Less Than Proud

The Davis Family of North Carolina

By Eilene Lyon

Sometimes we need to acknowledge the deeds of our forefathers that we are less than proud of – in this case, slave-holding.

My grandmother was born Clare Ransom Davis.  Her father was Sterling Price Davis. His father was Melville Cox Davis, son of Hamilton Cunningham Davis and Christina Mock. People researching this family have concluded that Hamilton’s parents were Joseph T. Davis and Sarah Ann Hamilton. I have not found any documents that provide conclusive proof of this ancestry. However, it is certain that Sarah Ann Hamilton married a man named Davis and that her children included Hamilton C. Davis, Nathaniel S. Davis, John H. Davis, Harriet H. Davis and Betsey Ann Davis.1 There is a Sarah Davis buried in Saline County, Missouri, and Nathaniel’s grave is nearby.2 Hamilton C. Davis was an early settler in neighboring Lafayette County and is buried there.3

Sarah Ann Hamilton was the daughter of John Hamilton and Elizabeth Archer of Guilford County, North Carolina.4 She was born in 1784.  If we assume her husband was Joseph Davis (born 1780), it appears they married about 1799 and had a baby girl about 1800 who did not survive to 1810.5 Hamilton Cunningham Davis was born in 1802 in Guilford County.6 All of his siblings appear to have been born in Guilford County as well. But Joseph Davis’ history remains unclear. One thing seems certain. He was from a family of means and property. Even at the age of 20, he owned three enslaved persons.7 By the age of 40, his property included 31 people!8

The only Davis family living in Guilford County in 1790, when Joseph would have been 10 years old, were a family of Quakers. The Quaker records for this family do not list any Joseph, and it seems unlikely that he came from a Quaker background, given his slave-holding and prosperity.9 It seems more likely that he came from nearby Rowan County where there were many Davises. The Mock and Livengood (Liebengut) families were also in Rowan County in 1790. These two families have ties to the Davis family. The only mention of Joseph Davis (Esq.) in a history of Guilford County is that he was assigned to a committee to build a new courthouse and jail about 1807.10

The Joseph and Sarah Davis family evidently farmed in Guilford County up until the 1830s. The principal crop in the piedmont area around Greensboro was cotton. If the Davises were cotton farmers, or even tobacco farmers, they would have needed a substantial labor force. So it seems likely that was the reason for the enslavement. Guilford County was home to many Quakers from Pennsylvania who were adamantly opposed to slavery. One of the founders of the Underground Railroad was from this place.11 The tension between the slave holders and abolitionists may have been one reason the Davises decided to move to Missouri.

The Missouri Compromise of 1820 made slavery illegal in the unorganized Missouri territory (the northern Great Plains), but allowed it in Missouri (the area encompassing most of the current state boundaries).12 Sarah Davis and three of her sons were early settlers in Lafayette County, Freedom Township. Hamilton C. Davis was a doctor and owned considerable property. His father-in-law, David Mock, also migrated to Freedom Township from North Carolina. Whether Joseph made the move is unclear.  Undocumented reports are that he died in Freedom Township in 1837. His gravesite is unknown.

Hamilton Davis died in 1847. The 1850 census slave schedules tell us that the Davises still had a number of people held as property. Sarah Davis is listed with five, of which there are a male and female (black) in their 30s, plus two young black children and a 10-year-old mulatto boy (hmmm). Christina Mock Davis, Hamilton’s widow, had four, a couple and two small children.  Nathaniel S. Davis had three, and William L. Davis had one.13 The enslaved people are not listed by name.

Clearly the family sympathized with the Southern cause in the Civil War. Hamilton’s son, Melville, served in the Confederate army until he was captured and sent to prison. He served two months, then signed an oath of allegiance to the Union, paid a $1000 bond, and was set free. His family migrated to Idaho in 1885 and 1886.14

 

Davis1893 001

Feature image:  The Melville Cox Davis family in Texas Ridge, Idaho, about 1893.  Front row: Sarah Rebecca Livingood, Thomas, Elmer and Melville.  Back row: Phoebe Jane (Jennie), Sterling Price, Alice, Leola, Franklin, Mary Ellen (Nellie), Charles and Perry.


  1. Will of John Hamilton of Guilford County, North Carolina. 1818.  Recorded at the North Carolina Archives. 
  2. Personal visit to Pisgah Cemetery near Elmwood in 2012. 
  3. Young, Hon. William. 1910.  Young’s History of Lafayette County Missouri, Vol. I. p. 351. B.F. Bowen & Co. Indianapolis, Indiana. 
  4. Will of John Hamilton. 
  5. Ancestry.com. 1800 United States Federal Census [database on-line]. Provo, UT, USA: Ancestry.com Operations Inc, 2010. Images reproduced by FamilySearch. Year: 1800; Census Place: Salisbury, Guilford, North Carolina; Series: M32; Roll: 31; Page: 653; Image: 610; Family History Library Film: 337907 
  6. Personal visit to New Hope Cemetery in Lafayette County, Missouri in 2012.  Birth date is engraved on headstone. 
  7. Ancestry.com. 1800 United States Federal Census [database on-line]. 
  8. Ancestry.com. 1820 United States Federal Census [database on-line]. Provo, UT, USA: Ancestry.com Operations, Inc., 2010. Images reproduced by FamilySearch. 1820 U S Census; Census Place: Guilford, North Carolina; Page: 74; NARA Roll: M33_85; Image: 58 
  9. Ancestry.com. U.S., Quaker Meeting Records, 1681-1935 [database on-line]. Provo, UT, USA: Ancestry.com Operations, Inc., 2014.  New Garden Monthly Meeting records. 
  10. Stockard, Sallie W. 1902. The History of Guilford County, North Carolina. P. 44. Gaut-Ogden Company. Knoxville, Tennessee. 
  11. Wikipedia.org. 2015a. Guilford County, North Carolina. 
  12. Wikipedia.org. 2015b. Missouri Compromise. 
  13. Ancestry.com. 1850 U.S. Federal Census – Slave Schedules [database on-line]. Provo, UT, USA: Ancestry.com Operations Inc, 2004. Original data:  United States of America, Bureau of the Census. Seventh Census of the United States, 1850. Washington, D.C.: National Archives and Records Administration, 1850. M432, 1,009 rolls. 
  14. Personal family notes written by Clare Davis Smith. 

13 thoughts on “Less Than Proud

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  1. In researching the Civil War records, it appeared that there was both a white Melville Cox Davis and a black Melville Cox Davis from Lafayette County, Missouri. If you have researched the black man, I would be interested in knowing about it. Maybe we’re related!

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  2. The more you share about your ancestors the more drawn into your story I get. I cannot help but wonder how your ancestors treated their slaves. Not that it would mitigate the fact that they had them, but I suspect that not all white people were awful. Wishful thinking maybe?

    Liked by 1 person

    1. I don’t believe all slaves were treated badly in the sense of physical abuse, but yeah, just being treated as property is bad enough. Back then, women were treated (legally) as property, as well. But I don’t think most families really treated them like slaves. But there were (and are) some people who do treat the powerless that way.

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      1. In the abstract of title of our farm it shows Hamilton getting the land from the land office of the USA.in 1843. It then shows Hamilton passing December 1848. His property went to probate.in 1856. I think Melville must have been grown by then. It showed at the time of his death (Hamilton) there was land and slaves. They listed the slaves as Austin 55,Sam 23,Jacob 11, Mariah 10, and Lewis 5. It says there were other slaves owned by Christina as part of her dower,but did not list them. Melville bought 80 acres of the land for $1240 and the 5 slaves for $4062. It looks like he borrowed money to buy the slaves. I guess that he enlisted on the confederate side. There is a local creek named after Davis (Davis Creek), also a road named after Cook (Cook’s store). I don’t know if the slaves took the Cook name, but their ancestors could possibly find them by the age and names.

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      2. Yes, I live real close to where Cook’s Store was located. That must be where Mordecai and Christina lived after they where married. Cook’s store pre-dates Concordia MO. It was a stage coach stop, where they changed out horses. The foundation stones to the store are still there, but were moved by the previous owner (I am not happy about that). I think the gristmill was located in a town named Freedom along what is now Davis Creek. The mill was moved to a town named Aullvile a few miles away a few years later. The town of Freedom no longer exists, but the area we are in is called Freedom township. I did not know where the Davis/Cooks were buried, but I know where new hope cemetery is. I will go by and check it out when it warms up.

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      3. Are you related then? I have been to the area (obviously), but did not see the mill in Aulville. Is it still there? Went through Concordia and drove past some land that Hamilton owned. Also went to Sarah Hamilton Davis’s grave. Christina’s and Hamilton’s were the first ancestor graves I ever visited and I was so moved.

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      4. I am not sure we are related, we may be because ancestry.com says there is a DNA match. I do know that my Great Great Great Grandpa and Grandma was neighbors of the Cooks. Their farm has been in the family since 1865. It is owned now by distant cousins Our farm also is next to the old Cooks store farm, part was owned by the Davis’s. My Mom and Dad bought our farm in 1971. The mill in Aulville is long gone, but the history of Lafayette county mentions the mill. As you can tell, the Davis’s had a big impact on this area. It was a different time though. The area was settled by Germans in the 1840s. The Davis’s and Cook’s were not German. The German’s did not speak the English and kept to themselves, Germans were also against slavery, so that probably caused friction. Slavery was foreign to them, plus they felt it put them at a disadvantage competing against slaves to make a living.
        This area suffered terribly during the civil war. Bad things happened to people on both sides, union and confederate. Most men did not sleep in there homes at night, because they feared being executed by “visitors” in the middle of the night. 20% of men were killed in this area during these years, I am also using the term “Men: loosely, some were 15 or 16. By the way there is also a Davis township in the County.

        Liked by 1 person

    1. Thanks for getting in touch, Scott. I’ve done a bit more research on these family lines, but there is much more to do. Delving into my North Carolina roots is somewhere down there on my to-do list!

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