Joseph Emory Davis

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Joseph Emory Davis
Born December 10, 1784
Wilkes County, Georgia
Died September 18, 1870(1870-09-18) (aged 85)
Vicksburg, Mississippi
Occupation Attorney and planter
Known for One of the wealthiest planters in Mississippi; brother of Jefferson Davis, President of the Confederacy
Spouse(s) Eliza Van Benthuysen
Children Three acknowledged natural daughters; two adopted children

Joseph Emory Davis (10 December 1784 – 18 September 1870) was an American lawyer and planter who became one of the wealthiest planters in Mississippi in the antebellum era. He was among nine men in the state who owned more than 300 slaves, and by 1860 he owned several plantations, totaling thousands of acres. He was known for his utopian Hurricane Plantation at Davis Bend (now Davis Island).

Davis was the elder brother by 23 years of Jefferson Davis, with whom he was close. After the younger man left his career in the military, Joseph gave him Brierfield Plantation, near his on Davis Bend. The younger man later was elected President of the Confederate States of America (1861–1865).

Joseph Davis provided much better living conditions for slaves than usual, granted them considerable self-government, and provided skills training and health care. In 1867 Davis Bend was cut off from the mainland by flooding in which the Mississippi River cut a new channel across the peninsula. Davis sold the plantation to Benjamin Montgomery, who had been an outstanding manager, and encouraged him in making a community of freedmen.


Joseph Emory Davis was born on December 10, 1784, near Augusta, Georgia. He was the oldest of the ten children of Samuel Davis and Jane (Cook) Davis. Samuel farmed in Georgia, but in 1793 the Davis family (by then consisting of the couple, four sons, and a daughter) set out for the newly formed state of Kentucky, where the land was more promising. In Kentucky four more daughters were born, and lastly son Jefferson in 1808.[1] Joseph was 23 years older than Jefferson.

Joseph was placed in a mercantile house at an early age. He studied law in Russellville and in Wilkinson County, Mississippi, where he accompanied his father in 1811 to explore the area. He was admitted to the bar in 1812, and first practiced in Pinckneyville, Mississippi. He also worked as an attorney in Greenville, an important trading town on the Mississippi River in the Delta.

Davis kept his connections with associates in Kentucky, serving as the delegate from Jefferson County in the convention that organized the state government in 1817. He took a prominent part in framing its constitution.[citation needed]

In 1820 Davis moved to the river port of Natchez, Mississippi, where he formed a law partnership with Thomas B. Reed, then the leader of the Mississippi bar. They prospered in Natchez. During this period of building his fortune, Davis became the father of three illegitimate daughters, born 1811 through 1823. This was not unusual, but he acknowledged them publicly, supported them, and brought them to live in his household. He arranged for them to be educated.[2]

In 1827 Davis decided to retire from law at the age of 43, taking his savings to become a planter and buy land and slaves.[3] That year he also married Eliza Van Benthuysen in Natchez; she was 16 years old. Her widowed mother had owned a shoe and boot store in the city, but at the time of the marriage ran a boardinghouse in New Orleans.[2]

As a cotton planter Davis made a fortune, becoming "one of the richest men in Mississippi at the onset of the Civil War."[3] He acquired an extensive amount of land and hundreds of slaves. In the late 1820s he acquired nearly all the land on a peninsula that came to be known as Davis Bend. It was about 15 south of Vicksburg, also on the Mississippi River. By 1860 at the beginning of the American Civil War, his Hurricane Plantation included 5,000 acres and 5 miles of riverfront.[4] Davis, Eliza, and his three natural daughters had first lived in a relatively modest house he had built at Davis Bend in 1827. Later Davis had a much larger structure constructed, which was started in 1835. It was a three-story brick mansion, finished in stucco. Large fireplaces heated the twelve rooms in winter. There were also numerous outbuildings.[5] Davis also acquired one of the best private libraries in the South.[3] This plantation was considered one of the finest establishments on the Mississippi River.

Davis gave his much younger brother Jefferson Davis the plantation of Brierfield near him, and sold some land to other preferred neighbors. Davis Bend was surrounded on three sides by the river. While cotton was Joseph Davis' chief commodity crop, his plantation produced other crops, in addition to a variety of meats and crops making it nearly self-sufficient. He had large herds of dairy and beef cattle, and was the only planter on the peninsula to have sheep.[2]

In 1860 Joseph E. Davis held 365 slaves.[6] He was one of the nine planters in Mississippi to hold more than 300 slaves. They cultivated 1700 acres of improved land.[2]

Davis worked to create a utopian plantation on a paternalistic model, borrowing from industrial ideas of Robert Owen. He provided improved living conditions and increased autonomy for the slaves, including establishing a plantation court where slaves were judged by peers.[2] Recognizing the intelligence and leadership of Ben Montgomery, a slave, Davis made him an overseer and manager of part of the plantation operations, which was highly unusual for the time.

During the War, Davis took his family and many slaves away from the plantation to safer areas, as was typical of major planters trying to preserve their property. He entrusted Montgomery to run things. He and his family had some hardships during this period; his wife Eliza died in 1863. The slave community at Davis Bend had internal conflicts, with many leaving after emancipation.

Davis returned to Vicksburg at the close of the war. After a controversy with the officers of the Freedmen's Bureau, which had confiscated his plantation, he regained possession of his estate. Many freedmen had already left when Davis Bend got cut off from the mainland, as the flooding Mississippi River cut a new channel across the neck of the peninsula in 1867. Davis arranged a mortgage for Montgomery, selling him the plantation to make a community of freedmen.

Davis resided in the city of Vicksburg, living from 1868 to his death in 1870 with a granddaughter in a grand house known as Anchuca, now on the National Register of Historic Places. Davis was noted for his benevolence, paying to educate many youths of both sexes.

Marriage and family[edit]

Davis had a complicated personal life. In 1827 at the age of 43 he married Eliza Van Benthuysen (1811–1863), then 16 years old.[3] He was said to have been married before, but his previous wife's name is not documented. Davis acknowledged three illegitimate daughters, whom he supported, paying for their education. (It is not known if they had the same mother.) They also lived in his household for periods of time. They were Florida Ann Davis (b. March 31, 1811, MS – d. January 18, 1891, Warren County, MS); Mary Lucinda Davis (b. May 1, 1816, MS – d. November 22, 1846 near Vicksburg, MS); and Caroline Davis (b. c1823, MS – d. July 13, 1907, Williamsburg, VA). All three married.

Davis also adopted two children, Joseph D. Nicholson, the infant son of Mrs. Jane Nicholson, and Martha Quarles, daughter of John Quarles and the granddaughter of Martha Brooks Wallace. Martha Wallace reared Martha Quarles until age 13, when the girl started living in the household of Davis.[7]

See also[edit]


  1. ^ Strode 1955, pp. 5–7.
  2. ^ a b c d e Hermann 1990, p. 54.
  3. ^ a b c d "Joseph Emory Davis". The Papers of Jefferson Davis. Retrieved 2013-08-08. 
  4. ^ Hermann 1990, p. 49.
  5. ^ Hermann 1990, p. 50.
  6. ^ Blake, Tom (compiler) (February 2002). "Davis, J.E."". Warren County, Mississippi; Largest Slaveholders from 1860 Slave Census Schedules. p. 306. Retrieved January 2016.  Check date values in: |access-date= (help)
  7. ^ Biography of Joseph Emory Davis Archived 14 October 2010 at the Wayback Machine., Rice University



Further reading[edit]