Central Washington University Professor Mark Auslander may have just solved the riddle behind an intriguing historical Charleston artifact.

“Ashley’s Sack,” owned by Middleton Place and on loan at The Smithsonian National Museum of African American History and Culture, is a bag discovered at a Tennessee flea market in 2007 that holds the tragic story of a Lowcountry slave mother and daughter. On the bag, delicately sewn in needlepoint, is the following inscription:

“My great grandmother Rose mother of Ashley gave her this sack when she was sold at age 9 in South Carolina it held a tattered dress 3 handfulls [sic] of pecans a braid of Roses hair. Told her It be filled with my Love always she never saw me again Ashley is my grandmother Ruth Middleton 1921.”

The mystery behind the 19-century object is centered around the identities of Rose and Ashley, described in the brief story embroidered on the front of the sack by Ashley’s granddaughter Ruth Middleton. And the object, according to Auslander, became an obsession for many historians because of its ties to Lowcountry history and has fascinated many historians for the past decade.

Now, thanks to Auslander’s research, we have some answers. The CWU professor spent roughly a year and half tracing Rose and Ashley’s lineage across four generations, cataloguing his entire journey in an article for academic journal Southern Spaces (read the family’s timeline here). His persistence on solving the mystery behind Ashley’s Sack came from the object’s unique perspective on slavery in America.

“It’s a very important piece of evidence about the power of the family and family continuity,” says Auslander. While slave families were ripped apart when members were sold to other plantations, he adds, “It’s a reminder that for all the enormous pressures placed on the family, there was a survival.”

“I think that Ashley’s Sack is a very personal, human part of the story,” says Middleton Curator Mary Edna Sullivan. As Sullivan notes, the names and relationships referenced on Ashley’s Sack help put slavery into perspective for many people.

Auslander hopes that his discovery will lead to a deeper interest in African-American history and maybe lead to Ruth Middleton’s descendants being identified, also.