Ask Hamilton – William “Uncle Bill” Lewis

William “Uncle Bill” Lewis

 

Dear Hamilton,

I saw a historical marker on the corner of Market and 7th about William “Uncle Bill” Lewis. It said he was born a slave but earned enough money as a blacksmith to purchase his freedom. Could you tell me more about this gentleman?

Sincerely,
Urban Explorer

William “Uncle Bill” Lewis
From a Chattanooga Times drawing, circa 1895

On the Corner of Market and 7th
This historical marker identifies the location of his blacksmith shop.

Dear Explorer,

You have come across the former location of Uncle Bill’s blacksmith shop!  Uncle Bill’s life story is a fascinating tale of one of Chattanooga’s first entrepreneurs!

William T. Lewis, or Uncle Bill as he became known, was born a slave to Colonel Lewis in Winchester, Tennessee, in 1810. Lewis’ owner taught him the blacksmith trade as soon as he could walk. Lewis earned his owner a lot of money and was even able to earn his own money by working in off hours.

By 1837, he had saved $1,000 and was able to buy his wife’s freedom, so their future children would be born free. That same year, Lewis moved to Chattanooga to set up a blacksmith shop. He paid his owner $350 dollars a year in exchange.

Over the next 14 years, he earned enough money to buy his own freedom, as well as his mother’s and his three siblings’. In total, he spent $5,100 to free himself and his family, an amount equal to well over $100,000 today.

Even as a free man, Lewis was unable to conduct business in his own name, so he had to pay a white man to legalize all of his transactions.  Even with these extra costs, Lewis’ business continued to prosper, and he was able to own his own home and hire workers to operate his shop. He sent several of his children up North to be educated, and by 1860, at age 50, he reported a net worth of $7,000, equivalent to over $150,000 today.

During the Civil War, blacksmith skills were in high demand, and Lewis became involved in The Great Locomotive Chase. As the story goes, Lewis’ son George, who had trained as a blacksmith under him, was sent to Swaim’s Jail to fit a captured escapee with leg irons. This escapee was one of Andrew’s Raiders, a group of Union soldiers who stole the famous locomotive, The General, to destroy the railroad supply line between Atlanta and Chattanooga. While Lewis’ blacksmithing skills were undoubtedly used to help the Confederacy, he was able to send the prisoners vegetables from his garden to make sure they were fed.

Lewis continued to prosper after the war and was said to have been well-loved by all. He passed on September 2, 1896, and is buried in Chattanooga’s Forest Hills Cemetery.

Yours sincerely,
Hamilton Bush
Resident History Hound
Chattanooga, Tennessee

The Lewis Family
Pictured here with his family, Lewis is seated on the second row, far right.

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