Washington Duke

Washington Duke

Statue of Washington Duke at Duke University's East Campus
Born George Washington Duke
(1820-12-18)December 18, 1820
Orange County, North Carolina
Died May 8, 1905(1905-05-08) (aged 84)
Spouse(s) Mary Caroline Clinton (1825–1847) m. 1842–1847
Artelia Roney (1829–1858) m. 1852
Children Sidney Taylor Duke (1844–1858)
Brodie Leonidas Duke (1846–1919)
Mary Elizabeth Duke (1853–1899)
Benjamin Newton Duke
James Buchanan Duke
Parent(s) Taylor Duke (c1770–1830)
Dicey Jones (born c1780)

George Washington Duke (December 18, 1820 – May 8, 1905) was an American tobacco industrialist and philanthropist who fought in the American Civil War.

Early Life & Civil War

Washington Duke was born on December 18, 1820 in eastern Orange County, North Carolina, in what is today the township of Bahama. The eighth of ten children of Taylor Duke and Dicey Jones, Washington worked as a tenant farmer until he married Mary Caroline Clinton in 1842. At the time of their marriage, his father-in-law gave the couple 72 acres of land located in what is today Durham County. It was on this land that he began his career as a subsistence farmer. The couple had two sons: Sidney Taylor Duke, and Brodie Leonidas Duke. Mary Duke died in 1847 at the age of 22.

In 1852, Duke built a homestead for his second wife, Artelia Roney, who was from Alamance County, North Carolina. It still exists.[1] Artelia gave birth to three children between 1853 and 1856: daughter, Mary Elizabeth Duke, and sons, Benjamin Newton Duke, and James Buchanan Duke (more commonly known as "Buck"). In 1858, oldest son Sidney caught typhoid fever and died. Artelia, who had been caring for Sidney, also succumbed to the illness ten days later.

Very little is known about Duke's antebellum views on politics. However, a majority of people in the Piedmont region of North Carolina leaned towards the Unionist position.[2] Furthermore, the region's views on the issue of slavery was more of ambivalence, rather than strong feelings in favor or in opposition to slavery, and "while substantial numbers of white in the piedmont were not directly connected to the institution [of slavery], they nonetheless mostly accepted its presence without thinking."[3] It is known that Duke owned one enslaved person, named Caroline, whom he purchased for $601, and had hired out the labor of an enslaved person from his neighbors to work on his farm.[4]

At the outbreak of the American Civil War, Duke was 40 years old, too old for the initial conscription into service for the Confederacy. However, the second Confederate Conscription Act passed in September 1862 increased the draft-eligible age to 45. Duke, aware that he would soon be called into military service, held a sale at his home on October 20, 1863, to sell the entirety of his farm equipment.[5] He enlisted in the Confederate navy, and served in Charleston, SC, and Richmond, VA, until his capture by Union forces in April 1865. After a brief stint in a Federal prison, he was paroled and was sent by ship to New Bern, and from there, walked 134 miles back to his homestead.[6]

Tobacco Career & Durham

After the war, Duke decided to abandon farming in favor of tobacco manufacture. In 1865, using a converted corn crib as a factory, Duke started his first company, "W. Duke and Sons" and began production of pipe tobacco which they called, "Pro Bono Publico" (For the Public Good).[7] According to Duke, he along with his sons, Ben and Buck, managed to produce somewhere between 400 and 500 pounds of pipe tobacco per day.[8] As their company slowly prospered, they built a two-story factory on the homestead in 1869. In 1874, Washington Duke sold his farm and moved his family into the rapidly growing city of Durham. He and his sons built a factory on Main Street, and Washington spent the rest of the decade as a traveling salesman for “Pro Bono Publico.”

In 1880, at the age of 66, Washington Duke sold his share in the business to Richard Harvey Wright, a farmer from nearby Franklin County. W. Duke & Sons & Co., led by his son Buck as president, would eventually achieve great success as a manufacturer of cigarettes. This business would one day grow into the American Tobacco Company, which became the largest tobacco manufacturer in the world.

After selling his share in the company, Duke became more involved with local politics as a member of the Republican Party, along with charity and philanthropic works.[9] A lifelong member and supporter of the Methodist church, Duke began to invest financially in supporting local churches, as well as institutions of higher learning. Using his influence, Duke helped to bring Trinity College (a Methodist college) to Durham from Randolph County in 1890.[10] In 1896 while the institution was struggling financially, Duke gave Trinity $100,000, under terms that Trinity "open its doors to women, placing them on equal footing with men."[11] In appreciation, the school offered to rename itself after Duke, which Washington declined.

Washington Duke died on May 8, 1905 at the age of 84 years old. He was originally interred at Maplewood Cemetery in Durham (but would later be re-interred after the completion of the Duke Memorial Chapel). In the 1910s, members of the Duke family began to plan what would become The Duke Endowment. Washington's youngest son, James B. Duke, cemented the family legacy in December 1924 by signing the indenture for the $40,000,000 Duke Endowment. In appreciation, Trinity College changed their name to Duke University, in honor of Washington Duke, who had been a supporter of Trinity for decades. Today, a statue of Washington Duke sits on the university's East Campus, watching over the school he had supported for so many years.


Further reading


  1. Durden, Robert F. (1975). The Dukes of Durham: 1865-1929. Duke University Press. p. 4.
  2. Durden, Robert F. (1975). The Dukes of Durham: 1865-1929. Duke University Press. p. 7.
  3. Brown, David. "North Carolinian Ambivalence." North Carolinians in the Era of the Civil War and Reconstruction. Chapel Hill: U of North Carolina, 2008. 10.
  4. Durden, 8.
  5. Durden, 7.
  6. Durden, 10.
  7. Durden, 13
  8. Durden, 14.
  9. Durden, 19.
  10. Durden, 93.
  11. Durden, 100.
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