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What's in a name?

Tampa street named for pioneer

Published December 12, 2003

William Ashley was one of Tampa's prominent pioneers, achieving success in business and government. He also engaged in a practice considered scandalous at the time. He had a long romance with one of his slaves.

Born in Virginia in 1804, Ashley arrived in Tampa in 1837 to work as a sutler's clerk at Fort Brooke, the Army outpost from which Tampa grew. He later became an accountant and businessman.

He served on the first Hillsborough County Commission started in Jan. 5, 1846. Within two months, he sat on a commission panel that chose a site for the courthouse, currently the location of the Tampa Police headquarters.

The next year, the County Commission hired civil engineer John Jackson to lay out Tampa's downtown streets, which remain largely unchanged. As was common practice at the time, Jackson named most of the streets after U.S. presidents and military heroes. But he bestowed a unique honor on Ashley, making him one of only two local residents to have a street named after him.

Jackson, himself, was the other.

Ashley's house, between Jackson Street and modern-day Kennedy Boulevard near the Hillsborough River, was destroyed in 1848 by a hurricane that devastated the area. In 1856, he was elected as Tampa's first city clerk.

Some records indicate that Ashley died in 1857; others point to 1873. He died a bachelor with no blood-related survivors. He had a steady romance with Nancy Ashley, one of his slaves who died in 1873.

Before his death, Ashley selected Jackson as his executor and stipulated that Nancy receive all of his possessions upon his death. Ashley also ordered Jackson to have Nancy's remains added to his grave, beneath a headstone with the following inscription:

"Here lies William Ashley and Nancy Ashley, Master and Servant. Faithful in that relation in life, in death they are not seperated (sic). Stranger consider and be wiser, In the Grave all human distinction of race or caste, mingle together in one common dust."

The headstone stands today in downtown's Oaklawn Cemetery at Morgan and Jefferson streets.

- Source: Tampa Bay History Center.

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