Ben Montgomery

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Ben Montgomery
Benjamin T. Montgomery

Loudoun County, Virginia
OccupationInventor, landowner, and freedman
Known forSteam-operated propeller

Benjamin Thornton Montgomery (1819–1877) was an influential African-American inventor, landowner, and freedman in Mississippi. He was taught to read and write, and became manager of supply and shipping for Joseph Emory Davis at Hurricane Plantation at Davis Bend.

Early life[edit]

Ben Montgomery was born into slavery in 1819 in Loudoun County, Virginia. In 1837, he was sold south, and purchased in Natchez, Mississippi by Joseph Emory Davis. The planter's much younger brother, Jefferson Davis, later became the President of the Confederate States of America.[1] Montgomery escaped but was recaptured. Davis reportedly "inquired closely into the cause of his dissatisfaction", whereby the two men reached a "mutual understanding" about Montgomery's situation.[1]

Davis assigned Montgomery to run the general store of his plantation at Davis Bend.[2] It was unusual for a slave to serve in this position.

Impressed with his knowledge and abilities to run the store, Davis placed Montgomery in charge of overseeing the entirety of his purchasing and shipping operations on the plantation.[2]

On May 21, 1847, Montgomery's son, Isaiah Montgomery, was born to him and his wife. Due to Ben's favored position among the Davis Bend slaves, Isaiah was also given the opportunity of receiving an education. Montgomery maintained a close relationship with his son up until his death.[3]


Montgomery learned a variety of skills, including reading, writing, land surveying, flood control, architectural design, machine repair, and steamboat navigation.[2][4] Montgomery developed proficiencies in many areas; he became a skilled mechanic, not only repairing the advanced agricultural machinery acquired by the Davis brothers, but eventually applied for a patent for his design of a steam-operated propeller to provide propulsion to boats in shallow water.

The propeller could cut into the water at different angles, thus allowing the boat to navigate more easily through shallow water. This was not a new invention, but an improvement on similar designs invented by John Stevens in 1804 and John Ericsson in 1838.(U.S. Patent 588 ) On June 10, 1858, on the basis that Ben, as a slave, was not a citizen of the United States, and thus could not apply for a patent in his name, he was denied this patent application in a ruling by the United States Attorney General's office. It ruled that neither slaves nor their owners could receive patents on inventions devised by slaves.[citation needed] Later, both Joseph and Jefferson Davis attempted to patent the device in their names but were denied because they were not the "true inventor." After Jefferson Davis later was selected as President of the Confederacy, he signed into law the legislation that would allow slaves to receive patent protection for their inventions. On June 28, 1864, Montgomery, no longer a slave, filed a patent application for his device, but the patent office again rejected his application.

Joseph Davis allowed captive Africans on his plantation to retain money earned commercially, so long as they paid him for the labor they would have done as farmworkers. Thus, Montgomery was able to accumulate wealth, run a business, and create a personal library.[5]

Ownership of Davis Bend[edit]

The Davis family left Davis Bend in 1862, ahead of oncoming troops from the Union Army. Montgomery assumed control of the plantation. Farming continued despite difficulties created by the war, such as attacks from the military forces of both sides.[6]

Following the end of the American Civil War, Joseph Davis sold his plantation and property to Montgomery, in 1866, for the sum of $300,000 as part of a long-term loan.

In September 1867, Montgomery became the first Afro-American official elected in Mississippi, when he was elected justice of the peace of Davis Bend.[7][8] Under his supervision, the plantation produced cotton judged to be the best in the world at an International Exposition in 1870.[7]

With his son Isaiah, Montgomery established a general store known as Montgomery & Sons. Montgomery worked toward his lifelong dream of establishing a community for freed slaves. He never lived to see his dream come to fruition. Catastrophic floods ruined the crops and cut a channel across the peninsula, turning Davis Bend into an island. This added to the expenses of getting supplies to the plantation and crops to market. When Montgomery failed to make a payment on the loan in 1876, Davis Bend automatically reverted to the Davis family as per the terms of the original contract. Heartbroken, Montgomery died the next year.


After his father's death, Isaiah Montgomery worked to realize his dream. He purchased 840 acres (3.4 km2) between the Vicksburg and Memphis railroad lines in northwest Mississippi for the purpose of establishing the community of freed slaves his father dreamed of. Along with other former slaves, Isaiah Montgomery established the town of Mound Bayou, Mississippi in 1887 and developed it as a majority African-American community.[9]


  1. ^ a b Hermann, Reconstruction in Microcosm (1980), p. 315.
  2. ^ a b c "Ben Montgomery", The Black Inventor Online Museum. Archived 2012-11-19 at the Wayback Machine Accessed December 6, 2012.
  3. ^ Isaiah Montgomery: Biography Archived May 16, 2006, at the Wayback Machine
  4. ^ Hermann, "Reconstruction in Microcosm" (1980), p. 316.
  5. ^ Hermann, "Reconstruction in Microcosm" (1980), p. 316. "Like all the Davis' slaves, Montgomery could keep whatever he earned beyond the equivalent of his worth as a field hand. Since his store prospered, counting among its customers the white planters and their families as well as the slaves, Ben was able to build a store building and living quarters near the landing at Hurricane."
  6. ^ Hermann, "Reconstruction in Microcosm" (1980), p. 316. "When Joseph Davis and his family fled from the plantation in 1862, Benjamin Montgomery was left in charge of the house and grounds as well as the hundred or more slaves who were not taken along. For a year he supervised the production of corn and vegetables to provide subsistence for the black community. Wartime shortages led him to develop a tanning and shoe-making industry to supply their own needs and to provide a small income from the neighbors. In June 1862, the Union Navy raided and burned the mansion at Hurricane, and a few months later, despite Montgomery's protests, the Confederate Army burned the cotton crop. Life along the river became increasingly hazardous."
  7. ^ a b Verney, "Trespassers" (2008), p. 68.
  8. ^ Hermann, Pursuit of a Dream (1981), pp. 129–130. "General Ord finally yielded to this pressure and asked Ben Montgomery if he could qualify for and would accept the office of justice of the peace at Davis Bend. Upon receipt of Ben's affirmative reply, Ord issued the required order on September 10. Montgomery told Davis that he has been pleased with the appointment of Huntington and regretted that the white man could not qualify. [...] Nineteen months later, in April 1869, John Roy Lynch was named justice of the peace at Natchez. This ambitious young freedman went on to the state and eventually the national legislature. Referring to his appointment as justice of the peace, Lynch claimed that it was 'the first time in the history of the state that a colored man had been commissioned to fill such an office.' Later Governor Adelbert Ames claimed that there was 'not a single colored man in office' when he appointed Lynch in 1869. These erroneous claims from people who lived so near Davis Bend show how successful the Montgomerys were at avoiding publicity."
  9. ^ "The Rise and Fall of Jim Crow", Jim Crow Stories, People: Isaiah Montgomery | PBS


  • Hermann, Janet Sharp. The Pursuit of a Dream. Oxford University Press, 1981. ISBN 0195028872
  • Hermann, Janet Sharp. "Reconstruction in Microcosm: Three Men and a Gin", Journal of Negro History 65.4, Autumn 1980.
  • Verney, Kevern J. "Trespassers in the land of their birth: Blacks and landownership in South Carolina and Mississippi during the Civil War and Reconstruction, 1861–1877," Slavery and Abolition 4.1, June 2008.

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