Family on a Small Farm

“I have made more furrows in God’s earth than any man forty years old in North Carolina.”

In December of 1820, Taylor Duke and Dicey Jones Duke welcomed their eighth child into the world, a boy they named Washington. The family lived on a farm in Orange County, North Carolina in what is today Bahama.

In 1842, Washington Duke married Mary Caroline Clinton and moved onto land given to them by her family. The couple had two sons, Sidney Taylor Duke (b. 1844) and Brodie Leonidas Duke (b. 1846). Unfortunately, when Brodie was little over a year old, his mother passed away.  

During this time the census tells us that Washington’s younger brother, Robert, came to live with the family and is listed as a student on the 1850 census. The census also lists twenty-five year-old Alexander Weaver as a member of the household. It is believed that he was a free laborer working for the Dukes.  There are two other black families listed on the census in the neighborhood.

Washington Duke

In 1852 Washington remarried to a woman from the Haw River area, Artelia Roney. The two met at a Methodist revival and Washington Duke completed building the family home that same year. The pair quickly had three more children: Mary Elizabeth Duke (b. 1853), Benjamin Newton Duke (b. 1855), and James Buchanan Duke (b. 1856) who everyone called “Buck.” 

Washington Duke on the porch of his old homestead in 1904. (Courtesy J.B. Duke Papers, Box 57, David M. Rubenstein Rare Book and Manuscript Library, Duke University.)

There is also record that from 1855 until around 1860, the family owned one enslaved person named Caroline. Most likely, Caroline would have helped take care of the small children along with other household duties. Other records show that Washington Duke rented the labor of an enslaved person named Jim in the years preceding the Civil War.

In 1858, Duke’s oldest son, Sidney, fell sick with Typhoid fever. Artelia caught this disease from him and the two passed away that year. Washington Duke never remarried, though he remained a farmer on the property.

A Country at War

When the Civil War begin in 1861, Washington Duke was in his earlier forties and remained out of the war. However, due to a shortage of troops the Confederate government enacted conscription laws which forced men up to the age of forty-five to join the service, pulling 43-year old Duke into the war. He sent his children to the Roney home in Alamance County, except for Brodie who accompanied him into the service.

Duke decided to sell all his farm belongings and had converted all his means into tobacco by the end of 1863.  It is not clear whether he sold or rented the homestead; however, he was to receive payment in leaf tobacco which was to be stored on the property.

During his brief military career, Duke was captured by Union forces and imprisoned in Richmond, Virginia.  At the end of the war the Federals released and shipped him to New Bern, North Carolina.  Lacking money and transportation, the veteran walked back to his homestead--a distance of 135 miles.


New Beginnings and New Business

Washington Duke returned home after the war to begin what would grow to be the largest tobacco manufacturing business in the world. The start, however, was humble. Duke converted his corn crib into the family’s first factory and he and his children began manufacturing pipe tobacco inside it.

They named their business W. Duke & Sons and called their product Pro Bono Publico. Washington took the manufactured leaf on a peddling trip into eastern North Carolina. The Trip was a success; merchants in small towns and villages were the best customers.

Washington Duke’s business grew quickly and soon he was converting another building into a factory and by 1869, built a third factory on the property. Until that time, there had been no building on the property built specifically for the manufacture of smoking tobacco. 

Duke's Second Factory which operated until 1869. (Courtesy State Archives of North Carolina)

 By 1873, the Dukes were producing around 125,000 pounds of smoking tobacco annually. By 1874, their business had grown to the point where the family was ready to move off the property and into the growing city of Durham. 

The Move into Durham

“As for me, I am going into the cigarette business.”

When Washington Duke moved his business into downtown Durham in April of 1874, he purchased two acres of land next to the railroad which ran through Durham. There Duke and his sons built a new factory, with Benjamin and Buck given equal partnership in running the company.

While the sons assumed much of the responsibility running the company, Washington Duke traveled through out the country and concentrated on promoting the company's products. 

W. Duke and Sons Factory on Main Street in Durham next to Washington Duke's new home.

(Courtesy Duke Homestead State Historic Site, Division of State Historic Sites and Properties, North Carolina Department of Cultural Resources)

Early hand methods used in cigarette production were slow and tedious; an expert could roll only about four per minute.  W. Duke Sons and Company and other firms began to hire immigrants from eastern Europe who were skilled in cigarette making.  As cigarettes grew in popularity, tobacco companies began the search for a mechanical method of manufacturing them rapidly. In 1884, Duke company decided to take a chance on the Bonsack cigarette rolling machine, leasing and installing two of the devices in their Durham factory.  

Believing that the new Bonsack machine eventually would eliminate hand processing of cigarettes, James B. Duke went to New York to establish a branch of the company there. W. Duke, Sons and Company was becoming the leading cigarette producer in the country.  Increased advertising efforts enabled the firm to outsell its competitors.

Above: Map of The Duke homes and factory buildings in Durham in July of 1884. Find the full map here.

However, Duke was not the only tobacco manufacturer in town. Around what had once been simply Durham’s Station – a stop on the railroad – tobacco warehouses and manufacturing businesses had sprung up since the war. More and more people were moving into Durham seeking work and the town was growing in population and diversity. 

It was the closeness of the competition, particularly that of Blackwell’s Bull Durham, which led youngest son, Buck Duke, to make the decision to manufacture cigarettes in 1880. The practice of using cigarettes had begun to spread from the European countries to the United States around 1860.  


By 1887, most of the tobacco industry fell under control of the five largest cigarette manufactures - the Dukes and their four most important competitors: the Allen and Ginter Company of Richmond, the F. S. Kinney Company and the Goodwin Company both of New York, and William S. Kimball and Company of Rochester. For Buck Duke, now president of W. Duke Sons & Company, the solution to this competition was a merger of the companies. 

After discussing the merger, and following a period of excessive spending on advertising, the large rival firms agreed to the Dukes' plan of merger.  In 1890, the five principal companies united to form the American Tobacco Company with Buck Duke as the company's president.  This combination quickly became known as the "tobacco trust" because of its almost complete monopoly of the tobacco trade.

James Duke (left) with brother,Ben Duke (right). (Courtesy J. B. Duke Papers, Box 56-A, David M. Rubenstein Rare Book and Manuscript Library, Duke University)

In 1890, James B. Duke controlled the largest tobacco industry in the world and the combined firms continued to grow in the next two decades. Even Bull Durham was now a brand owned by American Tobacco.  However, by the turn of the century, anti-trust sentiment was increasing rapidly in the United States.  The prevailing feeling of the public that monopolies were harmful concentrations of power resulted in the dissolution of the American Tobacco Company by a ruling of the United States Supreme Court in 1911.  Four major tobacco corporations were among those companies which emerged from the separation of the trust: a new American Tobacco Company, Liggett and Myers, P. Lorillard, and R. J. Reynolds.

From Trinity to Duke

"Tell them every man to think for himself."

Trinity College began as a Methodist College in Randolph County, North Carolina.The Dukes involvement began after the Civil War. At the time, the Methodist Church in North Carolina did not have the funds to support the institution and the school lacked the leadership of a strong president. However with the appointment of President Crowell in 1887, things begin looking up for Trinity. Ben Duke gave the struggling institution $1,000 that year, beginning the family's association with Trinity. 

Trinity College student body, 1891

Not long after, Washington Duke solidified Trinity's move to Durham by helping the city outbid Raleigh to bring the College to the Bull City. The Duke family matched Raleigh's offer of $35,000 and gave an additional $50,000 for endowment. Julian Shakespear Carr, another prominent Durham businessman, provided fifty acres of land as a site for the school. 

The Duke family continued their support of Trinity, with Washington serving on the building committee and Ben and Buck Duke lending their monetary support. Trinity was not the only institution to receive the support of the Duke family in the late 19th century. The family regularly gave to the Oxford Orphan Asylum and Kittrell College. Long before the existence of Duke Hospital, the family found themselves heavily involved with both Watts and Lincoln Hospitals.

As for Trinity, Washington Duke endowed the school with $100,000 in 1895. Though they refused to have the school renamed as "Duke College," Washington informed Trinity that the money came with the condition that the college "open its doors to women, placing them on equal footing with men."

The Trinity student body celebrates Washington's gift to the school outside of his home in Durham.

 (Courtesy J.B. Duke Papers, David M. Rubenstein Rare Book and Manuscript Library, Duke University.)

Trinity College Campus in Durham 1903 - 1909 (Courtesy: Duke University Archives. Durham, North Carolina, USA.)

The support of the Duke family helped Trinity to grow not only its student body and campus but in the quality of the faculty and fields of study as well. Most importantly the family supported the academic freedom of the professors teaching at the school. Dukes began to attend Trinity with both Ben Duke's son and daughter graduating in the early 1900's. 

Through the nineteen-teens, seeds of what would become The Duke Endowment began to be planted. However, it was not until 1924 that Buck Duke signed the indenture for The Duke Endowment handing over $40,000,000 to the trustees of the Endowment. Thanks to the Endowment, Trinity College became Duke University.