Mississippi History Now Mississippi Historical SocietySite ToolsSponsorsEditorial Advisory Staff
Back Home  
Joseph E. Davis, planter, Hurricane Plantation. Courtesy of the Mississippi Department of Archives and History_

Joseph E. Davis, planter, Hurricane Plantation. Courtesy of the Mississippi Department of Archives and History.

Larger view


Hurricane Garden Cottage at Davis Bend. Photograph from the J. Mack Moore Collection, Old Court House Museum, Vicksburg, MS

Hurricane Garden Cottage at Davis Bend. Photograph from the J. Mack Moore Collection, Old Court House Museum, Vicksburg, MS, which cannot be reproduced without consent.

Larger view


Slave wedding at Hurricane Plantation. Photograph from the J. Mack Moore Collection, Old Court House Museum, Vicksburg, MS

Slave wedding at Hurricane Plantation. Photograph from the J. Mack Moore Collection, Old Court House Museum, Vicksburg, MS, which cannot be reproduced without consent.

Larger view


Jefferson Davis. Photograph by William W. Washburn (1827-1903), Carbon print, 1888. Courtesy of the National Portrait Gallery, Smithsonian

Jefferson Davis. Photograph by William W. Washburn (1827-1903), Carbon print, 1888. Courtesy of the National Portrait Gallery, Smithsonian Institution, Washington D.C.

Larger view


Jefferson Davis. Photograph by William W. Washburn (1827-1 903), Carbon print, 1888. Courtesy of the National Por trait Gallery, Smithsonian Ins

Joseph Emory Davis. Courtesy of The Papers of Jefferson Davis.

Larger view


Feature Story

Joseph Emory Davis: A Mississippi Planter Patriarch

Joseph Emory Davis (December 10, 1784-September 18, 1870), a noted attorney and planter, the mentor and oldest brother of Jefferson Davis, was born in Wilkes County, Georgia, the first child of Samuel Emory Davis, a Revolutionary War veteran, and Jane Cook Davis. Migrating to Kentucky with the family in 1793, he worked in a general store and read law in Russellville, where an unacknowledged son was born out of wedlock to Rachel Shelby.

Along with his parents and siblings, Davis moved to Wilkinson County, Mississippi Territory, in 1811. Admitted to the bar the next year, Davis practiced at Greenville in Jefferson County, co-owned a mercantile firm, and acquired slaves and land, eventually owning thousands of acres in several Mississippi counties and in Louisiana and Arkansas. He served in the state militia during the War of 1812, was a delegate to the constitutional convention that preceded statehood in 1817, was elected to the state legislature, and in 1818 began buying large tracts of land upriver in Warren County. He established a lucrative law office in Natchez in 1820, cementing relationships with many wealthy and well-connected citizens through his professional, social, educational, and cultural activities, among them presidency of the state bar association, vestryman of Trinity Episcopal Church, horse-racing, library promoter, and Freemasonry.

Davis’s finances were entangled with those of his father and other family members, and after the death of his father Samuel Davis in 1824, he found himself in charge of his mother and of Jefferson, his youngest and only unmarried sibling, for whom Joseph secured an appointment to the United States Military Academy. At the end of 1827, after another brother was maimed in a storm and relinquished management of the Warren County properties, Joseph took up residence at Hurricane plantation (named for the aforementioned storm) on Davis Bend, some twenty river miles below Vicksburg. Just before establishing himself as a full-time planter, he married Eliza Van Benthuysen (1811-1864) in Natchez. She was nearly thirty years his junior and about the same age as his eldest daughter. Although Davis had three daughters at the time of his marriage to Eliza, historians and family genealogists have been unable to locate any records of an earlier marriage.

Hurricane Plantation

Hurricane plantation, comprising about 5,000 acres with five miles of river frontage, was lavish in size and appointments and was connected to the world by its own landing on the Mississippi River and by road to the nearby community of Warrenton. In 1860, Davis was among the ten wealthiest Mississippians, boasting impressive profits and a slave labor force of 345, securing his place among the region’s elite planters. He constructed a mansion suited to housing and entertaining family and friends and boasting luxuries such as indoor bathrooms, a music room, and tearoom. Nearby was another large edifice for the kitchen, laundry, and servants’ quarters. He eventually built a large Greek Revival-style temple with porticos all around for his library and office. There were stables for his fine horses, shops and utility buildings, a steam-powered gin and sawmill, vegetable plots, orchards, and slave houses, all within the expensively landscaped grounds visible from the river. Davis was not only interested in boosting his cotton profits, but also in scientific agriculture for crops and livestock to sustain the white and black residents of Hurricane and to market products such as corn, sweet potatoes, hogs, sheep, and cattle. His location prompted Davis to develop a special interest in levee-building, and his ideas in this regard eventually influenced state levee laws.

The management system Davis employed for slaves was even more noteworthy. A decided believer in Jeffersonian Democracy who abhorred authoritarianism and a proponent of Robert Dale Owen’s ideals concerning communal living and cooperation, Davis established a self-governing slave court for his enslaved laborers, thus sidestepping the usual overseer system for punishment. Generous with food, clothing, and incentives, he encouraged his labor force to develop marketable skills and even allowed them to sell eggs, chickens, produce, and wood to passing steamboats. Davis also built a chapel for his slaves and made sure that they had professional medical care.

Ben Montgomery

The stellar example of his system’s success was the Montgomery family. Ben Montgomery was born in Virginia and purchased by Davis in 1836. Already literate, Montgomery soon became Davis’s trusted assistant, undertaking office work, surveying, building, and acquiring an array of mechanical and business skills. Montgomery established a store on Davis Bend, selling goods to both black and white residents and had his own line of credit, eventually becoming his master’s business manager. He married the daughter of another skilled worker at Hurricane and had four children, all literate and two of whom attended college. From his store profits, Montgomery compensated Davis for his wife’s worth as a laborer, enabling her to remain at home and rear their offspring rather than work in the fields with the other slave women.

Family Patriarch

Among the residents of Hurricane before the Civil War were Davis’s three daughters, who eventually married and were given their own plantations, three grandchildren, some foster children and distant relatives, and his sister Amanda Bradford, who moved there with her seven children when she became a widow in 1844. A true patriarch of plantation society, Davis provided shelter and education for all under his care.

For nearly all his life, Joseph Davis was Jefferson Davis’s counselor and defender. During the twenty-five years prior to the Civil War, they developed a very close relationship, albeit more father-son than brotherly. When Jefferson left his army career and was mourning the death of his wife in 1835, Joseph gave him adjoining acreage as part of their father’s estate and helped him establish his own plantation, called Brierfield. The isolation of Davis Bend made the brothers unusually dependent on each other for companionship and intellectual stimulation. Probably because of Joseph’s keen interest in politics, the younger Davis became involved in politics, first as a delegate to a state convention in 1840, then running for office in 1843. Only once did they suffer a period of alienation, the result of a family squabble in the mid-1850s. Jefferson’s marriage in 1845 to Varina Howell had introduced another strong-willed personality to Davis Bend, one who also claimed Jefferson’s love and loyalty.

When New Orleans fell under Union control in April 1862, Confederate president Jefferson Davis was in Richmond, Virginia. At that time aged almost eighty, Joseph managed to organize and transport many Hurricane and Brierfield slaves, some stock and other possessions, his own ailing wife, and a few dependents to a farm in Hinds County, and then to Tuscaloosa, Alabama. Joseph’s wife Eliza died en route. Davis Bend was subsequently seized by Union forces and the Hurricane mansion destroyed. Virtually destitute by war’s end, Joseph settled in Vicksburg. Unable to resume plantation management himself and because he had never deeded ownership of the Brierfield property to his brother Jefferson (who was then imprisoned for treason against the Union), Joseph took the radical step of selling both properties to Ben Montgomery. Montgomery had departed Davis Bend during the war, but he later returned to pick up the pieces of his life. During the postwar years of Reconstruction, Joseph engaged in an epic battle with officials of the Freedmen’s Bureau, deploying his considerable legal skills and exhibiting extraordinary perseverance to keep Hurricane and Brierfield intact and to provide for the well-being of the black residents of Davis Island (Davis Bend having been cut off by a change in course of the Mississippi River in 1867). Always “revered and beloved” by his brother, Joseph Davis died in Vicksburg on September 18, 1870; Montgomery, who habitually conferred with and deferred to his former master, oversaw Joseph’s burial in the Davis Island cemetery.

Lynda Lasswell Crist served as director of the Jefferson Davis Project at Rice University, Houston, Texas, and as editor of The Papers of Jefferson Davis from 1979 to 2015.

Posted February 2016

Sources and suggested readings:

Davis, Jefferson. The Papers of Jefferson Davis. 14 vols. Baton Rouge: Louisiana State University Press, 1971-2015.

Hermann, Janet Sharp. Joseph E. Davis, Pioneer Patriarch. Jackson: University Press of Mississippi, 1990.

________. The Pursuit of a Dream. New York: Oxford University Press, 1981.

Lynch, James Daniel. The Bench and Bar of Mississippi. New York: E. J. Hale & Son, 1881.

Other Mississippi History NOW articles:

Jefferson Davis 1808-1889

Beauvoir

Isaiah T. Montgomery, 1847-1924 Part I

Isaiah T. Montgomery, 1847-1924 Part II

Sarah Anne Ellis Dorsey: A Woman of Uncommon Mind

Back Home Back to Top Lesson Plan for this Feature

Mississippi Historical Society © 2000–2017. All rights reserved.

Contact the editor