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 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.


6 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!


  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.

      Liked by 1 person

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