and other documents written by Ashmun. For a detailed account of his career in Liberia see Charles Henry Huberich, The Political and Legislative History of Liberia (2 vols., 1947). A recent evaluation of Ashmun's work in the American Colonization Society is in P. J. Staudenraus, The African Colonization Movement, 1816-1865 (1961). There is a brief biographical sketch of Ashmun in Stewart H. Holbrook, Lost Men of American History (1946).